Julian Anderson: The Stations of the Sun

Julian Anderson (b.1967)

The Stations of the Sun

He may not be linked in the press with rock stars, but Julian Anderson's career has been in its way just as meteoric as Joby Talbot's - Proms commissioned, acclaimed composer in residence with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, ubiquitous programmer and proselytiser for contemporary music, and Harvard professor are all things he can lay claim to before his 40th birthday, which he celebrates this year, and he is, alongside his contemporary Thomas Adès, now at the forefront of Britain's classical music establishment.

The Stations of the Sun was commissioned by the BBC for the 1998 Proms, and was the work which brought Anderson to widespread attention. The composer describes it thus:

"The title The Stations of the Sun refers not to any religious rite, but to the changing positions of the sun through each day, and through the seasons. Three years ago I read Ronald Hutton's fascinating book of the same name, explaining the origins of folk customs through the year - giving an egg at Easter, ceremonies for the winter solstice, and so forth; it immediately suggested ideas for a new orchestral piece. Instead of a literal programmatic approach, however, I decided to let the music take its own shape whilst keeping the idea of a seasonal cycle in mind as a background. The superficial form of the piece is quite simple - four linked sections plus a coda. As the music progresses, there is an increasing amount of interruption and cross-referencing, so that the true form of the piece is much more elusive and ambiguous. The following outline is not a blow-by-blow account, but a rough guide for those who wish it. The woodwind launch the work abruptly into a scherzo, presenting the simple melodic patterns to which much subsequent music can be more or less directly traced in an exuberant polyphonic dance. A cascading series of these melodies side-steps into a slow movement, mainly for the strings: at first a set of variations, with the theme presented by the violins alone, it soon develops into a continuous song with varied harmonic and polyphonic colours. A very fast dance for the flutes, clarinets and Japanese temple bells intervenes and the quickening pace releases a new scherzo. This is another variation on the slow movement theme, now revealed as the plainsong Alleluia Adorabo ["I shall worship in your holy temple"] - first on the strings, then on brass and wind, all accompanied by drums. The central plateau of the work follows: a long, ecstatic melody played mainly by the trumpets, extending and varying the plainsong, is surrounded and eventually overwhelmed by carillons on the rest of the orchestra. Here the music abandons equal temperament to include a small number of chords with microtones - chosen for their resonance and varied colour. The dance with drums is twice resumed, but now cross-cut with other musical characters, including an increasingly violent brass chorale used as a varied refrain. The tension is finally released in a polyphonic texture for the whole orchestra that precipitates the work's main climax: an evocation of Easter with an explosion of bells, both real and imaginary. As to the coda: a single six-octave mode gently resounds around the whole orchestra as many melodic and harmonic elements of the piece combine and unite for the first time in the work's only tutti - the harmonic goal towards which the entire work has been heading. A sudden 'zoom' at the very end denies the music any safe conclusion, suggesting instead the beginning of something new which is cut off before we can fully glimpse it."

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