Composition Date: 2011
Commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Stanford Lively Arts for Colin Currie.
First performed by Colin Currie and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in Orebro in 2012.
dedicated to Colin Currie
Colin Currie and I discussed plans for a concerto for several years. The theme that kept emerging was that of dance, and we settled on the idea of a set of Dance Variations. After that, various ideas were mulled over – possible themes, both musical and extra-musical.
It happened that just before I started work on the concerto, I had made a setting (for narrator and ensemble) of the ‘seven deadly sins’ section from the 14th century text ‘Piers the Plowman’ by William Langland, in a new translation by Phil Hind which emphasises the universality of sin, using many contemporary references.
It was a logical and liberating step to take some of the ideas and re-seed them as the basis of a much bigger piece, without the necessity of leaving space for the spoken word. The very simple material, some of it taken from original Medieval dances, has provided a starting point for the Dance Variations.
This is not a traditional set of variations with a single theme, as I have used several different themes which reappear in many of the variations, in different forms. The two most prevalent are the Dies Irae plainchant from the 13th century, and the songs of the collared dove, and the cuckoo. I have drawn on ideas of parallel organum (a medieval concept) throughout the piece – very often in perfect or augmented fourths – the latter being the traditional musical representation of the devil.
The piece begins with a brief introduction, suggesting the outdoor scene that opens the Langland text. Towards the end of the piece this music reappears briefly, as if the dreamer is waking.
Some dances come from the time of Langland (eg the Saltarello and Estampie) and some from later periods, such as the Pavan and Galliard. There are also dances from more recent times: the Tango and Swing Dance. The sixth variation, Pride, develops all the themes in the form of a virtuosic marimba cadenza, which draws in soloists from the orchestra one by one.
The concerto begins with an introduction, and continues with the seven ‘dance variations’:
Variation 1. Avarice: Saltarello
Variation 2. Envy: Tango
Variation 3. Gluttony: Estampie
Variation 4: Lechery: Swing Dance
Variation 5. Sloth: Pavan
Variation 6. Pride: Cadenzas
Variation 7. Anger: Galliard
The use of percussion centres on the marimba, and on medieval-inspired dance drumming, with some colours added from other sources – sometimes in a light-hearted way – for instance, the bottle-chimes during Gluttony.
The piece is the result of many happy conversations with Colin, and draws on the breadth of his imagination, and on the sheer virtuosity of his performance, which has always reminded me of a dancer in action.
It was jointly commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (World Premiere conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung; 16th February 2012); Stanford Lively Arts (US Premiere: Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra/Jindong Cai; 29th February 2012); the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (UK Premiere conducted by Joseph Swensen; 16th March 2012); and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
Sally Beamish 2011