In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes and Man: but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another. And if the Earth be not peculiar to any one branch or branches of mankind…Then is it Free and Common for all, to work together, and eate together.
As we wallow in our 21st-century mires of recession and environmental destruction, gluttonous children of a selfish and profoundly unequal society we seem to have no serious intention of reforming, it’s salutary to read these bracing words from a distant, more hopeful time. In 1649, as Parliament consolidated its triumph in the Civil War and Charles I mounted the scaffold, Gerrard Winstanley and his band of True Levellers climbed St George’s Hill, near Weybridge in Surrey, and began digging the earth to cultivate it for food.
Writing such as this, finding transcendence and exaltation in the simplest, most fundamental things in life, persuaded me to try and set Winstanley to music. Could it work? Winstanley is about collective action, and the act of music-making, of rehearsing and performing, is itself a direct engagement with this idea. Collective music-making embodies the co-operation and togetherness that binds a society together, and none more so than choral singing, which, whether a hymn or a requiem, allows us to articulate a shared thought together, not negating the individual but gathering all into a harmony made of many different parts.
Winstanley’s words, the product of an individual mind but aspiring to a collective ideal, fit perfectly into the mouths of a choir. My new work, The Freedom of the Earth, for chorus and an ensemble of 10 players, presents these highly modern ideas about society through this pre-eminently co-operative medium. The relation of music and text I envisaged was not so much a traditional ‘setting’, but more of an incorporation of the words into the texture of the music. I imagined two quite contrasted types of group expression: firstly, a rhythmic and energetic type of music, modelled on the idea of a street demonstration, where many voices are raised in protest, sometimes altogether, sometimes apart, sometimes clearly, sometimes lost in the crowd. Then the second part of the piece, setting texts from Winstanley’s great manifesto The True Levellers Standard Advanced, moves out of the streets, away from the city and onto the land, weaving together many independent strands of hymn-like material in different sections of the choir, as Winstanley describes the work of the Diggers and their aims.
At the centre, between these two halves, stand the words Winstanley claimed to have heard “in a Trance”:
Work together, Eate Bread together, Declare all this abroad.
An incredibly simple phrase, embodying the deepest aspirations. A society built on these foundations would be a big society indeed.
The Freedom of the Earth will be performed by New London Chamber Choir and London Sinfonietta
Monday 13 June
To read the full article as published by the Guardian, please click here.