Judith Weir was born on 11 May 1954 in Cambridge, England, to Scottish parents: her father was a psychiatrist, her mother a teacher – and both were serious amateur musicians.
She became an oboe player, performing with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. “When I was a teenager I had a few lessons with John Tavener, who lived down the road,” she says, “and then in 1975 I had a piece played at a youth orchestras festival in Aberdeen. One of the jurors was Aaron Copland, and he suggested I go to Tanglewood.”
Her visit to the famous summer music school in New England was a life-changing experience, but years of confused struggle would follow before Weir found her own compositional voice.
“It was the tail end of the modernist period, which in a way I found very inspiring. It was wonderful to hear Boulez conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and new pieces by Birtwistle. But I was trying to do something completely different, which didn’t feel like ‘proper’ music, and I just felt completely incompetent compared with these great figures.”
The result was King Harald’s Saga (1979), a witty account of the Norwegian invasion of Britain in 1066. “That’s the real me, I think, because of the way it refers to the history of opera and compresses something big into a small frame.”
In the year of its première, Weir moved to Glasgow – “around the edges of the university music department” – where she encountered Scottish folk music and legends.
“Despite my Scottish ancestry, until then I had thought of the bagpipes as just a loud instrument. But I shared a house with someone who played in a folk group and learned a bit about the pìobaireachd starts with a tune and then, in a very systematic way, variations are built up so the piece becomes more florid and ornate. It’s almost like you can compare it to baroque with its sense of ornamentation, to tradition, which is this amazing classical variation. It always 19th-century music with its variation and possibly even to 20th-century processed music.”
In Glasgow, Weir remembers that apart from Scottish Opera and the BBC orchestras, the serious music scene had a strong do-it-yourself ethos: “maybe not always of the greatest standard, but lots of opportunities to get work performed in a supportive, yet critical, community”. Her opera The Vanishing Bridegroom was commissioned by the Glasgow District Council and premièred by Scottish Opera as a part of the 1990 European Capital of Culture celebrations in the city.
She is the recipient of honorary doctorates from the Universities of Aberdeen (1995) and Glasgow (2005), Queen’s University, Belfast (2001) and King’s College, London (2007). She was appointed a CBE in 1995.
Currently resident in London, she was the Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival from 1995 to 2000. In 2007, Weir was the third recipient of The Queen’s Medal for Music.
Her music often draws on sources from medieval history, as well as the traditional stories and music of her native Scotland.
She is best known for her operas and theatrical works, although she has also achieved international recognition for her orchestral and chamber works.