Spindle of Necessity

The Spindle of Necessity (1997-98)
for solo Trombone, Strings and Percussion

Commissioned by the 1998 St. David’s Festival, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Wales, the British Trombone Society and the International Trombone Association.

The Spindle of Necessity was a concept invented by the ancient Greeks. It provided a model of the workings of the universe, with the sun, moon, five planets and fixed stars revolving around the earth (which was then thought to be at the centre of the universe). The Spindle is described in detail in the final part of Plato’s The Republic and it is from this description, and the events leading up to it, that my work takes its inspiration.

The Republic is usually remembered as a work of political philosophy, but in the last of its ten books Plato moves into the realm of myth: a Greek soldier, killed in battle, returns from the dead and recounts what he has witnessed of the afterlife and the workings of the cosmos. He tells of two great chasms in the earth and two in the sky, through which the souls of the dead are ordered to pass. The souls of the unjust descend into the earth, eventually returning stained with dust from travel, while the souls of the just enter into heaven and emerge pure and clean.

After comparing their experiences, the souls journey to the Spindle of Necessity, where they see the stars and planets revolving around a “shaft of light stretching from above straight through earth and heaven, like a pillar, closely resembling a rainbow, only brighter and clearer”. The heavenly bodies are pushed around their orbits by the three Daughters of Necessity, the Fates. A Siren stands over each circle thus described, and as she is carried around sings a note of constant pitch.

The pitch for each Siren is different, thus making a musical scale. It is from this idea that the notion of the Harmony of the Spheres evolved. Finally, having chosen their next mortal incarnation, the souls drink from the river of forgetfulness and return to life.

My work is in one continuous movement lasting about twenty minutes and its form is determined by certain key passages in the above description. The solo trombone represents the soldier who witnesses and comments upon events. At the opening he is heard in the distance – still, as it were, in the hereafter – before he metaphorically returns to the world of the living and joins the orchestra on stage.

In the second section the slow, heavy tread of low percussion and dense string harmonies represent the procession of souls through the underworld and their eventual emergence. By contrast, the next section is swift and athletic, illuminated by flashes of light in tuned percussion – all intended to evoke the journey of the souls through heaven. At its climax, the music settles on a massive sustained chord, before winding down to a slow section representing the Spindle of Necessity itself, with the planets slowly turning in their orbits each accompanied by its Siren. The harmony in this section is entirely built out of the natural overtones of the open strings and is underpinned by the unearthly sounds of glissandi played in natural harmonics.

The music recedes into the distance from where the sound of three solo violins, representing the three Daughters of Necessity, can be heard. They eventually become inaudible and the solo trombone is left alone, as at the opening, though now on stage, amongst the living – meditating on his strange celestial vision.

The Spindle of Necessity was composed for the trombonist Mark Eager, and it is to him that the score is dedicated.

John Pickard