god-song is a sequence of thirty-three short movements for mezzo soprano, flute (doubling piccolo & alto flute), alto trombone, cello and piano (doubling celesta). The text is taken from the York cycle of Mystery Plays.
god-song was commissioned by New McNaghten Concerts and first performed at St. John’s Smith Square, London, on 4th December 1986 by Susan Bickley (mezzo soprano), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo & alto flute), Christopher Mowat (alto trombone), Jonathan Williams (cello) and Stephen Pruslin (piano & celesta).
The text is taken from the York cycle of Mystery plays, which dates from the fifteenth century. From a total of twenty-eight plays I have selected seventy lines of verse. These come mostly from the role of God; but the “god” of god-song is meant in an archetypal sense, so the gods of pride (Lucifer) and evil (Satan) are also given their turn. Adam, the archetype of human frailty, in in the piece, as is Thomas, whose stalwart refusal to believe without hard evidence makes him not only the patron saint of science but also a sympathetic archetype for our post-Christian era.
The narrative of god-song spans – by means of an introduction, prologue and 33 short movements, the whole of time as expressed in biblical mythology. However, there are no grandiose aspirations here: rather, the span of the subject is an excuse for attempting to create maximum variety within overall unity. And since time-scale and instrumental resources are miniaturised, the effect should be intimately human, rather than monumental.
The “cosmic” plan of god-song has several points of similarity with that of my piece for voices CRY, which was first performed in 1980. Both deal with the Creation and use biblical mythology; both have a carefully organised overall structure and small-scale structures developed from simple modes or matrices. Both use series of numbers to organise some or all musical parameters. Both employ the device of summary or self-quotation: in CRY the seventh movement is a microcosm of the previous six, and in god-song the Prologue and movement 29 are summaries of the other movements.
The similarities between the two pieces, however, are probably less audible than the differences. The division of god-song into thirty-three short movements dictates a miniaturisation of the time-scale and sets up a different balance between local structures. In other words, the sequence of thirty-three short movements needs to be carefully organised before the music can be written; but once that is done, the internal organisation of the music can be allowed greater inventive freedom. So although the structural ideas behind CRY and god-song are quite similar, the musical realisation is freer and more detailed in god-song.
god-song is scored for mezzo-soprano, flute (doubling piccolo & alto flute), alto trombone, cello and piano (doubling celesta). By using all the combinations of these five I came up with five solo movements, ten duos, ten trios, five quartets and one tutti movement. There are in fact three tutti movements (nos. 5, 13 and 29), which are spread across the piece like the pillars of a bridge. The Prologue, which precedes movement 1 and acts as a table of contents, also uses the full ensemble.
The pitch-material consists of eight-note modes or matrices. It is in the use of these that god-song differs from CRY: they are used only occasionally as modes. Far more often they are subjected to serial transformation, so that – although all the notes derive from the intervallic relationships of the matrix, the eight-note purity is not preserved.. In other words, the pitch-matrices are relative and serial, rather than absolute (or modal). This allowed me greater exploration of the inner possibilities of the pitch-matrix than if I had restricted myself to using it purely as a mode. There are, in fact, a few points in the piece where I have restricted myself to the eight-note mode; but these are exceptional.
Just as each movement has its own scoring, it also has its own eight-mode pitch-matrix. The arrangement of these is closely linked to the scoring – for example, the movement for solo cello has the same pitch matrix as its “mirror” for voice, flute, trombone & piano, but transposed to a different level, so that the pitches are different, but the relationships between them are identical. In ordering the sequence of movements I tried to achieve a balance between contrast and continuity; and this is also influenced by the nature of the narrative.
Introduction (flute solo): 3 bars, using only the note E, decorated by its obverse B flat
Prologue (tutti): 35 bars, each representing a movement of the piece (originally there were to be 35 movements). Each bar uses the appropriate pitch-matrix. The piano plays an extremely quiet 8-note chord in each bar; the placing of this varies according to the matrix. Each bar is scored for the combination used in the movement of which it is a model.
1 (voice solo)
2 (trombone & piano): Lucifer’s raspberry
3 (voice, flute & cello)
4 (voice, flute, cello & piano)
6 (trombone & cello): Adam struggling out of clay
7 (flute, cello & celesta): Eve
8 (voice & trombone): Lucifer’s song
9 (trombone solo) Lucifer’s fall (with screaming voice)
10 (voice, flute & celesta): Eden
11 (flute & celesta): Eve alone in Eden
12 (voice, trombone & cello): Satan’s temptation of Eve
13 (tutti): Curse and Fall
14 (cello & piano)
15 (voice, alto flute & trombone)
16 ((voice, alto flute, trombone & piano)
17 (cello solo): Adam’s sweat and swink
18 (piano solo): Time passes
19 (voice, flute, trombone & cello): Doubting Thomas
20 (flute, trombone & piano): Knowledge and Doubt
21 (voice & cello): JUDGEMENT (sheep)
22 (voice, cello & piano): Verdict 1
23 (piccolo & trombone)
24 (voice, trombone & piano): JUDGEMENT (goats)
25 (voice, trombone, cello & piano): Verdict 2
26 (piccolo & cello)
27 (piccolo, cello & trombone)
28 (voice & piano): Summing-up (introduction)
29 (tutti): Summing-up
30 (flute & trombone): Brakes on – Time slows
31 (flute, trombone, cello & piano): Time stops
32 (voice & alto flute): AMEN (beyond Time)
33a (celesta solo): quiet touches to frame the final coda
33 (flute solo): Coda (variation of opening Introduction)
“. . . he manages to hold our attention by means of the sheer veracity, the sheer audacity of his writing.”
“. . . over and again – in the delectable flute and celeste writing evoking Eve alone in the Garden, or the finely arched cello solo labelled “Adam’s sweat and swink – there were reminders of a deep musicality . . .”
“It certainly sounded as if Swayne has up his sleeve another work of the stature of CRY“