Program Notes: The Hymn of the Winstanley Levellers

The Hymn of the Winstanley Levellers [1981]

This work is scored for unaccompanied mixed chorus, led by a quartet of solo voices. All are required to speak and sing, and the work can be semi-staged where desired and feasible.

The text is taken from the tract, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, or “The State of the Community opened and presented to the Sons of Man”, by, amongst others, one Gerrard Winstanley, a cloth merchant and leader of a pre-socialist group calling themselves “The True Levellers” or “Diggers”. On 20th April 1649, they attempted to put their form of proto-communism into practice by declaring a patch of land on St George’s Hill in Surrey (England) to be common property. In defence of their claim, they issued a declaration and tract which in my setting I have divided into four distinct but continuous parts.

The opening section, The Declaration, is declaimed by a Solo Male Speaker, declaiming with all the fervour of the Charismatics, part Christian Revivalist Meeting, part Hot Gospeller-Holy Roller assembly. The Chorus supports his declamation with vocal interjections and hand-clapping. The Solo Quartet presents the argument in the ensuing section called The Testament, accompanied by more interior reflections from the Chorus on the words “in the beginning of time...”. The third section, entitled The Commentary reinforces the argument further, this time in the guise of a peasant march. It is modal and strongly rhythmic, enunciated over an expanding web-like texture of wordless syllable from the Chorus.

An Old Testament text provides the basis for the concluding section called The Hymn. This can be sung by the Chorus alone, or joined by the audience/congregation. The music is in 7/8 time and is based on the hymn tune by Thomas Tallis deployed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his string “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”. Again, it is modal, but harmonized in a way which would have been appropriate for congregations of Oliver Cromwell’s no-frills Commonwealth (1649-1660). By this stage, all vestiges of fervour and zealotry have subsided in a calm statement of affirmation sung “with simple dignity”. Over the concluding Amens, the Solo Quartet recall the main premise of the work for a final time.

The Hymn of the Winstanley Levellers was written for the exuberant young members of the Sydney University Chamber Choir and their conductor Dr Nicholas Routley. They commissioned the work from the Music Board of the Australia Council and gave its first performance on 23rd May 1981 in the Ballarat Fine Arts Gallery in Ballarat, Victoria. This was the first of several performances they gave that year around Victoria as part of the Arts Victoria: Music 81 celebrations.

The work was composed at a time of some introspection and sadness: my father and I shared a common birthday, April 18, and he died barely a year before I completed this work, thus depriving us, for the first time, of a common birthday, over Easter 1981. And so I have dedicated it to his memory.

A year or so after I had completed the piece, in late 1981, I arrived in New Haven, Connecticut for postgraduate study at Yale University. There I discovered that several “Levellers” had settled in 1660 to escape the political repression that accompanied the restoration of King Charles II. Over and again, I have found aspects of my life coinciding with events of history, near and long past.

Copyright Vincent Plush, New Haven, CT. September 1981