Programme Notes – A Distant Mirror (1999-2000)

For Brass Band

The title of this piece is borrowed from the American author Barbara Tuchmann’s extraordinary book about ‘The Calamitous 14th Century’. In it she describes as ‘on the one hand an age of chivalry and princely splendour, of Gothic cathedrals, of superbly illuminated chronicles…on the other hand it was an age of chaos and ferocity, of social disruption, collapsing assumptions and a cult of death.’ In this fifteen-minute work I have attempted to conjure up the spirit of the era with its combination of the elemental and the mystical, the brutal and the courtly. The medium of the brass band seemed appropriate to express both the barbaric splendour and the harshness of life in medieval Europe after the Black Death. While certain musical characteristics and compositional techniques of the fourteenth century are touched upon, I hope this piece has a contemporary feel.

A Distant Mirror is in three movements. The first movement is in a playful 6/8 time illustrating ‘the childishness noticeable in medieval behaviour, with its marked inability to restrain any kind of impulse.’ The harmonic language becomes increasingly harsh leading to a kind of grotesque paralysis. The middle movement, evoking the grandeur and mysticism of the great cathedrals is an adaption of a Gregorian plainchant. An inevitable melodic ascent from tuba via euphonium and B flat cornet to soprano cornet is underpinned by the sound of bells and gentle impressionistic murmurings from massed cornets and horns.

The start of the last movement is deceptively naïve; a light footed dance for five players with prominent hemiola rhythms is repeated twice before being brutally submerged by crude dissonances from the rest of the band, which then launches into an all-embracing processional. The imitative writing in the upper parts looks forward to the era of Giovanni Gabrielli, but the prominent consecutive fifths in horns and euphoniums and the obscene pedal notes from the bowels of the trombones are a reminder of the general coarseness undermining any show of dignity. Towards the end, the dainty skipping rhythms from the start of the movement make an ill-advised attempt to reassert themselves before being swallowed in the bludgeoning inevitability of the final procession.