Symphony No. 5

For orchestra


26 minutes




Commissioned by Philharmonia Orchestra to celebrate its 50th anniversary





2 flutes (2nd + alto flute), piccolo, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, *percussion, timpani, celesta, harp, strings
*percussion: marimba, glockenspiel, crotales (2 octaves crotales), flexatone, very large bass drum, small bass drum, clashed cymbals, small suspended cymbal, tambourine



Composer Notes

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

As Davies has gone on from symphony to symphony, so he has travelled more deeply into the past, along two pathways. He is medieval and modernist. The plainsong origins of his music have come more into the foreground, and at the same time he has placed himself alongside other composers, notably Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, for whom the crisis of the early twentieth century reawakened the ghost of modality. His Fifth Symphony is based on two chants, which provide perhaps not only musical material but subjects of meditation: the Easter message of Resurrection and Habakkuk’s prayer ‘O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.’ This last phrase may offer a clue to the power of this continuous work, as it moves in waves, each accumulating towards the next, and also as, occasionally, the next wave turns out to be an intense slow movement, in the middle of so much bounding energy, so much dancing and marching. If these elemental rhythms seem to drive the music on, so too does its harmonic force, and the embodiment of that force in bold orchestral writing: in every respect, this is the most direct of Davies’s symphonies so far, capitalizing on the progress in his music during the half-decade since the Symphony No.4. But, sure, there is wild stuff here too.

Extended Note I by Christopher Wintle

Not so long ago there were contemporary composers who seemed almost happier to explain their works than have them listened to. But things have now moved so far in the other direction that when Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was first asked about his new symphony, he replied: ‘I have nothing to say. I am too close to it all. I just want people to listen.’ However, once he had agreed to be drawn on the work, he was happy to explain what his priorities were as he composed; and with more than fifteen years of experience of writing symphonies behind him, he was also happy to move by stages towards a definition of what, in 1994, the term ‘symphony’ actually meant to him.

First, there was the orchestra. He had built up a strong relationship over the years with the dedicatee of the new work, the Philharmonia, which had also given the first performances of Black Pentecost, the First Symphony and the Trumpet Concerto. As he wrote he had an image of specific players sitting in particular positions, especially among the brass, and deliberately set out to challenge them. Although it would be true to say that there was a ‘plain’ tradition behind his handling of the orchestras, it was nevertheless the tradition of Mahler, in which each player, or each group of players, had ‘work’ to do, rather than that of Strauss, whose ‘lush’ textures were not to his taste. He composed in short score, yet ideas came to him simultaneously with their instrumentation: there was no ‘orchestration’ as such. Indeed, with this piece, the instrumental refinement went hand in hand with his determination to make notes and intervals work harder than ever before.

Then there was the title: Symphony [No.5] in One Movement. It has been suggested that this might conjure up two precedents in the minds of his listeners: Beethoven’s Fifth, which aspires to a unity despite being in four movements; and Sibelius’s Seventh, which achieves that unity, and whose overall control of momentum suggests some kinship with Davies’s new work: it similarly begins and ends slowly, and alternates slow and fast sections as it unfolds. In fact both pieces were central to his thinking, especially the close of the Sibelius – a work he had conducted only recently. It was also important to mention two other pieces whose concerns reflected his own: Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’, in which the first movement pursues a ‘quest’ for a theme which emerges only in the finale; and Sibelius’s Tapiola, another ‘symphony in one movement’ that looks for a theme which ‘never really materializes’.

However, the form of his work was radically different from that of these sonata-based pieces. The symphony falls into thirty-four sections, each demarcated by a double bar in the score; yet the length of the sections varies enormously: the long, intense second section, for example, occupies sixty-three bars, and falls into two or three sub-sections, whereas some of the other sections contain no more than six bars, and some as few as three. As in Classical variations, there are also larger groupings of the sections, creating broad changes of tempo: Adagio; Allegro moderato, dramatically interrupted by an Adagio and Andante; Allegro, again interrupted by a brief Lentissimo; and a fairly regular alternation of Adagio or Lento music with finale-like Allegro material, culminating in a slow ending.

However, this resemblance to variation form was only superficial. Far more important was the harmonic continuity of the whole, which overrides the various sections. As far as the two slow interruptions of fast music were concerned, they were like the Bible characters described by Gabriel Josipovici who appear just once in a story without preparation or return; their numinous stillness suggests that things happen outside the timescale established by the dynamic music. Indeed, it is as if the symphony works on two distinct planes of consciousness.

What, then, is the basic material of the symphony from which the harmony derives? The first section, for wind trio, seems to state a two-part theme, and two other quote from a school orchestra pieces of Davies’s, Chat Moss (1993). Yet neither functions as a theme (or statement) set up for subsequent variation or development. The reason for this is that behind both the symphony and Chat Moss stands a hidden source. This is the plainchant included at three points in the Liber Usualis: the Haec dies Easter music and Domini audivi from Habbakuk 3:3. (Elsewhere the composer has said: ‘Though I’m not a practising Christian, underneath there is something you never lose.’) Out of this chant he formed ‘magic squares’, transformation grids comprising between three and nine lines and columns apiece (these squares have a kinship with arrays used by twelve-note composers). His aim was to create, within a modal context, ‘harmonic stages [which] things go through, in the hope that they add up to a [complete] journey’, thereby creating a ‘large line’ loosely analogous to the ‘fundamental line’ described in tonal music by the Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker. A characteristic of this line was that it ‘spirals towards its conclusion’ with intervals diminishing to extinction. The organization of all this, Davies adds, cost him considerable effort, and yielded a great many pages of pre-compositional workings.

Obviously listeners might sense, but hardly follow, such workings. But what they would hear would be the distinct ideas, textures and rhythms thrown up by each section. The ideas themselves usually comprise long, predominantly lyrical, dynamically fluid lines, sometimes doubled at the octave, and often supported by one or more similarly constituted counterpoints. The textures consist of atmospheric penumbras of sustained notes or harmonics in extreme registers, vibrant tremolandos (mainly in the strings), uncanny glissandos (in the strings, brass or piccolo), priapic scales or figures (in the trumpets and horns), playful little arabesques or pattern-work (in the harp or winds) and the piquant sounds of celesta, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba and flexatone in addition to the normal percussion. And the rhythms include incisive figures (among them Scotch snaps) in the brass, within a context of constantly changing metres and subdivisions of the beat (into the concurrent twos and threes, for example). The work’s powerful sense of forward momentum, moreover, is created by the apostrophes with which most sections end.

It might appear that with all this Davies was trying to create a special kind of musical rhetoric associated with the place in which he lives (he completed the symphony on Hoy in January 1994). Indeed, referring to the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, he has said: ‘I had come to terms with Hoy – with being in a very wild place in a tremendous state of isolation. I had to come to terms with nature. Even in the purely abstract work, like the symphonies, I can sense George’s presence. Something in the fusion of Christian and pagan worlds in his writing has infiltrated through into my work.’ And although it was true that there had been an ‘extraordinary metempsychosis’ of the poet’s personality into his own, and although he did know Gunther Born’s work on traditional music rhetoric, he was not in fact trying to create musical equivalents for natural phenomena. The function of his musical signs was only to denote ‘certain states of mind’. While they might evoke images – he had hoped they would – that was not his deliberate intention. Nor, for example, would he share any Freudian view that, in the unconscious, visual representation lay behind (musical) language; for him sight and sound were equivalent codes.

In 1978, at the time of the premiere of the First Symphony, Hans Keller had reminded Davies that the essence of symphonic thought lay in the [intra-musical] exploration of the contrast between statements and developments, even more than of that between tonal stability and lability or between different themes. What Keller had objected to in that symphony was its lack of traditional development. As far as Davies was concerned, Keller’s general understanding of the symphonic challenge was in fact ‘pretty good for tonal music, but like Schenker’s ideas, less [directly] applicable to my own modal procedures’. But where in the past there have been clear distinctions between themes, keys, and the status of different sections, in his own work these functions were blended. As far as the Fifth Symphony was concerned, therefore, he would replace Keller’s definition with one of his own: ‘The symphony is an investigation into material which is static, and material which is in a state of development, variation and transformation.’ His purpose was to use material ‘at its freest’ in the hope that his unconscious would ensure that from this freedom, order emerged.

Davies was asked, finally, whether there were any parts of the symphony he was especially pleased with, and whether they might represent a starting-point for some further symphonic investigation? But having tentatively suggested ‘the still ones’, he laughed and replied, ‘before I can say anything about that, I too need to hear this work!’ In other words, just listening to this extraordinarily intense, vital and intricate piece will be no less challenging for its creator that it will be for us, its audience.

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

Extended Note I by Stephen Pruslin 1996

Maxwell Davies has constantly reinvented the symphony in a way that gives it new meaning and continued relevance late in the twentieth century. His Symphony No. 1 takes on board both the Beethoven model and Sibelius’s filtering of it. The latter is crucial to Davies’s own approach in the way it carries Beethoven’s formal perceptions forward into a new and original language without any sense of contradiction. By understanding Beethoven’s controlled alternation of stability and flux and adding to it the Sibelian possibilities of self-generating form, Davies tapped into a powerful double inheritance that has sustained him throughout his ongoing symphonic journey.

Early in his orchestral output, Davies had already expanded the classical notion of development into a rich and personal amalgam of development/variation/transformation. In the Symphony No. 5, he deploys stable periods of ‘exposition’ and unstable ones of ‘development’ in a way that evokes Andrew Porter’s striking metaphor of recitative and aria passing through each other and out the opposite side. Regarding what happens where in a symphonic structure, Davies acts here with unprecedented freedom and daring.

The symphony quotes from Davies’s Chat Moss, while an invisible taproot of plainchant links and underpins both works. Sibelius has often figured in Sir Peter’s composition classes, and he conducted the last two Sibelius symphonies with a number of orchestras as a preparation for writing his own No. 5. In it, we hear some of the translucent modality of Sibelius’s Sixth, while we can sense the Seventh as the ‘ghost in machine’ for Davies’s speculations about the possibilities of large-scale one-movement symphonic form.

On one level, the piece can be understood as a mosaic of thirty-four distinct sections whose length varies from a few bars to many pages. The longer ones contain subsections, while the ‘sections’ themselves are also combined into large groupings and, particularly in the second half, interlocking structures. Finally, it is possible to perceive the work as one single binary form whose first half presents a variety of musics in different states of definition, while the second half alternates fast, scherzoid activity with periods of slow music. Throughout the symphony, dark or luminous ‘pools’ of slow music, in which an individual moment is magnified into an infinity, represent a new and important ‘fermata principle’ for Davies and linger in the memory long after the work has ended.

Davies has said that the symphony is as concerned with implication as with statement, and this dialogue between opposing principles is emblematic of the work as a whole: ‘exposition’ vs. ‘development’; slow vs. fast; nascent material in a state of ‘becoming’ vs. material so perfectly crystallized that it seems to be in quotation marks even on its first appearance.

Harmonically and melodically, the symphony is extraordinary in its use of triads liberated from any tonal associations: Davies here invests the triad with the status of a particular consonance that takes its place within an overall hierarchy.

The Symphony No. 5 was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra, who gave its world premiere, conducted by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, in a BBC Promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 9 August 1994. The universal praise that the work inspired confirms Davies’s position as the symphonist of the epoch and the creator of ‘the most important symphonic cycle since Shostakovich.’

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)

Tuesday, 9 August 1994

Philharmonia Orchestra