Sinfonia Concertante

For wind quintet and orchestra


36 minutes




Commissioned by Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields





Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, strings


1. Adagio molto – Allegro molto
2. Andante
3. Flessibile – Allegro


Composer Notes

The Sinfonia Concertante was written in 1982, and is my first attempt at a form related to the concerto. The displays of technical virtuosity for the soloists – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn – are closer to the eighteenth than to the nineteenth century – but nonetheless make extremely heavy demands on the players’ dexterity and musicality. However, there are no cadenzas, as such.

To the accompanying string band I added timpani – mainly for the sake of their dramatic power, at the conclusion of the second movement, for instance, or very early in the third.

The work opens with an introductory slow ‘quest’ for the home tonality of D minor, flute and oboe exchanging scraps of melodic figurations which make the basic melodic and harmonic building-blocks for the whole structure – over a gradually stabilizing bass line.

The strings take over at the D minor cadence – and this section, until the horn entry, confirms and extends the previous flute and oboe material’s relation to this tonality, and prefigures the tonal areas and isorhythmic parameters to be developed later – although it may all be heard, at the same time, as a transition to the Allegro proper, starting with the horn solo.

For a first hearing, it should be useful to identify the horn solo as first subject material, and the bassoon solo as second subject; the development starts with the clarinet entry, and there is a brief recapitulation (disguised as a transition, but with the horn pointing its true identity). This background of sonata processes for processes of transformation and substitution of material more closely related to pre-classical forms, and to modality, rather than to the tonality particular to ‘real’ sonata development.

The Andante starts with long melodic lines divided between oboe and flute, over slowly changing harmonies, with rhythmic definition provided by string pizzicatos. The relationship to the opening of the first movement is meant to be clear – this Andante may be regarded as a slow ‘double’ of that whole movement.

The finale starts with an introduction for the five ‘concertante’ soloists – as the opening Allegro had a sonata-form background, so this one has a rondo background, providing brilliant display material for each of the wind in turn. After the rondo has run its course, there is a short transition (pizzicato strings, with bassoon and horn) winding down to a sequence of bell-like chords (some with string pizzicato) bridging to a coda which underlines the central D minor. The ending could have been brilliant and loud; after much deliberation I chose something else, which, I hope, makes convincing poetic sense.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The first in a trilogy of works for chamber orchestra, the Sinfonia Concertante uses its forces very much in concerto fashion – and not least its timpanist, who signals the work to start and has a real melodic role at the start of the finale. The opening movement is a big Allegro molto, preceded by a slow introduction and rippling with solo melodies towards its close. Then comes a slow movement of long wind lines spun over intricate accompaniment, after which the finale races in highly virtuoso fashion, with upward, onward breaks for each wind soloist or string group.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin


Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘absolute’ music divides itself largely between searching essays in chamber music (Hymn to Saint Magnus; Ave Maris Stella; Image, Reflection, Shadow) and the powerful corpus of works for full orchestra (Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine, Worldes Blis, St. Thomas Wake, Stone Litany, Black Pentecost and the Symphonies Nos 1-6) which, many feel, represent his ultimate musical statements.

The chamber orchestra, lying midway between these, is a territory he has visited less frequently. The early Sinfonia (1962) pointed the way, while the electrifying A Mirror of Whitening Light (1977), strictly speaking for chamber ensemble with single strings, showed that the medium is something he views with no less intensity.

Maxwell Davies has previously written triptichs of musically related works across different media, as in the Symphony No. 2, Piano Sonata and Brass Quintet. The Sinfonia Concertante is the first of three works, not musically linked, but all for chamber orchestra and thus indicative of a renewed commitment to the medium. The second, Into the Labyrinth, with tenor solo, was premiered at the 1983 St. Magnus Festival in Orkney, while the third, Sinfonietta Accademica, commissioned by Edinburgh University for its quatercentenary, was premiered in October of the same year.

In our own century, Prokofiev and Szymanowski have used the title Sinfonia Concertante to denote an orchestral work incorporating an important concertante part for a single solo instrument. Maxwell Davies’s use of the term harks back to older models – the one by Haydn and two by Mozart – in which a group of soloists stands out in relief from the orchestra. In this regard, the closest antecedent is the Mozart-attributed Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K.297b, to whose four soloists Maxwell Davies adds a flute, making a complete classical wind quintet, as in his own early Sinfonia. But the actual relation between soli and orchestra in the work is better understood in terms of an even earlier source: the Brandenburg Concertos of Bach – particularly the first one, with its characteristic horn sound, and whose tonality of F the Maxwell Davies piece shares. This relationship consists more of friendly cooperation than dramatic opposition, with the ‘concertino’ of wind soloists elaborating on the basic musical layer of the ‘ripieno’ strings. The timpani bridge the worlds of Bach and Mozart as they also mediate between wind and strings, acting as ‘continuo’ by emphasizing important pitches and crucial structural joins, often in particular association with the horn. The double basses serve, as in the classical orchestra, as a ‘sixteen-foot doubling’ of the cellos, but also branch out into an independent voice of their own.

The first movement has a slow introduction that begins outside the work’s time-world – presenting the basic material and encapsulating the work’s tonality in the diminished chord F – A flat-Cflat with an ‘underside’ of D – and then gradually moves into it, building and releasing into an energetic sonata-allegro whose principal theme is announced on horn and timpani. The winds are heard sometimes en bloc, sometimes in trios and duos. The most obviously mobile flute, oboe and clarinet have some extraordinary ‘licks’ as the movement unfolds, but it is also perfectly clear that Maxwell Davies has no desire to exclude the bassoon and horn from the fun. There is also a moment during the development section when the semiquaver activity becomes infectious and spills over into solo viola and cello. The return of the main horn and timpani figure, with bassoon counterpoint and a newly independent double-bass part, ushers in a very truncated recapitulation, and the movement ends in a quiet dissolution referring to the work’s opening.

The slow second movement begins with the winds and strings combining in a homogeneous texture. Then, during a section featuring horn and bassoon, the tempo moves, in two distinct phases, up to doppio movimento, exactly twice the original speed. Now the movement builds steadily from a lyrical cello line through various combined wind and string textures until the timpani, hitherto silent, enter and assert the tonic F, which closes the movement emphatically.

The full F major/minor ‘tonality’ is sounded explicitly by the flute at the outset of the third movement in a playful preluding passage, with the other solo winds entering one by one. The principal Allegro starts with the timpani, first alone, then in vigorous dialogue with pizzicato double bass. The other strings rapidly join in and the movement really gets under way at the return of the full wind quintet, with F again the departure-point. Much of the movement unfolds in a series of wind duets and dialogues. The music reaches its ‘inverse climax’ in a sequence of long-note chords coming to rest on the tonal dominant, C. It is the timpani, sounding the modal dominant, B (C flat), against this, that motivates the final build-up: rushing violin figures, punctuated by ever-expanding wind interjections, lead to a climactic whirling passage in the three upper winds, after which a brief, mysterious coda concludes the work.
Stephen Pruslin
This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


First Performance

Royal Albert Hall, London (BBC Proms)

Friday, 12 August 1983

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields