The Freedom of the Earth

2011

SATB choir and mixed ensemble (cl, bcl, asax(=ssax), tsax, vn, vla, vc, cb, gtr, pno, + amplification)

29′

Commissioned by New London Chamber Choir in celebration of its 30th anniversary

Text: Gerard Winstanley

f.p. New London Chamber Choir, London Sinfonietta, James Weeks (conductor), Spitalfields Festival, London, 13th June 2011

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The Freedom of the Earth is a setting of texts taken from manifestoes and pamphlets by Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers. The Diggers were a group of landless poor who, led by Winstanley, occupied common land on St George’s Hill, near Weybridge in Surrey in 1649, attempting to become self-sufficient by growing crops in the meagre soil: ‘working together, and eating the fruits of their own labours’. Winstanley’s ideal, articulated in the pamphlet ‘The Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored’, which he dedicated to Cromwell in the hope that he would take note, was of a society in which all are equal and free, buying and selling are outlawed, land is owned and cultivated in common, and society so organised that all who contribute to it are given an equal share in its fruits. The beauty and justice of these ideas are as urgent now as ever.

The Freedom of the Earth is in two parts, representing Thought and Action respectively, and separated by a short section in which the choir sings words Winstanley claimed to have heard in a vision: ‘Work together, Eate Bread together, Declare all this abroad.’

Part 1 – Revolutionary Thought
This part of the work is the last in a series of South London Harmonies for mixed ensembles, in progress since 2008 (hence the subtitle The Spitalfields Harmony). Continuing my abiding interest in elemental or rudimentary musical materials, it is made out of roughly bundled lines, each very restricted in pitch and rhythm. The music has the character of a street demonstration, the chorus articulating the text like a crowd, usually rhythmically but often in a dense counterpoint, and moving between speech and singing.

Part 2 – Radical Action
After Winstanley’s vision, the second part of the work moves out from the city onto the land. Led by the guitar, the instruments move into the auditorium and pursue independent cycles of repeated ‘action’ motifs, transformed from the elemental materials of Part 1. The chorus, using texts from the Digger manifesto itself, describes (again in a mixture of speech and singing) the labour of the Diggers. The choral material is a hymn-like ‘plain-singing’, built again from very rudimentary materials into more and more complex layers as the music continues. After a fleeting glimpse of an abundant and harmonious universe (‘The clouds send down raine’) the music is cut short with one of Winstanley’s most famous lines, a call to stop writing and talking and to take direct action.

Preview article in The Guardian, 9th June 2011 here