Judith Weir: Stars, Night, Music and Light
Judith Weir was born in 1954 in Cambridge, and at a young age she began learning the oboe. Weir in her youth performed regularly with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. She studied composition whilst at school with none other than John Tavener. From here she then earned her place at Cambridge University, where she continued her composition studies. After she graduated she became heavily involved in music education in both the south of England and then Scotland. During this period she still composed, and it was mainly operas that allowed her to make a name for herself within the classical music world.
During the 1990s she became the resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it was at this time she wrote much more orchestral-based pieces. She also experimented by combining chorus and orchestra in many of her works.
During her lifetime thus far, Weir has been commissioned to write for some of the most professional orchestras and chorus’ in the world. She has also worked with notable conductors and soloists. Weir has travelled to the USA to work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1995 she received her CBE and then in 2007 the Queen’s Medal for Music. 2014 saw Weir appointed as Master of The Queen’s Music.
She now lives in London and is a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Cardiff universities. She was also appointed as Associate Composer to the BBC singers in 2015.
Stars, Night, Music and Light was commissioned for BBC Radio 3 in 2011, and was the opening work for the 2011 BBC Proms ceremony. The piece is a large-scale work for mixed voice chorus and orchestra.
The text is taken from George Herbert’s evocative poem, Man. Weir takes 3 lines from the sixth stanza of the poem, and bases the work on those particular words. Below the full poem, the bold text represents what Weir has used within the work.
My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation
But he that means to dwell therein.
What house more stately hath there been,
Or can be, than is man, to whose creation
All things are in decay?
For man is ev’ry thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is, or should be, more;
Reason and speech we only bring;
Parrots may thank us if they are not mute,
They go upon the score.
Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides;
Each part may call the furthest brother,
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.
Nothing hath got so far
But man hath caught and kept it as his prey;
His eyes dismount the highest star;
He is in little all the sphere;
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Find their acquaintance there.
For us the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heav’n move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.
The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head;
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause.
Each thing is full of duty;
Waters united are our navigation;
Distinguished, our habitation;
Below, our drink; above our meat;
Both are our cleanliness. Hath one such beauty?
Then how are all things neat!
More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of; in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
Oh mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.
Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a palace built, O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit,
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.
The poem takes the reader through various philosophical thoughts, with the main message being that humans are the supreme purpose of the creation of the universe. The poem uses traditional Christian perspectives on the relationships between humankind, nature and the God who created both of these things. It has been suggested that the poem echoes the sentiments from Psalm 8.
The piece begins with a bold timpani roll, which leads us into a textural layering of the whole brass section. This amounts to a brilliant fanfare-like proclamation, before everything begins to die away, ready for the chorus to enter. The long and smooth lines from the chorus is interjected at times by the trumpet, however this sentimental feel from the chorus never falters.
There is also an interlude from the organ, which offers a unique timbre within the orchestra. The chorus and orchestra then play a phrase all together, which creates unity and a really strong single voice. The line “music and light” is repeated, which gives a sense of importance. The timpani plays a roll again, which leads to a swelling of the brass and this quite bizarre organ phrase, which is made up of a two-note phrase.
The brass and organ are in musical dialogue underneath the singers. The constant repetition of ‘Music and Light’ really gives it a sense of direction and like the chorus are heading towards a light. An orchestral interlude is heard, before a slow build-up to the climax of the piece, which is led by the brass. The piece ends with the organ playing a strong tonic chord.
Weir’s extensive use of trumpet, timpani, organ and chorus makes this work a perfect fit for the opening ceremony of the BBC Proms. The grandeur of this music, as well as the context to go along with it, makes this bold work very striking indeed. The orchestra work hard to build momentum throughout, whilst the chorus hones in on the message of the text.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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