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 was common.
My piece is a relentless series of dances – often spiralling out of control, often with two or more heard simultaneously.
‘Coult is a composer who spins glittering, teasingly ambiguous patterns out of simple-seeming material…His new piece St John’s Dance began with something even less promising – a wispy little phrase on a violin, repeated, leading to a few patterings on percussion. Then suddenly we were off into a capering dance punctuated by huge major chords, each hurled across the main melody at a peculiar angle. In its gleeful reinvention of familiar things and ostentatious brilliance Coult’s piece recalled Thomas Adès, but the music’s sly way of pulling the rug out from under its own feet, plunging from noise to near-silence, revealed a very individual voice.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
‘Tom Coult’s St John’s Dance, inspired by those medieval raves when hundreds danced themselves to death, grew from a hoarse squawk on solo fiddle into an apt frenzy of cross-rhythms punctuated by thumping brass chords. Then the whole process was repeated, with an added whimsy — a clarinettist producing literally disembodied shrieks on a half-dismantled instrument.
Weird but compelling; I loved it.’
Richard Morrison, The Times
‘He has a brilliant sense of orchestration…Coult manages to provide a sense of the wildness of St John’s Dance, sometimes juxtaposing dances in an attempt to conjure up the sheer hysterical-ecstatic nature of the experience…The piece is impeccably, imaginatively scored, with nods to Britten and Stravinsky…this is a terrifically imaginative piece that deserves frequent airing: it works perfectly both as opener and as orchestral showpiece.’
Colin Clarke, Seen and Heard
‘After an arresting opening – a single violin glassily seesawing between two notes, rich with overtones – the piece hurtles through several mini-dances, with woody tuned percussion, chattering winds and weighty thumps that bring to mind Stravinsky’s Kashchey from The Firebird; together, they conjure up the feeling of being trapped in repeated motion from which there is no escape. It’s a work of desperate yet joyous rhythmic drive.’
Erica Jeal, The Guardian
First Night of the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK
symphony orchestra: 3(III=picc).3(III=ca).3(II=Ebcl.III=bcl).3(III=cbsn) - 4.4.3(III=btrbn).1 - timp - perc(3): xyl/vib/mar/BD/tub bells/tam-t/tpl.bl/bongos - harp - strings (min 188.8.131.52.6)
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the First Night of the Proms 2017