Last week’s Piece of the Week lasted 4 minutes – so as if to compensate, this week’s piece lasts 50 minutes!
I wrote Dance of the Universe during 1979 – it was my first big choral and orchestral piece and I shall always be indebted to Ian Ray and Colchester Choral Society for commissioning it from me. A few years earlier, as a young man in my twenties, I had arrived in Colchester to take up a teaching post at Colchester Institute, and naturally I got to know the local choral society and their conductor Ian Ray, who was a colleague there. I was a pretty unknown composer and he took a great leap of faith in asking me to write it, and it became one of many collaborations between us – in fact I’m writing a new piece for Colchester Choral Society at the moment!
At the time I was living on my own in a cottage in a village just outside Colchester, and for a piece like this I had to establish a good routine for writing, so that I could fit it in around my day job – this meant early mornings or evenings. I settled for early mornings – and so as not to disturb my neighbours too much, I got into a routine of getting to work an hour or so early and settling myself in a practice room to compose until the teaching day started. So whenever I hear this piece I always think of early mornings! I think it took me getting on for a year of this, full score as well as vocal score, and I remember that I paid one of my students to copy out the instrumental parts in those pre-computer days.
For all choral composers, finding suitable texts is often one of the most challenging aspects of the job. I can’t remember, now, which poetry I looked through while choosing the subject matter, but I was certainly very happy with the poem that I decided upon: ‘Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing’ by the sixteenth century poet Sir John Davies. This is in the Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, which I had recently bought, and the poem is massive – 131 verses of 7 lines each. It is presented as a dialogue with the Goddess Penelope (Ulysses’ queen) and to quote Davies: ‘judicially proving the true observation of Time and Measure, in the authentic and laudable use of Dancing’.
Even for a 50 minute piece, this poem was far too long, and I cut the 131 verses down to 25, and arranged these into three sections, each with a specific focus. In the first section I chose poetry that describes the heaven and the earth, and in the second, the sun, moon, and air. For the final section I chose verses which describe how the dancing rhythms of these elements are applicable to every living being.
Settling down to work, I remember that I began, not at the beginning of the piece, but with the setting of the words ‘Dancing, bright lady’ in five-four time, which occurs several times during the work. I also remember how much I relished, not only writing for choir and soloist, but also the opportunity to explore the range of colour available from the orchestra.
A friend said to me after that first performance that ‘it sounded like a massive galliard’ – and although that’s probably not true of the 5/4 sections, the characteristics of that Elizabethan dance, together with its soul-mate the pavane, certainly found their way in, though I don’t remember deliberately doing that at the time. Not having listened to it for a few years, I’ve enjoyed re-visiting it. It is quite long, and possibly I might have been a bit more ruthless with the cutting if I was writing it today, but I do admire the energy I brought to writing all those notes before starting my day’s work!
And here’s a picture of the last page of the full score: