Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights

For orchestra


12 minutes




Commissioned by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra





2 flutes (2+piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, cor Anglais, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, *percussion (3 players), harp, timpani, strings
*percussion (3 players):glockenspiel, marimba, crotales, flexatone, small and large suspended cymbals, tenor drum, small bass drum, very large bass drum



Composer Notes

Programme Notes

Short Note by David Nice

The reel in question is drawn from a genuine old tune, Maxwell’s Strathspey, which the composer found in an 1824 collection of Scottish melodies, and which unfolds at the start of the piece on solo cello. Variations and a bold up-tempo to the quick dance we know as a reel ultimately yield to the magic that has been promised right at the start: the northern lights take over at the end of the piece. Its inspiration comes from a walk to a community event in Hoy Hall, during which Davies saw the lights in the sky pulsing in and out of time with the sounds coming from the hall.

Extended Note by David Nice

Many of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ lighter works – and the comparative applies very much within the context of his own rigorous output – feature landscapes with figures, or figures in a landscape. This has certainly been true of his two best-loved orchestral pieces, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise and A Spell for Green Corn, both paying tribute to a healthy balance of man and nature in the Orkney islands where he lives and works. It even pertains to the recent New World spree of Mavis in Las Vegas, where the glamorous heroine (named after a real-life ‘re-naming’ of the composer by a hotel computer) briefly leaves the raucous city-scape to observe the bright lights twinkling in the desert surroundings.

In Maxwell’s Reel, the lights are certainly not neon, and they have the last, incandescent word. This time the basis of the piece is one, very vivid, image: the composer recalls going down to a community event in Hoy Hall, and seeing the northern lights above pulsing in or out of time with the sounds from the hall: ‘it was a very strange experience to hear the music sometimes underpinning and sometimes contradicting what was going on in the sky above.’ The lights take over at the end of the piece as the dance is left behind, with a final flare of divided strings, swelling brass and starbursts from the glockenspiel and crotales: but they are also suggested by the three-part double basses and snapping, muted horns right at the start, as a solo cello gently unfolds the Scots reel’s slower counterpart, a strathspey. It is, in fact, a genuine old tune, Maxwell’s Strathspey, drawn from Volume Six of The Scottish Minstrel, published in Edinburgh in 1824; Davies possesses a copy. The strathspey changes hands, textures thicken and the music up-tempos to the quick dance we know as a reel, with variations on the basic material, before the roof lifts, as it were, to reveal fully the natural phenomenon above. This is the composer’s farewell to Bunertoon on Hoy, where he has lived for the past twenty four years; he hopes to return for holidays, but will spend most of his working time on the island of Sanday further north.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


First Performance

Barbican Hall, London

Wednesday, 13 May 1998

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra