Piece of the Week – Dance of the Universe

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!

You can find all the words here
And you can listen to it here
And the vocal score is available on sale here

And here’s a picture of the last page of the full score:

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