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A Time to Dance

2012; Cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra; first performed in Sherborne Abbey by Ex Cathedra on 9 June 2012; commissioned by Lady Digby to mark the 50th anniversary of the Summer Music Society of Dorset

A Time to Dance was first performed in Sherborne Abbey on 9 June 2012 by Ex Cathedra, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. The work was commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer Music Society of Dorset, founded by its President and Artistic Director, Dione Digby, in 1963. The brief was to provide a large-scale, celebratory work, reflecting the passage of time and fifty years of music-making. The seed that set my creative juices flowing was the text which Lady Digby suggested as a possible starting point—the well-known passage from Ecclesiastes which I have used for the opening Processional. This lovely, profoundly human text provided the four key themes which permeate the whole work: times; seasons; love; dance.

The diurnal cycle of the hours and the annual cycle of the seasons are firm favourites with poets, offering as they do rich possibilities for metaphor. I decided to conflate the two cycles to make a four-part structure: Spring Morning; Summer Noon; Autumn Evening; Winter Night, and to characterize each with a different solo voice: soprano; tenor; alto; bass. The overall design is completed by a Prologue and an Epilogue, with different texts but in which the underlying depiction of sunrise by the orchestra and largely wordless choir is identical, so bringing us musically full circle. There are also two additional/optional ‘movements’—‘Times and Seasons’ which the choir sings at the start while entering in procession through the audience, and an After-dance, ‘Proper Exercise’ (more of which below).

I spent a considerable time researching and assembling the text, whittling down over one hundred poems to the final choice of twenty-nine, drawn from a wide variety of sources ranging from Ovid to Aphra Behn. The choice was made not just by the suitability of the texts, but also by how they speak to each other. I followed my usual practice of taking the poems for a walk, listening to their melodies and rhythms, and learning how they might dance. Apart from the text, however, the main influences on the music of A Time to Dance were Shakespeare, Bach and Skidmore.

This work is a culmination of seven years close association with Jeffrey Skidmore and his choir Ex Cathedra, during which they have given many premieres and recorded a double-album of my music (‘Shared Ground’). But just as valuable to me has been the time I have spent sitting in on rehearsals. Their wonderful sound is now deeply ingrained in my mind, so that the music I compose for the choir and for the vocal soloists drawn from its ranks is very much of them and for them. I have learned a great deal from Jeffrey’s inspired and brilliantly accomplished music-making. For example, it was his use of spatial effects in a concert of Vivaldi that gave me the idea for similar deployment of my trumpeters in A Time to Dance—left and right for the cock-crow fanfares cued by Edward Thomas’s words in No 2; distantly spaced for the echo effects of No 5; and all three together offstage in No 19 to represent the radiance of the Evening Star.

The influence of Bach arose from the simple fact that the new work was to be premiered alongside a performance of Bach’s Magnificat, and so it was a given that I would compose for the same forces: soloists, choir, and an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes (each doubling on oboe d’amore), bassoon, three trumpets, timpani, strings and a small ‘continuo’ organ. The only change I made was for the percussionist to put aside Bach’s timpani in favour of a pair of handbells to toll the passing hours, and an array of unpitched instruments to add a dash of colour where appropriate (such as the obbligato parts for desk bell, washboard and dinner gong in No 16). Composing for ‘period instruments’ was a fascinating challenge (most noticeable in the valveless trumpets with their limited range of notes), and I am most grateful to the members of the Ex Cathedra Baroque Ensemble for their advice.

The music of A Time to Dance is designed so that it can be played either on modern instruments or (as in this recording) on period instruments. But apart from the instrumentation I have not made any borrowings from Bach, although I have done something to which he himself was partial—borrowing from Vivaldi, as you may hear on four pertinent (not to say seasonable) occasions, some more obvious than others. I love how Bach’s music dances and I hope that mine does too, although where Bach might move to the rhythms of the gavotte, minuet or bourée, mine are more likely to be milonga, kuda lumping or disco.

One of the things I most enjoy about performances at Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Bankside is that when the play is over, the actors and musicians cap it with a celebratory after-dance or ‘jig’ in the Shakespearean tradition—a wonderful way of bringing performers and audience together in a communal letting-down-of-the-hair. After spending fifty minutes singing about dance, I thought it would be fun to have my singers lay down their music scores (I ensure they have to do this by giving them some hand-clapping to do), and actually dance. My After-dance sets words by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Davies, in which the very creation of the world itself is accomplished through dance (and, of course music).

from notes by Alec Roth © 2016


Roth: A Time to Dance & other choral works
Studio Master: CDA68144Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


No 01: Processional 'Times and Seasons'  To every thing there is a season
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-3, 5-8, 4

Track 1 on CDA68144 [3'08]
No 02: Prologue 'Sunrise'  Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
author of text
No 2: from Cock-Crow; The Trumpet; No 24: Lights out

Track 2 on CDA68144 [2'06]
No 03: Awake
author of text
No 3: from Awake, my heart

Track 3 on CDA68144 [1'36]
No 04: Infant joy  I have no name
author of text
No 4: Infant joy; No 12: The Fly; No 15: from To Autumn; No 19: from To the Evening Star

Track 4 on CDA68144 [1'10]
No 05: Dancing on the hill-tops
author of text
No 5: from Dancing on the hill-tops

Track 5 on CDA68144 [1'20]
No 06: Dance there
author of text
No 6: from To a Child Dancing

Track 6 on CDA68144 [1'55]
No 07: Nothing is so beautiful
author of text
No 7: from Spring

Track 7 on CDA68144 [1'06]
No 08: Let them love
author of text
No 8: lines 1-6 of Pervigilium Veneris (2nd/3rd century)
translator of text

Track 8 on CDA68144 [3'29]
No 09: In Summer's heat
author of text
No 9: The Fifth Elegy
translator of text

Track 9 on CDA68144 [3'37]
No 10: A something
author of text
No 10: from A something

Track 10 on CDA68144 [1'38]
No 11: Thirsty fly  Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
author of text
No 11: On a fly drinking out of his cup

Track 11 on CDA68144 [1'19]
No 12: Little fly
author of text
No 4: Infant joy; No 12: The Fly; No 15: from To Autumn; No 19: from To the Evening Star

Track 12 on CDA68144 [2'13]
No 13: Come, let us go
author of text
No 13: from Corinna’s Going a-Maying

Track 13 on CDA68144 [0'41]
No 14: Give all to love
author of text
No 14: from Give all to love

Track 14 on CDA68144 [2'52]
No 15: O Autumn
author of text
No 4: Infant joy; No 12: The Fly; No 15: from To Autumn; No 19: from To the Evening Star

Track 15 on CDA68144 [1'31]
No 16: Humdrum  When maidens are young
author of text
from The Emperor of the Moon II:5

Track 16 on CDA68144 [2'44]
No 17: Autumnal  No Spring nor Summer beauty hath such grace
author of text
No 17: from The Autumnal; No 20: from A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day

Track 17 on CDA68144 [3'03]
No 18: Fall, leaves, fall
author of text
No 18: from Fall, leaves, fall

Track 18 on CDA68144 [1'06]
No 19: The Evening Star  Thou fair-haired angel of the evening
author of text
No 4: Infant joy; No 12: The Fly; No 15: from To Autumn; No 19: from To the Evening Star

Track 19 on CDA68144 [4'00]
No 20: Deep midnight  The sun is spent, and now his flasks
author of text
No 17: from The Autumnal; No 20: from A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day

Track 20 on CDA68144 [1'31]
No 21: Snowflakes  Out of the bosom of the air
author of text
No 21: Snow-Flakes

Track 21 on CDA68144 [2'40]
No 22: Dregs  The fire is out, and spent the warmth thereof
author of text
No 22: from Dregs

Track 22 on CDA68144 [1'28]
No 23: A glee for Winter  Hence, rude Winter! crabbed old fellow
author of text
No 23: A glee for Winter

Track 23 on CDA68144 [2'12]
No 24: Lights out  I have come to the borders of sleep
author of text
No 2: from Cock-Crow; The Trumpet; No 24: Lights out

Track 24 on CDA68144 [4'19]
No 25: Epilogue 'Sunrise'  All Kings, and all their favourites
author of text
No 25 lines 1-9: from The Anniversary; lines 18-19: from The sun rising
author of text
No 25 lines 10-17: from My delight and thy delight

Track 25 on CDA68144 [3'21]
No 26: After-dance 'Proper Exercise'  Dancing, bright lady, then began to be
author of text
No 26: from Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing

Track 26 on CDA68144 [5'11]

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