John Mcleod

Classical composer John Mcleod is celebrating his 80th birthday with the London premiere of The Sun Dances at the BBC Proms. We quizzed him about his career and music ahead of the performance…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 31 Jul 2014
  • min read
Composer John McLeod has been one of the most dominant forces in contemporary classical music over recent years.

Much loved for his colourful orchestral work, this year sees John celebrating his 80th birthday with the London debut of The Sun Dances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms on 3 August.

International soloist Murray McLachlan will also help John blow candles off his birthday cake by performing his new Piano Sonata No.5 in more than 20 concerts all over the UK and Europe.

Add to this new commissions with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and it shows John is showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to his music. We caught up with the critically acclaimed composer to get the low down on his career and what the future holds…

How did you get into music?

I studied music at school, then went into national service, joined the RAF and discovered the RAF’s School of Music. I went there to learn the clarinet and all aspects of music. Once I finished at the RAF I was ready to go to the Royal Academy of Music to start studying formally.

Were you always drawn to classical sounds?

My whole family was connected with popular music so I was the odd one out. That’s just how it happened. I was exposed to a lot of recitals and symphony concerts. I was always enthusiastic about orchestral and chamber music as well as being attracted to contemporary classical music.

When did you begin composing?

When I was 18/19 - I never took myself seriously at that stage. This is why I went off in different directions halfway through my studies at the Royal Academy. I put some songs in for a prize and won it - that was encouraging. After that, I managed to get lessons from a very fine composer - Lennox Berkeley. I studied with him for the rest of my time at the academy. I’ve been composing ever since.

Does the compositional process get easier the more you work at it?

It shouldn’t. If it does, then maybe something is not quite right. Every single work is a reinvention of yourself. If you want to keep up to date, you can’t compose in the same style all the time. You need to keep striving for new ideas to keep you and your music fresh.

Have new technologies made composing easier?

Much easier - although it’s still difficult to find the right notes to express yourself. That’s why I still use paper and pencil to begin the process – to give me more time to think ideas out! Then, transferring it to Sibelius or some other soft ware system, you have the score and parts right away.

What projects have been keeping you busy?

I’ve just written Piano Sonata No.5. which Murray McLachlan is going to perform about 25 times round the world. He’s a great pianist and supporter of my music. I’ve also just finished a new score for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. They’re giving three performances of a new piece called Out of the Silence.

What was the thinking behind The Sun Dances?

It takes its beginnings in a Scottish legend where an old woman climbs a mountain on Easter day and sees the sun dancing. I suppose she has this tremendous vision as she sees the sun dancing and changing colour. Much of my music is all about colour!

Who will be performing?

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be. They’ve played over a dozen of my works in the past and it’s a really wonderful orchestra! You get a terrific atmosphere at the Proms and the audience is used to, and loves, contemporary classical works.

How is the health of classical music from your perspective?

There are more new composers coming though than ever before and there are some very fine young Scottish composers emerging too. I just wish orchestral managements would be prepared to take more new music into their programmes as there is a much bigger audience for it now than ever before.

What have been the highlights of your compositional career?

I think most of my best work is for orchestra. I’ve written three symphonic song-cycles for which are among the works I feel more satisfied with than others. One of them won the Guinness Prize which gave my career a kick start. I’ve written a lot of vocal, piano, chamber and instrumental music but the orchestra is my big interest.

Have you any advice for new and emerging composers?

You can do all sorts of things now with the internet so you need to be more entrepreneurial and be willing to get your music out there yourself. Mozart, Beethoven, Britten and many other famous composers were not afraid to go out and sell themselves! You need to be much more proactive and do it in an interesting way. My advice would also be don’t accept rejection if you can help it. You’ve got to deal with that all the time. Be persistent, believe in yourself and don’t be afraid.

Visit for more information on John and his music.