Nico Muhly: From pastries to pelicans – the Britain that I love

As his first opera, 'Two Boys', premieres in London, the young American composer lists seven things about Blighty that give him the most pleasure



Herbert Howells


Herbert Howells is unendingly fascinating to me.

His dates (1892-1983) resist the traditional narrative about how music was meant to modernise itself after the two world wars. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis texts – which Howells set many, many times over the course of his life – have what I call an anti-romantic structure inasmuch as the peaks and valleys of the emotional content do not follow the usual formulas of tension and release one finds in Bruckner. Howells found ways to imbue the texts with ecstatic romantic sensibilities while keeping them appropriate for the intimacies of worship. In the final two minutes of his 1944 Te Deum setting for King's College, Cambridge, the line "vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin" floats downwards in the trebles and picks up speed and mass through a series of unisons until exploding on the text, "O Lord, in thee have I trusted; Let me never be confounded." It is one of the 20th century's most spectacular crescendi. In this opera I have just finished, Two Boys, the libretto calls for one scene to happen during an evensong service. I imagined that the church in which this takes place had, perhaps, commissioned a set of preces and responses from Howells in his later years, and has been singing them twice a year since 1964; the result is, I hope, a fitting homage. Like Howells, I have always had a huge love for Byrd and Gibbons, and have arranged their choral music for small ensemble as a form of devotional mnemonic – I get as far as I can from memory before consulting a score. Three of these arrangements appear on Seeing is Believing, my new album, which Decca is about to release with the young British Aurora Orchestra; many of the musicians (save the conductor, who had a choral background himself) had never heard these motets and, as a result, bring a refreshing perspective to their realisation.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the swan...

I am obsessed by the time that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies ate that swan [in 2005]. It brings together many of my loves: music, game birds, terrine, Udal law, and English tradition. Orkney, apparently, still loosely observes a Norwegian legal code of property ownership and when a swan hit the phone lines near Sir Peter's house, he felt it appropriate to make a "delicious terrine" out of its meat, after dutifully calling the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

St John Restaurant

The bar at the St John restaurant in Smithfield is, I think, the handsomest room in the world. One walks in via a spare, white, sun-drenched corridor, passing a slightly elevated dining room at shoulder-height. The ceiling opens up into a cathedral-like space, painted white, with white coat hooks and an uncompromisingly concrete floor. The effect is austere and religious, but fundamentally romantic: the smells of the pastry kitchen are welcoming to an extreme. When I lived in Smithfield last year, I came here at least twice a day. The menu quietly refutes all the stereotypes about English food I grew up with: the food is unapologetically English (going so far as to call crème brûlée "burnt cream") but insistent in combining great English ingredients: snails and oakleaf lettuce, gulls' eggs and Cornish new potatoes.

The pelicans of St James's Park

I adore the pelicans in St James's Park. A few years ago, one of them was caught on video eating a pigeon whole, and it sparked, for some, an interest in cannibalistic tendencies in birds. Did everybody know that the pelicans were a 1664 gift from the Russian Ambassador? A spokeswoman for the park observed at the time that "birds used to human contact tend to be much more opportunistic"; I don't think I have ever been happier than when I read that.

Alan Hollinghurst

England has maintained, in Alan Hollinghurst, the art of the perfect sentence. All musicians should get involved in these sentences: they are tightly coiled but luxurious, meaningful without being wasteful. On an outfit (from The Swimming Pool Library): "I had come along in what was virtually a pair of pyjamas – a super-light African cotton outfit, the queenery of which was chastened by a hint of martial arts." It's devastatingly efficient, and the wordcraft speaks, I think, across genres into, say, what it means to write a wonderful phrase for a clarinet in a chamber music context. He has a new book – The Stranger's Child – out right now and I am twitching with anticipation.

Benjamin Britten

The other ghost who looms over Two Boys is Benjamin Britten (inset below). I had the pleasure of seeing English National Opera's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which teases a disturbing subtext out of the opera and puts the music into chilling, shimmering relief. One of the many things I have stolen from Britten in Two Boys is his abstract, stylised use of Balinese gamelan. The last few minutes of Death in Venice – one of his last works – uses mallet percussion and strings in a misty dissolve that asks as many questions as it answers. I use this as a springboard for many of the vague online and offline musical spaces in Two Boys.

The Wilton Diptych

Whenever I have a few moments free in London, I go see the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery. It's two late-14th-century two-sided panels, four images in total, which make a gorgeous and abstract symbolic poetry. The inside panels depict Richard II kneeling before angels surrounding the Christ Child held by the Virgin, whose blue robes are the absolute best lapis lazuli colour ever. You really should go and see the Diptych if you haven't recently; there are too many things to think about; the red shoes, the white hart's gracefully bent knees, the weirdly proportioned flowers, Edward the Confessor's intense side-eye. It's about the size of a laptop, and yet....

'Two Boys' opens at the London Coliseum on 24 June and runs to 8 July. For tickets visit eno.org or call 0871 472 0600. 'Seeing is Believing' (Decca Classics) is available now

Curriculum Vitae

Nico Muhly is, according to one British newspaper, the "planet's hottest composer". Certainly, at just 29, he has an enviably long, varied and hip CV: he has worked with Björk, Antony and the Johnsons, and Bonnie Prince Billy, among other alt.pop luminaries; he also scored the 2008 film adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. All this is built on an impressive record of choral and orchestral compositions: Seeing is Believing, Wish You Were Here and Detailed Instructions.

Muhly is currently putting the finishing touches to his first opera, Two Boys: its libretto is by Craig Lucas, and, says Muhly, it "deals with the romance and the violence that come with living a life online".

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