Commissioned by Timothy Walker, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. Timothy Walker gave the first performance of the piece on 26th October 1972 at the Purcell Room, London, and recorded it for L’Oiseau Lyre (DSLO3).
CANTO FOR GUITAR is the first of a series of solo pieces with this generic title, written between 1972 and 2000 – there are also Cantos for violin (1973), piano (1973), clarinet (1975), cello (1981) and flute (2000). The title, mood and general shape of this first piece in the series were suggested by my reading of Dante’s Inferno, which is divided into thirty-four Cantos. In the first Canto, the poet awakes from a long sleep, to find himself lost in a dark and allegorical wood, menaced by symbolic wild beasts, and thoroughly miserable:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, Che la diritta via era smarrita…
The ghost of Virgil appears to him, and offers to guide him safely out of the wood, and then to show him hell and purgatory, before handing him over to his beloved Beatrice, who will be his guide in heaven.
There is a plainsong melody embedded in the material of this piece. Ave Maria, gratia plena is taken from the second antiphon for the second vespers of the Annunciation. This date (25th March) was thought by medieval scholars to be the date of the conception of Jesus and the creation of the world. Most of the melodic material is derived from this tune, fragments of which also appear in their original form at key points – usually on long high harmonics.
Giles Swayne 2008