Symphony No. 1

For orchestra


58 minutes



Dedication Sir William Glock

Commissioned by Philharmonia Orchestra





Piccolo (+ alto flute), 2 flutes (2nd + 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, *percussion (4 players), timpani, harp, celesta, strings
*percussion (4 players): marimba, tubular bells, flexatone, glockenspiel, crotales


1. Presto
2. Lento (accelerating to Presto)
3. Adagio
4. Presto


Composer Notes

When I started the present work, in 1973, I had no idea that it would grow into a symphony. The Philharmonia Orchestra had commissioned an orchestral work for 1974, and 1 wrote a moderately long single movement, provisionally called ‘Black Pentecost’. This title, taken from the end of a George Mackay Brown poem, concerns the ruined and deserted crofts in the Orkney valley, which had become my home, and I had set it, for soprano and guitar, a short time before in the song-cycle Dark Angels:

‘The poor and the good fires are all quenched.
Now, cold angel, keep the valley
From the bedlam and cinders of a Black Pentecost.’

The symphony eventually grew into the first extended orchestral work where the music was permeated by the presence of the sea and the landscape of this isolated place off the north coast of Scotland. I felt very keenly that this single movement was incomplete, and withdrew it before performance. It was, as it were, budding and putting out shoots, and although I had firmly drawn a final double bar-line, it was reaching out across this, suggesting transformations beyond the confines of a single movement.

Its next step was to become two movements in one – the existing movement compressing to become a short slow movement that changes into a scherzo of a kind, but with the tripartite formal connotations of that name reduced to a ‘ghost’ in the form’s far hinterground. This is now the second movement – a ‘Lento’ that becomes a Presto scherzo.

Next, backwards from it, the second movement’s first chord sprouted a large new span of music, which eventually became the present separate first movement. The point of connection is still aurally present, in that what is now the last chord of the first movement makes, retrospectively, the first chord of the second.

The ending of the second movement was no conclusion, so a few months later a slow movement proper followed — and finally, the concluding Presto. The scope of the original provisional title had long been outgrown. I had been bolstering my own orchestral composition by analysing various symphonies and large orchestral works in some detail, and applied in this work certain symphonic solutions and devices into which 1 believe I gained some kind of insight for the first time — hence I ventured to call the work ‘Symphony’. It might be constructive, for the acute listener, if I pointed out these symphonic ‘antecedents’.

The transformation from Lento to scherzo in the second movement stems from the first movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, where a Moderato sonata-styIe movement becomes a scherzo. The cross-phrasing and time-perspective devices in my third movement were developed from the opening of Schumann’s Second, and the overall shape and some of the detailing of formal structure in the last movement came, on the surface level, from ‘Don’ in Pli Selon Pli of Boulez.

The end of the whole work – the stabbing off-beat chords – is an adaptation of Sibelius’s solution at the end of his Fifth. These chords, in my work, are a fifth above their harmonically ‘logical’ position. I did not want the last gesture to sound ‘final’ in a rhetorical way, giving the impression that I thought I had completely worked through and solved the problems posed by the symphony and could therefore afford to write a (falsely) affirmative conclusion – but, rather, to make audible my impression that the argument was not concluded and that I was aware I had only opened up fields of investigation and not finally harvested all their fruits.

As in my previous works, there is no ‘orchestration’ as such – the instrumentation functions simply to make the musical argument clear, and one of this size and complexity needs large forces. An unusual feature in the orchestra, however, is the percussion section. It consists of tuned instruments only – the glockenspiel, crotales, marimba and tubular bells, together with celesta, harp and timpani forming a section of the orchestra which carries as much of the thematic and harmonic argument as any other section, and, unusually, has material as musically demanding.

Perhaps it would help to put listeners in a frame of mind sympathetic to at least the intention, if not the result of this work, to know that possibly the creative artists I admire most are two twelfth-century writers, whose language, to my mind, builds the only sound-structures parallel to the statement made by the medieval cathedrals – Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas. To their vision and example I owe a great deal of what might be positive about my efforts towards a musical logic.

The work is dedicated to William Glock, as a mark of friendship and in appreciation of his work for contemporary music during his years as Music Controller at the BBC.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Like Brahms, Davies waited until young maturity before writing his First Symphony, and the work profits from what he had learned of orchestration and large design in the Second Taverner Fantasia and Worldes Blis. The difference is that the surface is smoother, more polished, even if the music is often as fierce in its gestures, particularly in the finale. There is also a change in colour: the symphony, like Stone Litany, is Orkney music, and the splash of the sea is there in the important parts for tuned percussion. The four movements follow the usual pattern, except that the second begins slowly and only gradually speeds up to become a scherzo, with the true slow movement, one of uneasy calm, coming next.

Extended Note by Robert Maycock

When Mahler and Sibelius had their famous exchange about the nature of the symphony, it came down to a straight choice: either ‘like the world’, seeking to include everything, or else concentrated and refined so that all the musical material is closely connected. Naturally, life is never quite so simple, and Mahler himself grew increasingly subtle about the internal relationships within his symphonies. If any composer seemed likely to make both approaches work at once, though, it was Peter Maxwell Davies. He had made his name with intricately structured pieces and then, during the 1960s, had broken out into a wild, expressionist phase that could reach out to encompass a ‘foxtrot for orchestra’ just as Mahler had used the potency of cheap music from his own time. When the news emerged that he was writing a symphony, disbelief was the first response, but soon speculation became intense. It was the product of several years’ growth. At first, answering a commission from the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1973, he wrote what he has called ‘a moderately long single movement’. Feeling it to be incomplete, he did not permit the performance to go ahead. Having settled in Orkney he returned to the music and found that it was becoming ‘two movements in one’ – the second movement of this symphony, as it turned out, for another expanse of music then grew out of its first chord, followed by a slow movement and a finale. The finished work, nearly an hour long, was finally played by the Philharmonia on 2 February 1978 under a brilliant and already experienced young conductor called Simon Rattle, and in a memorably heady atmosphere at the Royal Festival Hall.

Heady, but puzzled. For all its power and scope, this was not a world-embracing extravaganza but an intricate and often inward-looking drama making no concessions to superficial entertainment even in an ironic Mahlerian way. Sibelius had apparently won the argument. As we now know it was the beginning of a long sequence of symphonies and concertos, still very much in progress, and the gritty change of direction has recently led Bayan Northcott to call Maxwell Davies an honorary Scandinavian symphonist – not so fanciful given the kinship between north-east Scotland and the countries just across the sea. Maxwell Davies has cited the Fifth Symphony of Sibelius as a model for some aspects of this symphony. Still, this is only one element of the music, and the audience on that first occasion plainly found it as difficult to listen to as it was to play. Most obviously it lacked the regular and easily recognizable reprises of earlier stretches of music that act as signposts in more traditional symphonies. And there is no point in pretending that for first-time listeners now the work will necessarily explain itself as it goes along: it is the toughest nut to crack of all the symphonies before No. 4. How, then, can newcomers find and keep their bearings, and enter into the excitement that is forever going on just below the surface?

he best single gambit is to hold on to the principal line of the music and to let the rest take shape around it. Whatever else may be going on in the way of colourful distractions, Maxwell Davies orchestrates with care to make that line clear. It may be on trumpets or cellos, a trombone or even the timpani; it will often be in the middle of the texture, rarely on the top like an accompanied melody, and almost never a conventional bass-line. But it will not be smothered in a mass of equally important counterpoint, and although it is sometimes shared – say by two or three trumpets, or among the strings – it does not dart constantly from one colour of tone to another. If you lose the thread, you will be able to pick it up again. Often the same pattern of scoring is kept up for quite long sections, and the inexorable growth within and between these sections gives the music its characteristic feeling of momentum and accumulation, especially in the later stages of movements, which are where the main climaxes occur.

Then there is the question of harmony. Clearly, this is not behaving like tonal harmony in a classical or romantic symphony, yet something like conflicts between keys is going on, and elements of major or minor come to the surface at crucial points, such as the beginning and end. Again, on a first encounter, the thing to be aware of is the varying degree of tension in the music: this is the outcome of the harmonic workings, and it is not necessary (or even sometimes possible) to listen for arcane processes going on from second to second in order to grasp their long-term impact. This sounds like spelling out what we do instinctively in following any large-scale piece of music, and so it should be. If you want a classic example of weird and wonderful harmonic events that create high excitement while foxing the ear, try the last few minutes of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Arcane, incidentally, is very much the word. There is no absolute need to understand how Maxwell Davies uses magic squares to invent and transform some of his material. In fact he tends to go out of his way not to talk about them and likes to keep his secrets. It is enough to sense, and sometimes hear, that the music is evolving as it goes along. It may be illuminating to know that when a huge, sweeping line arises on strings in octaves at the end of the symphony, the relative length and pitch of each note are determined by going round a 9 x 9 magic square in a clockwise spiral. But the point is that we recognize a culmination, which happens to be partly because that same square has determined much of the detail on the way. Anybody who wants to follow up this intriguing aspect of the Maxwell Davies mind will find guidance in Paul Griffiths’s book on the composer. If it suggests medievalist leanings, there is plenty else in his music to confirm them, including more in this symphony, because the material of the magic square originates in a plainsong melody, Ave Maris Stella, which is quoted explicitly in the second movement.

So: music that pursues its own patterns of growth, producing the time-span and tensions of a lengthy symphony, but without using the classical sonata methods of generating them. You can, sometimes, catch the echo of traditional symphonic patterns: the opening horn gesture, for example, returns briefly at a later turning-point in the first movement. But the continuation is quite different, and in general this is music that evolves rather than repeats itself. That very opening, unsettlingly fast, is about setting up harmonic patterns. The first real landmark is the entry of the timpani, when the pace steadies. Violins soon begin to make play with what amounts to a motif: a long-held note, growing in volume and terminated by a quick leap. Shimmers and splashes of tuned percussion punctuate and sometimes fuel the argument. From about midway, the music starts to build up in lengthening surges, and the motif with the terminating leap echoes around the last climax as strings and percussion hover in fierce brilliance.

The sense of a powerful focus being brought to bear on initially bewildering ideas may recall Sibelius. The next movement, however, explicitly borrows from Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony its form of a gradual, pervasive change from slow to fast, not just by accelerating but by allowing animation to spread through the whole fabric of the music. To the ear, the effect is of a series of impulses, as the surface activity repeatedly falls away at quicker tempos. Once full speed is reached, the music quietly breaks up and dissolves altogether. Apart from that, the early stages show Maxwell Davies’s evolutionary processes with particular lucidity. What the alto flute plays at the outset is a halting, distorted version of the Ave Maris Stella plainsong. Three trumpets seize it and transform it, and it crops up further altered on cellos and violins. Just before the main acceleration gets going, a solo violin emerges with a quiet but portentous-sounding solo – rightly portentous, for this is an anticipation of the finale’s great climax on massed strings.

Lyrical feeling dominates the Adagio, above all in the string writing. Here at least, Mahler displaces Sibelius, though there are also deliberate Orkney evocations and a quota of sombre meteorological or aquatic heavings. But the timpani part is thematic, not picturesque, and sometimes becomes a melodic line in its own right. With the finale, we are back to unsettling pace, eventually proceeding in surges rather like the first movement’s, but centred on an episode of sparse bleakness. A virtuoso first trumpet part revives the momentum. Timpani, again, are pointers to the action, not only in their quiet contribution here but in dramatic, long-delayed entries in the first part of the movement and at its peak. If the ending sounds jagged and provisional, as though in the wrong key, then the composer’s calculations have succeeded – the effect ought to be like stopping the music in its tracks, not resolving it. This symphony has started something that needs more than one work to explore. The next two symphonies take the adventure onwards.

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


First Performance

Royal Festival Hall, London

Thursday, 2 February 1978

Philharmonia Orchestra