Reflections on Prague: The Story So Far!

Posted on June 28, 2010

Young composer, Gavin Higgins, blogs about his assignment to create a new work to be played as part of Manchester Camerata’s concert on 25 September 2010.

“About two months ago I was selected from a number of applicants to write a piece for the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, something I was very excited to be involved with. Not only is the orchestra based in my adopted ‘home city’, they even rehearse in my old college, the RNCM. 

The concert in which my new work will receive its premiere has been fashioned around the theme ‘Prague’ and as such, I was asked to ensure that my new work was in someway, however tenuously, linked to the theme. So, I thought, ‘I need to get back out to Prague and look for some inspiration’.

I booked flights and began researching the city. With my ‘dark sided’ interests (to quote a crazy American evangelist) I was gripped by the idea of a chapel made from bones. Sedlec ossuary is actually situated about an hour outside of Prague in Kutna Hora, a town that wears the signs of its Soviet past like an old jumper.

  Composer Gavin Higgins

This incredible church is decorated with over 40,000 human skeletons; bones cling to walls, skulls look perversely on at a sacrificed Jesus and rib cages form an elaborate chandelier at the very centre of the chapel.

The church was consecrated on soil brought from the Holy land and as such, thousands of people desired to be buried here. When the Black Death broke out in the 14th Century, the small graveyard was overrun with bodies. It was decided to commission someone to get rid of the bones and what resulted was the ornately decorated crypt.

Although a visit to this church was the main purpose of my trip, I did not feel this was the right subject matter for my new work – it was too religious and not as perverse as I had expected.

Instead I have taken my inspiration from the Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Town. My fascination with clockwork creations and the macabre drew me to a particular character on the clock – The skeletal figure of Death who, every hour on the hour, ominously turns an hourglass and rings a bell. I found the idea of a clockwork Death interesting and began thinking about the cycles of life and death. We exist purely in the moment; all things die and from this comes new life. Over vast periods of time things quite literally evolve, but Death is always there, turning his hourglass.

I also took inspiration from the book The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins. The title is taken from William Paley’s ‘Watchmaker’ analogy; A metaphorical attempt at proving God exists by comparing the complexities of the natural world to the intricacies of a clock. In the book Dawkins discusses the beauty of Darwinism and shows how the evidence of evolution can completely destroy the ‘intelligent design’ argument.

What is most breathtaking about evolution is how over unfathomable amounts of time, living organisms have changed, adapted and evolved into the incredible array of animals, plants and minds that exist today. What’s even more incredible is that over unfathomable periods of time we will continue to change, adapt and evolve.

Of course these are big topics and something I can hardly hope to do justice to in a short orchestral piece. Instead, the piece is really an exploration of the organic (in the form of strings and wind) verses the cold and relentless chimes of time (brass). Juddering ‘Bells’ occur relentlessly throughout whilst the wind and strings change, adapt and evolve. “

Hear a Podcast with Gavin Higgins

Listen to Camerata’s Head of Artistic Planning, Manus Carey, talk about this concert 

See Details of the Mozart and Prague concert

Visit Gavin’s website  

More about SAM (Sound and Music)

Visit the Manchester Camerata Blog