Howard Skempton was born in Chester in 1947 and has worked as a composer, accordionist, and music publisher. He studied in London with Cornelius Cardew from 1967, and Cardew helped him to discover a musical language of great simplicity. Since then he has continued to write undeflected by compositional trends, producing a corpus of more than 300 works, many pieces being miniatures for solo piano or accordion. Skempton calls these pieces “the central nervous system” of his work.
Skempton’s catalogue of works is as diverse as it is long, ranging from pieces for solo cello (Six Figures, 1998), and guitar (Five Preludes, 1999), to the Chamber Concerto for fifteen players, the Concerto for Hurdy-Gurdy and Percussion, and Lento, premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in 1991, and performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov at the 2010 BBC Proms. In May 2005 his work Tendrils for string quartet was awarded the prize for best chamber-scale composition by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and in December 2005 it won in the chamber music category at the annual British Composer Awards. Skempton won a second British Composer Award in 2008 for The Moon is Flashing, a song cycle for tenor and orchestra commissioned by the BBC which was premiered by BBC NOW and James Gilchrist at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in September 2007 and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
Many of Skempton’s compositions have been recorded, including Lento by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the piano works performed by John Tilbury, and Shiftwork by Ensemble Bash, both on the Sony Classical label. 2001 saw the release of Guild of The Flight of Song, an acclaimed choral collection performed by the Choir of Queens’ College Cambridge under James Weeks. Vocal group Exaudi released a disc of Skempton’s choral music in September 2007; entitled Ben Somewhen, also featured chamber works performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The Cloths of Heaven, a recording of Skempton’s choral music by The Exon Singers, was released on Delphian Records in June 2008, and in 2011 Mode Records released Bolt from the Blue a disc featuring Skempton’s piano and choral works.
Works have been commissioned and performed by leading artists including the BBC, Kathryn Tickell, New Noise, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s ‘Ensemble 10/10’. A work for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Only the Sound Remains, for viola and ensemble, was premiered in February 2010 in a Skempton portrait concert. Other recent commissions include a choral work, Song’s Eternity for the 2010 Aldeburgh Festival, and a new work for the New Music 20*12 Cultural Olympiad project: a piece for eight church bells for the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, performed to mark the opening of Spitalfields Festival at Christ Church, London, in June 2012. Other recent commissions include two from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: a work for oboe and string trio, Field Notes, and a setting of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for baritone and ensemble, and a Piano Concerto for John Tilbury commissioned by the BBC for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2015.
Works by Howard Skempton
- And there was war in Heaven
- Ave virgo sanctissima
- He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
- Locus iste
- Missa Brevis
- Ostende nobis Domine
- Rise up, my Love
- Song’s Eternity
- Third Service
- Three Motets
Festival performances of works by Howard Skempton
Festival commissionWorld premiere
- Choral Evensong on Sunday 8 May 2022 at Hampstead Parish Church
- Choral Eucharist on Wednesday 11 May 2022 at St Pancras Parish Church
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- Choral Recital on Saturday 16 May 2020 (online stream/broadcast)
- Choral Evensong on Sunday 7 May 2017 at St Pancras Parish Church
- “Mother of God - Songs of Mary”: Promenade Concert on Friday 12 May 2017 at The National Gallery
- “Mors et Resurrexit”: The Sarum Consort with Kin Collective on Saturday 13 May 2017 at St George’s Bloomsbury
- Solemn Mass on Sunday 14 May 2017 at St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road
- The Exon Singers on Sunday 14 May 2017 at St George’s Bloomsbury
- Opening Concert on Saturday 9 May 2015 at St Pancras Parish Church
- Choral Evensong on Monday 11 May 2015 at St George’s Chapel, Windsor