British classical composer Libby Croad, whose enchanting Suite for String Orchestra features in our November concert with the London Mozart Players, chats to choir member Emma Gregg.

As well as composing and arranging music, I’m a professional violinist. I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in the early 2000s, then became a performer. I can’t imagine being in an ivory tower, just writing. Every time I perform, something new inspires me. I love it when string players say they can really tell I play the violin, because my phrases feel light under the fingers. They have a flow. This perhaps wouldn’t come as naturally if, like some composers, I was primarily a pianist.

The insider knowledge I’ve gained through performing live really helps. I always do my best to take practical realities into account. I want to produce pieces that sound full and rich, even when played by musicians with limited time to rehearse.

I do my best writing late at night. I’ll start with a little nugget of an idea and from there, it’s usually a structured process, combining work on the computer with instrumental improvisation. Sometimes, it’s almost as if I black out: come 3am, hours later, I’ll realise I’ve created all this new music without quite knowing how I’ve got there. I also love workshopping with performers. When I’m writing a solo, it’s great to have someone play it, to feel it. I don’t like to change what I’ve written, but on the other hand, it’s good not to have too much ego, so I listen to their feedback.

I’ve been told my music sounds very English. Perhaps because I adored Vaughan Williams when I was growing up! I was obsessed with his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and his Partita for Double String Orchestra became a big influence. I love writing in modal harmonies.

To my delight, I’ve had a lovely response to my Suite for String Orchestra in the United States. Because it’s challenging but approachable, it’s student-friendly. It’s recently been played by young people from the Big Sky High School Orchestra in Montana and at schools and universities in New York, Washington and Texas.

I like to ask myself: what is modern music? How do you define it? Does it have to follow a certain form? I think it’s crucial to be true to yourself. I’m fascinated by melody, and as well as composing for strings and (more recently) brass, I love writing for choirs: that’s my happy place. The BBC Singers and Gareth Wilson of Girton College Choir have been very supportive of my work. John Rutter, who I met last Christmas, is one of my absolute idols. I grew up singing his carols, and I love how he writes.

I like to express my feelings through music. It’s food for the soul. I hope that when the audience hears my Suite for String Orchestra, they will be moved. The most emotional section is the cello solo. I composed it with a cellist friend in mind. She has always longed to play more solos, but compared to the violin, solos for cello are quite rare. People may perhaps hear sadness and loss in it, or even unrequited love. Beauty as well! I’d like everyone who hears it to choose their own interpretation, and make it their own.

Suite for String Orchestra by Libby Croad will be performed by the London Mozart Players at their concert with the Brighton Festival Chorus at All Saints, Hove, on Saturday 25 November 2023 at 7.30pm. The programme includes Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and, in addition to Libby, works by four other women composers from different nationalities: Clara Schumann, Kerensa Briggs, Natalia Tsupryk and Mia Makaroff.

Text by Emma Gregg. Photo by Alexander Barnes.