All about Henry

for 16-part strings (9 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, bass)
18 mins.

Commissioned by Opus 20 and first performed by them, conducted by Scott Stroman, at a New McNaghten concert at St James’ Piccadilly, London on November 2nd 1995.

Programme note

In 1994 I had the idea of using some of Purcell’s string consort music for a piece of my own. I had owned a score of the Fantasias and In nomines for viols ever since I was a student, but had done little with it.

My intention was merely to create a setting for these jewels of English music. I made a tentative start; then had to concentrate on other things. At the tercentenary of Purcell’s death, I was commissioned by the ensemble Opus 20 to write a piece for that year’s New McNaghten Concerts series. The first performance of All about Henry was given on 2nd November 1995 at St James’ Piccadilly, London by Opus 20, conducted by Scott Stroman. It is scored for sixteen strings: nine violins, three violas, three cellos and double bass, and lasts about eighteen minutes.

My intention was to present of the Purcell, and put very little of myself into the piece. I selected five pieces: Fantasia no 1 in three parts, Fantasia no. 11 in four parts, the Fantasia upon one note in five parts, and the In nomines in six and seven parts.

The overall shape, therefore, is simple: a progression from three to seven parts. I arranged the Purcell quite freely, and in such a way that they moved gradually from the high violins (in Fantasia no. 1) down to the cellos and basses (in the seven-part In nomine). I then had the idea of creating ghostly, see-through versions of the Purcell by transposing them by a tritone, filleting them and playing them backwards. The image of this came from the shoe-shops of my childhood: when my mother took me buy a new pair of shoes, I found it thrilling to insert my feet into a wondrous machine and see the X-ray image of my skeletal foot. That was what I wanted to do to the Purcell.

Wanting the process of filleting to be random rather than analytical, I took every seventh note of the seven-part piece, every sixth of the six-part, and so on. The Purcell ghosts were then overlayed upon the original. They remain in the background at first, but gradually come forward in the texture. An additional complication is that the last two ghost pieces (in four and three parts respectively) are overlaid with canonic echoes of themselves: the four-part ghost in particular becomes almost like a baroque version of the EpĂ´de in Messiaen’s Chronochromie. Beneath this, the seven-part In nomine surges towards its buffers like some wonderful baroque steam-engine.

With such an elaborate ground-plan, and such wonderful source-material, it was clear that my inventive (as opposed to compositional) input had to be very restricted if I were not to make a mess of the Purcell. I decided to limit myself to the chromatic scale, which is about as neutral a thing as one can find. It is almost always rising, and generally in the decorated form heard in the piece’s introduction, played on the lower strings. This introduction, which moves from unison to two parts, then to three, and so on, to end on a seven-part chord very similar to a well-known chord by Stravinsky, is the extent of my melodic input.

All about Henry is dedicated to my old and much-missed friend and colleague, the late Susan Bradshaw.

Giles Swayne 2008