Peter Maxwell Davies – Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No. 8) (World Première)

by 5:4

On 14 January 1953, Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica – a symphony derived from his 1948 film score for Scott of the Antarctic – was premièred in Manchester. In the audience that evening was Peter Maxwell Davies who, in 1997, was commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey to create a 50th anniversary “sequel” to Vaughan Williams’ music. An essential part of the commission was that Max should spend several weeks in Antarctica in order to experience the reality 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 commission, and in due course – even before actually going to Antarctica – he had decided that his response to the continent would take the form of an eighth symphony.

While Vaughan Williams’ music deliberately (and, in its film score form, necessarily) set out to depict icy wastes, and Maxwell Davies was well-known for being environmentally concerned, i don’t believe that either of these aspects plays a vital role in what the Antarctica Symphony is and how it operates. There are occasions when the symphony does set out to tap more directly into some of the sounds Max experienced during his trip, most obviously the work’s short but immensely powerful introduction which draws on “the physical breaking of ice”. But for the most part, i don’t believe that the Antarctic Symphony constitutes either a representational depiction – in terms of specifics – or an eco-message work (unlike, for example, Laura Bowler’s Antarctica, which is emphatically eco-centric). Max’s extensive thoughts, captured in a diary during his time in Antarctica, were published in the 2001 book Notes from a Cold Climate, and it seems to me that the key to the Antarctic Symphony is to be found in his closing reflections:

Antarctica is simply there, weaving its history, myth, and magic into the fabric of our awareness, and, even if few of us ever see it in fact, it is enough to know that it exists, just being its miraculous self.

It is a terrible, hostile wonderland, where we can only just survive with the help of cocoons of alien clothes, tents, heated huts, ships, aeroplaces. And even then its dicey.

Peter Maxwell Davies, Notes from a Cold Climate, p. 48
Peter Maxwell Davies

These final reflections continue a thread running throughout the diaries: of the sharp, utmost extreme juxtaposition of total, overwhelming beauty with a concomitant sense of wonder, and the inescapable, omnipresent awareness of the raw, absolute danger surrounding him always and everywhere. The Antarctic Symphony manifests this, continuing a recurring feature of violent contrasts in Max’s symphonies (which in some cases could almost be described as their defining feature) and making it the primary aspect of the work, taking it to the ultimate degree.

Though cast in a single movement, the symphony consists of five sections, which broadly speaking embody the contrasts themselves, oscillating between fast and slow, though it should be stressed that notions of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are consistently undermined throughout the work. The first section features that aforementioned strident introduction – like an army marching into battle – which leads straight into the opening Allegro (1:16), where the music’s extreme contrasts immediately kick in. Within the space of a few moments we veer from huge clatter – calling on the percussion to scrape a tam-tam with a plastic soap dish (“to produce a quasi electronic howl”), three lengths of builder’s scaffolding, and a biscuit tin filled with broken glass – into warm lyricism, whereupon the warmth abruptly vanishes and everything becomes nebulous. Not even three minutes have passed, and already the music is making it abundantly clear what levels of volatility and disorientation lie in store.

The nebulosity reached in these opening few minutes is one of the ways Max consistently undermines the tempo, to the extent that even thinking of this section as any kind of a conventional “Allegro” would be ridiculous. Just look at the landscape: gentle, undulating winds (2:47), seemingly oblivious to roguish brass accents; tense, hesitant strings (3:16); a clarinet trying to figure out where to go (4:09) while the earth seems to shudder below; and another return to vagueness, with nothing predominating (4:38). It takes the brass to drive things forward with anything approximating momentum (5:03) but for all its heft it’s as temporary as anything else, pulled back (6:41) and rendered pulseless, arriving at a weird tilting (7:19) between lyricism and shrillness.

In the same way, the subsequent Adagio section (8:25) is behaviourally highly erratic. Though it maintains its opening melodic gambit – clarinet to bassoon to bass clarinet to cor anglais, as such the longest period of quasi-stability in the symphony so far – this is first rendered gloomy (11:30) then shrill (11:44), just about holding onto tremulous coherence until, again, it falls to the brass to inject angry reports (13:07) leading to a heraldic takeover and a hugely dissonant climax coated in metallic percussion glitter (such percussion is prevalent in Max’s first two, sea-inspired, symphonies, and serves a similar function here). This twisting narrative continues, its periods of introspection and wonder (15:13) rudely punctuated by harsh surges (16:03) and angular brute force (17:10). This is music at its most dangerously precarious, or to use Max’s word, “dicey”.

If anything though, Max only makes the contrasts yet more extreme in the following Allegro vivace section (19:11). At first it’s primarily focused on relative calm broken by bursts of brass mayhem (19:44, 20:20), leading to an absolute clusterfuck surge (22:00) that momentarily seems to wipe everything out. But this takes us to what Max describes as a “junk-yard”, inspired by the litter seen in parts of Antarctica, where he violently throws rejected fragments from recent compositions into a “an ice-bound junk heap”. Absurd dance eruptions (24:30, 25:07) jostle against semi-suspended passages, though somehow it concludes in a place of almost fantasy-like loveliness (25:36).

This leads into the second slow section (26:09), a Lento that’s coloured by the presence of a (nervous?) heartbeat in the timpani (this is a motif that’s been present since the start of the symphony, appearing in different guises). Initially giving the impression of being stable yet potentially volatile, what comes to dominate this section is a sequence of ever-increasing swells. As previously, it’s the horns that instigate them, initially as part of the music’s melodic ruminating (27:44) but, after a lengthy period of inward reflection (28:56) the lyricism turns cold and tremulous (30:11), registrally polarised, before abruptly caterwauling (31:33). Though the winds continue seemingly unaffected (still internalised?), a huge growl (32:03) dirties everything; the strings make a go of it (32:16) but they too are disrupted in a further massive swell (32:53). The section ends in a lengthy meditation (33:06) that no longer sounds as calm, and which at times becomes intimate, chamber-like, all of which only makes the violent (yet again, brass-triggered) closing moments sound all the more painful.

The Antarctic Symphony comes to an end with a short section (35:05) that to some extent telescopes and summarises these severe oscillations one last time. For three minutes, through rough and bumpy momentum the orchestra engages in restrained but boisterous activity, united, playful, spontaneous, whimsical, full of more thumps and glitter, climaxing in an almost ridiculously gargantuan swell. Out the other side, a Lento coda reduces everything, now shivering and withdrawn, though the brass, menacing to the last, unleash a final, raucous crescendo that leaves everything solemn and blank.

It’s entirely fitting that this is not a remotely hospitable symphony. Wherever we are within it, something unexpected and threatening is always lurking, and regardless of how robust or secure the music seems, we soon realise it’s inevitable that all coherence and stability will be lost at some point, probably quite soon; it’s just a matter of time. Like its place of inspiration, the Antarctic Symphony is a litany of pure shock and awe.

The Antarctic Symphony was premièred on 6 May 2001 by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted, as always, by Max himself.

Programme note

The Antarctic Symphony was commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, in association with the Philharmonia Orchestra, to mark the fiftieth anniversary (more or less!) of the film Scott of the Antarctic, for which Vaughan Williams wrote the music, and of the Sinfonia Antartica he later fashioned out of it.

A condition of the commission was that I go to Antarctica myself, to experience the subject matter at first hand. I made the journey in 1997, as a guest of BAS.

It was midsummer when I sailed from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula and, each day, as we progressed south, the light became brighter and longer. Our ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, being constructed for delicate and sensitive scientific research, was unusually silent and free from vibration, so that one could appreciate the profound stillness of a totally flat sea, with no wind whatever, and exult in the light’s intensity, seeming to pulse from within ancient green and blue icebergs, and leap in eye-piercing shards from the endless expanses of snow and ice.

All silence was shattered when the vessel rammed her way through the hard frozen sea – the ice crashing along the bows was one of the most exhilarating sounds I ever heard, with electric zippings and cracklings sounding off into the far distance as fissures extended for miles from the ship.

Another extraordinary sound experience was at the edge of a heavy, but gentle, avalanche of snow from cliffs towering high on either side of the narrow channel through which the ship was passing – the chilling powder enveloped us all on the deck, with a whisper and hiss that paradoxically seemed to be more profoundly quiet than the previous silence; no-one could speak for minutes afterwards.

These two sounds – the ice-break and the avalanche – determined there and then that I use a Pentecost plainsong, associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, in this palpably most un-Christian symphony. I chose one I had used previously – Dum complerentur dies pentecostes. The new symphony cannot be described literally in terms of any programme associated with my Antarctic experience – it is, rather, an abstract work, using transmuted sound images distantly based on those experiences.

Equally important in my calculations was the modified concept of time (as I interpreted this) from recent research into, at one extreme, the smallest unicellular creatures discovered in the rock below the polar ice, which live for centuries, and, at the other extreme, relatively large sea-creatures whose slowness in metabolic rate and physical movement, and their long life span, are related to the restricted food supply and very cold water. In a musical work of given duration one can only suggest these layerings of time, including its near suspension, and the (to us) unusual rates of directly experiencing the breathing of time.

The symphony is in one movement. The short Introduction, originating in the physical breaking of ice, leads into an allegro of fierce dynamic contrasts, which I think of as an exposition. The following slow section starts with a very simple clarinet melody, accompanied by pizzicato cellos. The next quick section is a development of the first one, reworked in terms of a scherzo. This ends in what I think of as a ‘junk-yard’ – parts of Antarctica have bits of junk from earlier journeys of exploration (of course, these days everyone working in Antarctica must remove their rubbish) – here I refer to several of my recent works, consigning them to an ice-bound junk heap. A further slow section intensifies and crystallises the previous slow section (I was preoccupied with translucency and inner light) – and we revisit the allegro material in new configurations directly derived from observing familiar icebergs change shape during midsummer partial meltdown. The final brief slow gestures refer back to the opening of the symphony – or rather, to the harmonic essence, as if the ice has melted, revealing the rock beneath.

—Peter Maxwell Davies

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