Symphony No. 2

For orchestra


55 minutes




Commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its centenary





Piccolo (+ alto flute), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones,
*percussion (3 players), timpani, harp, strings
*percussion (3 players): glockenspiel, marimba, crotales


1. Allegro molto – Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Allegro molto, leggiero
4. Adagio, flessibile – Moderato – Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Presto – Adagio – Lento


Composer Notes

At the foot of the cliff before my window, the Atlantic and the North Sea meet, with all the complex interweaving of currents and wave-shapes, and the conflicts of weather, that such an encounter implies.

The new symphony is not only a direct response to the sounds of the ocean’s extreme proximity, subtly permeating all of one’s existence – from the gentlest of Aeolian harp vibrations as the waves strike the cliffs on the other side of the bay in calm weather, to explosive shudders through the very fabric of the house, as huge boulders grind over each other directly below the garden, during the most violent westerly gales – but also a more considered response to the architecture of its forms.

I have observed two basic wave-types of potential interest – that where the wave-shape moves through the sea, while the water remains (basically) static – as when breakers roll in towards a shore-line (moving form, static content of wave) – and that where the wave-shape is static and constant, while the water moves through it – as when an obstacle, a sea-wreck, for example, protrudes through the surface of a tide race, making a plaited wave-shape behind it (static form, moving content of wave).

While I was first working on the musical potentialities in these two extremely different wave types, and various interactions between them, I came upon Andr_©’ Gide’s exact observation of the same phenomenon, noted in an early diary, while on holiday on France’s north coast, and also upon Leonardo da Vinci’s precise sketches of both wave-types.

These two formulations governed the composition of the new symphony, in small architectural detail, and also in long time-spans over whole movements, and more. For example, after the short slow introduction, the first movement proper starts with six ‘antecedent’ phrases on horns, with ‘consequent’ phrases on violins, where even the contour is obviously wave-shaped, and the static form and changing melodic and rhythmic content are carefully underlined. In contrast, at the opening of the third movement, the repeating identities of the rhythmic and melodic figures clarify the changing forms of their successive statements.

Deeper in the structure, but I hope still articulate, are large-scale ‘pointers’, like the surfacing of parallel climactic points of the design in the second and third movements – accelerating strokes and, in the fourth movement, the transformation of what starts as a slow movement into a real Allegro finale.

It is tempting, but, I feel, pressing an analogy too far, to discuss perceptions of wave-motion – the time-cycles of tides and their transforming heights and intensities depending on the moon’s cycle – but it is probably useful, in a short note, to discuss the tonality of the symphony, which is the direct musical expression of these perceptions.

Tonality is surely not merely a matter of using a major or minor triad on the music’s surface – it is a system of organization, through every aspect of a work, which enunciates it as a coherent whole, governing not only melody and harmony, but rhythm and architecture.

The symphony is in B minor. However, the dominant I have used throughout is F, or rather, E sharp, to be syntactically correct, exploiting the implied semitonal conflict with the historic, almost instinctive dominant of F sharp, which is always in the background of our musical consciousness. The musical space of the tritone B – E sharp is slowly explored throughout the work, being filled in by pivotal steps of a minor third, against the implied cycles of the fifths around B and F minors. This might sound naively simple – but I am convinced that to support a complex structure spanning four substantial movements, an extremely basic unifying hypothesis is necessary, if the ear is to be able to relate surface detail. However, I hope that there is here no easy return to old tonality. I feel there can be no short cuts to a new musical simplicity by these means: rather, tonality might be extended to furnish new methods of cohesion (if it is understood modally, and not necessarily in relation to a bass line). This may yield multiple musical significance at any given moment – then it need not reflect a unifying confidence of outlook characteristic of the greatest period of its former exploration, which would be inimical to contemporary experience.

A certain thematic unity is provided throughout by the use of the plainsong Nativitas Tua, Dei Genetrix – proper to the birthday of the Virgin Mary, which happens to be my own birthday; this symphony is a birthday gift for the Virgin.

The plainsong is subject to two kinds of transformation process – first, where the intervallic content is gradually and systematically modified to reach an inversion or retrograde (again, a reference to wave-motion) and second, by subjection to permutation by the magic squares of the Sun and of Mars. (These are arrangements of sequences of numbers arranged into squares, so that by reading the square in particular ways, arithmetical constants are given – they are a gift to composers if used very simply as an architectural module, and their astrological overtones are attractive and intriguing.)

The instrumental writing throughout is virtuoso, although the orchestra used is not particularly large. The percussion section is perhaps unusual, in that it has only tuned instruments – timpani, glockenspiel, crotales and marimba, which, together with the harp, function as a kind of gamelan, and carry as much of the musical argument as any other division of the orchestra.

The four movements follow the old symphonic plan in outline. In the first, after an introduction containing the germ-cells of all the material for the whole symphony, there is a quick sonata movement, with transformation processes in place of a tone development, and a systematic exploration of the B – E sharp pivot – rather than a statement of a tonal centre – followed by a moving away from and a return to that centre.

The second movement is slow, in F minor, with the C flat (B natural) functioning tonally as the E sharp did in the first. After an introduction a theme on cellos has virtuoso ‘doubles’ on bassoon, horn, oboe and trumpet.

The third movement, with scherzo and trio characteristics, has the same tonality as the second, except that the A is natural. Its form consists of super- and juxta-positions of modular ‘blocks’ of material, the content of which is at first constant, but eventually subject to interior transformation processes, and whose shapes themselves are subject to ‘wave-motion’, and designed to interlock ever more closely.

The finale starts with passacaglia characteristics, in B minor – a long, slow melody for strings. The pace and the material gradually transform to parallel the first movement, and then evolve further into a tonal finale. Towards the end, for the first time in the whole work, the D tonality – hitherto only touched as a step between B and E sharp – comes into its own, in preparation for the final cadence on the minor third, B and D.

The symphony was composed in 1980. An amusing tailpiece – at the very moment that I wrote the final drum-strokes, there was a tremendous, thunderous rock-fall from the cliff at the other side of the bay, opposite my windows. I was very shaken, and hope it is without significance.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The Second Symphony is scored for a very similar orchestra to that of the First, with tuned percussion again taking part in many seascapes. The first movement is an Allegro of exuberant sound-drama, suggesting great waves landing with a crash, or surging volumes channelled through narrow openings. There is then a ruminative slow movement, followed by an extraordinary scherzo that skates in a wholly original way around the tonality of F. The finale, like the second movement of the First Symphony, begins slowly and then accelerates to take on sufficient force to finish this vigorously conceived work.

There was unfinished business at the end of Maxwell Davies’s First Symphony. The music itself says as much in the deliberate wrongness of its final chords, suddenly putting a stop to things after a massive accumulation of sound that might just as easily have been the pivot into another phase of growth. Writing another symphony was the only answer. In our postmodern times, when one historical precedent is supposed to be as valid as any other, it is difficult to recapture the sense of shock just a decade and a half ago when one of the nation’s most prominent avant-garde radicals first admitted that a piece of his was turning into a symphony. Surely only composers of old-hat ‘British music’ still wrote symphonies? But the symphony arrived all right, in 1978, and fulfilled ‘the hopes of many people that it would bring fresh life to the old form. The thought that it might be the start of something new, rather than an isolated aberration, began to seem less outrageous. Among those who felt that way were the decision-makers at the Boston Symphony Orchestra who promptly gave Maxwell Davies the chance to deal with his unfinished business by commissioning a Second Symphony in celebration of their orchestra’s first performance in Boston on 26 February 1981. Among the musical issues that Maxwell Davies wanted to spend more time on were clarity of large-scale form and harmony within his highly personal musical language, and in particular the ways in which a slow movement could evolve into a quick one. This last point stemmed initially from a fascination with the opening movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, and formed the basis of the second movement of his own First Symphony, the earliest part of that work to be written. It is quite common for composers to keep coming back to the same problems in successive pieces: think of the minor key slow movements in Mozart’s E flat concertos, or in the case of Sibelius the middle movements of the Third and Fifth Symphonies. The habit does not mean that there is necessarily something amiss with the first attempt, only that there might be several different solutions all worth trying or that the composer can see a more elegant way around the difficulties that cropped up in the course of writing. Maxwell Davies’s No. 2 is written for a slightly smaller orchestra than No. 1, though a basically similar one: percussion, for instance, is another glistening line-up of glockenspiel, crotales and marimba. It runs a few minutes shorter, around fifty. Listeners who come to it with No. 1 in their memory will soon notice one result of the formal rethinking – keeping your bearings is easier – and the harmonic question becomes increasingly prominent as the symphony proceeds. The range of the last two movements, which allows more traditional things to happen on the surface than ever found their way into No. 1. But the clarity of scoring is as bold as ever: in the slow movement it makes more complex counterpoint possible without losing focus. Material is again generated from one of Maxwell Davies’s secret magic square devices, transforming the notes of a plainsong melody so that you do not hear it as such but sense the unity of the ideas. And there is again an underlying drama, expressed in the conflict between key centres. The composer has drawn comparisons with the conflict between different kinds of wave motion as well, though he is talking metaphorically and analytically and not trying to suggest picturesque qualities. While the symphony has its evocative ‘Orkney’ character, just as Sibelius’s symphonies have their dreams of Nordic landscapes, what makes it tick is implicit in the musical ideas themselves. The place to pick up the key conflict for the first time is immediately after the first movement’s introduction – when the trumpets and tuned percussion land with a jolt on the same loud note, and the horns start behaving as a rather pushy foursome. It is B against B flat: the horns keep attacking chords with a B, then sliding upwards with the B flat. Interspersed with this jousting, the violins set out on more purposeful, energetic paths. Several such alternations of horns and violins follow: it is like laying out contrasted themes not one after another, as in traditional symphonic form, but within a single block of music. What is markedly different from the First Symphony here is the repetition: the ear is familiarized with basic thoughts at the outset without being rushed into new versions of them. And as the movement continues through its well-defined sections, linked by a constant animated tempo, other ideas recur like landmarks. That first section, for instance, is terminated by a grim entry of trombones and timpani – especially striking after so much horn colour – and this combination features prominently in breaking up the movement’s central climax and then continuing to interrupt with B/B flat conflicts of Tapiola-like ferocity. There are accented rhythms that return in the slow movement and finale. Towards the end of the movement, instead of building up in successive surges like Symphony No. 1 the music gathers itself into a second climax and then dissolves. During the middle two movements the tonal focus moves to F. The brass at the beginning of the Adagio stake out a claim for F minor, the ensuing cello theme upholds it, and the end of the movement returns to it. What happens for much of the movement is rather like a series of variations with short interludes. Each one spotlights a different instrument or section with another weaving its way around it. So the cellos’ companion is the alto flute; then follow bassoon duetting with flute, and horn with clarinet. Violas take the lead and give way to a dancing oboe; a trumpet overlaps and soon takes over. After the second violins have sung in their turn, the timpanist intrudes with a dramatic accelerating crescendo. It is on the note B, and it precipitates a crisis, only solved when the timpani re-establish F. We stay there, this time major rather than minor, as a real scherzo takes off, quirky and immediately appealing. This movement, on the surface at least, is so far unique in Maxwell Davies’s symphonies: the firm rhythmic definition, the bustling activity with pauses on unpredictable chords, above all the short distinctive sections which alternate and interact – all this sounds almost like a Mahler scherzo. It does so even more when the music, having pottered along for several minutes, suddenly flares up and gives way to a hushed, intensely lyrical duet for solo violins. The scherzo resumes, somewhat subdued. But the underlying conflict eventually breaks through on the timpani, as in the previous movement, and wipes out the scherzo character altogether. So it is for the finale, in time-honoured fashion, to settle the conflict. This is the movement in which Maxwell Davies tackles the slow-to-fast problem. His method is rather like a passacaglia beginning after the introduction over quietly pulsing Bs in a slowed-down rhythm from the first movement, as violas play a mournful transformation of the scherzo’s opening theme. Each time round, the pace is faster and the activity more intensive. Eventually the strings surge upwards in octaves, rather as they did at the end of Symphony No.1. Here, however, it really is the start of something else, an allegro like a more purposeful version of the scherzo. The tonal show-down arrives with a ferocious interruption to soaring violins, and the music is dragged down by way of D to a conclusive B which the alto flute’s wistful afterthought cannot efface. Heard new, after the Symphony No. 1, this music seemed as though it had moved several steps further, or backward, in the direction of traditional symphonic forms. But that is an illusion: what it does, rather, is to take still more powerful tensions and expose their consequences with the benefits of greater symphonic experience. As subsequent symphonies have shown, old hat is for other people. __ Robert Maycock 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 Paul Driver __

Maxwell Davies composed his Second Symphony between April and October 1980, in response to a commission from Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was given its first performances in February 1981 at Symphony Hall, Boston, as part of the orchestra’s centenary celebrations. Less than three years had elapsed since the launching of the composer’s First Symphony – a remarkable fact, considering that both works are enormously ambitious, hour-long musical edifices. Davies’s First Symphony had taken him somewhat by surprise. He had set out simply to write a moderately long, single-movement work (Black Pentecost) for the Philharmonia Orchestra, but found that his conception was expanding of its own accord, the material ‘budding and putting out shoots’. So the unexpectedly conservative enterprise of a symphony was born. However, Davies’s feeling that symphonic problems had not been solved definitively with this work was symbolized by the inconclusive, off-beat chords of the last movement’s ending. The Second Symphony, conceived as such from the start, may perhaps be seen as an attempt to answer the composer’s own dissatisfactions with its predecessor – to close its open-ended territory. Certainly the Second Symphony in many obvious respects goes over the ground of the first. A broadly traditional, four-movement plan is again used. The orchestration likewise makes virtuoso demands on the players, but is strictly ‘functional’ in its presentation of the musical argument; again, though, a heavy contingent of tuned percussion provides much incidental colour and plays its part in the music’s evocation of Orcadian seascapes. The guiding influences of Beethoven, Mahler and Sibelius can once more be discerned: the Sibelian device of structural acceleration, which Davies employed in the First Symphony to transform a Lento movement by degrees into a scherzo, is put to more striking and effective use in the Second’s finale – an Adagio passacaglia that becomes an Allegro, then a Presto. And certain of Davies’s preoccupations remain fundamental: with plainsong transformations (the plainsong here is Nativitas tua, Dei Genetrix, for the birthday of the Virgin Mary, which coincides with the composer’s; the symphony is ‘a birthday gift for the Virgin’), magic squares, and a ‘modal’ reinterpretation of conventional tonality (the work is in B minor, but the dominant used is F or E sharp; the harmony is devised around a central tenor rather than upwards from the bass-line). What is new to the Second Symphony is a slightly softer, clearer, more assuaging orchestral texture and a more explicit formal and descriptive interest in the sounds and behaviour of the sea – specifically the architecture of its wave-forms. Davies has observed two distinct wave-types: one in which the wave-form moves through a static medium (breakers rolling in towards a shore-line, for instance), and the other in which the content of the wave moves through a static form (where an obstacle, a sea-wreck for example, protrudes through the surface of a tide-race, making a plaited wave-shape behind it). Finding corroboration of these observations in Gide’s journals and Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks, Davies was prompted to adopt the two formulations as governing ideas for the whole composition. Thus he writes: ‘the first movement proper starts with six “antecedent” phrases on horns, with “consequent” phrases on violins, where even the contour is obviously wave-shaped, and the static form and changing melodic and rhythmic content are carefully underlined. In contrast, at the opening of the third movement, the repeating identities of the rhythmic and melodic figures clarify the changing forms of their successive statements.’ The musical origin of this constructional principle was probably the last movement of the First Symphony, with its surging, Boulez-inspired overlappings of form. Wave architecture influences the Second Symphony’s structure at the deepest levels, but wave-like contours are everywhere perceptible: the splashing of waves dominates the surface pictorially, in a fashion sometimes even reminiscent of Debussy. The work begins with an introduction exhibiting some six changes of tempo in a mere 22 bars. All the material of the symphony is prefigured here – the section is a beautiful, tense little seascape in its own right. A quick sonata movement is set on its way by octave flurries on the marimbaphone on the notes B, D and F. The first part of the movement consists of the exchanges between strings and horns, already mentioned. A melody for cello, decorated by bassoons, trombones and timpani, signals the second part – but it cannot really be called a second subject. Nor is there a development section as such, but rather continuous transformation processes and a ‘systematic exploration of the B – E sharp pivot’. The changes from one section to another are always apparent from the changes of orchestration. Just as the harmony depends on a cantus firmus or tenor line, so the orchestration always highlights a principal melodic line against which the rest of the texture, however complex, is to be understood as decoration. The melody moves to the bassoon in the third section; then to the oboe; then back to the cellos and violas, and so on. A noteworthy feature of the accompanimental texture is a Scotch snap figure that rises about midway in the woodwind and brass and recurs throughout the symphony. Other important characteristics are baleful, apoplectic brass fanfares, decisive timpani interjections, and a curious, recurring ‘codetta’ passage for strings, marked con sord., punto d’arco, which also uses the Scotch snap, and has a distinctly Sibelian ring. The second movement, an Adagio in F minor (modal dominant, C flat), presents a beautiful theme on cellos, poignantly harmonized in Davies’s Mahlerian manner. This is followed by virtuoso ‘doubles’ on bassoon, horn, oboe, trumpet and in the strings, before returning, via a La Mer-like climax, to the cellos and violas. The third movement is an adaptation of the scherzo-and-trio pattern. Davies has said that it ‘has the same tonality as the second movement, except that the A is natural. Its form consists of super- and juxta-positions of modular “blocks” of material, the content of which is at first constant but eventually subject to interior transformation processes, and whose shapes themselves are subject to “wave motion”, and designed to interlock ever more closely.’ The movement (which needs to be taken very fast) has a light, Scottish, modal flavour that is finally contradicted by a dense climax and interruption foreshadowed in the Adagio. The last movement (in B minor) starts as a slow passacaglia – dark, intense, Mahlerian. But the tempo inexorably increases, the texture thickens amid profusions of trills, until a progress which is intended to parallel the first movement erupts into a fierce allegro ‘finale’ and reaches beyond that to a terminal hint of a presto movement. There are prodigious climaxes in which the most menacing implications of the Scotch snap strain are realized; once again, though, a timpani thwack cuts things short, and the last notes we hear are quiet, bitter and apparently ‘wrong’ ones on alto flute (E flat, A, D flat, B flat). Underneath, a final cadence on the tonic minor third (B-D) has been securely achieved.

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


First Performance

Symphony Hall, Boston

Thursday, 26 February 1981

Boston Symphony Orchestra