For Choir and Saxophone Quartet


June 9, 2014

Gavin’s Notes:

The Fifth Century (2014)

Dedicated to The Crossing, in memoriam Jeff Dinsmore

This large-scale work for choir and saxophone quartet sets a text from the English poet and theologian Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, taking lines from the last section “The Fifth Century”. As with all vocal works, for me, the most critical thing to establish is the text and it was the director of The Crossing, Donald Nally, director of The Crossing, who suggested that I look at the writings of Thomas Traherne.

Although Traherne lived in the 17th century, his work was unknown for over 200 years, and was first published in the first decade of the 20th century. It has an intense spirituality, celebrating the glory of creation, his almost intimate relationship with God and leading, in the final section to an apotheosis in which he declaims the “essence of God”. In many ways his work is astonishingly modern with its unwitting “Eastern” sound and feeling. The constant recurrence of certain images and abstract nouns is a feature of the language and is reflected in the musical setting:

There are seven sections, taking material from the different sections within Traherne’s final chapter, the “Fifth Century of Meditation” and while the musical setting is not complex, there are multiple divisi within the choir. The saxophone quartet – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone – has a prologue and short interludes but the instrumental writing is relatively restrained. In some movements the saxophone accompaniment is quite busy, whereas at times the choir is virtually a capella.

The work was commissioned by The Crossing, to my mind North America’s finest choir, for performance with the saxophone quartet Prism.
Our recording of the work on ECM was awarded a Grammy in 2018 for Best Choral Performance

Text, from Thomas Traherne Centuries of Meditation

I (from Traherne V.3)

We see the heavens with our eyes, and know the world with our senses. But had we no eyes, nor senses, we should see infinity like the Holy Angels. The place wherein the world standeth, were it all annihilated would still remain, the endless extent of which we feel so really and palpably, that we do not more certainly know the distinctions and figures and bounds and distances of what we see, than the everlasting expansion of what we feel and behold within us. It is an object infinitely great and ravishing: as full of treasures as full of room, and as fraught with joy as capacity. To blind men it seemeth dark, but is all glorious within, as infinite is light and beauty as extent and treasure… A cabinet of infinite value, equal in beauty, lustre, and perfection to all its treasures. It is the Bosom of God, the Soul and Security of every Creature.

II (from Traherne V.4)

As sure as there is a Space infinite, there is a Power, a Bounty, a Goodness, a Wisdom infinite, a Treasure, a Blessedness, a Glory.

III (from Traherne V.5)

Infinity of space is like a painter’s table, prepared for the ground and field of those colours that are to be laid thereon…. As the table is infinite so are the pictures. God’s Wisdom is the art, His Goodness the will, His Word the pencil, His Beauty and Power the colours, His Pictures are all his Works and Creatures. Infinitely more real and more glorious, as well as more great and manifold than the shadows of a landscape.

IV (from Traherne V.7)

Eternity is a mysterious absence of times and ages: an endless length of ages always present, and for ever perfect… All ages being but successions correspondent to those parts of the Eternity wherein they abide, and filling no more of it, than ages can do. Whether they are commensurate with it or no, is difficult to determine. But the infinite immovable duration is Eternity, the place and duration of all things, even of infinite space itself: the cause and end, the author and beautifier, the life and perfection of all.

V (from Traherne V.8)

Eternity magnifies our joys exceedingly… Eternity retains the moments of their beginning and ending within itself…. Like the sun we dart our rays before us, and occupy those spaces with light and contemplation which we move towards, but possess not with our bodies.

VI (from Traherne V.9)

His omnipresence is our …field of joys, a transparent temple of infinite lustre, a strong tower of defence, a castle of repose, a bulwark of security, a palace of delights, an immediate help, and a present refuge in the needful time of trouble, a broad and a vast extent of fame and glory, a theatre of infinite excellency, an infinite ocean by means whereof every action, word and thought is immediately diffused like a drop of wine in a pail of water, and everywhere present, everywhere seen and known, infinitely delighted in, as well as filling infinite spaces… It makes our honour infinite in extent, our glory immense, and our happiness eternal. The rays of our light are by this means darted from everlasting to everlasting.

VII (from Traherne V.10)

Our Bridegroom and our King being everywhere, our Lover and Defender watchfully governing all worlds, no danger or enemy can rise to hurt us… Delights of inestimable value are there preparing, for everything is present by its own existence. The essence of God…being all light and knowledge, love and goodness, care and providence, felicity and glory, a pure and simple act…is wholly busied in all parts and places of His dominion, perfecting and completing our bliss and happiness.


Sixth section of The Fifth Century

Gavin Bryars