Who is Nigel Hess?

Nigel Hess is a Somerset-born composer, known primarily for his television, theatre and film work. Among his credits is the score for the 2004 film Ladies in Lavender - starring Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith. He also wrote the music for TV productions such as Just William and Vanity Fair, as well as many scores for Royal Shakespeare Company productions.

Nigel is also one of the 12 composers commissioned to write a piece of music for the Coronation of King Charles. We'll take a look at what music Nigel has composed below.

How old is Nigel Hess?

He was born in Weston-super-Mare on 22 July 1953.

What is his musical background?

The great nephew of the pianist Myra Hess, he always had a special affinity with music, and started picking out his own tunes on the piano as a small child. With the encouragement of an enthusiastic music teacher at school (‘the sort of chap who thought nothing of involving the entire school in an epic performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde’, as he told The Cross-Eyed Pianist), Hess eventually applied, and was accepted, to study Music at Cambridge University, where he was musical director of the Cambridge Footlights.

How would you describe his musical style?

An advocate for 'good tunes', who insists that writing music in an effortlessly communicative style is hard work, Hess describes his own music as melodic and tonal. Some works have touches of Rachmaninov or Bruch, while others deal in certain kinds of musical tropes (check out the accordion-drenched sound world of ‘Maigret’s Paris’). But whatever the unique flavour of each commission, it generally hits the emotional bullseye.

Has Nigel Hess written concert works too?

Yes, particularly for symphonic wind band, including commissions from the Royal Air Force Music Services and the Band of the Coldstream Guards. He has also already written significant works at the request of King Charles.

What has Nigel Hess written for King Charles?

In 2007 he was commissioned by the Prince of Wales to write a Piano Concerto in memory of his grandmother, the Queen Mother, and the result was premiered by Lang Lang.

'I got to know him quite well at the time because I said to him "I’d very much like you to be involved in how this piece evolves rather than you just turning up at some occasion having no idea what it would be like,"' recalls Hess. 'So I ended up going down to Highgrove and playing him ideas on the piano down there.'

Hess also wrote a ballet the same year based on ‘The Old Man of Lochnagar', a children’s story written by the Prince of Wales for his brothers in 1980, which was premiered by the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain at Sadler’s Wells.

According to Hess, '[the King} is lovely to work with. He’s very down to earth and he’s very knowledgable about music, which I think bodes well for the next few years of the arts. He's been very hands on with [the musical decisions for the coronation]. It has very much come from him. He hasn’t consulted any committees.'

What is Nigel Hess composing for the Coronation?

As part of the pre-Coronation service, three composers - Nigel, Roderick Williams and Shirley J Thompson - have each written contemporary musical responses to the much-loved Irish hymn Be Thou my Vision', one of His Majesty's favourite hymns. Here's a different version of 'Be Thou my Vision':

For ‘Be Thou my Vision - Triptych for Orchestra’, hess, Williams and Thompson have each created their own orchestral interpretation of the hymn, and woven them together into a single work.

'It's played as a through piece but of course the three of us have different styles so we had to check with each other that the keys and everything would interlock musically,' Nigel tells us. 'And it's going to be performed by a 40-piece orchestra situated in the organ loft, so it will be quite cosy up there.'

What is the musical style of his Coronation piece?

According to Hess, the brief from the king was to make it memorable, stirring and tuneful. '[King Charles] is known for liking very harmonic and accessible music,' he says, 'I think that’s one of the reasons why a few of the composers he has chosen have been media composers because we’re used to writing in a certain style and for whatever occasion it is. And having worked with him in the past I’ve had a heads up about what he likes.'

How does he feel about being asked to write music for the coronation?

'Once you’ve gotten over the initial euphoria of being asked to contribute to what’s going to be an extraordinary day you’ve got to put that to one side and treat it like any other composing job,' says Hess, 'because if you thought about how many people are going to listen to it and the sort of occasion it’s going to be played at there’s a danger you could freeze.

'You just have to remind yourself that one of the reasons you’ve been asked to do this is because of what you’ve done in the past, so don’t try and make it any different. Just do what you do.'


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.