Pentecost Music was composed between 1976 and 1978, and first performed in April 1981 in a studio concert by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) under Nicholas Cleobury. This means that it was written before CRY, Swayne’s epic ‘hymn to Creation’ for twenty-eight amplified voices, but first performed after it. There are many points of similarity between the two works: a huge span - in the case of Pentecost Music a single movement lasting nearly forty minutes; a willingness to make big, bold gestures; a propensity for layered textures, with different things going on at different levels; a variety of harmonic density, from unisons and unashamed common chords to chords containing all the twelve notes; an emphasis on the element of rhythm. Above all, perhaps, Pentecost Music resembles CRY in its virtuoso handling of its medium. For its composer’s second orchestral work, and his first for full symphony orchestra (in fact, a very full orchestra, including two saxophones as well as four clarinets in the woodwind, six horns and four trumpets, and a large percussion section), it shows a quite remarkable and highly practical talent for conceiving and notating sonorities and balance.
Although it is played without a break, Pentecost Music falls into nine sections which are separately titled in the score, and which are listed here with a few musical signposts.
Tongues of fire I
An extended opening section, in which three statements of the dazzling opening gesture alternate with more static passages of increasing length, largely in free time without a regular pulse.
Another long section, beginning with a sustained melody (containing all twelve notes but centred on D) played by violas and cellos, counterpointed by bursts of activity in the wind. This melody continues to unfold throughout the movement, rising gradually in pitch, with a corresponding increase in activity and intensity, then falling away more steeply into the bass, before a spectacular coda.
Curling woodwind phrases, begun by a low bassoon, gradually fill out the whole pitch-space from bottom to top, mostly in free time, shadowed by the rest of the orchestra.
Against a continuum of fast, rhythmic percussion, all the high woodwind, together with piano, first trumpet and first horn, enter with their individual songs; far below, low wind and strings anchor the texture to the earth. After a moment of stillness (with the first part of the melody of The arch on tenor saxophone), the chorus is suddenly resumed; when it cuts off again, the rest of the orchestra gathers on a unison E flat.
A wildly exuberant dance in 6/8 and 9/8 metres, entirely in the upper register, and led by the violins and piano.
At the still point . . .
Isolated wind chords form a strict palindrome around a motionless centre, marked by the maracas.
The dance is resumed with even more frenetic activity, this time counterpointed by the melody of The arch climbing higher and higher on horns, violas and cellos.
Tongues of fire II
The opening gesture is recapitulated and expanded into a sustained climax; then the brass again insist on E flat against babbling woodwind textures, wide-spaced string chords and wild percussion breaks.
Fulfilment and rest
A long concluding section of slow-moving harmonies, gradually rising through the strings and brass, with piano and woodwind figuration lapping gently around them like waves. At the climax of a big crescendo, the stabbing repeated quintuplet chords of Tongues of fire are heard for the last time; then the texture gradually dissolves into a shimmer of harp, celesta and pitched percussion, and solo cello and vibraphone outline the melody of the arch once more. Finally, when all motion and activity have been stilled, the solo cello is left undulating between two notes, D and E, before a final glissando up to a D sharp and silence.
The title Pentecost Music, together with the subtitle Tongues of fire, refers to the Biblical account of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. The opening gesture of the work even seems an appropriate musical equivalent to the verse ‘And suddenly there was a sound from heaven as of a rushing wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.’ The score is full of suggestions of Gregorian plainchant, including salient phrases from the Whitsuntide hymns Veni creator spiritus and Veni sancte spiritus. The subtitle of the sixth section, at the still point . . . comes from a cycle of poems imbued with images of Christian mystical illumination, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; so, too, (in fact from the other end of the same passage in Burnt Norton) does the motto prefixed to the whole work, “Only through time time is conquered”.
Yet the composer’s own account of his work is expressed in terms of the inner workings of the psyche rather than external revelation: ‘the piece is a sort of musical journey, a search for fulfilment and stability which takes the form of a long, unbroken arch of sound. The point of repose is arrived at only when the arch is completed, and the end becomes a new beginning’. And it is surely significant, too, that the Pentecostal gift of tongues bestowed on the apostles, so that ‘every man heard them speak in his own language’ is a potent metaphor for the direct communication between a composer and his audience in which Giles Swayne passionately believes.
© 1981/1990 Anthony Burton