• John McCabe
  • The Shadow of Light (1979)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

  • 3(pic)3324.3.2+btbn.1timp.3perchpstr
  • 23 min

Programme Note

When the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned me to write a work to celebrate the Bicentenary of the death of William Boyce (1711-79), I immediately felt that I wanted to use some of Boyce's music but rather than playing it 'straight' I would want to set it in some kind of context. This finally emerged as the idea of what might be called a large-scale Nocturne, in which occurs a dream or series of dreams of characteristic events or dances of Boyce's time, prefaced, linked, and concluded by 'dream' music. The 'dream' music, in fact, is heard in various forms underpinning a number of the set pieces.

The work, which is continuous, contains four main dream sequences, all using material from works by Boyce (usually Symphonies or Overtures, plus one Trio-Sonata movement). After the opening bars of dream music, there is a set of four Dances: a Gavot, emerging on solo instruments out of the dream, a Hornpipe, a Jigg (featuring especially two solo violins), and a Minuet, largely on clarinets and bassoon. The next sequence consists of three Sports - a Hunting Scene dominated by the horns, a Card Game featuring especially flutes and harp, and Horse-Racing, taken from one of Boyce's fugues.

After the Horse-Racing scene has finished, the music returns to the dream world, and the chiming of bells leads to the third sequence, a series of three Scenes. The first is a Pastorale, contrasting particularly the woodwind against a 'dream' backcloth, the second a Recruiting March based on two Boyce tunes against sustained string chords, and the third a Romance in which two oboes have the main melody. The final part of the work is a Fugue, using two Boyce fugue subjects and bringing in brief reminiscences of earlier parts of the work, and a Quodlibet, in which most of the other earlier sections are recalled. The dream music gradually takes over as the vision of the past recede.

The work, which is dedicated to the memory of Charles Cudworth, formerly Curator of the Pendlebury Music Library in Cambridge, derives its title from Swinburne's Atlanta in Calydon:

Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death.
© John McCabe