for solo piano and strings
Elgar had his Wand of Youth suites, and Britten his Simple Symphony: in both cases mature compositions which took as their material music written by the each of the composers in their childhood. My Desiderata Dances are much in the same tradition, for though completed in September 2014 they were started, in a somewhat different form, way back in 1977 when I was only fourteen.
At that time I was given a copy (on a poster) of Max Ehrmann's famous prose poem Desiderata (meaning "Things to be desired") which begins with the words "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence". At this age I was an ambitious though not yet very accomplished composer, and had the idea of setting the whole text to music in a work of epic proportions for huge choir and orchestra. The resulting work showed that while I might have shown some promise as a melodist, I had little sense of what was sensible, practical and appropriate for a performable choral piece, and not much idea of effective word-setting - so the finished score was consigned to a drawer for the better part of the next 40 years!
When Daventry Choral Society invited me to perform some of my own piano pieces for their 25th Anniversary concert, I remembered my long-lost juvenile scribblings, both from the original setting and from other short pieces I had written around the same time. Four of these ideas I reworked, during September 2014, into a suite for piano and strings, each of which reflects a mood from the poem, bearing one of Ehrmann's lines as its title.
One of the most interesting aspects of revisiting this old material was being able to spot the musical influences upon my developing style, which I suspect I wasn't truly aware of at the time! There are many traces of Vaughan Williams (folk song arrangements in particular, and also the Tallis Fantasia for strings, both of which I met for the first time in my schooldays); also (and quite amusingly) the rapid piano arpeggios in the last movement, which I am now quite sure came from Cat Stevens' 70s hit Morning has Broken - not many people know that the session pianist on that famous recording who was responsible for those little cascades of gold was the great Rick Wakeman, another childhood hero of mine.
All of the new movements are faithful to my original melodies and harmonies, but now restructured and properly orchestrated. The last of the Dances is closest to its original, and to me fully sums up the nature of the Desiderata poem:
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars: you have a right to be here; and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the world is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you perceive him to be; and whatever your labours and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
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