The classical star inspired by astrology

Interview: Debbie Wiseman


There are few people in the UK who have done as much to make classical music popular as Debbie Wiseman. As the composer of more than 200 scores for films and television, her music has been enjoyed by millions. Currently composer-in-residence at Classic FM, she shared the composition of her latest album, The Musical Zodiac, on a regular vlog, and it leapt straight to number two on the classical music chart when it was released last week.

You may not realise it, but you will definitely be familiar with Wiseman's work. She composed the music for Wolf Hall, for the Andrew Marr Show, for a show called Lesbian Vampire Killers. She loves film and television projects because they are collaborative, lasting and often lend themselves to the melodic, symphonic sound that she most enjoys creating. They also involve writing to a narrative, something which has become so intrinsic to her that, when Classic FM suggested an album based on the zodiac, she wrote stories for each star-sign.

"There was great freedom. It was very liberating to suddenly be writing music that is to be listened to as just music, on its own.

"I went back to Greek mythology, and the personality traits associated with the zodiac and I made stories to accompany the signs.

"For example, Virgos tend to be perfectionists. So the story I came up with was about an old woman making a dress. It's winter and it's war time and she just can't get it right. Every time she makes a mistake she throws it away. But, at the end of the story, it is spring, the war is over and the dress fits perfectly.

"This idea and story comes through in the music. You hear a methodical, repetitive theme."

I can't resist asking about my own star sign, Libra. Wiseman says: "Libras can be quite contradictory characters. They can be quite calm, but also argumentative.

"The story I came up with for Libra was of two landowners fighting over a piece of land.

"In the music you hear quite a bombastic, spiky character to depict that. In the end, the landowners get their comeuppance and you hear that in the music."

Wiseman, who also conducted the recording performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, says that, before she started the album, she was not someone who read her stars.

"I was always fascinated with it but I didn't really understand it.

"I suddenly became so interested and what was great musically was there was so much to inspire."

She's a Taurus, and the story she created for her star sign is about an angry bull, tamed by a young girl.

Wiseman was helped in the project by Jewish astrologer Jonathan Cainer, whose column in the Daily Mail ceased when he died in May. "Jonathan came along to the recording session for the album.

"He was a Sagittarius, and as he turned up to the studio we happened to be recording his star sign.

"It was strange. He walked in at exactly the right moment and it was great that he got to do that.

"It is an added bonus for the album to get his insight."

Cainer made a personalised astrology chart for her.

"He came so very close to things that were just on the money, right down to specific personality traits and things that have happened over the course of my life. It was very detailed and went on for pages, it wasn't like a horoscope where you think, 'Oh yeah, that is like me,' it was precise."

Of all the compositions Wiseman has written, she says it is this album that has generated the most conversation.

"People want to know what their star-sign sounds like, they want to talk about it, and they say: 'Yes that sounds like me,' or, 'I don't sound like that.'

"They get to hear a bit of their personality in the music and it relates to them and that is a very special feeling."

It is clear that Wiseman is the opposite of the elitist stereotype that sometimes puts people off classical music. She doesn't like to put music into genres: "Good music is good music. It doesn't matter if it's jazz or pop or classical - and it might be all of those things."

Film music, she notes, is often a child's first experience of a symphony orchestra.

"People who wouldn't go to a classical concert, listen to a film score and they're hearing a symphony orchestra playing a classical score."

Wiseman, 53, grew up in Belsize Park and went to Henrietta Barnett School. She trained at the Trinity College of Music and then the Guildhall School of Music And Drama and has been composing ever since. She was awarded an MBE in 2004 for her services to film.

She's not very religious, she says, and although she and her husband belong to a synagogue she has to think hard to remember which one.

On the other hand, when she was asked to compose music for the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, it was, "so completely natural. Because the theme was Jewish history, the music just came from my heart."

She says she is driven by what she calls her "Jewish work ethic - I have done an immense amount of work but I enjoy what I do so much, it doesn't feel like work. It is more like strenuous play.

"For my parents, it was more of a task to get me to stop practising the piano, than not to do it in the first place." And she welcomes the fact that there are more women conductors and composers getting a chance in the industry.

So, what music does Wiseman listen to when she's not composing? Very little, apparently. In fact, if there's one thing she can't stand it is music - or worse, muzak - in restaurants, shops or hotels: "It makes me want to scream!

"It's just too distracting. If I'm writing - and I usually am writing - then it interferes with my concentration.

"I usually try and go to places where there is no music. My husband and I have a list of restaurants and hotels which are completely quiet..."

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