The Great Journey tells the story of the Spanish Conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1527 joined the expedition to Florida of Panfilo de Naraez as treasurer to the fleet. The expedition was a disaster, with an army of six hundred men reduced to 12 within little over a year. Cabeza de Vaca was himself left for dead by his companions; but he survived, living among the native Indians. After more than six years on his own he met again with three others of the company who had somehow kept themselves alive. The four of them undertook an immense journey through the interior, finally reaching the western coast by way of North Mexico in March 1536, where, nine years after the fleet had set sail, they found Spanish settlements.
The Great Journey tells this story in Cabeza de Vaca’s own words. Parts I and II of The Great Journey (‘Shipwreck’ and ‘Landing’) describe the arrival of the expedition, the disasters that overtook them, and the first contact with the Indians. Parts III and IV (‘Flight’ and ‘Return’) tell of the journey into the interior, and its end. Much of the music is based indirectly – and also directly – on music by the earliest known Mexican composer Fernando Franco (c.1520-1585). The text is taken from Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion published in 1542, as translated into English in Hakluytus Posthumus or: Purchase his Pilgrimes (1625). The only liberty I have taken is with the final words of the text, which I have imagined as being written by Cabeza de Vaca during his later years, when he was imprisoned in Spain.
The Great Journey was commissioned in 1981 by Dr Robert Waterhouse. It is dedicated to him and the Nash Ensemble, who with David Wilson-Johnson gave the first performance of Parts I and II in 1983, and the first complete performance at the Almeida Festival in June 1988.