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Introducing Julian Anderson – A British composer inspired by the beauty of Prague

The following text was written by Mr. Julian Anderson.  We asked Julian to describe his process of composing and how he became so interested in all things Czech. We were amazed to receive not only a very unique and open text, but also an intimate view into the process of how Julian makes photos of Prague by Josef Sudek come alive and reveal the beauty of Prague through his sensitive compositions.

          What right has someone who is not Czech and has never visited the country to compose a major symphonic work inspired by that country, its landscapes and its culture?  Why should they wish to do so?  As I try to answer those questions I’ll attempt to explain how my Symphony No.2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ is evolving at the moment. The work is still in progress and has been since November last year, and is likely to be for a while yet. So what you’re getting is a report from the middle of the composing: inevitably it will be messy, sometimes vague, and it could prove mistaken. But I hope to be able to give readers an idea of what’s happening and explain where this piece comes from.



            Sometime in 2005 I saw an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. In one room a strangely elongated white book lay open. I approached and saw exquisitely printed black-and-white panoramic photographs of Prague, with views of the VItava, Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral. The arresting beauty and almost painterly composition of the photographs took my breath away. I experienced a shock: the kind of shock that told me a new composition had begun. A caption told me this was Praha Panoramatická by Josef Sudek, the eminent Czech photographer whose name was (shamefully) not previously known to me.

            As soon as I returned home, I looked the book up on the net only to find that copies of it were (and are) very hard to find and horrendously expensive. At that period I was teaching at Harvard University as Senior Professor of Music, so I borrowed Sudek books from their library. Sudek, I learnt, had been a big music fan - another of his books is Janáček-Hukvaldy, a radiant and lyrical sequence of photos of the landscapes around the birthplace and final home of the great composer. I also borrowed Praha Panoramatická .

            It didn’t disappoint: photo after photo of magnificent landscapes from Prague and its environs, lovingly portrayed and carefully proportioned. Looking from one end of the book to the other takes time: there are several hundred photos, so if you spend around 3 minutes with each one (and they’re worth at least that), you’re still going to be at it 2 hours later!  It has a sweep and trajectory to it, like listening to a symphony. I realised then that if I ever wrote music inspired by Praha Panoramatická, it would have to be a substantial work. The grandeur of the photographs themselves almost suggested orchestral sounds and textures. For the moment, there were too many other projects for me to get on with (an oratorio Heaven is Shy of Earth, premiered at the 2006 Proms, followed by an opera Thebans commissioned by English National Opera, who premiered it in 2014). Whatever this Sudek piece was going to be, it would have to wait.



            My strong attraction to the Sudek book was probably connected with my love of Czech music, which goes back a very long way in my life. My parents, although not musicians, were real music lovers and I heard a great deal of Smetana and Dvořák as a child from records, the radio or TV. Smetana’s Má Vlast was a particular favourite, and like everyone I particularly adored the narrative sequence of the second movement about Prague’s river, Vltava (still a popular concert favourite around the world and, incidentally, used as the theme for the annual Prague Marathon). Dvořák’s symphonies remain a great love to this day (especially numbers 4, 7 and 8), along with his symphonic poems such as Vodník and Holoubek (The Wood Dove).

            Around then (the late 1970s) there was a huge discovery of Janáček in the UK - especially of his operas, which Sir Charles Mackerras recorded for Decca, along with his Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass. This passionately vigorous music, full of surprising harmonies, propulsive rhythms and soaring melodic lines, amazed me then and has done ever since. By chance, around the same time, I heard a record of Bohuslav Martinů’s 4th Symphony on Supraphon, and was enchanted by its lyricism and colour. Martinů’s strange background - he spent the first 7 years of his life in a flat at the top of a bell tower overlooking the town of Polička - intrigued me, and the more I heard of his fantastical output the closer I felt to it. Suk’s Asrael Symphony and Novak’s Eternal Longing also reached me through Supraphon. I became a major fan of Czech music and, where a translation existed, of the literature as well (Čapek’s War With Newts, especially, remains a favourite).

            But there were real problems getting to know Czech culture in the 70s and 80s. The 1968 Prague Spring and its tragic conclusion happened the year after I was born, and as a child my parents repeatedly told me of their dismay as they watched on TV the hideous sight of Soviet Warsaw Pact tanks rolling into Prague in August, deploring how the hopes of Dubček’s liberalising regime had been brutally smashed. Czechoslovakia seemed a remote and distant land, somewhere I was unlikely to visit, an almost mythical country portrayed in magical music whose only signs of active existence in my life were the many excellent records imported from Supraphon.  Many of these had beautiful photographs of Prague on their front covers, even where this had no relevance to the music.  One cover featured a particularly wonderful colour photograph taken from high up a building in central Prague, a view which has haunted me ever since but which Czech friends tell me, more prosaically, is now the patio for a branch of Starbucks!        

            We lived in Hampstead at this period, and the Czech Ambassador’s residence was almost round the corner (it’s still there). I used to pass it as a kid on the way to school. But it might as well have been 1000 miles away. The whole country was simply off limits, as was most of Eastern Europe then. It was the era of the Iron Curtain and, hard though it is for people today to believe, we all just accepted this strange situation.

            All that changed December 1989. Like everyone, I was glued to radio and television for news of all Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in Prague, the ascent of Havel to the Castle and the moving reappearance of Dubček after so many years were amongst the most vivid images of that time, and they remain engraved on the memory.  As a pacifist, I’ve always disliked revolutions - usually bloodthirsty and disastrous - so I was enchanted with the notion and reality of a Velvet Revolution. How like the Czechoslovakians, I thought, to have a bloodless revolution. Later, as a gay man and campaigner for LGBT rights, I was delighted to see the Czech Republic develop the most liberal and generous attitudes towards homosexuality of almost any country in Eastern Europe, a record it has happily maintained. How wonderful it would be one day, I thought, to visit Prague.



            I studied my undergraduate degree at the Royal College of Music in South Kensington, graduating in 1990. About 18 months later I returned to work there as librarian, since as a student I’d become especially friendly with the marvellous library staff then headed by Pamela Thompson. Pam Thompson speaks fluent Czech, had studied Czech history and had visited the country. After 1968 she’d been active in helping Czech refugees to relocate to the UK, and was deeply attached to Czech culture. By the 1990s the fall of the Iron Curtain made visiting a real possibility, and indeed Pam invited several of her staff to join her at a wedding of some Czech friends in a castle outside Prague. Illness prevented my coming on that trip at the last minute, but my more active involvement in things Czech dates from this time and my friendship with Pam.

            One morning in late 1991, Pam came into the RCM library carrying leaflets entitled Trees for Lidice. I’d never heard of Lidice and had no idea what it represented. My generation in the UK were not taught much Eastern European history; it was barely mentioned (neither was much of Western European history, but that’s another matter!). Pam told me all about Lidice and what had happened there, adding that Martinů had written a Memorial to Lidice for orchestra. The initiative in the leaflet was to mark the 50th anniversary of this atrocity in 1992 by inviting sponsorship for a line of trees to connect the old destroyed village of Lidice to the new(er) village of the same name. Moved by the village’s history, I immediately ‘bought’ three trees. The idea was to visit Lidice with Pam a few years later, which alas never happened.  But somewhere in that line of trees outside Lidice are the three I paid for that day.

            Many years later I met the musicologist Harry Halbreich, a world authority on Martinů and his music (every piece in Martinů’s large output is catalogued according to an ‘H’ number, standing for Harry’s surname). He revealed to me that Martinů’s real memorial for Lidice - written under the immediate shock of the news - was in fact the slow movement of his First Symphony, from summer 1942, when Martinů was an exile in the US. In contrast to the shimmering serenity of so much Martinů, this slow movement is a searingly intense piece conveying overpowering tragedy. I heard it and was stunned.



            Twenty years ago I composed a work inspired by the architecture of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. I never went to Granada. I never saw the Palace. I read about it, watched films on it (the internet was new then), gazed at photographs of it, read Lorca’s poetry about it. As the music grew in response to all this, for me the Alhambra almost ceased to be a real place. I was weaving a musical fantasy of my own imagining. So I called the piece, a colourful and explosive one, Alhambra Fantasy.  I have still never seen the real thing. But do I need to? (A colleague who liked the piece nevertheless felt I had got the place all wrong in my music. He thinks I should go, just to see how wrong I was!)

            As the time came for me to compose a new symphonic work at the suggestion of Maestro Semyon Bychkov, a wonderful conductor and dear friend, last year Sudek’s Praha Panoramatická suddenly re-entered my life. I finally got a copy!  My assistant is a gifted young composer named Philip Dutton who, despite his very English-sounding name, is actually half Czech, has a Czech passport and has spent much of his life there. Over the past few years, Philip’s been discovering how important his Czech heritage is to his music - he has composed a beautiful piano piece Vodník inspired by the Czech water-sprite, and more recently a work about Czech puppet theatre. On one of his regular visits to Prague, Philip phoned to say he’d found a very reasonably priced copy of the Panoramatická in a Prague antikvariat. Did I want it? I didn’t hesitate for long.  A few days later, Praha Panoramatická was in my hands for the first time in 15 years. I spent hours gazing intently at every page. If anything the book seemed to have gotten even finer and more remarkable since I last saw it. As I looked at these photographs of dream-like precision and mosaic-like beauty, I imagined sounds, textures, orchestral colours, melodies. So, the decision was taken for me: the new work would be a symphony inspired by Sudek’s Prague photographs. But I’d still never been there.

            In April 2019 I met the Czech Ambassador to the UK, H.E. Libor Sečka and, all these years later, at last visited his beautiful residence in Hampstead, just around the corner from where I had once lived. I talked over the Sudek photographs in detail with Phil Dutton and with two other people at the Czech Embassy in Notting Hill - Ondřej Hovádek and Martin Hošek. All were an immense help in focussing my ideas by explaining something of what the Sudek photographs meant to Czech people. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra came on board to commission the music, to be conducted by Maestro Bychkov. To cap it all the Czech Philharmonic, whose chief conductor Bychkov is, undertook to bring the work to Prague. Then, to my delight, the Czech Embassy, knowing I’d never been, generously offered to fly me out there. Everything was coming together in an almost uncanny way. I was finally doing what I’d dreamt of since the age of 10: I was going to see Prague.

            Days before I was due to fly out, the UK and Czech governments declared lockdown.  The trip to Prague was off. The Covid-19 crisis had arrived, throwing everything and everyone into chaos. I’d already started to compose the music some months before, but had assumed that at some point before completing I would see this, to me, almost mythic city. It was not to be. As with Alhambra Fantasy twenty years ago, Prague Panoramas will have to be written without sight of the real Prague. I’ve no idea when I shall see it.


THE FOUR STAGES (or how to compose music without being able to bake Trdelník)

            Composing music happens in many different ways - for me, each work is a fresh adventure, and that is a large part of the excitement (as well as the difficulty!) of doing it. In the case of my new symphony, the creative work is evolving through four distinct stages. First, the original Sudek photographs which as I’ve said above somehow evoke sounds and music in my imagination. Here’s one of the most typical:

Illustration 1: a page from Sudek’s Praha Panoramatická, showing the Charles Bridge, the Castle and St Vitus Cathedral

Illustration 1: a page from Sudek’s Praha Panoramatická, showing the Charles Bridge, the Castle and St Vitus Cathedral

           Following on from those, the first sketching is often very visual, and often involves making designs mixing words, images and music, often in several colours, usually on small white boards so the shapes can easily be adapted or erased. The next illustration shows a very rough design for the sounds, textures, melodies and harmonies of movements 1 and 2 of my new symphony (this is about the 10th version of this sketch):

​Illustration 2: a preliminary graphic sketch for the first two movements.

​Illustration 2: a preliminary graphic sketch for the first two movements.

             The next stage is the hardest to talk about. I improvise, partly on paper, partly in my head (often on walks) and partly on the piano. This can go on for a long time, as I struggle to find the sounds the piece needs. This is combined with some very systematic and technical working out of these ideas, and it eventually results is a scrawled rough draft of what we call a ‘short score’ - usually on only 2 or 3 musical staves, in contrast to the full score which may have more than 30 independent musical staves all active at once. The next illustration shows just one such short score sketched in pencil and coloured biros, for a part of the first movement:

Illustration 3: a short score sketch for a passage in the first movement.

Illustration 3: a short score sketch for a passage in the first movement.

            This short score will go through many further revisions and refinements - some are already visible on the page above. Eventually, once I’m certain everything is as it should be for the passage concerned, I copy the final version neatly into the final full score, with all the music for each instrument in its definite form. This is what the conductor will be looking at when leading an orchestra in a performance of the work. The following photograph shows my manuscript for the final version of the passage sketched in the previous photograph:

Illustration 4: the final full orchestral score for the same passage.

Illustration 4: the final full orchestral score for the same passage.

            That final full score is then emailed to my publisher, Schott Music Ltd., who copy it into computer software, edit it and check any queries with me, and thence create the orchestral parts from which the musicians will play when the work is performed.

            With some composers, each of these stages will be quite separate. For me, and especially in the present case, all four stages are happening repeatedly, even simultaneously, for different parts of the symphony. People sometimes imagine that a composer writes their music in the order you hear it. In reality, that is the exception rather than the rule. Many composers in the past sketched their works in all kinds of different orders. The great Russian composer Stravinsky remarked that openings were often the last things he wrote, reasoning that “one must know what one is introducing”. I, too, have rarely found myself able to write my music in the order you finally hear it when it’s played.

            Often a new piece has to be assembled by its composer rather like a jigsaw or a mosaic, from the loose fragments which are all one can get down at first. Selecting from those fragments, discovering where each belongs and what its function is, defining the musical context, refining and editing, and re-editing… It all takes time and thought - and above all, listening to the sounds in one’s head.  This continues at all times of the day and night, even whilst doing something else. Cooking can be very therapeutic in this regard, and some of my best ideas occur to me in the kitchen.

            This happened recently in dramatic fashion. I was attempting to make my very first Trdelník, prompted by the ever-popular Honest Guide to Prague on YouTube. As a fan of things Czech, this entertaining program has long been a regular part of my internet life. For those who don’t know, it’s part tourist-guide, part scam-buster, hosted by lively journalist Janek Rubeš and his amusing colleague Honza Mikulka, a great double act in which each takes turns to play the straight guy to the other’s zany presentations. Once lockdown hit in, Rubeš and Mikulka turned Honest Guide partly into a cooking program from Rubeš flat in Prague. For many years they’ve mocked the Trdelník, that strange spiral pastry sold mainly to Prague tourists which Honest Guide maintains is about as Czech as Chop Sui. During lockdown, somewhat perversely Rubeš attempted to bake his own Trdelník, very successfully as it turned out. They published the recipe, and fans all over the world duly sent in photos of Trdelník’s from Spain, Israel, San Francisco etc., but none (as far as I could see) from the UK. Time for me to try my hand at one.

            I won’t bother you with the unpleasant details of my attempt, except to say it was a catastrophic (I was never good at baking): by the end my kitchen was an appalling mess whilst I looked like Chaplin after a pie fight. Frustration soon turned to anger as I cleared up. Bizarrely it was just then that I realised how to open my new work. Previously it was going to start very quietly and intimately, gradually taking shape. But now, as I furiously cleared up loose bits of dough, sugar and goodness knows what else, the opening suddenly hit me as a series of short, tough, loud (and I mean very loud) chords for the whole orchestra, separated by silences. As the chords accelerate, the music becomes continuous and develops momentum, energy and melodic line. It’s like building a bridge, stone by stone. It was then that I made a new visual design for movement 1 (reproduced above in Illustration 2), erasing the previous one on my white board and replacing it with this completely different idea which I soon wrote out in short and the full score. It was also at this point I realised that the main themes of the symphony were to be the two Medieval Czech hymns to St Wenceslas - Svatý Václave. These melodies have haunted my imagination for many years.

            Which all goes to show that anything can be of use to a composer - from a book of Sudek photographs to a failed attempt to bake Trdelník!… 

            And so the composing goes on. There will be three movements.


            Julian Anderson

Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Vice-President, Music Council of the Prince Pierre Foundation, Monaco



To conclude, here are a few favourite Czech pieces. Some have a connection with my new work, but most don’t. All are wonderful music.


Anon.: Svatý Václave

One of two beautiful Medieval Czech hymns to St Wenceslas, and incidentally the model for many melodies in my new symphony. Here it’s expertly sung by the Schola Gregoriana Pragensis:



Dvořák: Symphony no. 8

Probably the Czech music I love most. For me, every bar of this ever-youthful work just exudes Czechness all the way (even though I’ve never yet been there!). Libor Pešek conducts the Prague Radio Symphony here with his customary mastery:



Novak: Eternal Longing

An ecstatic work which has a unique serenity and passion, by a composer still too little appreciated outside his homeland. Who better than the Czech Philharmonic and the great Karel Senja to perform it?



Suk: Asrael Symphony - slow movement

It’s been a treat to see this symphony enter the world orchestral repertoire over the past 30 years. The deaths of Suk’s father in law and of his wife in close succession cast a tragic shadow on this music, nowhere more so than in this slow movement. You understand more of the music’s message when you remember that his father in law was none other than Antonin Dvořák. The Czech Philharmonic again, this time with the late, much-missed Jiří Bělohlávek - who was also chief conductor of the BBC Symphony in London for many years:



Janáček: Taras Bulba: Movement III - The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba

Janáček at his most uplifting. The conclusion has a blinding intensity which is almost unbearable. No-one but Janáček could have written this. The Czech Philharmonic are conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who did so much to bring Janáček’s music to international prominence:



Janáček: Říkadla

This delightful work evokes childhood in exquisite miniatures for chorus and small ensemble (including toy drum). The illustrations to the original score are by Josef Lada. The first chorus describes a vegetable wedding using largely nonsense language, which gives you some idea of the general absurdity:



Martinů: Le Jazz

This is sheer fun. Martinů was living in Paris in the 1920s, thoroughly enjoying the latest hot jazz. I love the crazy excess of this music:



Martinů: Symphony no. 1 - slow movement

This is the opposite side of Martinů. As explained above, this lyrical outpouring is thought to be Martinů’s immediate reaction to the atrocity of Lidice, composed in the summer of 1942. If there is a better expression of loss in music, I have yet to hear it.

Bělohlávek conducts the BBC Symphony:



Miroslav Srnka: Moves No.3 for orchestra

I love the harmony and colours in this music. The sounds seem to hover and move around you. Srnka has an amazing sonic imaginations and is undoubtedly the most gifted of younger Czech composers:



Julian Anderson

Julian Anderson


      Julian Anderson is among the most esteemed and influential composers of his generation, with regular performances both internationally and at home in the UK. Anderson was born in London in 1967 and studied composition with John Lambert, Alexander Goehr and Tristan Murail. He was awarded a prestigious RPS Composition Prize in 1992 at the age of 25 for his two-movement work Diptych (1990) for orchestra, launching his career. His success as a composer has also fed a prominent academic career, which has included Senior Composition Professorships at the Royal College of Music (1996-2004), where he was also Head of Composition for 5 years, Harvard University (2004-7), and Guildhall School of Music & Drama where he holds the specially created post of Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence. Anderson is also much in demand as concert programmer and public speaker. Between 2002 and 2011 he was Artistic Director of the Phiharmonia’s Music of Today concert series at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and from 2013 to 2016 he was Composer in Residence at Wigmore Hall.

      Close associations and residencies with CBSO, The Cleveland Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra have contributed to Anderson’s significant orchestral output. Fantasias (2009) for The Cleveland Orchestra won a British Composer Award, and The Discovery of Heaven (2011), co-commissioned by the LPO and the New York Philharmonic won a South Bank Sky Arts Award. The LPO under Vladimir Jurowski premiered a violin concerto for Carolin Widmann, In lieblicher Bläue (2014-15), co-commissioned by Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Further orchestral commissions include Incantesimi (2016) commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Society and premiered under Sir Simon Rattle, and the piano concerto The Imaginary Museum (2017) composed for Steven Osborne co-commissioned by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who premiered the work under Ilan Volkov at the 2017 BBC Proms.

      Thebans, Anderson’s opera based on the Oedipus myth, was highly praised at its premiere production at English National Opera in May 2014 and its German premiere in Bonn in 2015. His music is frequently used for dance and his association with choreographer Mark Baldwin led to the 2009 ballet The Comedy of Change, which toured nationally.

      Portrait discs of Anderson’s works have been recorded on NMC (2005 and 2019), Ondine (2006 and 2018) and Delphian (2018). Two discs on the LPO Live label document Anderson’s time as composer in residence with the LPO: The first (Fantasias, 2013) was shortlisted for a 2014 Gramophone Award and the second (In lieblicher Bläue, 2016) won the 2017 BBC Music Magazine ‘Premiere’ Award.

      February 2020 saw the hugely successful world premiere in Paris of a cello concerto for Alban Gerhardt, Litanies. Future projects include major new orchestral work for Semyon Bychkov, a work for 8 unaccompanied voices and a couple of chamber works including one allowing for online ‘lockdown’ performance.

Julian Anderson was appointed a C.B.E. in the Queen's New Year's Honours 2021 for services to music.