HE grew up in Drumchapel, the son of a railway guard and a book-keeper who were into folk music, and has gone on to become one of Scotland’s leading modern composers and professor of music at the University of Glasgow.

William Sweeney is an inspiration to other Scottish musicians and walking evidence that the appreciation of great music is not confined to a certain class of people.

Indeed he is something of a champion for classical contemporary music in Scotland and, at a debate on the future of Scottish music after indyref, dealt ably with a denigrating comment from the then Labour MP for Glasgow North West, John Robertson.

“I grew up in a red sandstone tenement in Anniesland,” said Robertson, “so you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t listen to opera.”

Sweeney, who was chairing the panel, coolly responded: “Well, I grew up in a pebbledash tenement in Drumchapel and not only do I listen to opera, I even write the stuff.”

His talent is not confined to opera, however.

His output ranges from concert works to music for theatre, dance, movement, film and television, and his two main inspirations are traditional Gaelic music and jazz.


THERE is a chance to hear Sweeney’s latest work on December 9 in the Scottish Inspirations series performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

In his first composition for clarinet and orchestra, Sweeney takes the piobaireachd, a traditional musical form associated with the bagpipes, and adapts it for the BBC SSO’s Principal Clarinet, Yann Ghiro.

The title of the piece, Eòlas nan Ribheid, was suggested by his friend and artistic collaborator, the Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail, and might be translated as “The Wisdom of the Reeds”.

Explained Sweeney: “The piece could be thought of as a dream in which one of the great piobaireachd players meets the jazz player Johnny Hodges in some ante-room of the afterlife and they trade solos and improvisations interwoven with their memories but the dreamer/composer has also supplied items from his own back-catalogue of phrases from Weber, Brahms and from his own imagination.

“I have tried to weave together a dialogue of contrasting playing styles: amongst others, the incisive directness of piobaireachd, Weber’s ‘clarinet-as-romantic-hero’ and Hodges’ oblique and heartfelt expressive mastery.”


BORN in Glasgow in 1950, Sweeney was educated at Knightswood Secondary School, where he had an inspirational music teacher called Bob Reid.

Finding that music moved him, Sweeney decided he wanted to be able to share that with others.

“It was back in the era of trad jazz and I had the opportunity to learn clarinet in school. Reid was a terrific musician and gave me confidence and support.

“He would put on school shows like West Side Story and he would orchestrate for what he had in school. If he had a really good oboe player then he would write a big part for him or her, so I learned that music was not just something that was put in front of you to play but something you could do. I listened to a lot of jazz at the time, and that encouraged me to inventiveness and pushed me towards more modernist things.”

After school he went on to the RSMAD, and says he was lucky to grow up at a time when school children could borrow instruments for free and go on to higher education without worrying about loans and fees.


AT the time the RSAMD was all about the avant garde, which Sweeney pursued to begin with, but he then tried to weave in some of his folk influences.

“I tried to reconcile that and bring it all together. At the time, however, there was a certain image of what modern music should be, and the direction I struck out in was not really part of that mainstream so I did get a bit dissatisfied with the avant garde.

“I wasn’t a lone pioneer though. Eddie McGuire was doing the same kind of thing and Erik Chisholm had been doing it too, only you didn’t hear about people like that in school or college.

“I tell students now to pursue things in their own voice and try out different styles – don’t have to stick to any one of them. It is about what you can create for yourself.”

After the RSMAD, Sweeney went on to the Royal Academy of Music in London where was strongly influenced by Alan Hacker, a pioneer of modern technique in clarinet.


OVER the years since then, Sweeney has explored a variety of genres and written for organisations as diverse as Cappella Nova, Mayfest, the STUC, Glasgow University, RSAMD, and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. He first started working with MacNeacail in the 1980s when he was asked by Cappella Nova to write a piece influenced by the Gaelic psalms.

“I wanted to do it but I’m not at all religious and so asked them if they could find some money to commission a poem. They did, and I approached Aonghas, who wrote the Psalm of the Land in perfect psalm metre, and I set that to music. That was quite a turning point, and possibly the first time the Gaelic psalms have been presented in concert music.”

It was the start of a whole number of collaborations including the first full-length opera in Gaelic, An Turus (The Journey), which was very well received.


SWEENEY also wrote the incidental music for a film An Iobairt (The Sacrifice), which won the Scottish Bafta Award for Best Music in 1997 and was scripted by MacNeacail. Further collaborations have included Àirc an dualchais (Inheritance Ark), commissioned for the opening of the Museum of Scotland in November 1998.

Scottish literature often features in Sweeney’s compositions, with Sunset Song chosen for a concert in honour of the late General Secretary of the STUC, Jimmy Milne. Other works by Sweeney include a musical setting of Hugh MacDiarmid’s epic poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, which toured around Scotland in 2010.

Despite occasional gloomy predictions for the future of concert music in Scotland, Sweeney remains upbeat.

“There are big audiences for concert music in Scotland at the moment — much bigger than in my early days and the breadth of it quite healthy,” he said.

“I think generally there is a lot more confidence across all of the music scenes in Scotland now.

“It’s not just a few people in a corner in woolly jumpers. It’s much broader and I think that’s its strength.”

Scottish Inspirations is on at the Glasgow City Halls on December 9. For more information go to www.bbc.co.uk/events/ehdv2m.