• Anthony Payne
  • The Song Streams in the Firmament (1986)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Spectrum

  • clstr(
  • 14 min

Programme Note

The composition of most pieces of music is conditioned by a collection of mundane, even perhaps relatively trivial factors, as well as by one's efforts to realise a grand expressive design, and the present work is no exception. Its length as well as its form and syntax, for instance, were determined by the fact that for unavoidable reasons I had to write it more speedily than any of my previous concert works. Thus I dispensed completely with the kind of elaborate pre-compositional elements which had characterised much of my music until comparatively recently, and opted for a totally improvisatory structure (although strictly written out) - I would compose each day off the top of my head, so to speak.

At the same time there flashed into my mind the image - retained from some long forgotten movie - of an American Indian compelled by an intuition of his impending end to sing his wild death-song. The circle is now complete. One did not have time to worry about structure when dying and singing one's final song. The music would just pour out, combining protest, memories of the past with maybe an ultimate calm as the inevitable is faced. The expressive structure would be a perfect analogue of the composing process which circumstances had forced upon me.

Further limiting factors included the suggestion by conductor Guy Protheroe, who had commissioned the piece, that I add an extra instrument to my original line-up of clarinet quintet; and I suddenly realised that the double bass can command a range of the most deathly images, from hoarse cantabile to skeletonic col legno and drumming pizzicato. Originally, of course, there was the fact that the work was dramatically engendered as one man's song, and this meant featuring a prominent solo instrument, hence the clarinet part which is of considerable virtuosity.

The piece is in one movement and reaches a wild central climax usig images of song and dance, and of flooding natural phenomena. Then there is a long slow after-song which fades into the air. As for the title: I imagined that such an agonised song would float in space for ever, and this poetic description just came to me one day. It was only later that I realised I had half remembered Christopher Marlowe's tremendous line from the end of 'Doctor Faustus'.

The work is dedicated to the memory of Hans Keller, a great man and musician, to have conversed with whom for merely five minutes qas to have known friendship and a uniquely powerful intellect.

The first performance of THE SONG STREAMS IN THE FIRMAMENT was given by Spectrum conducted by Guy Protheroe on 19 April 1986 at the Chruch of St John the Divine, New York.