Symphony No. 7

For orchestra


45 minutes




Commissioned by BBC for the BBC Philharmonic





Piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd + alto), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, +timpani, *percussion (5 players), harp, celeste, strings
*percussion (5 players): glockenspiel, marimba, crotales, tubular bells, 2 wood blocks (small, medium), tambourine, bubbolo, side drum, 2 bass drums (small, very large), antique cymbals, small suspended Chinese cymbal, clashed cymbals, 2 suspended cymbals (small, large), tam-tam
+If a timpani piccolo is not available a tom-tom or roto-tom may be used


1. Exposition
2. Minuet and Trio
3. Slow Movement
4. Development


Composer Notes

The new symphony is very much the last of a cycle: No. 8, next year, will be a musical account of my visit to Antarctica, with very different aims and preoccupations.

Of all my symphonies, this is the most classical, with reference to, and dependency upon the music of Haydn. Over the last ten years I have done much orchestral conducting, including many symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. There is no better way to get to know this music; during performance one can have the illusion that the thought is unfolding for the first time, so complete is the identification. Although previously I had studied scores, read analyses, attended rehearsals and performances, and played the works at the piano, it was only by taking responsibility within an orchestra that I felt I began to understand the music in a creative way, from inside the structure.

So, in this work, I have adapted techniques learned from these experiences in a way I haven’t felt confident to do previously. Much analysis of the classics is concerned with the unity of a work – demonstrating the means by which a whole symphony can be generated from a single unifying musical idea – whereas what has fascinated me about them are the means by which composers achieve diversity within the given unity – how two ideas, despite having readily identifiable common roots, forever sound so different, fresh and surprising.

The first movement takes and adapts procedures from the exposition section of a symphonic movement only, moving between two contrasted sorts of material and attempting to distinguish between that music, which makes its own statement, with well-defined characteristics, and music which builds bridges in between.

The second movement is a Minuet and Trio. Here Haydn’s work surfaces quite literally, not quoting a symphony, but with a reference to one of the Opus 20 string quartets. I find the quartets even more fascinating than the symphonies and the Opus 20 set is particularly underestimated. However, the surface of the music sounds unlike Haydn’s originals – although the trade marks of his dance form are there, they are thoroughly re-interpreted in relation to my own late twentieth century musical experience.

The opening of the third, slow movement, with its very simple two and three part string writing, refers, in spirit and style, most obviously to Haydn’s middle period. There follows a build-up to a climax beyond the orchestral colours available to an eighteenth century ‘Sturm und Drang’ composer, but these sources are always present in phrase-structure, symmetry and tonal outlay.

The fourth movement is a development section, writ large. All the previous material comes in for treatment, and the main feature of a traditional development – structured modulation through a sequence of tonal areas – is the dominant characteristic, along with the splintering, and re-assembly and reworking of ideas heard before. Towards the end, the sections become shorter and more concentrated: I feel the music fracturing in a manner suggestive of a large river fragmenting as it approaches the sea, turning into a delta. After this I felt it superfluous to attempt a recapitulation – as most listening to works like this increasingly happens through recordings in the home, I envisaged the listener being able to return to the first movement, and perhaps, when technically such things become possible, making such adaptations and modulations, interactively, as would bring the symphony to a suitable close. I have also designed this (provisional) close to the work to lead logically back into the opening bars of my very first symphony, so that the whole cycle could start over again.

The work is written for and dedicated to the BBC Philharmonic, with great respect and affection. They have tolerated me as conductor/composer for the last few years, and if this music makes unprecendented demands upon their virtuosity, this is due to my having being spoiled by their dedication and generosity to the extent that thinking that such things might just be possible.

Programme Notes

Short Note by David Nice

As his previous six works in the genre have shown, Maxwell Davies clearly believes that the symphony as a musical form is a world without end – and that, perhaps, is the best way to describe his approach to form in the last of the canon (his Eighth, he promises, will inhabit the very different air of Antarctica, his first-hand source of inspiration). It begins with a disorienting proposition in terms of complex rhythm and thematic outline, presented in an iridescent texture; the movement’s elusive kaleidoscope of pure exposition only asks that we respond to the many changes in mass and timbre and sense -as we can hardly fail to do – the sudden build-up of forces at the end. The shifting sands, or rather the interplay between visionary airiness and subterranean force, continue in an unpredictable scherzo, where the Haydnesque minuet form dances on the surface. Then, at last, comes a centre of gravity, a sustained adagio with what has inevitably been described as a Mahlerian intensity of string writing – though the purity of the part-writing suggests Mahler’s last words, not his earlier slow movements, and the same could be said of the apocalyptic climax. The composer the solves the finale problem in an awe-inspiring but always dynamic recapitulation not just for the material of the first movement but for everything that has gone before. A last echo of the adagio precedes an open end which suggests a return either to the start of this symphony, or the very beginning of the entire series.


First Performance

St. Magnus Festival, Kirkwall, Orkney

Monday, 19 June 2000

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra