commissioned by MYO for their 50th anniversary.
On the borders of Herefordshire and Wales, the Golden Valley is a particularly beautiful area. It contains the great church of Abbey Dore, currently being painstakingly restored, and the River Dore flows down from the hills at the head of the valley. I have felt for many years a distinctly Arthurian ambience in this place, despite the lack of any evidence to support my instinct, and when I was asked to write the music for a diptych of ballets on the legends of King Arthur, the Golden Valley was one of the inspirations behind some of my musical ideas. The ballets (Arthur, Part I: Arthur Pendragon and Arthur, Part II: Le Mort d'Arthur) were commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet, with choreography and scenario by David Bintley, and written during the period 1998-2000. The very last scene of all was one of the first specific ideas for the music, and was specifically connected in my mind with the Golden Valley, and this forms the final, slow section of this piece.
One of the strongest aspects of the whole composition was the extent to which, as I discovered while working on this tone-poem, the Kyrie from William Byrd's Mass for Three Voices imbued so many of the thematic ideas of both ballets. I had always intended to incorporate a quotation from it into the score, but as time went on I changed this somewhat for the purposes of integrating the ballet score more fully (though even then, the Byrd quotation still pervades the music), and when I came to write this orchestral piece, therefore, I was able to quote the Byrd more directly in certain places. All the music is taken from different sections of the two ballets, with a good deal of recomposition in line with my original impulse.
The piece has four sections, a slow introduction, in which the Byrd is heard on trombones, a somewhat quicker section associated in the first ballet with Caerleon, some faster music associated with outdoor sports and the kind of merry-making that, in medieval times, was probably somewhat fiercer than in the equivalent today (though I am open to correction on this point), and finally the main slow part, which was always designed to express my feelings about the Golden Valley but in the second ballet is the closing scene for Lancelot and Guinevere. The piece, more reflective perhaps than most celebratory pieces normally are, was written with immense pleasure for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, who commissioned it - as an ex-member of their percussion section in the 1950s, it was a particular delight to be able to contribute to their 50th anniversary in this way.
© 2000 John McCabe