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3(I,II=picc,III=afl,picc).2.corA.3(III=Ebcl).bcl.sax.3(III=dbn)- temple bl/crot/claves/slapstick/wdbl/bell tree/crot/jingles/t.bells/2susp.cyms(1lg)/2 small (bright) cyms/2 cyms(lg)/SD/TD/BD/glsp/marimba/vib/xyl/windmachine-2harp-cel-strings

Optional: special San Francisco timpani

Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA
San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas
Composer's Notes

This extended work for large orchestra takes its inspiration from the great medieval English epic Piers Plowman by William Langland, written in c.1360-80 in overlapping versions, none complete at his death around 1388.

My aim is not detailed story-telling as in (for instance) Strauss’s Don Quixote. Rather, a more generalized character-depiction, with some episodes of plot, drawn from the prevailing tone and mode of the original: more like the Kullervo symphony of Sibelius, and is Four Legends from the life of another Finnish mythological hero, Lemminkäinen. Yet at the same time, purely abstract impulses prevail, architectural and expressive, to make a symphonic suite in six movements which doesn’t depend upon extraneous subject-matter, story, character, to make sense. I’ve tried to achieve a right balance between pure music and music that tells a tale and evokes a picture.

I: Prologue
Spacious emptiness, setting scale and pace. Mysterious summons gradually fuse into a soft brass fanfare marked misterioso: then gently-shining sounds alternate with dark turbulent strains, both prophetic of things to come. Piers the Plowman looks down from a height upon

II: the Fair Field Full of Folk
Scherzo – a long exuberant rondo, depicting the world of mankind in all its animation, colour, confusion, carnality. This is the terrain that the Plowman must till. In and out of the main motion episodes of differently speeded popular music come and go, as if we’re passing through a gigantic fairground – a waltz, a slow march, a polka, a quick march. Hommage to Charles Ives as this material is progressively splintered, intercut, re-juxtaposed, superimposed – including snatches of parodistic plainsong exposing a Church equally as corrupt as the Vanity Fair all around. Towards the end every element is combined in a riotous whirlwind of activity.

III: Dances: First Sequence
Worldly delights flaunt their attractions, personified by the Seven Deadly Sins, each given a cameo appearance:- Pride; Wrath; Envy; Lust; Greed; Avarice; Sloth. The more extended eighth dance evoked Lady Mede, the glamorous embodiment of all the rewards that pursuit of worldly goals via the seven sins can yield, in the form of an opulent Sarabande.

IV: is too full for any one title:
Narration has to convey it all. First, another summons, Piers Plowman’s call to action as he confronts the unmitigated welter of the populous field of folk: “this is what needs my regenerating power!” An extended stretch of purposeful energy gradually builds up, in which we see him set to, ploughing the earth’s surface, digging in the dung and debris, sowing the good seed that will eventuate in an abundant harvest. The strain and effort are shown by the return of the dark music from I without its lighter complement.

Then a scherzinetto with trios, light and playful: relaxation and fun after sweaty toil, indication also the burgeoning new growths of spring and summer. After this, the shining music from I returns, without its darker complement. A further fast section retains this lightness of being – job and duty well done, burden shed: and the movement ends with a return of the mystic fanfare from I.

V: Dances: Second Sequence
The field of folk has been harrowed in readiness for harvest under the benefits of good government: dances for the Virtues, counterbalancing those for the Sins in III:- Temperance; Prudence; Fortitude; Justice; then Faith, Hope, Charity join together in a danse gracieuse, a chaste Sarabande to complement the lascivious allure of Lady Mede. Finally a danse noble all the virtues and graces together, celebrating wholeness, sanity, well-regulated abundance.

VI: Epilogue
The mystic summons sounds again. Then Piers Plowman, his task achieved, is magnified in an apotheosis which reveals his full heroic stature, a combination of Christ-Redeemer with pagan fertility-god.

Robin Holloway - November 2006

Reproduction Rights:
This programme note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.

Repertoire Note

This is probably the magnum opus of Holloway’s compositional output to date. A "huge and splendiferous" six-movement outpouring of joyous music inspired by William Langland’s epic tale, Piers Plowman. Although the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, under Michael Tilson Thomas, commissioned the work, they were only able to play five movements at the premiere in order to accommodate the rest of their programme. A brief Prologue based on mysterious brass fanfares ushers in a large Scherzo with Ivesian echos of popular music. Then comes a first sequence of dances portraying the Seven Deadly Sins. Following a slow movement comes a light and playful Scherzinetto. The fifth movement is another sequence of dances, now portraying the Virtues. Finally, an Epilogue, introduced again by the mystic fanfares of the opening, brings this orchestral tour-de-force to a magnificent conclusion.

Repertoire Note by Peter Marchbank

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