All about Henry

for Strings (9 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 1 double-bass)
18 mins.

First performed at St James’ Piccadilly, London on 2nd November 1995 by the string ensemble Op 20 under Scott Stroman, at a concert presented by the New McNaghten Society.

Programme note

In June 1994 I was nosing around in my bookshelves and came across the score of the Purcell Fantasias and In nomines which I had bought as an undergraduate in 1964 (price 10s 0d). Being extremely vague on dates, I had no idea the Purcell centenary was imminent; but it seemed wrong to have owned this score for thirty years without doing anything with it. So I wrote All about Henry.

The overall shape is simple: a gradual progression from 3 to 7 parts. I chose the following pieces: Fantasia no. 1 (3 parts) and 11 (4 parts); the Fantasia upon one note (5 parts) and the In nomines in 6 and 7 parts. I arranged them in such a way that they moved gradually from high violins (in the 3-part fantasia) down to the lower strings (in the 7-part In nomine). Since I had 16 available instruments I hit upon the notion of creating transparent ghost-like versions of the Purcell and combining them with the originals.

The image for this came from my childhood. Whenever my mother took me to buy a new pair of shoes it was a thrilling event. The carcinogenic dangers of X-rays were less understood then, and shoe-shops had wonderful machines for checking the fit of a shoe. To a small child they seemed immense wooden constructions. You stepped up onto a platform and inserted your foot, and then looked down into a screen and saw a weird image of your transparent, skeletal foot, outlined against a grey shoe. That was what I wanted to do with the Purcell.

First I transposed the pieces by a tritone (giving my piece an overall harmonic pivot of D/A flat) and turned them back to front. Then I filleted them, removing most of the detail. Having created my ghosts, I arranged them so that they moved from seven parts to three, and from low strings to high (the opposite of the originals) and carefully overlaid them. They remain in the background at first, and gradually come forward in the texture – especially when they move above the descending line of the original pieces.

An additional complication is that the last two ghosts (in 4 and 3 parts respectively) are multiplied by canonic echoes; the 4-part ghost is doubled at a delay of 4 beats (using 8 violins), the 3-part trebled at delays of 4 and 6 beats (using 9 violins). The last ghost in particular becomes almost like a dawn chorus – a baroque version of the wonderful Epode in Messiaen’s Chronochromie. Beneath this the 7-part In nomine surges towards its final buffers like a Christopher Wren steam engine.

The word baroque is important. These pieces were already examples of an archaic form when Purcell wrote them. The manuscript (BM Add. MS 30930) is dated 1680 but apparently the pieces were written several years earlier – probably about 1675. Purcell was only sixteen then, and I think it likely (however incredible it may seem to us) that these fantasias were academic exercises. The In nomines, especially, with their glowing cantus firmus lines, are a throwback to the time of Byrd and Bull, half a century earlier.

My transcriptions bring out as far as possible their baroque implications – which they certainly possess, despite their Tudor roots. Double-dotting being a salient feature of baroque musical manners, I used it for the ghost versions, which move in creaky double-dotting throughout, like ghostly Osrics. I have freely decorated the original pieces, as I would if I were playing them myself.

Given such rich source material it was clear that my inventive (as opposed to compositional) contribution should be extremely limited. I decided to restrict myself to the chromatic scale, which is about as neutral a thing as one can find anywhere. It is almost always heard rising and generally in the decorated form heard at the beginning of the piece, played on the lower strings. This introduction which moves from unison to two parts, then to three, and so on towards a seven-part chord which is curiously similar to a well-known chord by Stravinsky, recurs at the end of the piece, but in a genteel and etiolated form.

All About Henry is dedicated to the late and much lamented Susan Bradshaw.