“Look aloft!!” cried Starbuck. “The corpusants! The corpusants!” All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts were silently burning in the sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

The phenomenon known as St Elmo’s fire is caused by massive differences in the electric potential of the atmosphere during thunderstorms. Although it can occur from any tall, sharply pointed object such as airplane wings, chimneys and spires, it is most often observed at sea, and was consequently named after the patron saint of sailors.

Anne Boyd is one of Australia’s best-known women composers. Her piece, St Elmo’s Fire, was commissioned by Father Arthur E. Bridge of Ars Musica Australis especially for the Sydney Omega Ensemble. Boyd writes, “Based entirely upon the chromatic scale, repeated notes rub together to generate electrical discharge that erupts in running scales which, sounding together, might suggest, whimsically, the howling of wind through the rigging of sailing ships at sea.”

Boyd is Professor at the University of Sydney in the Chair of Music: a position she was appointed to in 1990. Her pieces have been performed throughout the world and recorded on CDs released by ABC Classics and Tall Poppies.

St Elmo’s Fire is dedicated to Boyd’s brother-in-law, Malcolm Naylor, who first told her of the phenomenon.

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