New "Variations on a Theme by Purcell"

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Friday, September 14, 2018

The year 2002 marked the 10th anniversary of BBC Music Magazine, and to commemorate the occasion, the magazine’s editor asked the British composer Colin Matthews to coordinate a bold commissioning idea: a set of seven orchestral variations on a theme by Henry Purcell, a tune entitled “Hail, Bright Cecilia.”

The resulting suite, called “Bright Cecilia Variations,” had its premiere on today’s date in 2002 at a “Last Night of the Proms” concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with the BBC Symphony led by its American conductor, Leonard Slatkin.

This is Colin Matthew’s orchestration of the Purcell theme, which was followed by Matthew’s original variation, and in turn by six other variations. These were written by three additional British composers, namely Judith Weir, David Sawer and Anthony Payne, plus one each by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, and the American Michael Torke.

Of his variation, Torke had this to say: “I wanted to create almost a jungle frenzy, by having four drummers from the percussion section playing tom-toms, and shadowing those rhythmic beatings with melodic woodwind and brass fragments all drawn from the original theme… The result is vigorous, which I hope will help express one of the notions I believe is vitally important in classical music.”