Today, at 1:03am GMT (the same moment this article is published, in fact), is the equinox, when day and night become equal at the midpoint between light and dark, and the season of autumn begins. i’ve always been especially fond of this season, with its split connotations of positive and negative as the light starts to ebb away, the natural world goes through such an incredibly beautiful transition, and the distant prospect of winter can be felt on the horizon. i’ve recently been contemplating this moment listening to a relatively unknown minor work by the late Peter Maxwell Davies, titled The Fall of the Leafe.
A work for string orchestra composed in 2004, for inspiration Max turned to a piece of the same name by Martin Peerson found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Peerson’s music is permutated to create new material, though the audible connection is often more allusive than obviously recognisable. Much more clear is the way Max has created a soundworld steeped in a sublimely conflicted autumnal outlook, caught between lightness and shadow, cheerfulness and unease.
Though rich and lyrical, the music has a heaviness that lends it a whiff of melancholy, rendered more uncertain during the opening with brief moments when everything is suspended. The melodic lead is passed around, moving to the cellos, then gradually working its way via the violas back to the violins, in the process coming to feel polarised in high and low registers, with minimal sense of an inner ‘core’. One of the things Peerson does in the latter half of his piece is make the accompaniment surprisingly stodgy with thick low chords, and Max alludes to this here when, following what sounds like a shrug, the counterpoint is made muddy in the lower strings, concluding the opening section with a series of swelling tremolandi.
The latter half of the work is more behaviourally conflicted. Sometimes the strings feel inclined to dance, especially the upper strings, who push forward occasionally referencing passages from the Peerson. But Max checks this inclination with another that’s drawn toward solemnity, causing the music to slow abruptly and splinter into stratified melodic lines. This tension persists until the end of the piece, again becoming dance-like, again wading through mud, even giving the impression that the strings disagree about what they want to pursue (primarily an upper / lower division). It all culminates in more tremolos (which Max likens to leaves falling of the trees), everything resorting to vigorous, spasming shivers, as the violins – hitherto the most active force – are finally reduced to a wan ghost of their earlier energy.
This performance of The Fall of the Leafe took place in October 2014 at an 80th birthday concert for Max, given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by HK Gruber.
This work, for strings only, was written in July and August of 2004. It is based on a virginal piece from the Fitzwilliam collection, copied in the early years of the seventeenth century. ‘The Fall of the Leafe’ is a short, expressive work by Martin Peerson – characterised by a descriptive descending scale. Out of the thematic material of the Peerson I have fashioned, by permutation and a magic square filter, a theme of my own which appears at the outset, Peerson’s common time being replaced by a gently lilting 6/8, which nevertheless retains something of the original’s “falling” character. A slightly faster varied repeat, with my melody in the violins, has a version of the first part of the Peerson set against it, in the ‘cellos, divided into four.
After a short “accelerando” transition, a quick section is the first of two development sections, on both the Peerson and my material. A “retard” leads into a statement of the second part of the Peerson, in first and second violins, each divided into three. The violas, ‘cellos and basses continue the discourse of original, net material. A second, quick development follows, for violas, ‘cellos and basses only (shades of Brandenburg 6!) leading to a final section, with the last part of the Peerson in violins 1, and a new counterpoint in violins 2. All the leaves fall completely in the final bars of vigorous tremolo through all the strings. In Orkney, where I live, there are almost no trees, and autumn is something I imagine, or can sometimes enjoy bits of, on visits south.
The work has a further resonance – it was written very shortly before my seventieth birthday. It is dedicated to the Skye composer and painter Marc Yeats.
—Peter Maxwell Davies