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John Casken
© Sarah Jamieson

John Casken

Country of origin: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Birthday: July 15, 1949

Upcoming Performances

Uncertain Sea
Conductor: Peter Broadbent
May 4, 2024 | Wooler (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , St Mary's Church
Three Choral Pieces
Conductor: Peter Broadbent
May 5, 2024 | Alnwick (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , St Paul's Church

About John Casken

John Casken’s music has been described as “beautifully crafted...rich [and] emotionally complex” (Tim Ashley, The Guardian, writing about Apollinaire’s Bird). David Fanning, writing in The Telegraph about this work found that “The control with which Casken allows tonally-founded harmonies to rise, Alban Berg-like, to the surface, is as remarkable as the fastidiousness of his orchestration, all of which serves to hold concept and craft in ideal balance.”

One of the UK’s leading composers, Casken was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, on 15 July 1949 and read music at the University of Birmingham, studying Composition under John Joubert and Peter Dickinson. From 1971-72 he studied in Poland with Andrzej Dobrowolski at the Academy of Music in Warsaw on a Polish Government Scholarship. It was during this time that he began to have regular consultations with Witold Lutosławski with whom he formed a close association and friendship, and about whose music he has written and lectured. Casken returned to Birmingham as a Lecturer in 1973, and after a Fellowship at Huddersfield Polytechnic in 1980, he was appointed as Lecturer at the University of Durham in 1981. From 1992-2008 he was Professor of Music at The University of Manchester and now retains strong links with Manchester as Emeritus Professor of Music.

Casken has featured at major festivals in Europe, the USA, and in Tokyo at the invitation of Toru Takemitsu. His works range across every genre and their titles reveal that he can be inspired both by literature and legend. The libretto for Casken’s first opera, Golem (1988), based on the Jewish legend, was written by the composer in collaboration with Pierre Audi, who commissioned and directed the work for the 1989 Almeida Festival. Golem has received six further productions since 1989: Opera Omaha, 1990; Northern Stage, 1991; Theater Dortmund, 1994; Aspen Festival, 2000; Neue Operbühne Berlin 2001; Opéra de Rennes and Angers Nantes Opéra, 2006. It was also awarded the First Britten Prize for Composition in 1990 and the VirginClassics recording with the original cast won the 1991 Gramophone Award in the Contemporary Category.

Casken’s second opera, God’s Liar (2000), elaborated Tolstoy’s novella Father Sergius, the composer writing the libretto in collaboration with Emma Warner. The work was jointly co-commissioned and presented by The Almeida Festival, London, and Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels in 2001, directed by KeithWarner, with the Almeida Ensemble conducted by Ronald Zollman. It was recorded for Belgian Radio and subsequently broadcast by BBC Radio 3, introduced by the composer. God’s Liar received a further production in 2004 in the KlangBogen Festival by Neue Oper Wien directed by Stephan Bruckmeier.

A number of Casken’s works reflect aspects of the North of England, where he lives in Coquetdale in Northumberland: Orion Over Farne (1984) for orchestra, To Fields We Do Not Know (1985), a Northumbrian Elegy for unaccompanied chorus, written for the BBC Singers, and the orchestral song-cycle Still Mine (1992), written for Thomas Allen for the 1992 BBC Proms and awarded the 1993 Prince Pierre de Monaco Prize for Musical Composition.

His long-held friendship with Royal Northern Sinfonia has resulted in a number of works: Maharal Dreaming (1989), the Cello Concerto (1991), written for Heinrich Schiff, premièred at the 1991 Schleswig-Holstein Festival,Darting the Skiff (1993) for strings, for the 1993 Cheltenham Festival, and Après un silence (1998) for violin and chamber orchestra, with Kyra Humphreys. Farness (2006), three poems of Carol Ann Duffy (2006) for soprano, solo viola and chamber orchestra, was premièred at the 2006 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival with Patricia Rozario and Ruth Killius, directed by Thomas Zehetmair.

Casken also had a long association with The Lindsays for whom he wrote three string quartets. Rest-ringing (2005) for string quartet and orchestra was commissioned by The Hallé for the quartet in the year of their retirement. He wrote Piano Trio (2002) for The Florestan Piano Trio, and his third quartet, Choses en moi (2003), was taken up by Quatuor Danel.

Casken’s Violin Concerto (1995), premiered at the 1995 Proms with Dmitri Sitkovetsky, was later taken up by Daniel Hope. His first symphony Symphony (Broken Consort) (2004)was commissioned for the BBC Philharmonic for the 2004 Proms, and Concerto for Orchestra (2007) for the Nationaltheater-Orchesters Mannheim was premiered in 2008. Further orchestral works include an oboe concerto for the Hallé and their principle oboist Stephane Rancourt, Apollinaire’s Bird (2013), premiered under Sir Mark Elder in 2014, Casken’s 65th birthday year. That Subtle Knot (2013), a double concerto for Royal Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius, was premiered the same year at the Sage Gateshead and in London with subsequent performances by Camerata Salzburg at the Salzburg Festival, Munich Chamber Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Casken has continued his association with the Hallé Orchestra, writing Madonna of Silence (2017-18) for their principal trombone player, Katy Jones. The ‘drama for trombone and orchestra’ was premiered in February 2019.

Casken’s rich body of ensemble works include Deadly Pleasures (2009) for narrator and ensemble, which toured the UK with Johanna Lonsky and Counterpoise throughout 2009/10 and Winter Reels (2010) for ensemble Psappha. The Dream of the Rood (2008), written for The Hilliard Ensemble and Ensemble 10/10, premiered in Liverpool in October 2008 as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations. It received the 2009 BASCA Award for choral music and toured the Netherlands with The Hilliard Ensemble and Asko Ensemble in 2014. Kokoschka's Doll (2016) was premiered by Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, with the following tour including performances at Deal and Buxton Festivals. Further chamber works include Stolen Airs (2015) for cello and piano, and Serpents of Wisdom (2015) for horn and piano which was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in partnership with BBC Radio 3 as part of the New Generation Artists Scheme, and the clarinet quintet Misted Land (2017) written for the Nash Ensemble.

Most recently, Casken's Madonna of Silence (2018) received its world premiere by The Hallé featuring Katy Jones on solo trombone and From this red earth (2019) had its first performance by the Choir of Lincoln's Inn under the baton of Nicholas Shaw. In 2020, he was announced the winner of the Royal Musical Association's inaugural Tippett Medal for Counterpoise's production of The Shackled King (2022) for which he was also granted an Ivors Composer Award nomination. 

Casken’s music has been recorded on Collins Classics, ECM, NMC Recordings, and Metier, among others, including a disc of orchestral music, Orion Over Farne, recorded by the Hallé and Markus Stenz for NMC. In 2019 three new recordings of Casken’s music were released: The Dream of The Rood (NMC) with The Hilliard Ensemble and Asko | Schönberg conducted by Clark Rundell, Stolen Airs (Prima Facie) including a selection of chamber works, and Kokoschka's Doll (Champs Hill); and in 2023, ECM New Series released the Royal Northern Sinfonia's recording of That Subtle Knot.

John Casken - website



Born 15 July, Barnsley, South Yorkshire
Educated at Barnsley and District Holgate Grammar School
University of Birmingham, B.Mus., M.A., studies Composition with John Joubert and Peter Dickinson
Conducts first recognised orchestral composition Improvisations on a Theme of Piet Mondrian (unpublished), with University of Birmingham Chamber Orchestra
Polish Government Scholarship to study in Warsaw, September 1971 – December 1972
Regular classes at the Academy of Music with Andrzej Dobrowolski and consultations with Witold Lutosławski
Lecturer in Music, University of Birmingham, to December 1979
'Jadu' (unpublished) was recognised by Society for the Promotion of New Music
First BBC broadcast Music for Cello and Piano (unpublished) BBC Young Composers’ Forum
Publication of the article ‘Transition and Transformation in the Music of Witold Lutosławski’, in the journal Contact, Autumn edition 1975
Research Fellow in Musical Composition, Huddersfield Polytechnic
Featured Composer, Bath International Festival
World premiere of "Firewhirl" for soprano and small ensemble
Lecturer in Music, University of Durham
Featured Composer, Musica Nova, Glasgow
World premiere of "Orion over Farne" for orchestra
Gives the Ingolf Dahl Memorial Lecture, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, to mark the opening of the Polish Music Reference Center, on the music of Witold Lutosławski, in the presence of the composer.
World premiere of "Vaganza" for large ensemble
"Orion over Farne" and "To Fields We Do Not Know " (premiere) at the BBC Proms
Visiting Composer, University of Southern California, Santa Barbara
Featured Composer, Almeida Festival; London Featured Composer, International New Music Week, Southampton
World premiere of "Golem" chamber opera in two acts at the Almeida Theatre, London
World premiere of "Maharal Dreaming" for orchestra with the Northern Sinfonia
"Golem" wins The First Britten Prize for Musical Composition
Awarded D.Mus. by University of Durham
Composer in Association, Northern Sinfonia
CD recording of "Golem" wins Gramophone Award for Best Contemporary Recording
World premiere of "Cello Concerto" with Heinrich Schiff and the Northern Sinfonia
UK tour of "Golem" with Arts Council Contemporary Music Network Tour
Rockefeller Foundation Award to work at the Study Center, Bellagio, Italy
World premiere of"Still Mine" for baritone and orchestra at the BBC Proms
"Tableaux des Trois Ages" performed by BBC Philharmonic and Yan Pascal Tortelier: begins long association with BBC Philharmonic
Professor of Music, The University of Manchester
"Still Mine" wins Prince Pierre de Monaco Prize for Musical Composition
World premiere of "Darting the Skiff" for string orchestra
World premiere of "String Quartet No. 2" with the Lindsay String Quartet
World premiere of "Infanta Marina" for cor anglais and small ensemble with the Nash Ensemble
World premiere of "Violin Concerto" for violin and orchestra at the BBC Proms with Dmitry Sitkovetsky and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducts Northern Sinfonia in premiere recordings of "Darting the Skiff" , "Maharal Dreaming", and "Vaganza" (Collins Classics, re-released on NMC in 2003)
Awarded FRNCM (Fellowship of the Royal Northern College of Music)
Invited Speaker at Lutosławski Symposium, Chopin Institute, University of Warsaw
Artistic Advisor, ‘Breaking Chains’ Festival of Lutosławski’s music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London Chairman of BBC Young Composers’ Competition, Manchester
World premiere of "God's Liar", an opera after Tolstoy with the Almeida Ensemble
‘The visionary and the dramatic in the music of Witold Lutosławski’ – chapter published in Lutosławski Studies (ed. Zbigniew Skowron, OUP)
Guest Composer, St Petersburg, conducts "Firewhirl" and "Infanta Marina" in the Maly Zal, Philharmonic Hall
Conducts "Cello Concerto" with Munich Chamber Orchestra and Heinrich Schiff
Jury Member of Sinfonia Baltica International Composer’s Competition, Riga, Latvia
World premiere of "Symphony (Broken Consort)" for orchestra with the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda
‘Casken Resonances’ a festival of Casken's music at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
World premiere of "Rest-Ringing" for string quartet and orchestra with the Lindsay String Quartet and the Hallé
Jury Member of Witold Lutosławski Composers’ Competition, Warsaw
World premiere of "Farness" (Three Poems of Carol Ann Duffy) for soprano, viola and chamber orchestra at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Jury Member of Luxembourg International Composers’ Competition
Jury Member of Aberdeen Music Prize
World premiere of "Shadowed Pieces" at The University of Manchester in a day of concerts to mark retirement as Professor of Music Emeritus Professor of Music
World premiere of "The Dream of the Rood" for vocal and chamber ensembles with the Hilliard Ensemble and Ensemble 10/10
Invited speaker at Polish Music Since 1945 Conference, Canterbury Christ Church University
Composer Director, Lake District Summer Music School for Composers, Sedbergh, with Orlando Consort
Jury Member of International Composers’ Competition, Stresa, Italy
Featured Composer, The International Organ Festival at St Alban’s, "Sacrificium" is the test piece for the Quarter-Finalists
Winner of the 2009 British Composer Awards (Vocal Category) for "The Dream of the Rood"
Becomes Chairman and Artistic Director of Alwinton Church Summer Concerts, Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland
Series of interviews directed and filmed by Barrie Gavin
Awarded degree of Doctor of Civil Law (honoris causa) by University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Awarded degree of Doctor of Music (honoris causa) by University of Birmingham
Lecture for Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society
Composition of "Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis" for mixed choir and organ, commissioned for the Evensong and Thanksgiving in Durham Cathedral for the visit of the Lindisfarne Gospel Book to the Durham World Heritage Site.
World premiere of "That Subtle Knot" - double concerto for violin, viola and orchestra with Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Ruth Killius, viola and the Royal Northern Sinfonia
World premiere of "Apollinaire's Bird" for oboe and orchestra with Stéphane Rancourt, oboe and the Hallé conducted by Mark Elder
"Apollinaire's Bird" shortlisted for the 2014 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards and BASCA Awards
World premiere of "Stolen Airs" for cello and piano with Philip Higham and Alasdair Beatson
World premiere of "Lines from a Wanderer" for baritone and piano for Marcus Farnsworth
World premiere of "Kokoschka's Doll", a melodrama for bass baritone and ensemble for John Tomlinson, at the Cheltenham Music Festival with further performances at the Deal Festival and Buxton Festival

World premiere of "Misted Land" by the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall


World premiere of "From this red earth" by the Choir of Lincoln's Inn


World premiere of "Madonna of Silence" by The Hallé and Katy Jones


NCM album release of John Casken: The Dream of the Rood featuring The Hilliard Ensemble and Asko | Schönberg Ensemble


Royal Musical Association awards Tippett Medal for "The Shackled King*


"Shackled King" receives Ivors Composer Award nomation


ECM New Series album release of the Royal Northern Sinfonia's recording of "That Subtle Knot"



Set Descending Direction
  • Uncertain Sea
    Conductor: Peter Broadbent
    May 4, 2024 | Wooler (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , St Mary's Church
  • Three Choral Pieces
    Conductor: Peter Broadbent
    May 5, 2024 | Alnwick (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , St Paul's Church
    Performance of Sunrising only
  • Uncertain Sea
    Conductor: Peter Broadbent
    May 5, 2024 | Alnwick (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , St Paul's Church
  • Set Descending Direction