The song of Leviathan

for 3 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo, 3rd doubling alto flute), piccolo, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (*3rd doubling E flat), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones (alto, tenor & bass), 2 tubas (tenor & bass), 4 percussion, 2 harps, strings
30 mins.

Commissioned by the Salomon Orchestra and first performed by them under Nicholas Braithwaite, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on October 10th 1988.

Programme notes

The song of Leviathan was commissioned by the Salomon Orchestra and first performed by them under Nicholas Braithwaite on October 10th 1988 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. It takes as its starting-point a chord from another piece of mine – CRY for 28 amplified voices – which was written in 1979. In the fifth movement of that piece I created a chord from the first five steps of the harmonic series, and used it to represent the whale. This is the starting-point of The song of Leviathan – it pulses throughout the piece like an enormously slowed-down heartbeat.

The whale-chord, and the changes of pulse, dynamic and harmony to which it is subjected, are the material of the piece. It also gives off echoes of itself; these consist of transpositions of the whale-chord, the nature and position of which are governed by an overal series of 32 notes which I called the Cantus maximus. This series also provides all the pitch material for the piece, other than that of the whale-chord itself. A reduced, 13-note form of it – Cantus minimus – is looped across the entire piece as a series of pedals (held notes) played on various solo string-instruments. These pedals are inaudible for much of the time – but they can be heard through ‘holes’ in the sound, and act subliminally as binding force.

The piece is heard as a single continuous movement, but is arranged in 13 verses – each verse having its own transposition of the whale-chord, its own tempo, metrical structure and orchestration. At the centre of each is a cæsura – a contrasting inner section played by the solo strings which, except at these points, sustain the quiet pedal-notes already mentioned.

The song of Leviathan takes as its starting-point an image of the whale as a symbol of the fragility of all life, now that technological man has straddled the planet and supplanted the role of the gods. Like our planet, the whale is a huge, powerful and beautiful creature which has developed over millions of years, and which now, after only a few hundred years of human interference, is in grave danger. Can it survive? Can we learn to live less destructively before it is too late?

The song of Leviathan is affectionately dedicated to the Earl and Countess of Harewood.

Giles Swayne 2008


“… brilliant scoring and often powerful musical images.”

– Independent October 12th 1988

“….profusion of interesting ideas…”

– Guardian, October 12th 1988