Symphony No. 4

For orchestra


42 minutes



Dedication To the memory of John Tunnell

Commissioned by Christian Salvesen PLC for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra





2 flutes (2nd + piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd + cor anglais), 2 clarinets in A (2nd + bass clarinet in Bb), 2 bassoons (2nd + contrabassoon), 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, timpani, strings


1. Moderato
2. Allegro
3. Adagio
4. Andante – Allegro


Composer Notes

This symphony is different from its predecessors in that it is very much composed with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – as opposed to a full-strength symphony orchestra – in mind. I chose to call it a symphony (and not a chamber symphony or sinfonietta) because the musical thought and process are, I hope, no less ‘symphonic’ than in my other symphonies: indeed, I trust they are more concentrated and leaner, the art concealing the art but no less intense.

The work has two prime sources of inspiration, one purely musical and one not. The musical spur came from a plainsong, Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion (‘Daughter of Sion, adorn your bridal chamber’), in a manuscript source slightly different (and I think more beautiful) than that in the standard Liber Usualis text. It was sung during a solemn procession at the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, in which all carried lighted candles after the deacon pronounced the words ‘Procedeamus in pace’ (‘Let us set forth in peace’). The text is an odd one, and this – together with the additional musical interest of the manuscript variant and the significance of the candlelit procession – fascinated me enough to set it working like a yeast in my imagination, combining with itself in different ways and resolving into different but related sets of seven, nine and ten notes.

These groups of notes latched themselves onto and wove a musical fabric around the second prime source of inspiration. I came out of the house one morning very early to be confronted by a golden eagle a few yards from the door, perched on the fence. He took off, slowly unfolding a huge wingspan, floating upwards with an overwhelming grace-in-strength – the while regarding me with icy disdain – and moved slowly out to sea, against the rising sun. This vision has haunted me, and although the music does not attempt to portray the flight literally, I hope something of the reverberations of that extraordinary moment come through. I have become intrigued by the flight of sea-birds generally, which interest finds expression in ways of floating, spiralling and plunging in my conceto for oboe (Strathclyde Concerto No. 1) and cello (Strathclyde Concerto No. 2).

The process to which I subjected my plainsong/eagle derived sets – including magic-square building and systematic transformations of interval and contour – took a few weeks to work through, absorb and become assimilated enough to carry around in my head as a background matrix; then the composition process proper could start, as the raw material and its associations became an almost personal mythological base, with and against which to work. I have no names for the sometimes elaborate, sometimes simple forms, nor for the working processes, which cannot help but refer back to classical procedures, no matter how deeply these are now working below the surface. Increasingly, I have used a process or form incompletely, leaving a completion implicit (to the ideal ear!), or perhaps to be taken up and completed elsewhere in the work, or to be resumed in another piece (all this stimulated, in particular, by studying and conducting Mozart’s last three symphonies, analysing Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, and watching the dramatic distortions of everyday measured space through the conflicting spiral, vortex and circular flows of directional energy informing whatever object Van Gogh painted, leading to more intriguing confrontations and tensions).

There are four movements to be played without a break: (1) moderately quick; (2) very quick scherzo; (3) slow; and (4) a slow introduction followed by an Allegro. The use of tonality/modality is perhaps of interest. It is, I feel, of great help to define for ear formal settings-forth and returns, but no matter how ‘functional’ it sounds, in the classical sense I have used an outcrop of a more fundamental process involving the plainsong in long-term transformations: the relationship between known, recognizable ‘object’ and ‘process’ in late Van Gogh is perhaps a helpful analogy.

The symphony, commissioned by Christian Salvesen for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is dedicated to the memory of John Tunnell, late leader of the orchestra, to whom I owe an infinite debt of gratitude, for he was not only tolerant of my efforts to conduct the classics with his orchestra, but positively encouraging and full of constructive ideas.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The Fourth Symphony continues the sonic restraint of the Third, in that the orchestra is now a Classical ensemble, the ensemble of Haydn’s biggest symphonies. The use of these resources, though, is not restrained at all: the scoring enjoys the colours of variegated string textures, a flute duet, a solo cor anglais, and most prominently the pairs of trumpets and horns, which burn and urge the music on against a generally resistant, inward drift. There are four movements, though the first three – with the scherzo as an interlude between the moderately paced opening and the slow movement – might be seen as making up a long introduction to the finale, where previous suggestions begin to take on bolder shapes and a stronger energy.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin

Peter Maxwell Davies has always reserved the orchestra for some of his most central statements and the Symphony No.4, premiered at the 1989 Promenade Concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall, is a scion of important lineage. The source work for Davies’s mature orchestral music is his Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine (1964), a three-movement symphony ending with an incandescent slow movement that pays tribute to the Mahler tradition. Subsequent works focus on the symphonic discourse of first movement, Worldes Blis (1969), scherzo, St. Thomas Wake (1969) and slow movement, Stone Litany (1973). The finale of this ‘hyper-symphony’ is the Symphony No.1 (1976), a full four-movement design that simultaneously confronts the Beethoven model and Sibelius’s highly individual reinterpretation of it.

After Black Pentecost (1979), a ‘symphony with voices’, the Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1980, followed by Symphony No.3 in 1984. Further orchestral commissions produced An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (1984), the Violin Concerto (1985) and the Trumpet Concerto (1988).

Meanwhile, Davies had written a triptych of sinfonias for chamber orchestra: Sinfonia Concertante (1982), Into the Labyrinth (1983) and Sinfonietta Accademica (1983). Sir Peter’s relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was forged through these works, leading to his appointment as their Associate Conductor/Composer. He then embarked on the series of ten Strathclyde Concertos for the orchestra’s principal players.

Just as the Symphony No.1 had fulfilled Davies’s previous orchestral music, the Symphony No.4, a large-scale work in four movements played without a break, capped all of his previous chamber-orchestral music.

SP: How did the chamber-orchestral premise condition your thinking in the Symphony No.4?
PMD: I’ve done a lot of work with the SCO, and the repertory of such an orchestra, by its very nature, is limited to symphonies with double winds, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings – especially if you’re going to take the orchestra on tour. In the Symphony No. 3 I reduced the percussion to just timpani, and in none of the symphonies have I got anything extravagant like eight horns or four trumpets. And this was just a continuation of the way that the symphonic thought was going – it becomes more concentrated and focused. At present, writing for this kind of orchestra seems the most natural thing, and I feel that the Symphony No. 4 is no less concentrated or symphonic than the others – it’s just that its orchestral sound is not as loud.

p>A vital part of Davies’s work with the SCO has been an exploration of symphonies, concertos and overtures by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

SP: What effect has the conducting of classical repertory had on your own harmony and orchestral writing?
PMD: I think it’s been entirely positive. Although, for instance, you know every note of Mozart 39, 40, 41 – I hadn’t realized before conducting those pieces just how clearly they’re orchestrated and how much the clarity of harmonic direction makes the design clear. And when you’re conducting and it’s going well, you do have the illusion that you’re creating the thing – and you become that piece, you almost become its composer. And this really does drive the structure and harmony of the music deeper into your soul than any amount of study, or playing the score at the piano or listening would ever do.

But the increased classical lucidity of Davies’s music should not be taken for neoclassicism. In a pre-Prom talk before the 1985 London premiere of the Symphony No. 3, he described the ‘neos’, classic and romantic, as twin blind alleys. With music now on a return journey from the Webern/Mondrian end of the axis, a ‘new harmony’ was the way forward.

SP: What do you mean by a ‘new harmony’ capable of restoring a third dimension to music?
PMD: I think it’s very rare these days to hear a piece where you feel from bar one to the end that you’re going through some kind of harmonic odyssey, and that your life is that much richer when you come to the end of it. I hope that this is something which eventually will become a possibility in large-scale symphonic thought again, and I try when I’m writing a piece to at least open doors in that kind of direction. Surface detail exists on the surface of the page, but behind that, inside the music, one is creating a multi-dimensional time-space, which one exploits. And, having set out on a particular harmonic road, one hopes that the rest of the work is going to either fulfil – or, more constructively – positively contradict the expectations which are set up. I hope very much that, without people being able to articulate it in words – why should they? – they will have an aesthetic experience when they hear the pieces I’m writing which begins to sound as if the harmonic background thinking has got the same weight as Mahler or Mozart, and can be taken for granted in the same way – so that one is not going to be distracted by a surface so dense that penetration down to the real musical substance becomes meaningless and fruitless.

In his essay on tonality in Schubert, Tovey cites Mark Twain’s description of a drawing in which ‘the tower was drawn from below but the man on top of it was drawn from the roof’. This could stand as a metaphor of multiple harmonic perspective in Davies’s music. He often uses the tritone as a consonance, and fuels a pitch discourse by setting a modal ‘dominant’ (a tritone above its tonic) in conflict with a ‘tonal’ one (a perfect fifth above). When the tritone is inverted, the musical and psychological meaning of these tonal/modal functions is also reversed.

In the first movement recapitulation of the Symphony No. 3, two tritones (B-F and D-A flat) contribute to a formal pun that conjoins the slow introduction and the main Allegro. The Strathclyde Concerto No. 2 for cello sets two conflicting tonics (B-flat and B-natural) against a constant dominant of F – a musical situation more radical than words can convey. In Davies’s work, multiple ‘tonics’ and ‘dominants’ move kaleidoscopically between cooperation and opposition, while three-dimensional time-space appears right side up, upside down and even inside out.

In the Symphony No.3, Davies was inspired by the way the Italian Renaissance architect Brunelleschi used deep mathematical insights to produce buildings of deceptive simplicity. The musical result was an analogous reduction of counterpoint and texture, values that Davies has maintained since.

SP: Would you comment on the relationship between simplicity and complexity in your music?
PMD: It’s quite true that I don’t write counterpoint in nine parts when I can get away with two or three. I’ve always felt that any fool student can write five-part fugues, but to write two-part counterpoint which is making a real contribution to musical meaning and impetus is much more difficult. Through performing Haydn and Mozart I’ve become very interested in the art that conceals art, and I think that, on the surface, there are probably fewer notes, but they work harder – they earn their living in a much more intense kind of way. And as a result I think the harmony is clearer and more directional, and feeling its way towards the possibility of serious modal expression in the twenty-first century.
SP: Yet in the first two Strathclyde Concertos and in the Third Symphony I also detect a renewed efflorescence.
PMD: I’m taking a great delight in figurations and details that relate the large lines and the small lines. They’re part of the same context, so in a way they’re not just figurations – they’re part of the argument, although one will hear them on another level as figurations which are decorative.

Davies often sets off his own transformational techniques against a background layer derived from earlier music. He refers to this as a ‘ghost form’ inside the music.

SP: If the first movement of your Fourth Symphony harbours a ‘ghost sonata’, then its recapitulation would have to be described as an ’eminence grise’.
PMD: I’ve become very interested in disguising restatements or recapitulations as transitions. I was looking at the sketches for the symphony earlier today while proofreading the score, and there are even comments like ‘disguise this recap as a transition’ or ‘interchange this material so that it sounds like what came before’, although it’s in fact something else. I think transition for me has become something which is going from one modal pivot to another, harmonically, but also very consciously preparing and dissolving material. The whole function and order of transitions has been preoccupying me – it’s more than just something that gets you from place to place. At the point you mention, I was very concerned that there should not be a sense of repose at the return of first-subject material. I wanted the gesture to go through rather in the way of older composers like Scarlatti, where there are two sections to your sonata form, and the second section is one big gesture from beginning to end.
SP: You seem to agree with Hans Keller about ‘the myth of ternary form’.
PMD: Yes. In this concert at the Proms, we’re doing the ‘Mercury’ Symphony of Haydn. Now there is a classic case of smudging – a Sturm und Drang development with not only one, but two false recapitulations before he gets to his home key again. He really does blur it, and leads you up the garden path in a very humorous way. I can’t help but wonder if Beethoven hadn’t got the model in his mind in the first movement development and recap of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, which is in the same time signature and key, and in some respects has the same feel.
SP: As you’ve been speaking of transitions, the one at the end of the first movement of the new symphony reads off the page as if it were preparing for a slow movement, and I was astonished to find the scherzo instead. Did you consciously design this as a formal trompe-l’oeil, or would you at least accept that as a way of hearing it?
PMD: Yes, that transition should really lead into the last few pages of the whole symphony, and I was already thinking ahead that far. But as it’s a transition to prepare for what’s going to happen later, it doesn’t in fact prepare you for what immediately happens next.
SP: So the scherzo is really a formal interruption that proceeds to establish ‘squatter’s rights’.
PMD: Yes, and similarly the slow movement can be heard as a ‘trio’ section whose scherzo forgets to come back.
SP: It sounds as if you’re refracting the structure through a series of one-sided parentheses.
PMD: Yes, until the three short statements before the last few bars of the piece. Now that particular place, it’s very short – in fact, one could say it is too short – but the spotlight is so much on it that, because of the harmonic intensity and the quick deployment of concentrated material together, those moments seem, I think, to last much longer than they really do. And this final trompe-l’oeil must be the result of everything you’ve done with harmonic and formal perspectives throughout the symphony.
I think ‘perspectives’ is a good word, that, if you work your long-term harmonic progressions right, you’re also working your timescale – and that by using a particular harmonic configuration at a certain place, you bend one’s memory of time in such a way that you feel you’ve listened to either more or less music than you really have done. You can really play with the passing of time in that way. And in order to do that, one has to have – and this may sound paradoxical or contradictory – one has to have a rigorous harmonic and rhythmic structure on a large and small scale. But within that there has to be freedom to choose and make every moment work for you with the aesthetic purpose that you have very clearly at the forefront of your imagination. And this is the exciting thing about becoming older and more mature as a composer – that you have more and more command over every dimension you’re working with. It’s exactly that control over multiple perspectives in musical time-space that enables one to articulate large-scale structures, even for a chamber orchestra. And it becomes something which is much, much bigger than a chamber orchestra would suggest, in the same way that I’m sure Mozart’s 39th Symphony transcends the orchestra for which it’s written.

A full-scale symphony for chamber orchestra was a new development for Maxwell Davies, and an important addition to the repertory. But it doesn’t constitute a policy statement: the Symphony No. 5 continues his commitment to the symphony orchestra. His output for the medium would alone counter the suggestion that it is no longer a place where composers can make vital and relevant statements. With the Symphony No. 6 on the horizon, we can already look forward to future ports of call in Maxwell Davies’s continuing symphonic odyssey.

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


First Performance

Royal Albert Hall, London (BBC Proms)

Sunday, 10 September 1989

Scottish Chamber Orchestra