The Canterbury Concerto
I Quasi una sonata
When the King’s school, via its Music Director, Colin Metters, wanted to commission a work from for the school orchestra in celebration, Summer 1987, of the 1400th
anniversary of St. Augustine’s arrival in Canterbury, I accepted with alacrity. The gesture was so large, enlightened, imaginative; it would have been positively churlish to refuse! And the challenge for a composer was equally irresistible. Because, from the start, my brief was absolutely clear: no writing-down, no condescension; a proper serious grown-up musical work that, at the same time, had to observe common sense guidelines of technical capacity. Fulfilling the brief the preceding autumn, was highly interesting and highly pleasurable.
There are three movements. I, Quasi una Sonata
, is far the longest (about half of the total duration). The title sounds a bit grim, but the mood is for the most part honeyed, fragrant, summery. The solo clarinet murmurs inside the texture rather than dominating in melody or pyrotechnics, while the orchestra carries a weighty, virtually symphonic structure. After the first long paragraph reaches a climax, the soloist is accompanied only by drums for an episode that steadily turns the screw; tension is balanced by relaxation, the clarinet in lyrical dialogue with colleagues in the woodwind section. This drifts downwards to the movement’s quietest place, its centre, from which soft brass and drums gradually build up to the return of the opening paragraph, now even more spacious than before. When it has run its course the soloist is at last allowed to sail on top of the texture in a stream of melody – three long lyric arches- after which the orchestra rounds the structure off alone.
is a songlike andante in two halves, led entirely by the clarinet. They enclose a brief scherzo during which the soloist takes a rest (this scherzo was initially inspired by the skimming flashing flight of a kingfisher). The andante’s second half winds gently to rest but does not stop; its closing steps are taken up to make a link into:
, the finale, and just what it says, a suite of dances. First a slow tango (clarinet accompanied by piano only); then the tango’s continuation for orchestra alone; then a waltz, then a valse (quicker) both led by the soloist (much of the material developed here has been heard in the second movement). Then comes a tarantella (whirling), then a peasant-dance (earthy and lumpen); and finally, a closing stretch without dance-prototype, which takes up hints from the central build from softest to loudest in the middle of the first movement, and works them up into a sort of apotheosis. Right at the end the work’s very opening is reached again and the circle is closed. Robin Holloway
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer