Symphony No. 6

For orchestra


48 minutes



the most sheerly beautiful symphonic movement he has yet written

Michael Oliver, Gramophone

Dedication The memory of George Mackay Brown

Commissioned by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate its 50th anniversary





piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd + alto), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabasson, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, *percussion (5 players), harp, celeste, strings
*percussion (5 players):
percussion 1: marimba (to low G sharp, but optional four-octave marimba if larger not available) , clashed cymbals (small and large), suspended cymbals
percussion 2: glockenspiel (to high E), small bass drum, rain stick
percussion 3: crotales (two chromatic octaves), snare drum, 2 wood blocks (small and large), large suspended cymbal
percussion 4: tambourine, rain stick
percussion 5: very large bass drum, small suspended cymbal


1. Adagio – Allegro
2. Adagio non troppo – Allegro
3. Adagio – piu animato


Composer Notes

Symphony No.6 was composed in Hoy in the first half of 1996. It has three movements.

The starting-off point is a slow tune from Time and the Raven, a work commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations. This is heard at the outset, as an introduction to the first movement, and returns at the close of the symphony, having been subjected to continuoustransformations in between.

The first movement proper is a scherzo masquerading as a sonata allegro, and the second a sonata-allegro masquerading as a scherzo. As well as this ‘play’ at surface level with ‘classical’ musical form, background layers of slow, independent transformations, sometimes suddenly exposed – one magic square coming after another, over time, enfolding, digesting, or even spawning another – suggest deeper emotions, life-forms, slowly breathing way below, and then determining the active surface.

In the second movement – a ‘double’ of the first in many ways, complete with slow introduction -rhythmic modulations activate the gradual dredging to the surface of these slow-moving depths, with disruptive interaction at surface level.

The last movement – with an introduction briefer than that of the second, but whose close ‘rhymes’ with its predecessor – is slow, and attempts to reconcile the varying time-flows and disjoin the elements of all the previous music.

The symphony was written very much with friends in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in mind, recognizing – I hope constructively calling upon – their very special musical virtuosity.

The symphony is dedicated to the memory of George Mackay Brown.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Behind Davies’s Sixth Symphony is surely Mahler’s: for the tragic tone, the scale of the music, the repeated strivings and the repeated frustrations. As in Mahler, an unpitched percussion instrument has a dramatic role: in this case it is a very large bass drum. The first movement goes in great waves of driving motion – of motion that might seem bleak (because the waves crash if they do not peter out) or majestic (because the combat and challenge in the music go on). The second movement starts grandly and slowly, but soon becomes another allegro with, increasingly, something of the character of a grim scherzo, in that ostensibly weighty ideas will, characteristically, be deflated by repetition in an ironic form. Finally, perhaps with a nod to Mahler symphonies other than the Sixth, there is an adagio that, throughout a long opening section, is restricted to the strings. The music becomes more fully scored and more animated, but returns to the strings for an extraordinary attenuated passage in which solo violin and cello climb into the heights. After this, things get desperate, and the ending is powerfully unsettling.

Extended Note by Arnold Whittall

The symphonies of Peter Maxwell Davies embody a challenging rethinking of the technical traditions – harmonic, rhythmic, formal – which underpin the four-movement symphonic model as it evolved over a century and a half from Haydn and Beethoven to Mahler and Sibelius. The power and profundity of that rethinking stem in large part from the simple fact that Davies’s own musical language is not the production of that tradition alone, but even more directly of reactions against it – reactions that have led in the twentieth century from Schoenberg to Boulez and beyond. Peter Maxwell Davies is a modernist who acknowledges the enduring power of Classicism, an Expressionist who seeks to express a ‘transcendent and visionary quality’, not simply to compose elegiac laments for a contemporary loss of stability and simplicity.

After his first four, four-movement symphonies, Davies’s Fifth (1994) was cast in a single movement. The Sixth is in three movements, but it shares one significant feature with its immediate predecessor. Just as the Fifth Symphony has material in common with the short orchestral work of 1993, Chat Moss, so the Sixth uses as its generative idea a slow melody that occurs in Time and the Raven, a work written for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. The new symphony’s overall structure could be summarized as fast first movement, scherzo and slow finale. Yet such references to familar genres are unsatisfactory if they create the expectation of a simple, easily audible conformity to traditional models. There are always subversive factors, as is clear from the composer’s own description of the first movement as ‘a scherzo masquerading as a sonata allegro’, and the second movement as ‘a sonata allegro masquerading as a scherzo’. Moreover, these ambiguities of form have an explicit effect on the character of the music we hear. It is the larger-scale, cumulative effect of the textures advancing and receding, intensifying and relaxing, that communicates most directly to the ear – what the composer refers to as ‘slow, independent transformations’ which ‘suggest deeper emotions, life-forms, slowly breathing way below, and then determining the active surface’.

In outline the first movement might be perceived as reflecting the traditional three-part fast-movement design, with slow introduction. The music moves from an imposing reflectiveness – the Time and the Raven tune – to a more animated atmosphere whose various phases are clearly delineated by the regular ebbing and flowing of the musical paragraphs. The essentially volatile, unpredictable nature of the movement’s processes – even when the music is not particularly loud or densely scored – reaches a peak in its final stages with material marked ‘scorrevole, chimerico’. This fluid, fantastic music defines the first movement’s ultimate attempt to escape from its more lyrical aspects, and the outcome is a characteristic ‘resolution’, satisfying yet provisional, as the music broadens out and quietens down. Then the second movement, which the composer deems ‘a double of the first in many ways’, starts with what seems in itself like a new beginning. Its initial, sustained bass note recalls the opening of the first movement, while its chant-like trombone melody has the quality of a reproof to fantasy, if not to lyricism. The result of this introduction is a reaction – an explosion of predominantly fast and furious music, with forceful rhythms and fragmented textures countering the attempts, particularly by the strings, to promote the cause of soaring lyrical lines. The second movement’s final stages, the conflict between fast and slow, raucous and reflective music intensifies, but the last word is with a brief coda, marked ‘alla marcia’, which culminates in a fierce percussive explosion.

Like both its predecessors, the third movement begins slowly, but this time the steadily unfolding meditation for the strings is not a preliminary to something different but an essence which the remainder of the work will build on. There are contrasts, climaxes as powerful as any in the first movement, but the tempo rarely deviates from that fundamental Adagio. The last and most powerful climax pits a melody of Sibelian breadth in the strings, marked ‘appassionato’, against turbulent figuration for the rest of the orchestra. The resulting crisis, as the timpani beats a tattoo around the symphony’s fundamental harmonic elements, is a recollection of the first movement’s introductory idea, demonstrating that this finale is less a ‘masquerade’ than, in the composer’s words, ‘an attempt to reconcile the varying time-flows and disjunct elements of all the previous music’. The ending dissolves from the hugely imposing reiteration of those harmonic essences, and the tone of impassioned lament is explained by a concluding inscription: ‘George Mackay Brown in memoriam’. The Orkney poet to whose work Peter Maxwell Davies owes so much died as the symphony was reaching completion. It is a moving and substantial memorial.

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


the most sheerly beautiful symphonic movement he has yet written

Michael Oliver, Gramophone

It’s a mellifluous – at times serene; always thoughtful – work that begins slowly and visits a number of worlds and atmospheres in its three contrasting movements

Classical Net

First Performance

Phoenix Cinema, Kirkwall, Orkney (at the 20th St. Magnus Festival)

Saturday, 22 June 1996

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra