David Knotts - Composer, Pianist, Conductor

Composer, Pianist, Conductor

From Crystal Heav’ns Above – for violin and chamber orchestra


Instrumentation: Solo Violin 2 oboes 2 horns in F Percussion (1 Player) Big Bass Drum Cabassa Glockenspiel Sanctus bell Tambourine 3 x Timps (C,D & F) Harp Strings

Duration: c. 18.30'

First Performance: From Crystal Heav'ns Above was premiered in May 2013 by Simon Blendis with St Paul's Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Morley in St Alfege Church in Greenwich.

Commissioned By: St Paul's Sinfonia

From Crystal Heav'ns Above was written for Simon Blendis, and for St. Alfege church in Greenwich, the venue of its premiere. I’ve known Simon for many years and written several pieces for the piano quintet, the Schubert Ensemble, a group Simon’s been a part of since 1995. Writing a piece with a particular performer in mind is a very special part of the composer’s job and I hope that this work reflects something of Simon’s musical personality: I always feel that there’s great sincerity and honesty in Simon’s playing; there’s humour and wit too and great tenderness. The three movements of this piece reflect all of these qualities.

As someone who also lived in Greenwich for many years, I’ve known St Alfege church for a long time too and the work also became influenced by its history. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) is often called the father of English music. He lived in Greenwich and is supposed to be buried in this church. My starting point for the piece was William Byrds’ elegy, written on the death of his musical mentor and father figure, Thomas Tallis:

Ye sacred Muses, race of Jove,
whom Music's lore delighteth,
Come down from crystal heav'ns above
to earth where sorrow dwelleth,
In mourning weeds, with tears in eyes:
Tallis is dead, and Music dies.

The image of the sacred muses coming down from above to bestow their inspiration on fellow composers inspired the soundworld of the opening movement: the solo violin lines become higher and higher, climbing up to a very celestial top C at the end of the movement. The second movement celebrates St Alfege, ransomed and held in Greenwich by the Danish pirates in the 11th century. His abduction and murder, (he was bludgeoned with death by ox bones) proceeded the miracle and eventual canonization: a wooden Danish oar dipped in his blood at the site of his murder was transformed into a sprouting branch the next morning. Commentators wrote of his body being carried aloft by a great dancing procession and this rather ghoulish cortège sees Alfege’s body carried aloft by crowds of ecstatic believers. The concluding movement is a meditation on Byrd’s elegy for Thomas Tallis: over a gentle-rocking accompaniment, the soloists weaves an elaborate filigree melody – fragments of Byrd’s original are heard and I imagine the ghost of Tallis wandering around the church where he must have spent much of his life.