In my music, I have frequently tried to portray the sky, stars and planets. For instance, Airs from another Planet is a suite of 'traditional music from outer space'; Ascending in to Heaven describes a staircase into the sky, on the way to the Celestial City; and Isti mirant Stella is a picture of Haley's Comet. My opera A Night at the Chinese Opera begins with a Night Watchman gazing so raptly at the stars that he does not see the invading forces of Genghis Khan crawling around the streets of the city he is guarding.
When I began a new work to be performed under the immense dome of the Albert Hall, it seemed time to return to this subject again. With the 'aura' of the piece in my head, I began to search for a text which could be in the background of the piece, as a kind of motto or caption for what I then heard as a series of spacious orchestral tableaux. Many texts were considered and rejected (very often poems about the universe come attached to some specific piece of religious baggage) until I discovered Emily Dickinson's Ah, Moon and Star!
Dickinson's view of the vastness of space, expressed in this poem, seems, as her work so often does, startlingly modern. In expressing her idea that the universe is as large as we can imagine, with an even bigger bit attaches whose dimensions we can only theorise about, she seems to be some years ahead of present-day thought on the subject. As ever, her poem is densely packed with bejewelled imagery unthinkable by anyone else; the idea of small objects like 'a Bonnet of a Lark' and 'a Chamois' Silver Boot' hurtling around in outer space kept me entertained for months whilst I wrote this piece.
Moon and Star, however, is not simply a setting of a favourite poem. My intention was to write an orchestral piece with a small chorus included as part of the available sound. The text acts as a philosophical motto to the music (rather as an abstract painting has a caption) but the sung poem is not always heard in the foreground of the composition. The idea of using a vocal group as an orchestral colour has been round a long time but - for obvious logistic reasons - instances of its use are comparatively rare. In this piece, the voices are most used as a source of textural richness, in wide harmonic paragraphs.
The orchestra of Moon and Star is likewise designed to portray the idea of musical height and distance. There is a preponderance of high instruments; triple woodwind (including three piccolos), four trumpets, high violins, bell-like percussion.
After an opening paragraph perched right at the top of the orchestra, the main harmonic material of the piece is set out in a kind of chorale where trumpets and women's voices predominate. The strange images of the poem's second verse are then tossed around by the choir in close harmony, followed by another chorale-like section, with brasses, strings and chorus moving at different paces, which also exploits the depths of the ensemble. This leads into a brighter orchestral dance, and the music finally disappears into the atmosphere, via a cloud of choral sound laced with distant trumpetings. The duration of Moon and Star is around fifteen minutes.
Moon and Star was commissioned by the BBC for the first concert in the 1995 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers, conducted Andrew Davis in the Royal Albert Hall, London on 1 August 1995.
Ah, Moon - and Star!
You are very far -
But were no one Farther than you -
Do you think I'd stop
For as Firmament - Or a Cubit - or so?
I could borrow a Bonnet
Of a Lark -
And a Chamois' Silver Boot
And a stirrup of an Antelope -
And be with you - Tonight!
But, Moon and Star,
Though you're very far - There is one - farther than you -
He - is more than a Firmament - from Me
So I can never go!
© Judith Weir