Concert Notes: The Beginning of the World

MCO’s The Beginning of the World can be heard on Thursday 22 June 7:30pm and Sunday 25 June 2:30pm at Melbourne Recital Centre and at Peninsula Community Theatre in Mornington on Saturday 24 June 7:30pm.



By the same token, the first tune the planets played, I remember Venus the treble ran sweet division upon Saturn the bass. The first tune they played was Sellenger’s round, in memory whereof ever since it hath been called “the beginning of the world.” — Thomas Tomkis, Lingua (1607)
The heavenly bodies are nothing but a continuous song for several voices (perceived by the intellect, not by the ear); a music which… sets landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time. — Johannes Kepler, Harmonices Mundi (1619)

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) was a German astronomer, mathematician and writer on music. His discoveries of the laws of planetary motion, including elliptical orbits, gave broader meaning to Copernicus’s theories. In Harmonices Mundi (or The Harmony of the World, quoted above), Kepler attempted to explain the proportions of the natural world in terms of music, also known as harmonic theory. He may have been inspired by English playwright Thomas Tomkis’ work Lingua (or Combat of the Tongue, quoted above) by describing the planets as a ‘celestial choir’, where Mars was a tenor, both Saturn and Jupiter are basses, Mercury is the soprano, and Venus and Earth are altos. American astrophysicist Carl Sagan selected an excerpt from Harmonices Mundi to be included on the Voyager’s Golden Record in 1977.

Erkki Veltheim (b 1976, Finland) is an Australian composer and performer. His practice spans noise, audiovisual installation, improvisation, notated music, electroacoustic composition, pop arrangements and cross-disciplinary performance.
The arranger writes: In my rendering of Sellinger’s Round, I have created a ‘planetary prelude’ based on the scales and musical motives that Kepler believed represented each planet in our solar system, These grow into an ever-thickening plasma until we finally hear Sellinger’s Round proper, first in the solo violin, then in the recorder and the cello, in an earthly celebration of the celestial origins of our world.

In 1952 Benjamin Britten developed the idea of inviting several composers to contribute to a collaborative composition to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Each contributor was asked to respond to the Elizabethan composer, William Byrd’s arrangement of Sellinger’s Round and produce their own variation. The collection of variations is titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme and features contributions by Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett, and William Walton, with Imogen Holst orchestrating the theme. It was agreed that each composer would include a reference to one of their other works in their variation.

The work was first heard as a live broadcast on the BBC on 16 June 1953 and publicly premiered on 20 June 1953 at the Aldeburgh Festival, with both performances conducted by Benjamin Britten. Interestingly, the audience at the Aldeburgh Festival premiere were not told who the composers of each of the variations were but invited to guess – and there were few correct assertions.

Hyde Park – The Simeron’s Dance – Hyde Park – Cockleshells – Gray’s Inn Mask or Mad Tom – Hyde Park – Heart’s Ease – (Mr.) Isaac’s maggot – Hyde Park – Glory of the Sun

John Playford (1623–86) was an English music publisher and bookseller and composer. His popular collections of music and dance steps remain the principal source of our knowledge of English country dance steps and melodies. His handbook on music theory and practice, Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick, had many editions between 1654 and 1703, including a 1694 revision by composer Henry Purcell. For an elegy on Playford’s death, Purcell set Nahum Tate’s Gentle shepherds, you that know to music. Playford’s son Henry went on to posthumously publish collections of Purcell’s music.

The arranger Erkki Veltheim writes: John Playford first published the English Dancing Master in 1651, with almost three dozen new editions and supplements being re-issued until around 1728. My arrangements of these ‘country dances’ form a kind of rondo montage: intercut scenes imagined from the perspective of a protagonist who wonders into a maze where at each turn different dances are heard, or same ones are re-heard from a new vantage point. The ritornello is a dance named after Hyde Park, which had been opened to the public in 1637 by Charles I and quickly became an integral social focal point for Londoners. At times, the twists of the labyrinth lead to distant places and times. At times, fictitious wild birds threaten to disrupt our peaceful pastoral idyll.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) was one of the leading English composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, along with Vaughan Williams, Tippett, and Walton, was seen as the long-awaited successor to Henry Purcell. Elgar wrote some remarkable orchestral works, including symphonies and concertos, oratorios, chamber music and songs. Much of his music regularly appears in concert programs today.

Sospiri Op 70 was composed from 1913–14 and first performed in the Queen’s Hall, London in August 1914 conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The work was scored for strings, organ and harp. In today’s performance the arrangement is for strings and the lute harp.

The single movement Adagio was originally written as a partner to Salut d’Amour but developed into Sospiro (Sighs).

William Byrd (c 1540–1623) is considered as one of the great English Renaissance composers whose influence was far-reaching both in England and on the Continent. He composed sacred and secular music, keyboard and consort music in a characteristic polyphonic style.

Sellinger’s Round (also known as The Beginning of the World) is an English country dance originating in Ireland. William Byrd’s arrangement appears in Lady Neville’s Manuscript Book of 1590 and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book of 1610.

The next works by Gibbons and Purcell are titled fantasias. In English we see the title designated as fantasy, fancy, fantazy and phantasy. These works are characteristically improvisatory and exploratory and rarely follow any strict form.

Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) was a prominent composer of vocal, keyboard and ensemble music in the early seventeenth century. He is remembered particularly for his sacred music, however his keyboard works as well as the viol fantasies and madrigals are important contributions to the literature. In the fantasias for viols he wrote in various combination of between two and six instruments and these works are remarkable examples of elaborate inventiveness.

Henry Purcell (1659–95) is considered to be the greatest of all English composers. Prolific across many genres, some of his notable accomplishments include his works for the stage, including the opera Dido and Aeneas (1688), the sacred choral music including anthems, cantatas and odes, and a small amount of instrumental and ensemble music.

The collection of Fantasias for the Viols was composed in London in the summer of 1680 but not published in his lifetime. Comprising 15 pieces, the works range from three to seven parts and admirably show some of the complex polyphonic thinking and invention of the young composer.

Sir William Walton (1902–83) stands alongside Vaughan Williams and Britten as a foremost twentieth century composer. Along with his operas, symphonies, ballets and concertos Walton is also remembered for Façade, the overture Portsmouth Point, the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, and the Crown Imperial Coronation March.

Walton’s first excursion into film music was in 1934 with Escape Me Never. During World War II he wrote a number of patriotic film scores. It was his collaboration with Laurence Olivier that resulted in the scores for Henry V (1943-4), Hamlet (1947) and Richard III (1955).

In his film score for Henry V the Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff presents a sombre and noble scene. The repeated pattern is first introduced in the bass with the upper strings gradually building throughout the work. The other work, also from this film, “Touch my soft lips and part”, is a farewell in the form of a lilting lullaby. It is one of Walton’s most tender works.

Gordon Jacob (1895–1984) was a composer, teacher and writer. He was a student of Stanford, Howells, Boult and Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and from 1924 until his retirement in 1966 he was on the teaching staff there. His students included Malcolm Arnold, Imogen Holst, Joseph Horovitz and Elizabeth Maconchy. He was the author of numerous reference and textbooks.

The Suite for Recorder and String Quartet was composed in January 1958 on a commission from the recorder virtuoso Carl Dolmetsch. The work received its first performance at Wigmore Hall on 31 January 1958 by Dolmetsch and the Martin String Quartet. Jacob made the arrangement for recorder and strings in 1959.

Each of the short movements provides a strong sense of contrast. The unhurried Prelude and the expressive Lament and Pavane are placed alongside the lively English Dance, the wild Burlesca alla Rumba, the virtuosic Introduction and Cadenza, with the work finishing with the brilliant Tarantella.

Notes: David Forrest (except Anon/Kepler and Playford)