Commissioned by Sebastian Bell with funds provided by the Royal Academy of Music Research Fund

  • flute, bass clarinet
  • 12 min

Programme Note

This may sound obvious, but I have always been interested in how time can be persuaded to pass at different rates, according to one’s skill at manipulation in musical composition, and even more so, in the various ways perspectives can be implied in the time filled by a musical work, just as they can be in the space filled by a painting. The technical limits upon this in work for only one or two instruments are particularly challenging – especially so when the traditional perspectives inside tonality, as in the Bach solo suites, cannot be taken for granted. I seized the opportunity to write for flute and another instrument with great anticipation.

In those of my works where the parameters allow this, I am always keen to have the material in a constant state of transformation, where the literal reprise or recapitulation has no part to play. This is not, I hope, a glib reaction against the music with which I was brought up initially – but has to do with a very basic shift in the perception of things. The self-confident state of mind whereby a return to a previous place or condition in a work could be assumed feels quite out of step with realisations concerning the transience of all things – that nothing is “solid”, that all is in a constant state of becoming, of change, indeed of transformation.

Veni Creator Spiritus is one of a series of shorter works I am writing in tandem with a Mass for Westminster Cathedral, for liturgical use next Pentecost. This uses two plainsongs associated with this festival, Dum Complerentur and Veni Creator’, which are also at the roots of the present work, appearing as such, however – and then with some inflections, only at the close.

Instead of a literal appearance at the opening, we hear a folded-in-upon-its-transposed-self version of Veni Creator, building up a magic square traditionally associated with the Moon, for flute alone.

This is taken up isometrically by the bass clarinet, the flute freely decorating with further infoldings and transformations. (The two plainsongs have features in common, which can become pivotal in sequences where the contours of one slowly transform into those of the other.)

In the more rhythmic section which follows, even the time element of the cantus is folded in on itself, whereby what formerly would have been a sequence of steady crotchets becomes modified by these waxing and waning by a semiquaver at each new value, in effect corrugating the temporal surface.

In the simplest instance, with the effect of corrugating the music’s surface, so long as there is a steady rhythm against which to measure the fluctuations. (Similar processes may modify the way time passes in middleground and background, though this would be harder to perceive in a work for two instruments).

The bass clarinet was chosen for its deep register, so far from that of the flute that the listener’s imagination can fill the space with the implied resonance, and it is perfect for holding a cantus against the flute’s derivatives and decorations. Moreover, in its higher register, it can blend very satisfactorily with the lower end of the flute’s.

Veni Creator Spiritus challenges Sebastian Bell’s playing techniques in full confidence that all demands will be met in more than full measure. I am delighted to have the chance to write this tribute to Mr. Bell’s virtuosity and musicality. © Peter Maxwell Davies