The dying emperor Tamburlaine (1336-1405) asked for his resting place to be marked “with only a stone, and my name upon it”. This stone, the largest piece of jade in the world, lies in the Gur Emir, his mausoleum which now lies in quiet backstreets close to the centre of Samarkand. Only in the early morning light is the rich green of the jade apparent; otherwise it appears black, in stark contrast to the hall that houses it, the walls of which are a dazzling array of blue and gold geometric patterns, clusters of stalactites and ornate calligraphy. Beneath this hall, in a dark crypt entered with a bribe, lies the real grave of Tamburlaine, a simple stone replica of the jade cenotaph. Though this ‘double’ tomb was in fact the custom for the burial of important people, it seemed to me to be a metaphor for Samarkand itself, the once glorious hub of the silk route that had been razed to the ground at least twice, so that underneath the present Sovietized city, with its comparatively recent ruins dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries, lies the true essence of this legendary place.
These thoughts, on seeing the monstrous Tamburlaine’s tomb, formed the initial impulse to write an orchestral piece based on my Central Asian experiences. The title; ‘Great Game’, is a phrase coined by Lieutenant Arthur Connolly of the 6th Bengal Native Light Cavalry that came to describe the secret hostilities between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia in the inhospitable mountains and deserts of Central Asia. Hair raising tales of espionage and fortune hunting that eclipse any ‘Boys Own’ story abound from this period, not least Connolly’s own death, flung into the Emir of Bukhara’s “Bug Pit” and then beheaded in Bukhara’s town square.
Thus ‘Great Game’ abounds in secret processes and musical codes. One clue that bubbles to the surface include a Tadjik folk-tune that I wrote down after hearing a traditional group playing in the idyllic courtyard of the Gaukushan Madrasa in Bukhara. My main intention, however, was to convey the rich and confusing atmosphere of this area, the baked khaki coloured houses, the mixture of race and cultures, the ruined splendour of the mosaics and the clash of turquoise domes against the deep blue of the sky.
‘Great Game’ lasts 20 minutes and is a continuous piece that divides into four main sections. The first, opening with a summons on solo viola and ‘cello, explores an obsessive three note phrase, and contrasts tiny mosaic like sections, building up to a martial climax. The grandeur suddenly evaporates and a shadowy passage leads to the second section, a very remote series of woodwind chords that support a high violin line. This transforms into a sinuous melody on cor-anglais and oboe accompanied by plucked strings. The third section is lively and playful, starting with a unison string passage peppered with horn calls. Throughout this section the Tadjik folk-tune gradually emerges and all the elements of the piece build to a big climax. The last section recedes into the distance, ending with solo flute and percussion.
The work is dedicated to Peter Lighte, my intrepid travelling companion.
© Julian Grant 1995
First performed 16 February 1999 by The Salomon Orchestra c. Paul Hoskins. St John's Smith Square, London W1
For orchestra (2+2+2+2/4231/harp/timp/3 perc/strings)