Bill Hopkins was born in Prestbury, England, on 5 June 1943. He composed only nine mature
works, few of which were performed during his lifetime. As a result, when he died in 1981 at the age of 37 – the world was barely aware of the artist it had lost. As performances of his music increased in number during the 1990s and were greeted with critical acclaim, his music became better known and he is now considered one of the finest composers Britain has produced in recent years.
His music places itself firmly in the post-Darmstadt tradition: his magnum opus, the Etudes en série (1965-72), is an obvious successor to the major serial piano works of Boulez, Stockhausen and Barraqué, both in scale and accomplishment. At the same time, his music has many characteristics which give it a unique tone, placing it at some distance from these composers: it displays a rare formal and poetic subtlety allied to an elusiveness and ambivalence which is intentional and disturbing.
Hopkins began composing during his teens, his other main interests being languages and literature, and by the time he left school in 1961 he had already composed several serial works. His formal education as a composer started with Nono at Dartington in the summer of 1961, followed by composition lessons with Wellesz and Rubbra at Oxford University from October 1961 onwards (he also revisited Nono at Dartington in the summer of 1962). The music he wrote at Oxford was of a clearly post-Webernian cast, betraying an interest in fine-spun counterpoint rather than in textural effects. After graduation he started composing Sous-structures (for solo piano), his earliest acknowledged work. It demonstrates a remarkable leap forward relative to his student pieces – it is considerably denser in texture, and more complex formally, displaying a new level of originality.
It was during his time at university that he became aware of the music of Jean Barraqué. When he travelled to Paris in September 1964 to study with Messiaen (on a French government scholarship), he took with him an ambition to meet both Barraqué and Samuel Beckett, his other chief influence. During that academic year he was initially a member of Messiaen’s class as planned, but subsequently withdrew from it, taking private lessons with Barraqué from January to May 1965. While in Paris he completed Sous-structures, then went on to compose Musique de l’indifférence (for orchestra), as well as Two Pomes and Sensation (both for soprano and mixed quartet). The orchestral work, his only original piece for the medium, is a substantial five-movement ballet on Beckett’s poem of the same name. While it has echoes of Nono’s orchestral music from the 1950s it undoubtedly displays Hopkins’ own powerful imagination, both in its contrapuntal flair and its orchestrational boldness. Sensation sets poems of Rimbaud and Beckett, in an attempt to form a 'composite poet'. Its wide-ranging counterpoint is an excellent example of Hopkins’ variety and flexibility of gesture, rhythm and line. With a vocal part of considerable virtuosity (and a natural grasp of idiomatic French setting), Sensation could almost be seen as a mini-opera: René Leibowitz acclaimed it as the finest setting of French by a young composer he had ever come across. The Two Pomes (Joyce), written during a single night, and in some ways a study for Sensation, has its own evocative delicacy – little wonder that it was for a long time Hopkins’ only piece published complete (by Universal Edition), and his most frequently performed.
Towards the end of his stay in Paris he began to work on the cycle of nine Etudes en série which represents his largest and most important work. Having decided to write such a cycle in December 1964 he waited six months before beginning work in earnest in May 1965, by which time his studies with Barraqué had ended. He had also just met, and gained much encouragement from, the philosopher and musicologist Heinz-Klaus Metzger. On returning to England in the summer, Hopkins worked in London as a music critic before moving to Tintagel in Cornwall, then the Isle of Man, where he concentrated on composing (primarily the Etudes en série), while earning his living writing articles and translating from French and German. Although the first book of the Etudes en série (nos. I-IV) had been played in 1968 and published the following year, the cycle was not finally completed until 1972 (meanwhile he had also written a related solo violin piece, Pendant, in 1968-9); the Etudes en série then had to wait until 1997 to be premiered by Nicolas Hodges, and until 2001 for complete publication. After finishing the Etudes in the early 1970s, Hopkins completed only two further original works. The Nouvelle étude hors série (1974) for organ is made up of rearranged fragments of discarded pieces from the Etudes en série project. Its counterpoint hangs together in a fragile juxtaposition, barely daring to impose a coherence on itself. His last work, En attendant (1976-7) for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord shares this fragility of form: its explicit subject is the attempt and failure of the four instrumental 'characters' to build a coherent continuity. The piece does nevertheless achieve coherence, pulling together a wide range of materials in a remarkable and quirky way. These two are perhaps his strangest achievements.
During the same period he was working on several major projects which had been conceived in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but which remained incomplete at the time of his death. The surviving sketches for these works include a substantial quantity of writings around the philosophy and aesthetics of music which indicate with some clarity the direction in which his work was leading, and at which his last two completed works also hint.
From 1977 Hopkins was a lecturer at Birmingham University, moving to Newcastle University in 1979. He died of a heart attack on 10 March 1981 in Chopwell, near Newcastle.
"hauntingly beautiful" Stephen Pettitt, The Times
"one feels the confidence and passion with which every note in the piece is placed ... an almost palpable physicality of gesture" Calum Macdonald, Tempo (on Sous-structures)
"passionate, florid expression, ... most striking" Hilary Finch, The Times
"an indisputably powerful structure ... thrilling cerebrality, wild ambition and fanatical detail" Paul Driver, Sunday Times (on Etudes en série)
"wondrously beautiful: ... a masterpiece" Paul Griffiths, The Times (on Pendant)
"lucid, lively, poetic and precisely judged" Calum Macdonald, Listener
"an entirely individual reworking of the Darmstadt tradition ... the Bill Hopkinses of this world still need to be heard" Nicholas Kenyon, The Observer (on En attendant)
"unequalled in its powerful thought and subtlety" Paul Griffiths, The Times