Spinning Jenny (A Portrait of Leigh, Lancashire, circa 1948)

Concert overture for orchestra


18 minutes



Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s ”Spinning Jenny” gave the hall a terrific thrashing…

New York Times


Commissioned by BBC





Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C (1st + cornet in B flat), 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, *percussion (4 players), strings
*percussion (4 players): bell in C (a bell rather than a tubular bell), xylophone, glockenspiel, crotales, marimba, small bass drum, very large bass drum, ratchet (football or police rattle), Chinese cymbal, 3 suspended cymbals (small, medium, large), 3 woodblocks (small, medium, large), 3 metal bars (scaffolding lengths, small, medium, large) with separate large suspended cymbal nearby, whip, bubbolo (sleigh bells), small tin can (empty), struck with wooden beater, tambourine, cymbal and pedal bass drum played together (“kit”)



Composer Notes

The title Spinning Jenny refers to the device which revolutionised the Lancashire cotton industry, a spinning frame with multiple spindles, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764.

The former cotton town of Leigh, where I attended the Grammar School between 1945 and 1952, still boasts a Spinning Jenny Street, and I remember the place as clangerous with industrial activity. Today the mills and foundries are silent, but in my school years, a walk along the Bridgewater Canal from school to the town centre involved passing hellish open shed doors, where hundreds of women in rows operated deafening vicious machines, the unbelievably towering, clanging flywheels of mills turning all the machinery throughout a vast factory, and the violent roar from open doors of multiple white-hot furnaces.

This piece will form the fourth in a sequence of five, written recently, concerning my early years in and around Salford and Manchester – returning to places and events hitherto largely in the background of my musical output, but which, at a mature age, take on renewed significance. I am validating childhood in my own ears, as it were.

Spinning Jenny is a short and modest work, but ambitious, too, in that I have based its construction, for the first time, on a magic square of twelve. This seemed to be appropriate for the generation of mechanical-sounding musical processes, while ensuring audible and sensible symmetries and cross-references. The astute listener will notice, between industrial manufacture, reference to brass band and popular music of the period, and to the street sound of Evangelical Protestantism.

Programme Notes

Short Note by David Nice

This is perhaps the contemporary equivalent to the ‘City of Dreadful Night’ Overture Elgar planned, but never completed, as his ‘Cockaigne No. 2’. Yet Max is never so literal as to settle for the portrait of a working Lancashire factory circa 1948 along the lines of Prokofiev’s and Mossolov’s regular rhythmic thrashes of the 1920s. There is as much poetry for him in the Leigh nightscape, it seems, as in the starry skies above Orkney; the introduction, two central slow episodes with echoes of church and popular music drifting across the still streets, and the quiet close are as important as the richly-layered bursts of mechanical activity. Here a heavy battery of percussion conveys the rhythms of the vast spinning jennies in a far from monotonous fashion, while the different orchestral sections seem to react emotionally to the industrial scene. The final climax, with a rhythmic competition not so far removed from the ‘Procession of the Sage’ in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring yields unexectedly to that archetypal northern bard of the brass band, the cornet player, in an epilogue of starry-eyed wonder.

Short Note by Peter Quantrill

The last of five orchestral works to mine Max’s childhood memories is a vast, industrial Scherzo movement which draws its pulsating energy from the cotton mills of the Manchester and Salford area where Max grew up. The idea of a ‘Spinning Jenny’ – a machine which turns out yarn and multiplies the work of the weaver by many times – is a resonant one for Max’s music, the jenny at the music’s heart being the magic square that generates the raw melodic and harmonic material of the work, and the building and industry surrounding it with specific texture and colour. The mill cranks into action during the first half of the work and attains a thunderous momentum – “you could,” recalls Max, “feel with your whole body the vibrations of the industrial carryings-on”. The brass chorale which succeeds it (with night-lights of the city on bells and celesta) bring necessary, pious calm, which is shattered again by the clacks and booms of the mill. The music seems to destroy itself in a sequence of Rite-of-Spring-like brutality and a cornet – that quintessential instrument of the industrial north of England – sounds an epitaph with one of the most evocative and emotive tunes that Max has yet written.


Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s ”Spinning Jenny” gave the hall a terrific thrashing…

New York Times

First Performance

Royal Albert Hall, London (BBC Proms)

Wednesday, 21 July 1999

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra