Watch St John’s Dance

Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered my St. John’s Dance at the First Night of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall London on Friday, alongside Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring Igor Levit and a performance of John Adams’ Harmonium with the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Proms Youth Choir.

The performance was televised on BBC Four and on BBC Radio 3 (as well as various international stations). You can watch the performance here:

Here’s the programme note:

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.