Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 7 (World Première)

by 5:4
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Do you now see the possibility of several symphonies?

Yes, yes, I do, which just five years ago I would not have seen at all. But I do now feel … that it’s perhaps not too far-fetched to think that possibly I might be able to develop that.

Paul Griffiths, Peter Maxwell Davies, pp. 127-8

In his introductory book about the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, Paul Griffiths added transcripts of his conversations with the composer from the first half of 1980, which included the tantalising remark above. At the time, Max was still working on his Symphony No. 2 (completed the same year and premièred in 1981), and as things turned out, he eventually composed no fewer than ten symphonies before his death in 2016.

Of those ten, Max regarded the first seven as a cycle. A particularly striking aspect of his development through these seven symphonies is a growing immediacy. Symphony No. 1, inspired by the sea surrounding his Orkney home, is hugely direct, yet while Symphony No. 2 took the same inspirational starting point (specifically wave formations and patterns), it’s a much more forbidding work, often elusive and at times bordering on impenetrable. The Third Symphony is a similarly tough proposition, and while Symphony No. 4 is more inviting, it wasn’t until Max’s Fifth Symphony – completed in 1994, and his first structured in a single movement – that one could confidently claim the music to be readily approachable. The same is true of Symphony No. 6 (in my view, the Fifth and Sixth are Max’s most cogent and powerful symphonic statements), a three-movement work that has as one of its key features a revelling in abrupt contrasts. This had been a recurring characteristic of Max’s symphonies since the First (the opening movement of which is a constant tension between twin urges to push forward with bullish energy or pull back into restrained counterpoint), and it continues to be important in Symphony No. 7, which Max completed in 2000.

Peter Maxwell Davies

In the first movement, ‘Exposition’, there’s not so much a tension as a vigorous pushing and pulling: one moment lively and busy, the next light with decorative flurries, then shoved onwards by the brass before switching to thoughtful winds. All of this occupies only the first 90 seconds, and this kind of fraught behavioural elasticity typifies the movement as a whole. There’s an interesting middleground of sorts that initially emerges in the horns (2:34) before spreading to the strings, where it continues as a definite reduction in impetus, though with vestiges of power lurking below (particularly in the percussion, often a significant element in Max’s symphonies). Unexpectedly, instead of exploring the possibilities now that there are three energies at play, the movement enters a lengthy episode of pure nebulosity (3:34), all burbling and low registers with a far-off tambourine the only (semi-)clear sound. There are traces of strings and brass within, layers of stuff that eventually break through the surface. The remainder of the movement swings wildly between swaggering strength (5:46), dance-like passages (6:22) and tremulous calm (7:34); it would seem disorienting if these disparate behavioural modes hadn’t been so clearly established earlier. To an extent these final few minutes sound like a kind of ‘behavioural recapitulation’, but considering the title of this movement, they’re perhaps better regarded as a continuation of the symphony’s broad opening statement.

A jostling of contrasting materal continues in the second movement (10:54), the title of which, ‘Minuet and Trio’, also implies structural contrasts. The intensity is considerably ramped up, now suggesting not so much a push-pull of ideas as a more animated communal lack of certainty about what to do. Thus a raucous start veers sideways into strange territory, tries to get going again, moving through apparent interference, before arriving at the potential of a romp. Time and again, though, attempts to focus are either interrupted or distracted and the orchestra ends up moving through dark or delicate passages that render the movement increasingly contemplative. Whereas a typical symphonic Trio acts as the relatively brief counterpoint to the dominant Minuet, here it’s as if Max’s avant-Trio ends up taking over the Minuet until no trace of it remains. By the end, we’re in a weird place where soft strings and harsh brass sit side by side, in a foreshadowing of how the symphony will end.

‘Slow Movement’ follows (19:22), its music sounding rather forlorn and lost, all the more so when a lone horn begins to sing (21:38), bringing to mind the passacaglia movement from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. Even more than in the previous two movements, there’s the impression of great difficulty in moving forward. A possible attempt at assertion (23:23) doesn’t result in any clarity or weight; instead a big dissonant crescendo breaks things up, but while everything seems freer and clearer after this, the music remains subdued and registrally polarised. Later (26:53) the strings start to soar but this too cancels out and it takes another, rather forced, climactic sequence (28:29) to push beyond. The extreme polarisation that ends the movement – piccolo and contrabassoon in a world-apart duet – suggests neither peace nor resolution.

Though clearly alluding to conventional symphonic structures, Symphony No. 7 surprisingly ends (32:33) with a movement titled ‘Development’. Where previously progress was hampered by a mixture of uncertainty and indecision, here that sense of inner conflict is articulated in an altogether more robust group discussion. Max intended this symphony not only to conclude the cycle of his first seven symphonies, but actively to lead back to the start of Symphony No. 1, and in no time at all the music begins to display similarities. The discursive nature of the music – so many ideas being thrown into the mix: a chirpy melody here, a gallop there, a searching theme somewhere else – brings to mind the dense material simultaneity that typifies Max’s earliest three symphonies. This is reinforced by a sudden return (33:58) of the sharp metallic percussion glitter that coats so much of the music in Symphony No. 1. Somehow all these swirling ideas, despite in some respects having just as many volte-faces as previously, manage to attain consistent momentum and strength, even though the details of what comes through are often hard to read. The symphony’s final climax is arrived at via (39:50) an almost danse macabre-like increasingly desperate display of frenzied lolloping, which abruptly burns out to the sound of distant sighs. The strings push past, obsessed with a trochaic rhythm (which briefly appeared in the Minuet and Trio), determined once and for all to finally dance. Not for long: the rhythms dissolve, and the symphony’s final moments feel uncomfortable, even painful: a lyrical moment yielding to solemn brass, huge poundings and a shrill final cry.

The world première of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No. 7 took place on 19 June 2000 at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney, performed by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer.

Programme note

This symphony is the last of a cycle: No. 8 is a musical account of my visit to Antarctica, with very different aims and preoccupations.

Of all my symphonies, this is the most classical, with reference to, and dependency upon, the music of Haydn. Over the last ten years I have done much orchestral conducting, including many symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. There is no better way to get to know this music – I felt I began to understand it in a creative way, from inside the structure. Much analysis of the classics is concerned with the unity of a work, whereas what has fascinated me is the means by which composers achieve diversity within the given unity – how two ideas, despite having readily identifiable common roots, forever sound so different, fresh and surprising.

The first movement takes and adapts procedures from the exposition section of a symphonic movement only, moving between two contrasted types of material and attempting to distinguish between this and music which builds bridges in between.

The second movement is a Minuet and Trio. Here Haydn’s work surfaces quite literally, with a reference to one of the Opus 20 string quartets. Yet the surface of the music sounds unlike Haydn’s originals – although the trademarks of his dance form are there, they are thoroughly reinterpreted in relation to my own late twentieth century musical experience.

The opening of the third, slow movement, with its very simple two- and three-part string writing, refers in spirit and style most obviously to Haydn’s middle period. The build-up to the climax employs orchestral colours unavailable to an eighteenth century ‘Sturm und Drang’ composer, but these sources are always present in phrase-structure, symmetry and tonal outlay.

The fourth movement is a large development section, treating all the previous material. The main feature of a traditional development – structured modulation through a sequence of tonal areas – is the dominant characteristic, together with the splintering, re-assembly and reworking of ideas heard before. Towards the end, the sections become shorter and more concentrated but, after this, I felt it superfluous to attempt a recapitulation. I envisaged the listener to a recording at home being able to return to the first movement and, perhaps, when technically such things become possible, making such adaptations and modulations, interactively, as would bring the symphony to a suitable close. I have also designed this (provisional) close to the work to lead logically back into the opening bars of my very first symphony, so that the whole cycle could start over again.

—Peter Maxwell Davies


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[…] of the place for himself. At the time, he had – perhaps rather rashly – declared that his Symphony No. 7 would be his last, but found himself “more and more grabbed by the idea” of the […]

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