Complete work commissioned by New Macnaghten Concerts

  • fl(picc:alf)/tbn/pf(cel)/vc
  • mezzo soprano
  • 40 min

Programme Note

The text of god-song is taken from the York cycle of Mystery plays, which dates from the fifteenth century. From a total of 28 plays I have selected 70 lines of verse. These come mostly from the role of God; but the 'god' of god-song is meant in an archetypal sense(hence the small g of the title), and so the gods of pride (Lucifer) and evil (Satan) are also given their turn. Adam, as the archetype (god) of human frailty, is in the piece, as is Thomas, whose stubborn refusal to believe without hard evidence makes him not only the patron saint of modern journalism but also an important (and sympathetic) archetype for our scientific, 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. This may sound grandiose, but in fact there are no Stockhausen-style aspirations here: the span of the subject is an excuse for attempting to create maximum variety within overall unity, and since both time scale and instrumental resources/ensemble are miniaturised, the effect will (I hope) be intimate rather than monumental.

The 'cosmic' plan of god-song has several points of similarity with that of my piece for voices, CRY (1979: first live performance in this hall, 9 October 1980). Both deal with Creation, and use Biblical mythology - CRY in the spatial, god-song in the temporal dimension. Both have a carefully organised overall structure, and local structures developed in a quite complex way form simple modes/matrices. Both use series of numbers to organise some or all musical (and some non-musical) parameters. Both employ the device of summary or self-quotation (in CRY the seventh movement is a sevenfold microcosm of the previous six - in god-song the Prologue and movement 29 are summaries).

The similarities between the two pieces, however, though significant at various levels, are probably less audible to the listener than the differences. The division of god-song into 33 short movements dictates miniaturisation of the time-scale, and sets up a quite different balance between local and general structures. This means that, having carefully ordered the sequence of movements on the basis of instrumental groupings and pitch-matrices, the exploitation of the resulting possibilities could be freer and also more exhaustive. In other words, if you have 33 movements, the organisation of them must obviously be carefully thought out, before a note of music can be written; having achieved that, the next stage of organisation can be allowed more inventive freedom. In simple language, the structural ideas behind CRY and god-song are certainly quite similar; but the realisation is far more detailed and complex in the new piece.

god-song is scored for mezzo-soprano, flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), alto trombone, cello and piano (doubling celesta).
© Giles Swayne