My Chamber Symphony, The Circles of Light, was begun in October 1984 and completed in September 1985 in response to a commission from the London Sinfonietta with funds made available by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The first performance took place on 5 March 1986 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London as part of a BBC ‘Music of Eight Decades’ concert. The London Sinfonietta was conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen.
The title refers to the twenty-eighth Canto of Paradise from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in which the poet perceived a light reflected in Beatrice’s eyes. On turning round he sees the light of God as an infinitely small, bright point encircled by nine radiant rings. Beatrice explains the relationship of these circles to the movement of the heavens and identifies them as the three hierarchies or nine orders of the angels. The sound of the music was clear in my mind before I read Dante’s text, and the brilliant quality of his conception caught my attention in this respect, as well as giving me many formal ideas.
The work begins with piano and percussion playing low, dark sonorities – the piano outlining its lowest A/E flat tritone. As the music gathers momentum (like a huge circle beginning to rotate) high, bright sounds are heard – as the low sounds rise, so the high ones descend, creating a distinct harmonic ‘orbit’ from which the rest of the piece develops. Gradually, longer melodic lines grow out of the flickering counterpoints, eventually transforming themselves into a scherzo-like movement. This is cast in two unequal halves and towards the end ‘modulates’, stating its opening melodic idea at the distance of a tritone as a ‘false’ and truncated third statement, which soon explodes into a sustained slow movement, whose initial chord is bounded by the A/E flat tritone from the start of the work. This movement is based strictly on the numbers six and nine, (standing for the nine orders of angels) both in its number of bars (54) and its rhythmic structure. At the end, the music ascends slowly, leaving the violin alone on a high E harmonic. Beneath this, the beginning of the entire piece is heard again – the low piano tritone is heard as a new sound, the piano having been absent throughout the slow movement. This final movement gradually gathers speed, the music continually attempting to ascend, Many aspects of the preceding movements are cross-cut here. The final ascent is achieved with the piccolo (accompanied by suspended cymbal) rushing upwards to a point of infinity, its final note-group outlining a high E flat/A tritone. Whereas the whole piece progresses from the piano’s low A/E flat to the piccolo’s highest E flat/A, so the last movement, in a much shorter space of time, follows the same plan, summing up the argument. Thus the harmony – overall, and in detail – traces various circles, although the musical gestures do not and are progressive, reflecting, I hope, some of the concepts in the poetic text.
The work is scored for 14 players and the four movements play continuously.
© Robert Saxton