John Middleton - Blog

John Middleton - CCA's Composer of the Month, FEBRUARY 2013

John Middleton - CCA's Composer of the Month, FEBRUARY 2013

John Middleton - CCA's Composer of the Month, FEBRUARY 2013

CCA's Composer of the Month, FEBRUARY 2013

The featured Composition of the Month:

St John Passion


The instrumental and/or vocal resources used:

14 singers; Clarinet; Cello; MIDI keyboard; Virtual orchestra


First performance details:

7.30pm 23rd March 2013 at Loughborough Trinity Methodist Centre, Royland Road


Performers on your recording:

Lyndon Gardner (Heldentenor) with the Ivanhoe singers and chamber ensemble, conducted by Kate King


What was the source/inspiration/commission which set this piece or these pieces in motion?

St John’s Gospel, from the Lazarus episode onwards, has fascinated me for a long time. I approach it from the viewpoint of a believer, but I am very aware that many people do not believe in God, or may not accept that Jesus is God made man. Whether or not you are a believer, it is impossible to understand the concept of being man and God at the same time. From where I stand, to share in our humanity means partaking in the human condition of uncertainty. There are indications of this tension in John’s Gospel, for example in the lead up to the raising of Lazarus and the mental conflict of Jesus at Gethsemane. I have tried to imagine the tension and portray it in the music.

The second strand of inspiration comes from my period as a folk singer in the eighties. I used to be half of a duo called Crossbones. The other half was the Rev. John Walker, who was curate at Loughborough Emmanuel Church before moving to Nottingham as a parish priest. Our repertoire included the folk/gospel songI am the Resurrection”. Sadly, John died prematurely, but the theme of the song became central to my composition, culminating in the final chorus. John (1st photo, foreground) was a remarkable person and I dedicate this work to his memory.

It took me several years to track down the composer of I am the Resurrection”, an American called Ray Repp. I sent him the score and an audio file of the final movement, which he liked. As a result, I have permission to use his theme in the work and I am very happy to acknowledge the origin of this great tune.  


What would be a good programme note for this work which explains the structure, use of melody and harmony and any technical points related to the performers?

The work is in three sections:

1. Prologue: comprising an orchestral prelude, the raising of Lazarus and the entry to Jerusalem;

2. Passion: comprising the overture, Passover (last supper), Gethsemane, Arrest (and trial), an orchestral depiction of Golgotha, and ‘It is finished’ (last words on the cross);

3. Epilogue: comprising Gardener (appearance to Mary Magdalen), Thomas (appearance to the disciples, then to Thomas), and Fishing (appearance by the lake). I do not know of any other setting of the Passion that includes post-resurrection appearances.

Anyone who writes a Passion oratorio is likely to be compared with Bach and found wanting. However, my St John Passion is not based on a series of set-piece arias and choruses, but is through-written continuous recitative. I have tried to juxtapose, combine and transform fragments of the themes in a symphonic process. At times, the thoughts of Jesus are externalized to voices in the choir. I hope that it results in a powerful statement of Ray Repp’s theme at the end.

The tension inherent in my interpretation of John’s Gospel is manifested by frequent changes of key and tempo, dissonance within a basically tonal structure, and an episode of atonality in the Gethsemane section. I am no expert in music theory, but I think the piece also exhibits progressive tonality. People tell me that my music is modal and uses pentatonic scales. This is probably because my sound world is steeped in folk, blues, jazz and church music. I am not especially preoccupied with the dichotomy between major and minor. Indeed, I find minor scales and modes quite beautiful and often joyful.

I have used a small chamber ensemble to accompany the singers (rehearsing in the 3rd photo), with the virtual orchestra reserved for interludes, except for the ending which combines live and recorded sound.

Music is music and you can’t really describe it in words. I hope you will find it approachable. The sounds of the voices in rehearsal have been quite exciting. So my wife says.    

The recording link (see ´works´) demonstrates a section of the St John Passion which concerns the final appearance of Jesus, after the resurrection, to the disciples:

"Peter announces ´I am going fishing´ and the disciples take up the call to go with him. A rapid fugato passage on the woodwind, using the fishing theme, might represent the fish making themselves scarce! A man appears: ´Children, have you caught any fish?´ ´No´, they answer. They are advised to cast the net on the other side and immediately it is full of fish. At the same time they realise ´It is the Lord!´ ´Bring the fish - come and have breakfast,´ he says (using the motto ´I am the resurrection´ theme from Ray Repp). A reflective passage follows which includes some dissonance (perhaps the element of disbelief). Jesus then asks Simon son of John (Peter) three times if he loves him (and directs him to ´feed my sheep´); the third time, Peter becomes exasperated: ´Yes, Lord! You know everything! You know that I love you! ´Feed my sheep´, repeats Jesus. He then goes on to predict Peter´s death and concludes by exhorting: ´Follow me!´ This heralds an unexpected change of key from F minor to E minor, like moving to a different dimension, and the whole choir sing the chorus of ´I am the resurrection´ a capella. Drumbeats announce the entry of the orchestra on the same theme, as the voices fade. The choir returns, with full orchestral accompaniment for the last line of the chorus: ´If you believe, then you shall live´, the last word on the chord of A major, followed by a prolonged note of low E natural on the Cello, perhaps representing the eternal." 


This link also takes you to the printed score for this section of the St John Passion





When did you first start composing and what was your first piece?

I picked up a few chords on the guitar when I was sixteen and wrote songs into my early twenties, most of which are lost. Some of the tunes were used in my opera, Ivanhoe, which was premiered in 2011 (when I was 62).


Who was it that first encouraged you to develop your interest in composing and how did they help?

I did realise from my mid-teens that I was going to write music, but the lack of musical education and my medical career were considerable barriers. When I took my children round their prospective secondary schools, I was introduced to notation software and this was a great revelation. I realised that I would be able to record and work with extended ideas in a way that had been hitherto impossible for me.

Some years after writing my opera, Ivanhoe, Lyndon Gardner (conducting in the 3rd photo) took an interest in it and helped me to revise the vocal lines, so that someone could actually sing them! He continues to be a champion and practitioner of my music, for which I am most grateful.


Who do you consider your greatest inspirations in terms of the major composers and which of their works has influenced you the most and why?

Sibelius Symphonies, particularly the second, fifth and fourth. I remember the hairs rising at the back of my neck when I first heard the strings’ entry after the opening pizzicato section in the second movement of the second symphony. It feels to me like conifers pushing up through the soil – very elemental. Also, I feel sure that Sibelius used the Robin’s song as a basis for one of his main themes. The rhythm is so characteristic. The sounds of nature and bird song have always been important for me. One of my symphonies is based entirely on bird themes.

I was also transfixed by the sound of Birgit Nilsson against the orchestra in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, from Karl Böhm’s Der Ring. Before this, I had not been keen on opera, but Wagner seemed to have written a symphony for voices and orchestra. So the symphonic strand is very strong in my imagination.

I have already mentioned my folk, blues, jazz and church influences. It is very interesting to compare jazz chords with Wagner’s progressions, particularly in Der Ring and Tristan und Isolde.

Other than this, I have listened to a great deal of recorded music and absorbed ideas from many different and varied sources. In the last decade, I have been trying to understand more about modern music and some of it has seeped in. I don’t think I experience dissonance in the same way as I did before. That’s just in case you think I’ve made a mistake. The MD and singers keep asking me ‘did you mean that note?’ Mostly I did.   


How would you describe your style to someone who has never heard your music before?

It has ancient roots and strong contrapuntal elements as well as modernist tendencies! It is also rather unsophisticated and sometimes downright crude. That’s what my friends say.


What do you feel is original in your music?

If there is anything original, it is because I inhabit a special place when I am composing. That place is at the core of my being and, at the same time, I feel a spiritual connection with humankind. The music I write is also connected with philosophy. I try to be true to this rather than seeking originality per se. Is that pretentious or what?


How do you work? What methods of creativity and work ethic do you have? Do you solely use musical technology or do paper and pencil still form a part of your process?

Mostly I compose at the computer keyboard, sometimes with a guitar on my knee. Usually I just sing the notes or think them. If I have problems, I go down to the piano or even look at some theory (but not too much in case I get corrupted)! Some of the best ideas have come to me whilst out and about, though. I just have to keep humming them over to myself and sketch them on a scrap of paper as soon as I can. People give you strange looks.

Starting points may be stories, words or philosophical ideas. At other times it is sounds in the environment (especially bird song) or that just come into my head. Sometimes I sketch out a grand plan and sometimes I just start somewhere. Progress can be vertical or horizontal, depending on whether I am in a chordal or melodic zone.

I don’t have to worry about where the ideas will come from. Somehow I know that they are there.


What projects are you currently working on?

I am working on a symphony with a metaphysical theme. Doesn’t that sound mysterious? I have also written a play which I might use for an opera libretto. Both are totally impractical, I know. People have suggested that I try writing something shorter, but that isn’t where the motivation comes from.






Too difficult – today it’s Delta Blues; tomorrow it might be long classical symphonies.



Andres Segovia – I saw him at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, when he was very old. He wouldn’t stop doing encores and the audience backed out whilst doing standing ovations.

Jack Bruce (bass guitarist formerly with ‘Cream’) – He is a jazz bassist who likes Bach. I put bass runs, like his, in all my music. The cellist who played for me in ‘Ivanhoe’ thought she had been in a rock concert.



John Tomlinson as Wotan. What an inspiration Barenboim had, to stretch a proper bass voice up to baritone. Awesome!



The Manhattan String Quartet doing Shostakovich – is that a sensible answer?



Maybe the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. They were great in Der Ring at Birmingham. The singers didn’t stand a chance, apart from Hilde Behrens, and Tomlinson of course!

It was indeed a memorable series of concerts. I recognized many of the local psychiatrists in the audience.



Symphony Hall, Birmingham