for orchestra, choir and soloists


- Instrumentation: -

soprano, tenor and bass soloists

- Duration: -

Approximately 25 minutes.

- Recordings & Soundclips: -

There is a good quality recording of this work (enquire via Daniel X Music).

- Score: -

Available from composer - please enquire.

- Origins/Commission/Dedications: -

Originally commissioned by The Thomas Tallis Society to mark the Millennium.

- Premieres/Performances: -

‘Alfege’ was premiered by The Thomas Tallis Society at St Alfege Church, Greenwich, London, 2000 (conducted by the composer).

- Composer’s comments: -

The origins of this work are so unusual they are worth recording in all their supernatural splendour.

I wanted to write a work – or works - to mark the Millennium: and with that goal in mind I contacteda choral group in Greenwich, London - The Thomas Tallis Society - believing their location on the Meridian lent itself well to my purpose. Having made contact with the choir, it was agreed that I would write two works. I accepted a commission fee of £3,000. This has a bearing upon the unfolding story and its sense of predestination...

Upon completion of the first work for the Thomas Tallis Society - ‘The Gates of Time’ - I agreed to meet with the Society’s representatives to discuss the subject of the second work. Before these discussions got under way, I went to stay with a friend in Gloucestershire. It was summer 1998 and we wanted to drive into the surrounding countryside. While consulting the admirable volumes by Nicholas Pevsner on the buildings of Britain, I discovered that not too far away – in the village of Deerhurst - was a church of improbable antiquity, being tenth-century in origin.

When we visited it, St Mary-at-Deerhurst proved to have the unmistakeable aura of spirituality. The only other location where I have felt this so strongly was on the island of Iona in Scotland. Even the setting was truly an extraordinary place: I recall huge poplar trees glittering in the sunlight and swaying in the wind. The church itself was unlike any building I have seen before or since. It had stark triangular windows and plain white walls, and despite its age reminded me of no building so much as Le Corbusier’s twentieth-century masterpiece at Ronchamp, Notre Dame du Haut. I recall vaguely reading in the church about Alfege, the martyred eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury, who began his monastic career in this haunting place.

The next day I went with my friend to visit the Rollright Stones, a local stone circle. It was abandoned except for a feckless long-haired youth who leered at us. I tried to photograph the stones but the camera jammed and started to emit a high-pitched screech. It went on screeching all the way back to Cheltenham.

A few days later - back in London - I arrived at the church in Greenwich where The Thomas Tallis Society is based, in order to continue our discussions on what I should write. I don’t think I had even noticed that it was the Church of St Alfege - or at least the penny hadn’t dropped. Even when the choir suggested that the second work I was to write for them should be an oratorio on the life of St Alfege, I don’t think I made any connection with my experience of a few days earlier. But when I began to read the section in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on Alfege’s life, I realized that the monk who began his career at the tenth-century church in Deerhurst and the Archbishop of Canterbury who died on the site of the church in Greenwich were one and the same person.

Of course, from that moment on I couldn’t see the encounter in Gloucestershire as anything other than a calling to create a work that told the story of this little-known saint.

One more thing. Alfege had met his martydom when he had been kidnapped and then beaten to death by the Danes - on the very spot in Greenwich where the church now stands - when he had refused to let a ransom be paid for him. The legend says that the oars used to kill him were left, drenched in his blood, on the soil in Greenwich: but that the next morning a fragrant ash tree had grown from them, covered in blossom.

The ransom fee that he refused to allow the church to pay for his life (so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records) was £3,000.

- Keith Burstein, 16th November 2009



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