St John's Dance


Full Orchestra
picc.2.3.ebcl.2(II=bcl).2.cbsn - 4.4.2.btrbn.1 - timp - perc(3): I: xyl/pair of roto toms/2 II: t.bells/mar/tam-t/BD (may be shared with III) III: pair of bongos/BD (may be shared with II) - harp - strings Performance Note: Clarinet 1 is required to play a ‘half-clarinet’ at bar 122. This is created by placing the mouthpiece directly on the lower half of the instrument. The player might use a separate instrument for this, though time is given to change the setup during rests. The majority of Bb instruments will be able to achieve this arrangement – if player I’s instrument cannot and no spare is used, this part may be performed by player II or by the E flat clarinettist (on a Bb half clarinet).
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3
First Performance
14.7.2017, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner

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Programme Notes
My piece is a relentless series of dances – often spiralling out of control, sometimes with more than one heard simultaneously. A solo violin opens the piece, leading to a hesitant swaying dance in percussion and plucked strings. The second and most prominent dance is for full orchestra driven by the four trumpets, before the strings, tubular bells and muted brass outline a third dance. Elsewhere, we hear the solo violin again, and the first dance rapidly accelerates and is joined by a demented clarinet.
St John’s Dance was a form of mass hysteria that periodically afflicted European peasants in the middle ages. People would start dancing involuntarily and wouldn’t be able to stop for weeks and sometimes months on end. The condition seemed to be contagious, and would sometimes result in many hundreds of people dancing in groups, often until they collapsed from exhaustion. In 1278 around 200 people died when a mass dance caused a bridge to collapse into the River Meuse. Many dancers would experience a state of ecstasy, remove their clothes or shout out the names of the saints they were hallucinating. For most, however, it seemed a horrific experience – writhing, screaming and foaming at the mouth were common.

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