Co-commissioned by Aberdeen Art Gallery and sound for the re-opening of Aberdeen Art Gallery. World premiere at a private performance on 31st October 2019 given by Con Anima Chamber Choir and local performers, conducted by Dr Roger B. Williams M.B.E. and John Horton. First public performance on 2nd November 2019.
Pursuing the relationship between music and colour to its logical conclusion, composers have often discussed whether musical tones and keys can be related to particular colours; the extreme form of this phenomenon is ‘synaesthesia’ where listeners experience musical sound visually, in colour. Although I have never sensed music this way, I realised after long reflection that I had certain clear ideas about certain keys ‘belonging’ to certain colours; and I have explored these personal perceptions in The Big Picture, a cantata for two choral groups and small instrumental ensemble, in five colour-themed movements, as follows:
1. Green is in E major. I hear this as a very bright key, with its multiple sharps, and see green as a bright, energetic colour. Probably the ‘green’ of this music is brighter than the holly described in its text “Green Groweth The Holly”, written (reputedly) by King Henry VIII.
2. Blue. The D minor of this piece reminds me of a melancholy, dark blue. Wallace Stevens’ poem The Man with the Blue Guitar (of which this movement is a setting of the first two stanzas only) is said to be inspired by Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. Looking at some of the blues in that picture, the deep sombre ones, these are exactly the right hue for this music (!)
3. Gold is an atmosphere and an actual object as much as a colour, and for this setting of Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost, I invented a chord which I felt had a particularly strong, metallic brightness, a combination of G and D majors, which remains in the air as a haze into which the poem disappears and reappears.
4. Red, White is a setting of a love poem by the 19th century Irish poet and activist, John Boyle O’Reilly. The basic tune to which the poem is sung hints at another red-referencing love song, by Robert Burns. In my mind the richer the red (shading towards purple) the more fl ats in the key signature, and this movement is in the very flat key of D flat major. White, meanwhile, is suggested by an absence of musical tone; the ‘white’ sections of this movement are whispered or hissed.
5. Colour. Christina Rossetti’s poem moves swiftly through a band of different colours approximating somewhat to those in the visible spectrum. The recital of colours gave me the chance to revisit keycolours from the previous movements, but in the order Rossetti lists them, resulting in some sudden and strange modulations. The final half-minute or so allows all the colours to be ‘heard’ at once in a giant, extended chord.
Programme note © 2017 Judith Weir
The Big Picture is intended to be performed using three levels of an open gallery/atrium with some separation between the performing groups. Any convenient arrangement is welcome, but an initial suggestion is;
Top level/floor – Solo Clarinet
Middle level/floor – Voices and Percussion (One or more players)
Bottom level/floor – Choir and Keyboard