Strathclyde Concerto No. 4

For clarinet and orchestra


27 minutes



Dedication Lewis Morrison and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra





Clarinet solo, 2 flutes (2nd + piccolo), 2 oboes, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons (2nd + contrabassoon), 2 horns, *percussion (1 player), strings
*percussion (1 player): timpani (+bowl), marimba, crotales, large Japanese temple gong



Composer Notes

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Davies’s feeling for the potency and bravura of the clarinet goes back to Hymnos and other works of the 1960s; his concerto for the instrument is predictably a big, ranging piece, in two linked movements. The first, fast with a brief slow introduction, has the soloist in propulsive melodic flights slipping over into florid runs, but it is a virtuoso piece for the orchestra, especially for the marimba and pair of horns. The Adagio that follows is in the spare, cold, birdcall-riven style of other recent Davies slow movements, exploiting first the clarinet’s low register and then, at its climax, the instrument’s high extremes. A cadenza leads to the coda, where Davies introduces a Scots tune, previously hinted at, with which he brings the work to an end in F sharp major.

Extended Note I by Stephen Pruslin

The Strathclyde Concerto No. 3 made a culminative statement about the horn and trumpet – instruments which not only appear in high profile throughout Maxwell Davies’s orchestral and symphonic output, but for which he had also written relatively recent solo works, including another concerto for trumpet alone.

But the Strathclyde Concerto No. 4 represents a return to the clarinet – and from a very different point of view – after a considerable time. Both Stedman Doubles (1955, revised 1968) for clarinet and percussion and the legendary Hymnos (1967) for clarinet and piano frankly encourage the clarinet’s potential for vehement expression. By contrast the Strathclyde Concerto No. 4 emulates the warmth and mellifluousness of Mozart’s two late masterpieces for the instrument, although, as in Mozart, these qualities co-exist with a high degree of athleticism in the solo writing.

In the horn/trumpet concerto, the intrinsically high relief of the two solo instruments is enhanced by a complete absence of orchestral brass. Here, however, the clarinet emerges quietly from the sinister musings of the orchestral bass clarinet. The subtle discrepancy in tuning between the solo clarinet in A and the bass clarinet in B-flat sets up a basic tension which is only resolved at the work’s end.

The concerto is a journey towards its theme, which crystallizes in the coda. This is a pentatonic tune (itself based on an even earlier one) by a nineteenth-century folk-musician called Morrison, and thereby emblematic of the work’s dedicatee. Evidently, Sir Peter was standing in the parliament building on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill and suddenly heard the folk-tune filling the empty hall.

The progress towards this tune takes in a short lento introduction and main Allegro moderato, a ‘shuddering’ Adagio, a clarinet cadenza (supported by lower strings) and a pianissimo ending (both ‘inverse’ climax and coda) not only unique in concerto literature, but different even from Maxwell Davies’s other quiet endings in providing a real resolution instead of a question mark.

Underpinning this is a journey from the modal area of C to that of F sharp – so that the folktune arrives precisely at the moment where the greatest possible harmonic distance has been traversed.

Like its predecessors, the Strathclyde Concerto No. 4 is scored for a ‘classical’ orchestra of double woodwinds (including piccolo and contrabassoon, but with a single bass clarinet), two horns, timpani and strings. For the first time in the cycle, Maxwell Davies has also made judicious use of percussion other than timpani, here marimba, crotales and a Japanese gong.

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

With characteristic caution, the composer has suggested that the starting point of his true competence in large-scale orchestral works might be marked by the work on his First Symphony. Until then, he had always felt most secure when writing for specific musicians. In that respect, the ongoing project of the ten Strathclyde Concertos – launched in 1987 with the far-sighted encouragements of Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but owing its singular potency to the fact that Maxwell Davies has had the collective or individual talents of the SCO players constantly in mind – takes up a crucial thread in his creative life. The 1968 revision of a student work, Stedman Doubles, for clarinet and percussion, and the confrontational Hymnos of 1967, were written specifically for the brilliance and the pioneering advances in technique of Alan Hacker. A different approach was necessary to composing for the SCO’s loyal principal clarinet, Lewis Morrison, if only because the composer was most familiar with his Mozartian stylishness. As in the case of the First Strathclyde Concerto – inspired by Robin Miller’s performances of the Mozart Oboe Concerto – the Fourth Concerto has its roots in a concerto tradition that has less to do with confrontation than cooperation.

Even so, the boundaries and balances shift more disconcertingly than in any of the three earlier concertos in the series, and all in quest of the melody that the soloist so movingly pieces together in the final Adagio. It is another of the composer’s many tributes to Scottish folksong, and the tune comes down to us courtesy of a nineteenth-century Morrison, an extra dedicatory consideration to the original clarinettist, who gave the first performance with his orchestra, the composer conducting, on 21 November 1990.

The drama en route to the only transcendental epilogue in any of the Strathclyde Concertos so far precludes any sense of waiting for the main event. Against a sombre background of lower strings and bass clarinet – the soloist’s only colleague in the orchestra, which otherwise features double woodwind (with second flute doubling piccolo and second bassoon doubling contrabassoon for the extremes of sonority that the concerto calls for) – the clarinet softly hints at the tune to come, but then evades the issue in a virtuoso Allegro moderato dance; the evasiveness, as well as the dance, is highlighted by shifting metres. Here, it is the orchestra, rather than the soloist, which seems anxious to move towards the theme in two ensemble passages – the first led by cellos and pulsing horns, the second by vigorous woodwind figures against strings and crotales (featuring with marimba in this movement as the first supplementary percussion to be used in the Strathclyde series). The clarinettist momentarily returns to its roots, but despite mounting pressure from timpani, flirts with pairs of horns and oboes until cut short at the peak of its restlessness.

The Adagio sees the gradual emergence of a long, legato line from between the snares of shuddering double basses, muted horns and violin harmonics. At first, the clarinet echoes, or weaves between, snatches of melody on violas and bassoon, but the turning-point seems to come when the soloist comes face to face with its bass clarinet reflection, rising from the depths for the first time; then the path is clear for a solo song, initially underpinned by rippling marimba and carried to the instrument’s extreme upper register. Virtuosic, trilling agitation leads to the cadenza, motivated by four changes of chordal support from lower strings. The third – after a bisbigliando (whispering) passage that pushes the soloist’s technique to its furtherest limits – seems to root us in D minor, but there is a surprise in store: the clarinet finally and single-handedly establishes a dream in the luminous key of F sharp major with Morrison’s tune (‘Cumha crobh nan teud’), heard for the one and only time in its simple, diatonic entirety as divided strings enter one by one, followed by the undulating sound of the Japanese temple gong, to underpin the vision.

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


First Performance

City Halls, Glasgow

Wednesday, 21 November 1990

Scottish Chamber Orchestra,