Kezia Davies talks to cellist Amy Jolly and composer Hollie Harding about their Benjamin Britten Variations Concert on 15 May at The House of St Barnabas


15 May 2018 (7 – 8pm)
Concert: Benjamin Britten Variations
The House of St Barnabas Chapel
Cellist Amy Jolly performs Benjamin Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 and two new ‘Variations’ on his Tema “Sacher” written by composer, Hollie Harding, followed by a Q&A.
Tickets £10 (+booking fee) with proceeds donated to The House of St Barnabas charity.

Firstly, how did you get involved with the Winter Pride Art Awards?

Amy – I’m involved in a collaboration with a brilliant composer called Hollie Harding who is good friends with Simon Tarrant. The concert came about over drinks in the pub and I’m really looking forward to seeing all the art when I come down – what I’ve seen online looks amazing!

Hollie – I was talking to Simon in the pub about this project as I was really excited to be working with the fantastic cellist and researcher Amy Jolly, as one of a group of composers she is collaborating with to develop new Variations on Britten’s ‘Tema’ (theme).

Could you talk a little about how you’re interpreting Britten’s work and the process of working together on this?

Amy – The piece ‘Tema’ (theme) is a one page minute-long piece based on the letters S-A-C-H-E-R. The cellist Rostropovich commissioned Britten to write this theme as a birthday present for a Viennese entrepreneur called Paul Sacher. Traditionally, a piece of music entitled ‘Theme’ is followed by its own set of variations, but as Britten died so shortly after he wrote the work, he didn’t complete them. The pieces I’m performing in the concert are Hollie’s answer to this theme.

Hollie – I first started work on the variations by analysing Britten’s theme, but instead of a traditional analysis that focuses only on harmony or melody, I wanted to focus on the physicality of the piece in performance and see what this might uncover.

Through this analysis and through close collaboration with Amy, I identified a few recurring physical ideas in ‘Tema’ that formed the starting materials for my variations called ‘Extension’ and ‘Motion’. For example, Britten approaches the cello as a chordal instrument and his theme has a recurring movement idea where the cellist’s fingers move from being very close together, to widely spread apart. His ‘Tema’ is also extremely physically active and virtuosic, the left hand of the performer constantly shifts up and down the fingerboard and there are expressive bowing actions like retakes.

It has been really interesting to collaborate with Amy on these variations and to have access to her knowledge and expertise, I am excited to hear her perform them and hope you will enjoy the results!

Why do you think it’s important to bring to light the work of historical LGBTQIA+ figures such as Britten?

Amy – To be completely honest, I don’t think of Britten in that sense. To me, he’s a composer who writes amazing music that I love to perform. All the compositions he wrote for cello were dedicated to Rostropovich – a Russian cellist who became a lifelong friend of Britten and Peter Pears, his partner. The pieces were borne out of a friendship with a man who not only didn’t speak English, but came from a country where homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1999. So, that’s what stands out to me.

Britten is a real icon for young musicians because he set up an amazing music school in Suffolk, which is still one of the most successful training programs in England. I’m really excited to premiere Hollie’s pieces and happy that Britten is still inspiring us 42 years after his death.


Mstislav Rostropovich, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten in 1965

Hollie – When I think of Benjamin Britten, I simply think of him as a wonderfully inspiring and accomplished composer – but it is very important to acknowledge the context in which he was living, and to consider that he was working as a high profile figure, in a country where up until 1967, homosexual acts between men were illegal. As a result he had to live very separate public and private lives, and I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

I think it’s important to remember our darker and more discriminatory history and to acknowledge the work of historical LGBTQIA+ figures like Britten, who have achieved so much, and left such an amazing artistic legacy, despite these circumstances.

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