Symphony No. 3

For orchestra


58 minutes




Commissioned by BBC to mark European Music Year 1985 and the 50th anniversary of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra





3 flutes (2nd + alto flute, 3rd + piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, strings


1. Lento – Allegro alla breve
2. Scherzo I: Allegro
3. Scherzo II: Allegro vivace
4. Lento/Adagio flessibile


Composer Notes

When I wrote this symphony I thought of it in terms of purely abstract music, and involved myself with problems of large-scale articulation – that is, with musical architecture, particularly as a framework for long-range harmonic planning.

It was only in the course of rehearsal and performance that I realized that the score was also my most dynamic seascape to date, and that the architectural proportional devices – particularly the Fibonacci series used in direct imitation of Brunelleschi’s Renaissance church plans – related at least as directly to the spiralling mollusc shells on my desk, collected along the shore below my house, and to the spirallings of the huge breakers crashing in from the Atlantic on that same shore. All of these reflect basic universal design shapes common to all of nature and to many human artefacts. Indeed, I like to see these structural principles as archetypes, making the very act of creation – and of perception – possible.

The thing that will strike the first-time listener most strongly may be the presence, through the whole work, of the sea – reflecting the circumstances of its composition, at home in a tiny isolated cottage on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, on a clifftop overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Here the sound, sight, and mood of the sea influences your whole existence, all your perceptions, and – particularly in winter – shudders right through the stones of the house, and indeed through your very bones.

It would be misleading, however, to hear the work only as a tone-painting. The chief compositional concern was the clarification of tonal-modal progression, borrowing from Renaissance architectural practice regarding ‘vanishing points’ in the planning of perspective. Here the progression governs not only all rhythmic articulation on both a large and small scale, but also all tonality-defining harmonic design, over the largest of time-spans down to the smallest filigree detail.

It is just this necessity of making harmonic sense through a large slice of time that attracts me to symphonic writing. This is also probably the toughest problem of composition today, the solution of which can only be found through experiment, trial and error. There are no short cuts or rules of thumb, and the eventual successful outcome also implies a bridging of the gulf between so much contemporary music and the informed and well-disposed general music public – but without compromise, and at the most intense physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

The symphony’s first movement starts quietly and slowly, stating the basic tonality of D, with the flutes borrowing a plainsong – one of the early medieval Roman church chants – addressed to the Archangel Michael. (This is one of my favourite chants, quite apart from its liturgical connections with the Angel who weighs our souls for judgement after death; it is used in all sorts of guises throughout the symphony.) The pace accelerates to a dramatic alla breve where I hope first-time listeners won’t get too seasick, though they must take quite a buffeting. After a violent return to the opening material and tonality, the music is blown right away, as if it were on scurrying air-currents.

There follows a pair of scherzos. In the first of these, the ear traces an experience analogous to the eye’s perception in a Brunelleschi church nave, with a steady progress towards the altar from a fixed central point along a clear, straight line, revealing all the symmetries and proportions correctly. In the third movement, the experience is distorted, all the proportions becoming slightly ‘skew-whiff’, as if we experience the same nave from one side.

I would like to point out two additional features of the symphony: the first is in the second movement, where the pace slackens and we are left with an isolated high ‘b’ on tremolo strings and piccolo. In the following section, through to the end of the movement, the physical inspiration was a towering cliff-face full of nesting sea-birds, whirling and calling (spirals again!), where the whole world was filled with the beat of wings and echoings of haunting, eerie sounds. The second feature is in the third movement, in which I borrowed a device from the ‘Burlesque’ of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, where the tumult stops and the composer lets in ‘windows’, through which we catch glimpses of music from the next movement – in both Mahler’s and my cases, we catch the slow strains of an Adagio finale.

The brooding final movement takes material from the first, giving it time to breathe and expand, and develop its full expressive, harmonic potential. Another image is superposed on the cool dimensions and perspectives of Brunelleschi – from a recurring dream which I have had since late childhood. At the time of writing, both my parents were dying, and I new they would both soon lie alongside other members of my family in Agecroft Cemetery, Manchester – which is dominated by the building of my dream. This is a blackened Victorian gothic church, now abandoned, with shrubs growing from the broken roof, and crows cawing from the tower; in my dream these become the angels of death, calling with voices of inhumanly high trumpets across the gravestones from their fastness of fathomless nightmare. The ending of the symphony recalls the close of the first movement, but here the music floats away, as if time has stood still.


Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Unlike its two predecessors, Davies’s Third Symphony has no ensemble of keyed percussion, but it is scarcely less dramatic and the range of the orchestra is extended in a different way by the highly important part given to the timpani. There are again four movements, the first an Allegro of increasing pace and transforming energy, disappearing finally in the extreme treble register of piccolo, flutes and violins. The next two movements are both dancing scherzos, the second being a ‘crooked cousin’ of the first while also containing windows into the extended slow finale, which reaches a climax of huge power when the symphony’s basic idea is reduced to its most elemental state.

Extended Note by Robert Maycock

Having surprised the world by setting out on his symphonic path in the mid-1970s, Maxwell Davies has pursued it consistently ever since. The symphonies have appeared at regular intervals – No. 2 in 1981, No. 3 in 1985, No. 4 in 1989 – and are all not far short of an hour in playing time. While the music of this Orkney period is steeped in echoes of the natural environment, the symphonies’ concern with abstract musical issues of tonal conflict, transformation of material balance of overall design, has been equally constant, and has tended to become more sharply focused. No. 4, which he wrote for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, stands slightly to one side because of its smaller resources, but its thinking continues the symphonic pattern that its predecessors have established.

We can see that the meaning of ‘symphonic’ is distinctly peculiar. There is little point in looking for well-defined expositions, developments, recapitulations, and the other paraphernalia of what historical symphonies are supposed to have been from the eighteenth century onwards. If you do look, you find a few traces on the surface of the music, especially from No. 2 onwards, which are helpful in keeping your bearings; but the real symphonic business lies in the building up of massive forms expressed through large-scale shifts of tonality and constant transformation of basic material. This is the sense in which the music is said to be composed against the background of the classical symphony. Tonality certainly does not ‘mean’ anything to do with classical harmony. If the Symphony No. 3 has plenty to say about D, or even D minor, at the beginning and end, and shouts C at the end of its middle movements, its ways of moving from one to the other are Maxwell Davies’s own. He has his favourite transforming devices, most famously ‘magic squares’ or number systems which can produce many variants of the same material – in the symphonies that are derived from plainsong. That may not be the way Haydn or Beethoven would develop their symphonic themes; but it still fulfils the purpose of creating diversity within unity.

No. 3 was commissioned by the BBC for Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic, who had already (when the orchestra was the BBC Northern Symphony) given a magnificent performance of No. 2. It marked both European Music Year and the orchestra’s Fiftieth Anniversary, and was first played at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 19 February 1985. Compared to the first two symphonies the scoring has lost the glittering array of tuned percussion and gained a tuba, which looms prominently but lyrically; sonorities are richer here too, with strings leading the argument. As with No. 2 the attainment of full speed proves to be not a goal but a new beginning. Maxwell Davies marks it with a resplendent entry of the trombones, for the first time in the work, in a new key centre of F minor, and by clearing away the surface activity so that the pulse paradoxically sounds louder.

Not, however, for long, because this is an extended, ceaselessly developing Allegro that reaches its own peak just before the end. Changes of texture mark the turning-points. Another prominent trombone entry, about midway, prefaces a scurrying section quietly underpinned in the double basses by the plainsong idea from the symphony’s opening. During a lyrical respite, with woodwind in the foreground playing a variant of the cello theme which led the acceleration at the start of the movement, trombones and double basses unobtrusively keep the harmony ticking over. As so often in the Maxwell Davies symphonies, the return of the timpani after a long absence signals the approach of the most drastic eruption, involving a mighty collision between D and A flat to leave the piccolo in a rapid, perky parody of the plainsong idea which evaporates into silence.

The composer has said that during its four movements the symphony ‘articulates the same architectural outline in four different ways’. That is easiest to hear at the ends of the movements, where long-range tensions are brought to the surface. But the two short scherzos which follow have more in common: the second is meant to display the proportions of the first somewhat skewed – something that again becomes more apparent as the movements proceed, because the stabs of tremolando strings (accented, then quiet) which punctuate the first of them turn into distinct interruptions in the latter part of the second. They may be scherzos by name, but they are rather uneasy by nature; the first many-layered and quick-changing, the second bleaker and turning aspects of the first inside-out, so that the action occurs in exchanges between solo horn and trombone while woodwind or strings hold steady.

The interruptions recall something quite similar that happens in Symphony No. 2, although here they anticipate the slow finale. Maxwell Davies admits he borrowed the idea from Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and the finale too has a dark Mahlerian atmosphere; it even begins in D flat, and some of the figuration echoes in passing both of Mahler 9’s outer movements. Its course, however, corresponds to its context, building gradually through two central climaxes to a gigantic confrontation. After the second climax – announced by another dramatic timpani entry – threads start to be taken up from the whole length of the symphony. The music wanders again until a quiet, low, sustained D emerges and, over it, the original plainsong idea in the cellos. G sharp is once again thrown at D, but just when it seems to have held out, the animation suddenly stops and the music subsides in a slow cadence on to F minor, with a faint last word from the subversive G sharp. It is a similar gesture to the ending of Symphony No. 2, with the same emotional force; but its meaning is opposite, a collapse instead of a grim confirmation.

All through the first three symphonies Maxwell Davies has come back to ideas that have exercised his mind before and has found new angles, different answers. Now, as well as the fourth, a series of concertos are exploring further aspects of symphonic thought. Twenty years ago the prospect would have seemed about as likely as Le Corbusier building a Renaissance cathedral, but Max the symphonist has been very much in the ascendant, and the angles and answers are not running out just yet.

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


First Performance

Free Trade Hall, Manchester

Tuesday, 19 February 1985

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra