The Work was commissioned by Arup to celebrate the completion of the Millennium Bridge at Kings Reach of the River Thames

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  • 18 min

Programme Note

Plans to write a work to mark the reopening of the Arup bridge filled me with a mixture of eager anticipation – the challenge of such a beautiful construction – and a fear that the celebratory character of the required music would temper its edge. I was shown plans of the structure at all stages of conception and realisation, and walked across it last summer to see at first hand remedial work under way to correct the notorious wobble. I realised the profound, even archetypical significance of the footbridge stretching from before St. Paul’s Cathedral on the north side of the Thames to the Tate Modern Gallery in Southwark – and also the unintentionally funny aspects, not only of the wobble itself, but of the transition from an environment redolent of the English religious and political Establishment, to the barely contained anarchy of that of the New Art Establishment. (A transition just to the very different aura of Southwark Cathedral would have been inspiration enough!)

The more I pondered the plans, the more I was attracted to a musical structure full of overlappings, in the manner of loosely intertwined cable, punctuated by static chords at one remove from the main perspective, analogous to the ever-modulating piers in the water. As musical time does not move in a straight line, but depends for its speeds upon an accelerating and decelerating “heartbeat”, determined in part by the fulfilment or confutation of one’s aesthetic expectancy (e.g. a literal repeat of material at the original speed can seem slower than the original, unless tension and attention are held by decoration, change of harmony, ellipsis, etc.) I decided that symmetrical placing of the “piers” would be too obvious, and so have interrupted the musical argument at strategic points, where a change of tack is indicated, with “trigger” chords.

To establish a concept of “bridge” at its most basic level as transition from birth to death, I adapted the plainsong “Nudus egressus sum de utero” and a setting of this text in English from my own oratorio Job – “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there” – my own tune being based on the first part of the contour of the plainsong. The whole structure rests on these two “pillars”, though the first transformation process, to which the two fragments were subjected, turned them into a seven-and eight- note magic squares (traditionally associated with the planets Venus and Mars respectively), in each case by folding transpositions of the original upon themselves in the traditional way, This, while submerging the identity of the originals at many stages of listening, made possible intervallic connections, points of harmonic symmetry, isometric structures and a multitude of internal cross-references which otherwise would have sounded laboured.

I scored the work for the regular forces of the London Sinfonietta – four woodwind plus alto saxophone, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion and five solo strings. (The offices of the London Sinfonietta are conveniently hard by the south end of the Bridge).

We start with the plainsong set in full Anglican Establishment pomp, inside St. Paul’s, but not only with that church’s notorious echo playing up, but also heard through a slight befuddlement surrounding the chords, – perhaps the result of somewhat excessive self-indulgence to celebrate the Bridge’s opening.

As we leave St. Paul’s, the chorale turns into a military march, which is dissolved in the noises of the street.

An Allegro follows – an interwoven isometric structure, with held string chords – “piers” – punctuating the flow. A short “development” features quirky characters – pedestrians seen on the narrow bridge, front or back (material moving forwards with crescendo, backwards with diminuendo). Any subsequent sense of recapitulation of material is a surface illusion – the other bank will be a different place, and the core of harmonies has shifted. The tempo slackens, and we hear at last a serious contemplation of the plainsong and its Job derivative. This soon, however, goes dreadfully awry, and the whole structure develops a chronic wobble, before being brought under control in a largo which I think of as the still core of the work – of quiet, intense meditation.

A quasi-recapitulation of the allegro (in reality a true bridge-passage) leads to terra firma and a return of the very opening material. Now we are in the Tate Modern, and our plainsong is undermined and scrunched up, in a disrespectful carnival atmosphere. Finally, oboe and flute slowly and briefly spell out the original plainsong and its derivative in all calm, as if to comment “sic transit Gloria (?!) mundi” – and at the very close of the work, I have been careful to close no gates.

Peter Maxwell Davies