• Robert Saxton
  • The Ring of Eternity (1983)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 2(pic)2(ca)2(Ebcl)2/2200/perc/pf(cel)/str(
  • 14 min

Programme Note

THE RING OF ETERNITY was composed mostly between June and September 1982 in response to a commission from Oliver Knussen with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain and completed in March 1983. The first performance was given by the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Oliver Knussen on 24 August 1983 at the Royal Albert Hall, London during the BBC Proms season.
The title derives from 'The World (I)' by the great seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan, and the opening lines of his poem are quoted at the front of the score:

"I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled... "

Vaughan's poem in its entirety is quite long and uses a wide range of complex images. I have not attempted to reflect this aspect of the poem in my music, but have concentrated on mirroring the quoted lines in various ways. Helen Gardner has written of metaphysical poetry in general: 'The brilliant abrupt openings for which metaphysical poetry is famous, are like the lump of gold flung down on the table to be worked - the conceits are part of the beating out by which the metal is shaped to receive its final stamp, which is the point towards which the whole has moved'.

On the large scale I have composed a harmonic structure which follows this process closely, while at the same time attempting to translate the details of Vaughan's opening lines into sound, and creating musical conceits, motivically and harmonically.

The 'frozen' beginning high on the violins accompanied by piano and gongs presents a particular harmonic world, and as the music gathers momentum the intervals of the opening chord recur continually throughout the texture, the chord itself re-appearing (nearly always in the strings) at important structural points but altered in terms of register, texture and rhythm, part of the 'beating out' process. Towards the end,
when the music has become agitated and quick ('driven by the spheres') the slow, high violin progression which began the piece returns; this time, however, it melts and at the close the opening harmony at its original pitch-level is heard soaring upwards, (a reference to the last line of the quoted extract and to the end of the whole poem) so that the frozen and fast types of music have become one (their source is the same) and the harmonic 'Ring' is complete. The trumpets are given a prominent role in the work, and their importance was suggested to me by reference to another famous metaphysical poem, one of Donne's Holy Sonnets: 'At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow your trumpets, Angells, and arise'...