For upper-voice choir, SATB choir, piano, and optional timpani
Setting a newly written text by Charles Bennett, this fifteen-minute choral work takes singers on a journey through five historical events: the invention of printing, the abolition of slavery, the first powered flight, the discovery of penicillin, and the first man in space.
In each movement, music and words come together to create a strikingly vivid and personal account of each protagonist's experience, from the printer seeing 'each letter like a person' to the astronaut commenting on the beauty of our planet from space. Chilcott's music is as captivating as ever, with energy in abundance alongside moments of clarity and stillness.
This is an ideal concert work for choirs looking to perform with an upper-voice group, or for larger SATB choruses with divisi sopranos and altos.
The optional timpani part is printed separately at the back of the score.
Easy to Moderately difficult
When I was first approached by Bob Chilcott to write the words for this five-movement work, he already had a strong sense of content: each element should focus on a historic moment of human achievement and be rooted in a positive or enlightening activity that represented the creative vitality and potentiality of our species. Each movement would celebrate our inventiveness.
We quickly sketched out, in a burst of excitement, a variety of possible options, and it was only when I began work on the piece that these moments came to rest. A number of creative challenges presented themselves-the first of which was how to unify these five disparate historical events. In the end I resolved this by setting most of the poems in the voice of the historical figures involved, which provided me with the opportunity to engage imaginatively with Johannes Guttenberg, the Wright brothers, Alexander Fleming, and Yuri Gagarin. I found this process fascinating, and I incorporated a little of my background research into each poem.
The first movement combines references to Guttenberg's famous forty-two-line Bible ('In the beginning' echoes the first words of Genesis) with the surreality of the 'quick brown fox' sentence, which was used to teach touch-typing, since it incorporates all the letters of the alphabet. The Wright brothers actually flew from Kill Devil Hill, penicillin was discovered during washing up, and Yuri Gagarin spoke some of the lines freely translated and incorporated (along with other information) directly into the poem. As the central characters started to speak, the verbal energy of their voices took shape as a series of dramatic monologues. But as I continued to explore the potential of the piece something strange happened: I found that I was not simply speaking for them, I was speaking through them.
The poems achieve authenticity through incorporating moments of personal meaning. My love of letters and words radiates in the first movement, and the aeroplane is seen as the tangible result of an original conception in much the same way as a poem is a linguistic contraption designed to fly in your mind.
The fourth movement touches on the nature of artistic as well as scientific discovery, and the final movement uses elements from my engagement with ecology and the environment. Overall, three movements engage with our tool-using ability, which has resulted in the current dominance of technological innovation: we move from the invention of movable type that gave us printing (and, via the mass production of books, educational possibilities for millions) through powered flight to the first man in space.
The other two movements emphasize other fundamental aspects of behaviour. The discovery of penicillin, a happy accident, represents advances in medicine. The abolition of slavery, however, is neither an accidental discovery nor ultimately attributable to one person: it is the slow and deliberate victory of human compassion over human greed, and shows how empathy may sometimes triumph over profitability. And so the second movement is not voiced for any one individual because the abolition of slavery, and indeed the continuing struggle for racial equality and human rights, is not the sole responsibility of any one person but of us all. The language of a legal document-a language made common to all though Guttenberg-may seem very different from the language of a poem, but both can, in their own ways, set us free.
Let us hope that our personal achievements continually incline towards the positive and that, in its own way, music helps to makes things better. © Charles Bennett 2013. This programme note may be reproduced as required.
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