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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Symphony No. 2 / St. Thomas Wake (BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Second Symphony is his ‘Sea Symphony’, a complex, virtuosic work that explores in absorbing, increasingly dynamic fashion, the ocean’s proximity and what the composer calls ‘the architecture of its forms’. Both themes and orchestration are masterly. The percussion section is richly voiced, adding considerably to the symphony’s very particular, rugged and varied sound world. St Thomas Wake, by contrast, is a disquieting but bravura exercise in parody, evoking memories of the composer’s experiences during the Second World War.
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Symphony No 2 (commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its Centenary) • St Thomas Wake
At the foot of the cliff before my window, the Atlantic and the North Sea meet, with all the complex interweaving of currents and wave shapes, and the conflicts of weather, that such an encounter implies.
Symphony No 2 is not only a direct response to the sounds of the ocean’s extreme proximity, subtly permeating all of one’s existence—from the gentlest of Aeolian harp vibrations as the waves strike the cliffs on the other side of the bay in calm weather, to explosive shudders through the very fabric of the house, as huge boulders grind over each other directly below the garden, during the most violent westerly gales—but also a more considered response to the architecture of its forms.
I have observed two basic wave types of potential interest—that where the wave-shape moves through the sea, while the water remains (basically) static—as when “breakers” roll in towards a shoreline (moving form, static content of wave)—and that where the wave-shape is static and constant, while the water moves through it—as when an obstacle, a sea-wreck, for example, protrudes through the surface of a tide race, making a plaited waveshape behind it (static form, moving content of waves).
While I was first working on the musical potentialities in these two extremely different wave types and the various interactions between them, I came upon André Gide’s exact observation of the same phenomenon, noted in an early diary, while on holiday on France’s north coast, and also upon Leonardo da Vinci’s precise sketches of both wave types.
These two formulations governed the composition of the new Symphony, in small architectural detail, and also in long-time spans over whole movements, and more. For example, after the short slow introduction, the first movement proper starts with six ‘antecedent’ phrases on horns, with ‘consequent’ phrases on violins, where even the contour is obviously wave-shaped, and the static form and changing melodic and rhythmic content are carefully underlined. In contrast, at the opening of the third movement, the repeating identities of the rhythmic and melodic figures clarify the changing forms of their successive statements.
Deeper in the structure, but I hope still articulate, are large-scale “pointers”, like the surfacing of parallel climactic points of the design in the second and third movements accelerating strokes and, in the fourth movement, the transformation of what starts starts a slow movement into a real allegro finale.
It is tempting, but, I feel, pressing an analogy too far, to discuss perceptions of wave-motion—the time-cycles of tides and their transforming heights and intensities depending on the moon’s cycle—but it is probably useful, in a short note, to discuss the tonality of the Symphony, which is the direct musical expression of these perceptions.
Tonality is surely not merely a matter of using a major or minor triad on the music’s surface—it is a system of organization, through every aspect of a work, which enunciates it as a coherent whole, governing not only melody and harmony, but rhythm and architecture.
The Symphony is in B minor. The dominant I have used throughout, however, is F, or rather E sharp, to be syntactically correct, exploiting the implied semitonal conflict with the historic, almost instinctive dominant of F sharp, which is always in the background of our musical consciousness. The musical space of the tritone B–E sharp is slowly explored throughout the work, being filled in by pivotal steps of a minor third, against the implied cycles of the fifths around B and F minors. This might sound naively simple—but I am convinced that to support a complex structure spanning four substantial movements, an extremely basic unifying hypothesis is necessary, if the ear is to be able to relate surface detail. I hope, however, that there is here no easy return to old tonality—I feel there can be no short cuts to a new musical simplicity by these means, but that tonality might be extended to furnish new methods of cohesion, if it is understood modally, and not necessarily in relation to a bass line, and as of potentially multiple musical significance at any given moment—then it need not reflect a unifying confidence of outlook characteristic of the greatest period of its former exploration, which would be inimical to contemporary experience.
A certain thematic unity is provided throughout by the use of the plainsong Nativitas Tua, Dei Genetrix—proper to the birthday of the Virgin Mary, which happens to be my own birthday; this Symphony is a birthday gift for the Virgin.
The plainsong is subject to two kinds of transformation process—first, where the intervallic content is gradually and systematically modified to reach an inversion or retrograde (again, a reference to wave motion) and second, by subjection to permutation by the magic squares of the Sun and of Mars. (These are arrangements of sequences of numbers arranged into squares, so that by reading the square in particular ways, arithmetical constants are given—they are a gift to composers if used very simply as an architectural module, and their astrological overtones are attractive and intriguing.)
The instrumental writing throughout is virtuoso, although the orchestra used is not particularly large. The percussion section is perhaps unusual, in that it has only tuned instruments—timpani, glockenspiel, crotales and marimba, which, together with the harp, function as a kind of gamelan, and carry as much of the musical argument as any other division of the orchestra.
The four movements follow the old symphonic plan in outline. In the first, after an introduction containing the germ-cells of all the material for the whole Symphony, there is a quick sonata movement, with transformation processes in place of a tone development, and a systematic exploration of the B–E sharp pivot only throughout, rather than a statement of a tonal centre, followed by a moving away from a return to that centre.
The second movement is slow, in F minor, with the C flat (B natural) functioning tonally as the E sharp did in the first. After an introduction a theme on cellos has virtuoso “doubles” on bassoon, horn, oboe and trumpet.
The third movement, with scherzo and trio characteristics, has the same tonality as the second, except that the A is natural. Its form consists of super- and juxtapositions of modular “blocks” of material, the content of which is at first constant, but eventually subject to interior transformation processes, and whose shapes themselves are subject to “wave-motion”, and designed to interlock ever more closely.
The finale starts with passacaglia characteristics, in B minor—a long, slow melody for strings. The pace and material gradually transform to parallel the first movement, and then evolve further into a tone finale. Towards the end, for the first time in the whole work, the D tonality—hitherto only touched as a step between B and E sharp,—comes into its own, in preparation for the final cadence on the minor third, B and D.
The Symphony was composed in 1980. An amusing tailpiece—at the very moment that I wrote the final drumstrokes, there was a tremendous, thunderous rock-fall from the cliff at the other side of the bay, opposite my windows. I was very shaken, and hope it is without significance.
Peter Maxwell Davies
St Thomas Wake
The subtitle of St Thomas Wake, Foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull, encapsulates the multi-layered premise of this extraordinary work. Musically, a series of invented foxtrots is placed inside a serious orchestral piece in Maxwell Davies’s own style. Underpinning them both is the pavan St Thomas Wake by the sixteenth/seventeenth-century English composer. The musical elements are reflected by the performing forces, a ‘period’ band seated apart from a full symphony orchestra, with further visual definition given by the band’s attire of ‘boater’ hats and striped blazers.
As a bravura exercise in parody, Maxwell Davies had already recast pavans as foxtrots in his Purcell Fantasia and Two Pavans (1968), thereby ‘refurbishing one dead dance-form in terms of another, in that sense just as dead’. In St Thomas Wake this process takes on a deeper dimension. Maxwell Davies recalls listening to foxtrots on a wind-up gramophone while sheltering in a pantry during the Second World War bombardment of his native Manchester. The foxtrots in St Thomas, heard in relation to the orchestra’s commentary, graphically convey this grim association. But, from another angle, he hears them as escapist: the failure of between-the-wars popular music to reflect the political/moral climate of its time becomes a metaphor for the meeting of any extreme experience with a state of denial. St Thomas Wake could, for instance, evoke the sinking of the Titanic, in which music and dancing reportedly continued in the ship’s ballroom long after the impact with the iceberg. The potential interpretation of the title as either ‘St Thomas,Wake!’ (‘Awake’) or ‘St Thomas’ Wake’ (‘The Wake of St Thomas’), together with an implied subtext concerning ‘Doubting Thomas’, reveals the work’s true subject to be the shifting relationship of ‘reality’ and illusion.
At the outset, Bull’s pavan is already heard metamorphosing into a slow foxtrot. The orchestra responds with a commentary of impressively controlled violence. After a slow dissolution, in which the band takes up fragments of disintegrating ideas, we reach the work’s high central plateau: a sequence of five foxtrots, each in a distinct style. Behind and between them the orchestra suggests an eerie and threatening presence, which eventually erupts in another intense ‘commentary’ on all five foxtrots. On the crest of this arrives a final foxtrot, against which we hear Bull’s pavan on the harp. The foxtrot continues, but the orchestra gradually generates a tidal wave of sound that finally engulfs it. The ‘victorious’ orchestra provides the work’s climax and dissolution—but at the last moment the bubbles of a ‘ghost’ foxtrot arrive at the surface on a dominant seventh arpeggio question mark.
Throughout the work Maxwell Davies uses the jangling, disembodied sound of the honky-tonk to suggest the surreal, hallucinatory, ‘expressionist’ quality of his wartime memories (including a ‘half awake nightmare’ of rats swarming up the chimney) or the special flavour of a 1940s dance-hall, whose gloom, smoke and fusty uniforms are evoked with the same decadence as the ballrooms of a century earlier in Ravel’s La Valse.
St Thomas Wake was commissioned by the City of Dortmund. It was first performed there by the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer, on 2 June 1969.
© 1991 Stephen Pruslin
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