Symphony No. 1 – In Tempore Stellae (1998)

“In tempore stellae uses a wide range of texts ranging from the Bible to modern poetry, to portray chaos and creation, human sensuality and the exhilaration of flight.

Schultz agrees that by composing a symphony for voices, he is, to some extent, following the precedent Mahler set with his 8th Symphony and The Song of the Earth. Like Mahler, he has drawn on texts with personal resonance. The theme – our relation to the stars – is profoundly philosophical. But while he has set texts that speak of God, Schultz insists the work is humanist, not religious. The son of a clergyman, he maintains his own attitude to religion is “far too complicated to describe”.

Although not yet 40, the Adelaide-born composer’s prolific and widely acclaimed output has earned him his current position as Head of Music Studies and Composition at London’s Guildhall School of Music. Since 1978 he has written chamber works, orchestral and instrumental miniatures, a concerto, and the prize-winning opera Black River, later filmed. All this, and yet In tempore stellae is his first symphony.

“I’ve waited to do it in a way that said something to me; it needed to be on a substantial scale so as to deal with some humanist-philosophical elements,” he says, adding that he has several pieces which “might have turned into a symphony”, but never truly satisfied his need.

The perfect moment came in 1995, when Schultz received a commission for a large-scale choral and orchestral work from the Melbourne Chorale with the backing of Arts Victoria. At first, he says, he planned to base the whole work on sensuous Asian poetry. But when Peter Greenaway’s film, The Pillow Book was released in 1996, he returned to an idea that had taken root 10 years earlier when he saw the aviators’ war memorial in York Minster.

The memorial was an astronomical clock. The otherness of “time outside the normal way we measure things”, of man’s struggle to understand and explore the universe took hold, and finally flowered as a three-movement symphony.

The work opens with a percussive sound that represents the clacking of an airport arrivals and departures board. “This is both mechanical and intensely personal,” he says, explaining that the signals are not only public announcements but also private messages to individuals flying from or about to meet somebody. The text is a real test for the sopranos; they must list the celestial bodies, using both scientific and popular names.

Each movement offers opportunities for powerful expression. Chaos into order in the first, elemental conquest in the third – “a joined imagery of the joy of flight mixed with the destruction of war” says Schultz.

In contrast to the opening and closing movements, the middle movement expresses some of the most sensual poetry in music since Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. Seductive solo voices emerge from a miasma of choral murmurings. Sandwiched between two Japanese pillow book texts to an excerpt from one of David Malouf’s love poems. Malouf’s poetry, says Schultz, is the Australian connection in a more universal work.

The music is pervaded by a sense of wonder and insignificance inspired by a star-filled sky. Schultz laughs when I suggest this is a memory of Australia. “I think I’ve hardly seen the stars for 18 months since moving here,” he says. He recalls growing up in a family required to move around Australia to follow his father’s calling.

“The experience of being in the Northern Territory, watching the stars and even the satellites move across the sky was so extraordinary . stars seem so large when you’re in the outback.”

Many critics have noted that much of Schultz’ writing has a power to communicate with the listener in an almost visceral sense. He had once said he clings to “the knowledge that music has the power to strike the listener dumb with terror or grief and open inner worlds of astounding beauty”. Will we experience this today? He laughs. “I’m sure you will.”

[Andrew Scott, The Sunday Age, 6 December 98]

“This is a large, three movement work for two sopranos, choir and orchestra. The focus is a quasi-spiritual one, in as much as it is about “the duality of the inspiring vastness of space and time, against the frail but grim determination of human suffering.” . . . . There was certainly to be found a vastness in the music, particularly in the first two movements. It reminded me in scope of Arvo Part’s drawn-out sense of atmospheric space. … highly effective orchestration and the varying musical components for the soloists.” [Joel Crotty, The Age, 8 December 1998]