The Lighthouse

Chamber opera in one act with prologue


72 minutes


Opus 86

“Maxwell Davies uses shuddering dissonance to create tension and visceral dread. His beloved Orkney gales are all over this opera, as is the baleful language of his film music for The Devils. The orchestration – for instruments that include the flexatone and an out-of-tune piano – sets storms, shocks and looming death against infectious interludes of melody and mundane depictions of tea and cribbage.”

Mark Valencia, Off Westend


Commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival





Sandy, Officer I tenor
Blazes, Officer II baritone
Arthur, Officer III, Voice of the Cards bass

Flute (+ piccolo and alto flute), clarinet in A (+ bass clarinet), horn, trumpet in C, trombone, *percussion (1 player), piano (+ celesta, slightly out-of-tune upright piano, flexatone and referee’s whistle), guitar (+ banjo and bass drum), violin (+ tam-tam), viola (+ flexatone), cello, double bass
*percussion (1 player): marimba, 4 timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, maracas (pair), roto-tom, suspended cymbal (small), bones, tambourine, tom-toms (D and F above middle C), side drum with snares, crotales (2 octaves)


1. Prologue: The Court of Enquiry
2. Main Act: The Cry of the Beast

Peter Maxwell Davies | The Lighthouse from English Touring Opera on Vimeo.

Peter Maxwell Davies | The Lighthouse


Composer Notes

The original inspiration for this work came from reading Craig Mair’s book on the Stevenson family of Edinburgh. This family, apart from producing the famous author Robert Louis, produced several generations of lighthouse and harbour engineers. In December 1900 the lighthouse supply ship Hesperus, based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the FIannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was empty – all three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order, but the men had disappeared into thin air.

There have been many speculations as to how and why the three keepers disappeared. This opera does not offer a solution to the mystery, but indicates what might be possible under the tense circumstances of three men being marooned in a storm-bound lighthouse long after the time they expected to be relieved.

The work consists of a prologue and one act. The Prologue presents the Court of Inquiry in Edinburgh into the disappearance of the keepers. The three protagonists play the parts of the three officers of the lighthouse ship, the action moving between the courtroom, the ship, and the lighthouse itself, and the inquiry is conducted by the horn of the orchestra, to whose wordless questions the protagonists answer, making the questions retrospectively clear. The Court reaches an open verdict. At the end of the Prologue the three officers together tell us that the lighthouse is now automatic and the building is abandoned and sealed up, while the lighthouse itself flashes its automatic signal to a rhythm which is reflected in the orchestra.

The main act bears the subtitle The Cry of the Beast. The scene is set inside the lighthouse with the three keepers at table in a state of edginess with each other. Arthur is a bible-thumping religious zealot, constantly at loggerheads with Blazes who has no truck with his hypocrisy; the third keeper, Sandy, tries peace-making moves to keep them apart. When Arthur leaves the table and goes aloft to light the lantern, Sandy and Blazes have a game of crib. They quarrel over this, and when Arthur returns, the atmosphere becomes extremely tense. Sandy suggests that Blazes should sing a cheerful song to help break this tension. This Blazes does, followed by Sandy and Arthur. Each song, though light and superficial on the surface, might be taken as an indication of the inner character and history of the singers. Blazes sings a jolly song about an adolescent’s career of crime in city slums leading to murder and the death of his parents. Sandy sings a love song, which when taken up and accompanied by the other two keepers, takes on a new meaning suggesting that his love-life might not have been as innocent as would at first appear. Arthur sings a holy-roller rabble-rousing ditty about God’s revenge on the Children of Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf – a projection into God’s will and bible history of his own boundless and unexpressed aggression.

Subsequently the atmosphere turns chill – fog swirls about the lighthouse and Arthur starts the foghorn with the words ‘the cry of the Beast across the sleeping world – one night that cry will be answered from the deep’.

From the mists, ghosts from the past of the three keepers emerge to take their revenge – they might be directly from the songs each keeper sang if these are taken as personal revelations. These ghosts, which we do not see but which the keepers persuade each other are visible, drive them into a state of such guilty desperation that they become crazed. The ghosts call upon Blazes and Sandy to go out with them into the night.

When Arthur comes down from the lightroom, he is convinced that the Beast has called across the sea – the Golden Calf has come to claim his servants. The eyes of the Beast are seen to approach, eventually becoming an all-blinding dazzle. Calling upon God’s help, bellowing a hymn, the three keepers move out to defend themselves against this spirit, which they now see as the Antichrist.

At the climax of the storm and the brightest point of the light from the eyes of the Beast, the keepers are replaced by the three officers from the lighthouse ship – played by the same three singers, and the light of the approaching Beast is seen to perhaps have been the light of the lighthouse ship.

From the remarks of the ship’s officers, the exact nature of the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance is open to interpretation, as is, indeed, whether the officers themselves are trying to persuade themselves that some truth they fear is not so, or perhaps that they are trying to cover something up.

When the relief keepers enter the lighthouse, although they are not seen very clearly, it is more than possible that they are the same three we saw at the opening of the scene, but, as the lighthouse is seen to flash its ‘automatic’ signal, there is a further possibility that we have been watching a play of ghosts in a lighthouse abandoned and boarded up for eighty years.

The structure is based on the Tower of the Tarot, whose number symbolism is present in the structure of all the music, and which erupts into the surface of the opera in the form of the words sung by Arthur during the card game representing the Voice of the Cards, which on this level transforms the game of crib into a play of fate with Tarot cards, summoning up all the power of their baleful influence.

The work makes extraordinary demands on the singing and acting capacities of the three protagonists, and demands extreme virtuosity from a small band.

Programme Notes

Based on a true incident in 1900

Winner of the first Tennent Caledonian Award

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

This is a mystery story in the form of a chamber opera. The prologue is set as a court of enquiry into the unexplained disappearance of the three keepers from a lighthouse. Questions are posed by a solo horn, which may sound from among the audience, and three officers give answer. Gradually, they move from straight testimony into fantastical imaginings of evil during a ‘flashback’ to the lighthouse; but then we snap back to the courtroom.

In the main act the three singers become the vanished keepers. They have been together for months, long enough to be fully aware of each other’s weaknesses; petty bickerings suggest a relationship which is stable, but liable to become highly unstable at any moment. They sing songs to reduce the tension, Blazes beginning with a rough ballad of street violence, accompanied by violin and banjo. Sandy’s song, with cello and out-of-tune upright piano, is a thinly disguised description of sexual bliss, and Arthur’s with brass and clarinet, is a tub-thumping hymn. But the songs serve only to resurrect in their minds ghosts from the past, and as the fog descends each of the keepers becomes convinced that he is being claimed by the Beast. They prepare to meet its dazzling eyes, which become the lights of the relief vessel, and the three men reappear as officers, met at the lighthouse only by an infestation of rats. They leave, and at the end the last hours of Blazes, Sandy and Arthur begin to play over again.

Introductions to the Score by Craig Mair and the Composer

Craig Mair
On December 26th 1900 the Hesperus arrived as usual on the lee-side of the main island to find no one waiting on the jetty. Mystified, the skipper sent a man ashore to find out why, and he soon returned with the news that the lighthouse was completely deserted – all three beds and the front door seem to have been left as if just for a moment. The lamp, though out, was working perfectly, the reflectors were polished brightly, and the oil reservoir was full to the top. In one room they found a slate where Ducat, the head keeper, had made his last log entry, dated December 15th, and timed 9 a.m. But the men had disappeared into thin air.

Someone suggested that they had been swept away in a great storm, but though the landing stages showed signs of having suffered a recent battering, it would have been almost impossible for the waves to have reached the lightroom, 40 feet high and situated inland from the shore. In any case, the light beam had been seen clearly by passing ships on the night of December 14th, and Ducat’s log also verified that a previous raging storm had by then abated, so the theory is weak. One keeper may have gone out, perhaps to secure something at the landing jetty, perhaps as night fell, and perhaps was washed away. Wondering why he had not returned, his mates may have gone looking for him and shared a similar fate, but no one knows. All that is known is that on the night of December 15th the skipper of the ‘Archer’, approaching from the Atlantic, was to find no light on what was a clear night, and to this day the reason why that light was out remains one of the sea’s unresolved riddles.

The Composer
With this account I have taken considerable liberties, and changed the name of the lighthouse to Fladda, this being a not unusual name in the Western Isles of Scotland – to avoid offence or distress to any relatives of those concerned in the original incident.

The whole action is performed by three men (tenor, baritone, bass) who take the parts of the officers of the Lighthouse Commission boat, and of the keepers.

The setting – for the Prologue – is suggestive of a courtroom and, where the action moves into the incidents described, on board the ship, and to the steps up to the lighthouse door, and for the main scene, inside the lighthouse (with different levels) – should be simple and stark. In both Prologue and the main act, a lighthouse light shines out. The lighting is a main feature – for example, the ‘triangle of lights’ seen from the ship in the ‘sudden calm’ of the Prologue is developed in the main act to become the eyes of the Beast, and, at the climax, the lights of the ship moored by the lighthouse. All beams of light from the lighthouse itself must be a big feature, carefully timed and distinguished as directed.

In the Prologue, the horn represents the voice posing the question in the court, and may be placed in the audience, if the environment is right for this.

There may be an interval between the Prologue and the main act if desired.

Ghosts at Seaby by Paul Griffiths

The Lighthouse introduces to opera two genres from popular fiction: the detective mystery and the ghost story. It thereby falls in with Peter Maxwell Davies’s efforts around the same time to integrate himself into a broader musical community – a community more familiar with symphony concerts than with the work of contemporary ensembles – and to create music that would be understood, in particular, by people as far removed from international cultural centres as Orkney, where he had gone to live in 1971.

Composed in 1979, the score came between his First Symphony (1973-6) and his Second (1980), in a busy period when he was also producing works for the annual festival he had established in Orkney, including two children’s operas and The Martyrdom of Saint Magnus (1976) – like The Lighthouse, a chamber opera designed for an expanded version of his regular performing group, The Fires of London: flute and clarinet, brass trio, piano, percussion, guitar and solo strings. The commission for The Lighthouse came not from Orkney but from the Edinburgh Festival, which presented the first performance in 1980. The subject, though, had an Orcadian air.

The mystery was a real one. In 1900, on Boxing Day, a lighthouse supply ship out of the Orkney port of Stromness pulled in at the Lighthouse on the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides to find the place deserted, all three keepers gone, but with no sign of accident or disturbance. Davies transfers the story to ‘Fladda’ and imagines an enquiry, at which the officers of the supply ship testify, leading into a dramatic reconstruction, where the same singers take on the roles of the three lost keepers.

Like any good detective mystery, the piece reveals a solution: the keepers were sent crazy by fantasies and antagonisms that boiled up inside the confines of the lighthouse. And as in any good ghost story, there remains an enigma: the supernatural intervention is left largely in the realm of the imagination – of the characters’ imaginations, out of which it proceeds, and of the audience’s.

By putting the two genres together, by creating something containing both answer and puzzle, Davies produced a work that wholly belongs to his personal world, especially in that doubt surrounds who these characters are and whether they are telling the truth. Our only access to events at the Fladda lighthouse is through the ship’s officers who report to the enquiry. They seem straightforward enough as they respond to the questions posed by the horn. But we may suspect they are not revealing all that they know, and this suspicion seems to be given confirmation by the main act, since now the same people, whose voices we know from the enquiry scene, play out the keepers’ last evening. Is this story of guilt, obsession and demonic vision one the officers invented to explain to themselves the riddle of the empty lighthouse? If so, does it conform more to their own personalities and relationships than to those of the vanished keepers? After all, the officers, like the keepers, were an isolated threesome, beset by the sea and the weather, having only each other’s company for long weeks. And if the officers’ story is fabrication or fantasy, what really happened? Was there evidence on Fladda of something still more terrible – murder, suicide – that the officers prefer to keep to themselves?

Suggesting these questions, and more, The Lighthouse is a detective mystery with no positive conclusion and a ghost story in which the division between real and spectral breaks down.

That breakdown happens largely because the spectres, whatever they might be, come out of the characters’ – victims’ – memories: they are eruptions of the hidden past into the present. The officers, making their statements to the enquiry, present themselves as having clear and open memories of an entirely objective past. But when they return as the keepers, they are in thrall to individual histories of whose present consequences they are by no means thoroughly conscious. Blazes spills out his violent past, but says very little about the lacks and frustrations that shaped it. Sandy romanticises his erotic adventures. Arthur fails to acknowledge how loaded his religion is with hatred, including self-hatred.

These memories come most precisely and vividly as music – as songs the three characters sing. They are very different songs, coming from different musical worlds, and their differences are intensified by the supporting instruments they commandeer: violin and banjo for Blazes’ street ballad, cello and out-of-tune piano for Sandy’s love song, a little band of brass and clarinet for Arthur’s hymn. But in other respects these numbers are very similar. Each character holds his song as a lifeline into his past and as an authentic expression of his personality. Also, alas, each character is mistaken in doing so. They songs say more than the characters know.

This adds a further twist to the musical plot. If a song can be such a slippery thing, having radically different and even opposed meanings for different people, what about an opera? Behind the detective mystery and the ghost story, what else is going on here?

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


“Maxwell Davies uses shuddering dissonance to create tension and visceral dread. His beloved Orkney gales are all over this opera, as is the baleful language of his film music for The Devils. The orchestration – for instruments that include the flexatone and an out-of-tune piano – sets storms, shocks and looming death against infectious interludes of melody and mundane depictions of tea and cribbage.”

Mark Valencia, Off Westend

First Performance

Murray House Gymnasium, Edinburgh (at the Edinburgh International Festival)

Tuesday, 2 September 1980

The Fires of London