SIR PETER MAXWELL DAVIES

The Martyrdom of St. Magnus

Chamber opera in nine scenes

1976

72 minutes

opus

Opus 72

My experience of this superb piece has been intensified by gratitude that, even in our materialist age, artists can still find the means to create works which disturb our complacency, console our hearts and lay bare with compassionate clarity the deeper spiritual patterns which the conflicts and passions of daily life obscure. For admirers of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, and for those interested in serious new opera and music-theatre works, this disc is a necessity. For others, I will only say that I have found listening to this work both a disturbing and a healing experience. The painful harshness of its subject (and of some of its music) seems to me no more than an accurate reflection of the world we see around us each day, and like all great art, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus ultimately seeks to reconcile us to our state of human imperfection, even as it challenges us to work to bring the actions of our daily lives into closer harmony with the inner blueprint of the Divine Image that each of us carries.

Fanfare (01/01/1997)

Dedication

Commissioned by BBC for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II

 

 

 

Scoring

Cast
Earl Magnus, Reporter I, Prisoner, Monk tenor
Norse Herald, king of Norway, The Keeper of the Loom, Herald of Earl Magnus, Reporter II, Lifolf the Butcher, Policeman, Monk
Welsh Herald, The Tempter, herald of Earl Hakon, Reporter III, Policeman, Monk baritone
Bishop of Orkney, Earl Hakon, Reporter IV, Military Officer, Monk bass
Blind Mary (The Gipsy and Fortune-Teller), The Girl Ingerth, Mary O’Connell mezzo-soprano

Instrumentation

Flute (+ piccolo and alto flute), clarinet in A (+ bass clarinet), horn, 2 trumpets, *percussion (1 player), **keyboards (1 player), guitar, viola, cello, double bass
*percussion (1 player): 2 bass drums (large, very large), pedal timpani (+ bowl), side drum, small side drum with snare, roto-toms, large cymbal (bowed), 2 Chinese cymbals (regular, very small), crotales, Burmese nipple gongs, tam-tam, Japanese gong (very large), sandpaper blocks, blackboard, plastic soapdish, glockenspiel, marimba
additional percussion (to be played by the singers, keyboard player and guitarist): 4 pairs claves, flexatone, railway whistle, tabor, Australian Aboriginal bullroarer (optional)
**keyboards (1 player): harpsichord, celesta, ***keyboard carillon or Celtic harp (when neither available, the part to be distributed between harpsichord and celesta), slightly out-of-tune upright piano, out-of-tune autoharp or zither
***keyboard carillon. This instrument can be hired from Keith Harding’s World of Mechanical Music: www.mechanicalmusic.co.uk

Sections

1. The Battle of Menai Strait
2. The Temptations of Magnus
3. The Curse of Blind Mary
4. The Peace Parley (Prelude to the Invocation of the Dove)
5. Magnus’ Journey to the Isle of Egilsay
6. Earl Hakon Resolves to Murder Magnus
7. The Reporters
8. The Sacrifice
9. The Miracle



Synopsis

St. Magnus, whose late twelfth-century cathedral is the glory of Kirkwall, was a Viking pacifist

The action of the opera takes place in the twelfth century and starts with the Battle of Menai Strait between the King of Norway (supported by Orkney and Shetland) and the Earl of Shrewsbury (supported by Wales). It was during this battle that Magnus first distinguished himself as a pacifist. The action then moves to Orkney and the quarrel between Hakon and Magnus, joint earls of Orkney, which culminates in the murder of Magnus by Hakon. For this the action moves forward to the present day, and the martyrdom takes place in a police cell in any contemporary totalitarian state. For the final scene, in which the blind crone Mary is cured of her blindness at Magnus’ tomb, the action shifts back to the twelfth century.

The history of St. Magnus is recorded in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga.

Short Synopsis of Each Scene

SCENE 2: THE BATTLE OF MENAI STRAIT

Blind Mary, the seer, sings a Viking spinning song, in which the wool is the guts of the soldiers to be killed in the battle, the weights on the warp their slaughtered heads, the spindles blood-splashed spears ‘weaving the web of victory’.

The Norse and Welsh heralds, on their respective longships, taunt one another; the battle starts. Magnus, refusing to fight, sings psalms and is not hurt by the arrows. His side – the Norsemen – is victorious.

SCENE 2: THE TEMPTATIONS OF MAGNUS

The Keeper of the Loom – the guardian of the soul of Magnus, who has in his charge the loom upon which Magnus will weave the tapestry of his life – brings before him his own dark opposite, the Tempter, who presents Magnus with five temptations: first, the way of fame and glory; second, a proposition of marriage; third, the coat-of-state of the Earldom of Orkney; fourth, the possibility of becoming a monk in Eynhallow; fifth, a sword for battle. Magnus withstands all these temptations, finally breaking the sword he has just accepted.

SCENE 3: THE CURSE OF BLIND MARY

Blind Mary describes the evils of an Orkney divided by civil war between its joint earls Hakon and Magnus, who have become enemies. She puts a curse on such ‘saviours’ as their murderous rival gangs of soldiers.

SCENE 4: THE PEACE PARLEY (PRELUDE TO THE INVOCATION OF THE DOVE)

The heralds of Earls Magnus and Hakon discuss a possible peace formula with the Bishop of Orkney, while Blind Mary prays to the northern saints for the return of her sight. The meeting between Hakon and Magnus is arranged.

SCENE 5: MAGNUS’ JOURNEY TO THE ISLE OF EGILSAY

Magnus and his herald travel by boat to Egilsay for the encounter with Earl Hakon. Despite his premonition of treachery he persists in the journey.

SCENE 6: EARL HAKON RESOLVES TO MURDER MAGNUS

Earl Hakon is presented with offers of security from Magnus, who is prepared to undergo exile, imprisonment, or physical mutilation. Hakon accepts the third offer, but then resolves that there will be only one earl in Orkney, himself, and that he will have Lifolf, his butcher, execute Magnus.

SCENE 7: THE REPORTERSThe cast, representing reporters, gives news flashes of the worsening situation between the factions of Hakon and Magnus in the negotiations on the Isle of Egilsay . Text and music make it clear that the action is moving forward through the centuries, so that by the end of the scene we are no longer in the Viking past, but in the present.

SCENE 8: THE SACRIFICEThe Military Officer (Hakon) orders the butcher to execute the Political Prisoner (Magnus). The time is the present, and the execution that of any prisoner who sets his face against oppression and is prepared to die for his convictions.

SCENE 9: THE MIRACLEThe action moves back to the twelfth century again. Blind Mary prays for sight before the tomb of St. Magnus, against the litany of the monks. She receives her sight, and sees the audience present – ‘dark faces, blind mouths, crying still for sacrifice’. She prays to St. Magnus to ‘keep us from a bedlam of sacrifice’, prophesying just such a course of events, before she dismisses the audience to ‘carry the peace of Christ into the world’.

Composer Notes

The first task in the composition of the opera was to reduce George Mackay Brown’s novel to a workable sequence of scenes suitable for singing, where possible not omitting material but concentrating it. Inevitably, there had to be simplification – Magnus, for instance, is not such a complex character in the opera as in the novel, and certainly not as multi-faceted as in John Mooney’s study in depth, published in 1935. The Battle of Menai Strait is reduced to a cypher of a battle – the music itself must fill in the scene set starkly by the two heralds; and the tinkers of the novel are reduced to one, Blind Mary. She, however, is amplified to become a seer-prophetess figure with, in the first scene, words from another publication of Mackay Brown, and in the last, words based on the poet, at the point where she receives her sight.

The music was composed quickly in the summer of 1976 on Hoy. It is continuous, the scenes being connected by instrumental transitions which either sum up the musical argument of the previous scene or set the mood for the next: often they carry a more developed musical argument than the text-settings themselves, where the word-setting determines a clear texture and necessitates a simple dramatic structure. The forces used are small – five singers (one woman and four men who each take several roles), plus flute, clarinet, horn, two trumpets, percussion, keyboards, guitar, viola, cello and double bass.

The novel has Magnus martyred in a (Nazi) concentration camp; I decided to bring the martyrdom forward to the present, as if in the country where the opera is performed – an attempt to make audiences aware of the possibilities with us for such a murder of a political or religious figure, whatever his convictions. It is no longer possible to persuade ourselves that ‘such things couldn’t happen here’. They have in the past and could so easily again if we are not aware of the insidiously persuasive nature of the forces which generate such possibilities.

I have tried to create a musical state that is at once communicative and dramatic, based in the first instance on the Gregorian Chant of the Church that Magnus would have known so well, but adapting and extending this to encompass as wide an expressive musical and operatic vocabulary as possible.

I think the music will provide quite some surprises.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Magnus was a twelfth-century earl of the Orkney Islands, a Viking unusual for his pacifism, martyred in a dynastic struggle. The opera is a presentation of his story, based on George Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus and devised to be played continuously, with a quite simple, stylized staging.

Blind Mary, accompanied by a guitar, introduces the first of the nine scenes, in which Magnus is involved in a battle between the Norsemen and the Welsh. He prefers to fight with the words of Psalm 23 rather than arms, and his side is victorious. In Scene 2 he withstands the temptations of fame, marriage, kingship, religious retreat and armed force; the much shorter Scene 3 has Blind Mary, again with guitar, lamenting the state of an Orkney torn by civil war between Magnus and Hakon. Bishop and heralds then agree on a peace conference to take place on the island of Egilsay, whether Magnus is seen voyaging in Scene 5; the great part of the scene is an aria in which he resolves to go ahead no matter what he fears might happen. The musical style then becomes much wilder as Hakon orders Magnus’ execution, and in Scene 7 both action and music come forward to the present as journalists report on the political situation. Scene 8 is fully in the present, or the recent past: Hakon is a hysterical officer and Magnus merely a Prisoner, who quietly meets his fate. The last scene is Blind Mary’s: she prays to Magnus for the return of her sight, and gains it, while the rest of the cast as monks add Magnus’ name to the litany of northern saints.

In form the opera is somewhat liturgical, though often fiercely dramatic in its action and in its vocal comportment. The instrumental writing, too, is thoroughly virtuoso, being intended for The Fires of London with guitar and brass.

 

My experience of this superb piece has been intensified by gratitude that, even in our materialist age, artists can still find the means to create works which disturb our complacency, console our hearts and lay bare with compassionate clarity the deeper spiritual patterns which the conflicts and passions of daily life obscure. For admirers of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, and for those interested in serious new opera and music-theatre works, this disc is a necessity. For others, I will only say that I have found listening to this work both a disturbing and a healing experience. The painful harshness of its subject (and of some of its music) seems to me no more than an accurate reflection of the world we see around us each day, and like all great art, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus ultimately seeks to reconcile us to our state of human imperfection, even as it challenges us to work to bring the actions of our daily lives into closer harmony with the inner blueprint of the Divine Image that each of us carries.

Fanfare (01/01/1997)

First Performance

St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney (at the first St. Magnus Festival)

Saturday, 18 June 1977

The Fires of London