In the 1980s I was lucky enough to have several pieces performed by the BBC Northern Singers, under the charismatic and inspirational direction of Stephen Wilkinson (1919-2021). The Spacious Firmament was commissioned by the BBC Northern Singers to celebrate his seventieth birthday in 1989, alongside new pieces by Elizabeth Maconchy, Michael Ball, Stephen Dodgson, David Gow, John Joubert and John McCabe. I remember that we composers hid in the audience at a recording session in a BBC studio in Manchester, keeping our heads down until the surprise presentation of our manuscripts to Stephen – and then all seven pieces were programmed and broadcast in their next concert! It was an honour for me to be alongside these composers who were amongst the most significant of their generation.
The BBC Northern Singers’ administrators had made suggestions to us as to the kind of poems we might choose, particularly focusing on the fact that though not a conventional Christian, Stephen did believe in some kind of ‘guiding spirit’ and we thought that Joseph Addison’s great poem, which speaks of a ‘divine, almighty hand that made us’, without being specific as to its nature, would be appropriate. (Although the poem is today sung as a hymn, Addison (1671-1719) didn’t write it as such). And writing for such a skilful ensemble gave me the opportunity to create a wide range of textures and harmonies.
Its opening lines –
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heav’ns, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim
– suggested to me an all-encompassing picture of sky, land and sea. Within a largely ‘white-note’ texture, I aimed to reflect this by splitting the text up and sharing it between the eight voice-parts, using the interval of a seventh for the first two lines, and thirds and fifths for the next two: the chords outlined here becoming the musical material for the rest of the piece and finally, at the very end, being presented as simple major triads. Elsewhere, too, the colours and visions in the poem encouraged much word-painting:
as the evening shades prevail…
the stars that round her burn….
In solemn silence all move around…
forever singing as they shine….
More recently, the music was published by OUP, and it was taken up by Selwyn College Chapel Choir (director Sarah MacDonald) and Gary Cole of Regent Records, as part of a CD entitled The Eternal Ecstasy – Music of Visionary Transcendence, which places my piece alongside a later generation of composers. I quote here from the sleeve-note of the CD:
Over the last fifty years a new style of choral writing has emerged from the US which has captured the imagination of church- and concert-goers…. This style can be summarised as timeless, spacious, and rapturous, with an innate depth of visionary and transcendental spirituality. These features have led to the simple, but apposite, description of the ‘Ecstatic Style’, and this CD explores its development from its beginnings in 1940s America to the present day, with representative works from major US composers Randall Thompson, Morten Lauridsen, and Eric Whitacre to established British composers, John Tavener, Paul Mealor, Cecilia McDowall, Alan Bullard, and James MacMillan, together with an early British example of the style in William Harris’ sublime double-choir anthem, Bring us, O Lord God. The recording also includes a substantial number of works by younger British composers, Iain Quinn, David Bednall, John Duggan, and Phillip Cooke.
The CD, The Eternal Ecstasy, is available from Regent Records here, (it is also on Spotify and other streaming platforms), and the score of The Spacious Firmament is obtainable here. And you can listen and follow the music on YouTube here.