Acclaimed British composer and viola player Sally Beamish's catalogue counts over 200 compositions, including orchestral, ballet and opera works. She is composer-in-residence with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the recipient of the Inspiration Award at the British Composers Awards 2018, among many other accolades. We talk on a beautiful sunny morning in London, her kind, calm voice punctuated by friendly laughter.

Sally Beamish © Ashley Coombes
Sally Beamish
© Ashley Coombes

The daughter of a professional violinist, Beamish's house was always full of music. “When I was about four, my mother gave me a little manuscript book and I immediately started to make up tunes,” she tells me. “I used to draw pictures on the staves, little flowers and faces, and my mother played them back to me on her violin. My father was also a very good amateur flautist and singer, and my grandmother was a brilliant pianist but she hadn’t been allowed to do it professionally.”

Having studied viola from an early age, Beamish career flourished. But in 1989, her 18th-century viola was stolen. Determined to turn this heartbreak into a positive watershed in her life, Beamish moved to Scotland to pursue a career as a full time composer. “It didn’t occur to me that I could earn a living by composing, and I didn’t study composition,” Beamish explains, “but I had spent ten years in London playing contemporary music and working with composers. Oliver Knussen, particularly, gave me a series of lessons in between concerts. I would bring a score every day and he would look at it and talk about it. Working with him was life-changing.”

Sally Beamish with the viola made by her daughter © Ashley Coombes
Sally Beamish with the viola made by her daughter
© Ashley Coombes
As Beamish's career as a composer took flight, she started playing viola less and less, until she stopped completely. One day her daughter, Stephanie, went to work with a luthier in Amsterdam. “I remember her asking me: what size was the viola you had stolen, mum?” she laughs. “And she made an instrument to those specifications. I hadn't played for 20 years, but shortly after I was invited by Xenia Jankovic to play at the Musikdorf Ernen Festival. I thought… why don’t I try? I have been playing since then and it has been fantastic. All because of this wonderful instrument which sounds really great. I didn’t think it was possible, but I feel like I have it all now!”

Going back to playing also added an extra dimension to her composing. “When I was writing my viola concertos, I’ve never tried them out because I did not want to be limited by my own limitations. Now I find myself playing them and finding that a lot of the writing is really tricky!” she says. “Now I am back to that practical feeling of: how long is this going to take to rehearse? Does it need to be as difficult as this? Is there a simpler way of writing it that would be just as effective, or probably more effective because the player will be more comfortable? Also, there is a difference between writing a concerto where you are expecting your soloists to spend months learning the part, or writing an orchestral viola part where the player may only have one or two rehearsals. My advice to aspiring composers is to stick around performers and to perform yourself, which is essential. If you don’t play an instrument, sing in a choir, conduct… keep that alive. Having stopped performing for nearly 20 years, I have realised how that was a loss to me, and there was a lot of grief there, but there was also something that I was missing: for me it was incomplete to be composing without performing.”

In her role as co-director of the annual St Magnus Composers' Course in Orkney, Beamish enjoys helping others find new confidence. “Alasdair Nicolson is a friend, a real craftsman and a brilliant teacher. He’s the director and asked me to be the co-director. I was hesitant. I have never studied, so I didn’t feel I should teach,” she laughs, “but he persuaded me, and it has been fantastic. We work with composers of all ages: some are in their sixties. One of them, John Gourlay, spent his life as music teacher, composing as part of his job. He came to us with lots of technique but no confidence, not calling himself a composer. He is really busy with commissions now! That sums up what I think is important [for a composer]: whether is children or amateurs or international soloists, it’s working with performers.”

Many of Beamish' pieces have been inspired by her time in Scotland. When she relocated to England, she planned a series of farewell works, which she's still completing. One of them is for London ensemble Divertimenti, a group she played with from the age of 18. “It’s amazing to be writing for them at the same time that I am coming back to England. It’s a Scottish-inspired piece, so I am bringing all the things I have gathered in Scotland back with me as a gift for my friends.”

Northern Ballet in David Nixon's <i>The Little Mermaid</i>, set on music by Sally Beamish © Emma Kauldhar
Northern Ballet in David Nixon's The Little Mermaid, set on music by Sally Beamish
© Emma Kauldhar
Also Celtic-inspired is her ballet score The Little Mermaid, for Northern Ballet Sinfonia, which toured the UK in 2017/18. “I always thought it would be wonderful to choreograph a previous score of mine called Seavaigers. The mermaid story is Danish, but the folklore of sea people is so strong in Scotland. I took that as a starting point and this two-hour score is my biggest ever Celtic statement!” she says. “I would like to write more for dance.”

“My inspiration is often coming from commissions," Beamish explains. ”I wrote three piano concertos, each for a different pianist. Ronald Brautigam had the idea of a piece inspired by the Cairngorm Mountains. Martin Roscoe wanted a piece about a dangerous stretch of sea off the west coast of Scotland. And Jonathan Biss wanted something to go with the first Beethoven concerto. I had done a piece about mountains and a piece about sea, I thought I’d do a piece about cities, a celebration of the creativity of mankind. But when I met with Biss he was distressed about the forthcoming American election, and when I tried to contact him after the election results, I could not get in touch with him. He disappeared, he said he couldn’t speak to anybody, he was so upset, he could not work. So the piece became about that. I took the themes from Beethoven and I made them grotesque, subverting the beauty and making it into something quite ugly… and the piano in that piece is like a lone voice, calling out.”

But inspiration sometimes reaches into a deeper, subconscious level. “I have written one orchestral piece [for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields], called Hover, based on Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem Windhover, and it’s dedicated to the memory of Sir Neville Marriner,” Beamish tells me. “I was in transition between Scotland and England and I didn’t feel like I had a home, all my stuff in boxes: I felt I was hovering… but [the piece] also had a lot to do with Neville, who was a friend and who I knew since I was a child. My mother played with the Academy and later I joined the orchestra as a viola player, and Neville was always incredibly supportive of my composing. When they offered me the residency, I went and spoke to him about it and it was lovely. That was the last time I saw him, he died a few months later. The poem is all about the bird and its freedom, but the bird is also very focused, its eyesight is absolutely extraordinary and powerful… and Neville was very focused and had this amazing vision. I had a letter from Lady Marriner saying how it was so extraordinary that I chose this bird because to her it seemed to be very much about Neville. It’s wonderful when things that you didn’t consciously plan happen, and you realise later that... there he was, in the music.”

Sally Beamish won the Award for Inspiration at the 2018 British Composers Awards © Mark Allan
Sally Beamish won the Award for Inspiration at the 2018 British Composers Awards
© Mark Allan
Some of Beamish' pieces are included as part of Venus Unwrapped, the season at King's Place that focuses on women composers, many of which have been forgotten by history. “There are all sorts of reasons why we don’t know about women composers. There is an issue of confidence, and I think that has affected me quite a lot, by not studying composition, never conducting – that was something that guys did. We all have impostor syndrome, but I still feel that I am not the real deal, and [I don’t know] whether that’s because all of my role models are males, or they were when I was a child. I knew Clara Schumann, and I decided she was going to be my kind-of patron saint,” she smiles “because she was the only woman I had ever heard of that wrote music.”

“The lack of role models contributes to making girls feel that this isn’t something they could do, so we have to work really hard to change that perception, not just for the world at large but for women musicians to believe in themselves, to believe that they can create.”

“Bach's wife Anna Magdalena was a singer and she composed alongside him,” Beamish continues. “In those times artists worked in a workshop situation, like Stradivarius making violins or Michelangelo – he didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel on his own. Bach worked with his sons, but for some reason people find it shocking to think that he worked with his wife. If you look up Bach in the most recent edition of Grove Dictionary, there is a big family tree and there isn’t a single woman mentioned. Yet there are distant male cousins, who were maybe playing in their village band. Fanny Mendelssohn wrote music that people assumed was Felix’s. Mozart’s sister Nannerl almost definitely wrote some of those early pieces, but she wasn’t allowed to have a career as a composer.”

“It’s really important to find the female composers from the past,” says Beamish. “There are composers that were well known in their own lifetime, like Barbara Strozzi, who just didn’t make it into the history books because the history books are written by men. Even this last century, Elisabeth Lutyens was really famous but her music doesn’t get played now. Women disappeared because their names are not considered part of the canon. Sometimes there is a reason for that: in the 19th century there were very few women writing in large scale format, symphonists and writers of opera, but that’s because they couldn't have had their pieces performed, so they were writing smaller scale pieces. Then, since it wasn’t published, when a woman died her music would be thrown away by her kids – you know, “mum’s papers”. Alice Mary Smith was a 19th-century symphonist: her music was only discovered because she came from a family of hoarders, and [one of her descendants] had all these music scores in his shed and luckily approached a musicologist. These scores survived, but they were the only copies.”

“The difficulty in getting published is a real issue," Beamish adds. “Even recently, publishers were reluctant: they'd say “we have one woman, we can’t take another”. I have experienced, occasionally, festivals saying ‘“we featured a woman composer last year, so we can’t do it this year”. They would not say that about a male. People are becoming more aware of this. We have to recognise that in ourselves: women are just as guilty of it, we are all thinking like that. Also, women want to be featured because of their music, not because they are women, so it’s a sensitive area.”

In the 2018 Bachtrack statistics, two women – Lili Boulanger and Clara Schumann – made the top-100 of the most performed composers for the first time ever, and performances of pieces by women composers are rising, albeit still slowly. “That’s wonderful,” says Beamish. “The Sound Festival in Aberdeen did the 50/50 thing in 2018. I had read through the programme and I hadn’t noticed! I think that’s really good, that I wasn’t thinking “wow, what a lot of women” but I just thought “looks great, great composers, sounds really interesting”. I think that’s the place we need to be, where we don’t notice and it ceases to be an issue… but until then, it has to be an issue.”

Click here to see all upcoming concerts featuring Beamish's music.