SIR PETER MAXWELL DAVIES

St Thomas Wake

Foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull

1969

20 minutes

opus

37

Dedication

Commissioned by City of Dortmund

 

 

 

Scoring

piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, *percussion (3 players), timpani, strings
*percussion (3 players): percussion 1: police whistle, side drum, small cymbal, 3 suspended cymbals, tenor drum, tam-tam, thin metal sheet with hammer, upright piano with action removed
percussion 2: 2 wood blocks (very high and sharp), 2 large wood blocks, large biscuit tin filled with glass fragments (shaken), football rattle, small bass drum, 4 metal scaffolding tubes (different pitches), 2 hammers
percussion 3: referee’s whistle, football rattle, small pair of hard claves, slapstick, large empty biscuit tin (struck with fist), very large bass drum, small bass drum

foxtrot band: piccolo (+ flute), clarinet, trumpet, trombone, percussion (band kit), out-of-tune ‘honky-tonk’ piano, violin, cello, double bass

Sections



Synopsis

Composer Notes

This work is based on the St. Thomas Wake, a pavan of John Bull, the sixteenth /seventeenth-century English composer. This pre-existing material is ‘projected’ through a progressive series of mathematical curves, which affect it much as, in visual terms, would distorting mirrors of systematically varying degrees of convexity and concavity. At the outset, however, the pavan is not given in its original form, but appears already in the process of transformation into a slow foxtrot, played by a small band, seated apart from the orchestra. The orchestra immediately takes this up, and, in ‘commenting’ upon it, transforms it into a complex isorhythmic structure, in which stylistic elements of the band are exaggerated. This ‘comment’ leads to a slow dissolution, from which the band takes up fragments of ideas in the process of disintegration, and refashions these into a sequence of five foxtrots, each in a distinct style. Over the last of these dances, the orchestra starts a slow declamatory reworking of material from it, leading to a further fast ‘commentary’ upon all five foxtrots. A final foxtrot from the band cuts across this, having the exact harmonic skeleton of the John Bull pavan, which is now heard simultaneously from the harp in the orchestra, in its original form.

There is no attempt to integrate the styles of the band and the symphony orchestra – each goes its own way on its own terms. The use of the separate band is not meant to imply, in any sense, a kind of sinfonia concertante, nor even a parodic element. The foxtrot band music exists as an object, and the orchestra music implies – if such a thing is possible – an attitude, in purely musical terms, towards this object. The use of a Renaissance pavan as the binding factor throughout is not fortuitous, even if the historical reality of the original is destroyed in the process, refurbishing one dead dance form in terms of a more recent dance-form, also, however, in that sense, just as dead. Moreover, not only was 1930s dance music the first music I myself heard, therefore having personal, rather sentimental associations, but heard now, retrospectively, from this distance, it can perhaps become not only its own comment on the political and moral irresponsibility of its time (bearing in mind what we know of the period’s history, and the way, unlike today’s pop-music, this music reflects no awareness whatever of such implications) – but, by extension, on these things in themselves, as such.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

This is a meeting of three musical worlds which is both provoking and amusing. In the background there is the pavan by John Bull that gives the work its title but remains hidden until played by a harp in the closing stages. This is subjected to variation in two wildly disparate styles, being turned into a sequence of foxtrots by a 1930s dance band and developed symphonically by the main orchestra. The orchestra’s music springs out of the band’s, but its seriousness is repeatedly undermined by the brilliant parody dances, and there is an apocalyptic climax in which both sides could credibly claim victory.

Extended Note I by Guy Protheroe

St. Thomas Wake is the name of a pavan by the English composer John Bull, which appeared in Parthenia, the famous collection of music for virginals which was published in 1611. The pavan itself is probably a keyboard version of an old ballad about St. Thomas a Becket. Peter Maxwell Davies’s piece is described as a ‘Foxtrot for orchestra’ on the pavan, and it is as a slow foxtrot that the pavan is heard at the outset, played by a small foxtrot band, seated apart from the orchestra. The orchestra immediately takes it up, and, in ‘commentating on it, transforms it into a complex structure. This commentary leads to a slow dissolution, in the course of which the foxtrot band reappears, by way of a sentimental cello solo. Then there is a sequence of five foxtrots, each in a distinct style, during which the orchestra accompanies mainly with sustained chords. The orchestra takes over from the band with a fast commentary on all the five foxtrots; a final one for the band cuts across this, and the original John Bull pavan is heard simultaneously from the harp in the orchestra. The whole piece lasts about twenty minutes.

The process of composition used in St. Thomas Wake Maxwell Davies has described as ‘projection’ of the pre-existing material (the pavan) ‘through a progressive series of mathematical curves, which affect it much as, in visual terms, would distorting mirrors of systematically varying degrees of convexity and concavity’. And the process of turning a Renaissance pavan into a foxtrot Maxwell Davies describes as ‘refurbishing one dead dance form in terms of a more recent dance form – also, however, in that sense, just as dead’. 1930s dance music has a particular significance to him – as he has commented, ‘not only was [it] the first music I myself heard, therefore having personal, rather sentimental associations, but heard now, retrospectively, from this distance, it can perhaps become its own comment on the political and moral irresponsibility of its time.’

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

Extended Note II by Stephen Pruslin

The subtitle ‘Foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull’ encapsulates the multi-layered premise of this extraordinary work. Musically, a series of invented foxtrots is placed inside a serious orchestral piece in Maxwell Davies’s own style. Underpinning them both is the pavan St. Thomas Wake by the sixteenth/seventeenth-century English composer. The musical elements are reflected by the performing forces, a ‘period’ band seated apart from a full symphony orchestra, with further visual definition given by the band’s attire of ‘boater’ hats and striped blazers.

As a bravura exercise in parody, Maxwell Davies had already recast pavans as foxtrots in his Purcell: Fantasia and Two Pavans (1968), thereby ‘refurbishing one dead dance form in terms of a more recent dance form, in that sense, just as dead’. In St. Thomas Wake this process takes on a deeper dimension. Davies recalls listening to foxtrots on a wind-up gramophone while sheltering in a pantry during the Second World War bombardment of his native Manchester. The foxtrots in ‘St. Thomas’, heard in relation to the orchestra’s commentary, graphically convey this grim association. But, from another angle, he hears them as escapist: the failure of between-the-wars popular music to reflect the political/moral climate of its time becomes a metaphor for the meeting of any extreme experience with a state of denial. St. Thomas Wake could, for instance, evoke the sinking of the Titanic, in which music and dancing reportedly continued in the ship’s ballroom long after the impact with the iceberg. The potential interpretation of the title as either ‘St. Thomas, Wake! (‘Awake’) or ‘St. Thomas’ Wake’ (‘The Wake of St. Thomas’), together with an implied subtext concerning ‘Doubting Thomas’, reveals the work’s true subject to be the shifting relationship of ‘reality’ and illusion.

At the outset, Bull’s pavan is already heard metamorphosing into a slow foxtrot. The orchestra responds with a commentary of impressively controlled violence. After a slow dissolution, in which the band takes up fragments of disintegrating ideas, we reach the work’s high central plateau: a sequence of five foxtrots, each in a distinct style. Behind and between them the orchestra suggests an eerie and threatening presence, which eventually erupts in another intense ‘commentary’ on all five foxtrots. On the crest of this arrives a final foxtrot, against which we hear Bull’s pavan on the harp. The foxtrot continues, but the orchestra gradually generates a tidal wave of sound that finally engulfs it. The ‘victorious’ orchestra provides the work’s climax and dissolution – but at the last moment the bubbles of a ‘ghost’ foxtrot arrive at the surface on a dominant seventh arpeggio question mark.

Throughout the work, Maxwell Davies uses the jangling, disembodied sound of the honky-tonk to suggest the surreal, hallucinatory, ‘expressionist’ quality of his wartime memories (including a ‘half awake nightmare’ of rats swarming up the chimney) or the special flavour of a 1940s dance-hall, whose gloom, smoke and fusty uniforms are evoked with the same decadence as the ballrooms of a century earlier in Ravel’s La Valse.

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

 

First Performance

Dortmund, Germany

Monday, 2 June 1969

Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra