• Ross Edwards
  • Symphony No. 4 (2001)
    (Star Chant)

  • G Schirmer (Australia) Pty Ltd (World)

Commissioned jointly by Symphony Australia and the Adelaide Festival of the Arts for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, with assistance from the Australia Council

  • ch; 3+pic+afl.2+ca.3+Ebcl+bcl.2+cbn/4.3.3.0/timp.3perc/2pf.hp/str
  • ch
  • 33 min

Programme Note

To William Blake, the stars were coldly and logically Satanic. To the Australian Aboriginal Peoples they have been familiar,meaningful and ultimately benevolent.

And indeed, to most cultures the night sky has always abounded in human drama and symbolism: the striking summertime constellation of Orion, for example, represented an intrepid hunter in many diverse societies. And the Pleiades – which the Greeks mythologized as seven sisters changed first into doves and then stars – have also received startlingly parallel interpretations in various parts of the world.

If anything can reconcile the human inhabitants of this planet, it may well be our eventual recognition that, under the canopy of the night sky we are all equal: how could egos that prance absurdly in the daylight fail to be awed and humbled by the magnificence of the stars – if it were not for the light pollution of our cities? David Malin’s poetic and in spiring photographic images, made using Australia’s largest telescopes, help compensate our naked eyes for their loss and present us with an embryonic mythology awaiting interpretation.

Australian artists and scientists are showing signs of wanting to reclaim the age-old common ground between their disciplines. In fact, ideas for Star Chant began to be seriously discussed when I accompanied a group of scientists – mainly astronomers – on a lecture tour of outback Queensland and New South Wales. I found the most memorable experience to be the night spent in a swag in the Simpson Desert contemplating the glittering display above.

Fred Watson’s elegantly-structured text traverses the Australian sky from the northern horizon to the lonely obscurity of the southern polar star. It pays tribute to aboriginal culture by linking the conventional western names of stars and constellations with their equivalents from the Dreamtime stories of many different indigenous peoples.

My original conception of Star Chant as a nocturne – a calm, profound meditation – changed into some of the most dramatic music I’ve written as the text led me through regions profuse with stars and Dreaming. When I arrived at the Southern Cross, my natural response to its symbolism was to try to express in music a hope for creative and harmonious coexistence between the culturally diverse peoples of the south.

The work ends, as it began, in a mysterious glimmer low in the southern sky.

Star Chant is dedicated to my wife, Helen Edwards. It was commissioned jointly by Symphony Australia and the Adelaide Festival for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The first performance was given in the Adelaide Town Hall on March 8 2002. Richard Mills conducted the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the Adelaide Chamber Singers and the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus.

The astronomy of Star Chant This musical fusion of art and science represents a journey through Australia’s night skies. It celebrates the stars in western and aboriginal culture with names taken from both ancient European legend and the Dreamtime stories of many different indigenous peoples. The cement that binds it all together is Ross Edwards’ music, which is itself inspired by the Australian landscape and natural environment. Star Chant is Edwards’ fourth symphony.

The work begins with four stars that form part of the far-northern constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear). They steal unnoticed across Australia’s northern horizons on chilly autumn nights, and their appearance in the symphony evokes a sense of mystery that permeates all the star-patterns of the northern sky. But this enigmatic music is eventually transformed into an extended climax as the Pleiades and Hyades star-clusters herald the constellation of Orion. The brilliant star-fields in this part of the sky are rich in aboriginal legend, and are celebrated in the symphony with a gigantic orchestral and choral tutti that the composer marks as ‘sparkling’.

Immediately afterwards, we cross the celestial equator-the imaginary line in space that divides the northern and southern hemispheres of the sky. Edwards draws a sustained blade of sound through the heavens as the Earth turns ponderously beneath. And then, on, to the southern constellations: Hydra the water-snake (whose head is Unwala the crab to the people of Groote Eylandt) and Scorpius, the glittering scorpion of the sky that is also the aboriginal crocodile Ingalpir.

There is only one object in Star Chant that cannot be seen with the naked eye, for it is nearly a thousand times too faint for human vision. Proxima Centauri is among the least luminous stars known, but it is also the Sun’s closest neighbour in interstellar space. Edwards serenades our tiny companion in the Universe with an a capella lullaby of exquisite beauty.

In contrast, Canopus, second-brightest star in the sky (and Wahn the crow to Aborigines) is a gateway to the far-southern constellations of Crux Australis and Centaurus, whose brilliance has inspired a wealth of Dreamtime stories. Crux (the Southern Cross) is one of Australia’s best-loved icons and, intermingled with its ancient aboriginal counterparts, becomes a hymn of reconciliation in the symphony’s glorious climax.

There remains but one final step in the journey. Low in the south and seemingly unnoticed by Aborigines is a faint star that marks the apex of the entire sky-the southern polar star. Lonely Sigma Octantis remains fixed in position, never rising or setting. Its veiled tones echo the mystery of Star Chant’s opening, bringing this radiant work to a subdued close. 

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