The Two Fiddlers

Opera in two acts for young performers


50 minutes




Commissioned by





Storm Kolson
King of the Trolls
Queen of the Trolls
Chorus of Trolls
Chorus of Party Guests

Any of the male soloists’ parts may be sung an octave higher by unchanged boys’ voices or by girls’ voices. Both choruses contain a number of small solo parts. Storm and Gavin both play solo violin on stage, or else mime this while the two violins are played either off stage or in the orchestra.


2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, *percussion (6 players), timpani, piano (+ metronome), solo string quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass) or small string orchestra, Highland bagpipes (optional)
*percussion (6 players): 2 glockenspiels, marimba, xylophone, 4 temple blocks, 2 wood blocks, 2 brandy glasses (F and Ab), side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, 4 suspended cymbals (different sizes), cymbals (pair), choke cymbal, tambourine, flexatone, referee’s whistle, swanee whistle, football rattle, nightingale, beaters and scrapers including a pair of knitting needles, violin bows, plastic soap dish and brushes




Storm and Gavin, the Two Fiddlers, are returning home at Midsummer Midnight from the dance at which they have been playing. As they approach the neighbourhood of the Trolls’ Mound, they are frightened by a sheep, a cow and an owl, believing each to be (perhaps) a Troll. To cheer themselves up, they play their fiddles, but the voices of the Trolls are heard, and finally they appear themselves, driving Gavin away in terror, but persuading Storm to go underground and play for the Trolls’ dance.

Inside the Trolls’ Mound, Storm is welcomed by the Troll King and Queen, and he plays for the dance. As a reward he is granted a wish. He wishes that the folk of Orkney may never have to work again.

Gavin arrives home and jumps into his box bed, terrified of the Trolls he has heard. He dreams of Storm inside the Trolls’ Mound. As dawn breaks, voices off-stage sing of the inexplicable disappearance of Storm. Gavin gets out of bed and resolves to become free of the influence of Storm and his music, and be a man in his own right. As Father Time symbolically paces the years, we see Gavin quickly realizing this ambition before us, becoming a married man with a nice bungalow, children, and all the accoutrements of solid respectability, and eventually a grandfather with a pension. At the end of the scene, twenty-one years have passed and despite all his worldly success, Gavin still has a nostalgia for Storm and his music.


Storm, emerging from the Trolls’ Mound, meets Gavin, twenty-one years older. After their initial amazement, Gavin tells of the sad state of the community, with no will to work, and devoted to sloth. SCENE 2
Gavin brings Storm to a party, where the guests do not dance or make music, and their every desire for food, drink and entertainment is granted by Trolls, visible to us but unseen by them. They watch television – and we see adverts for Troll produces, designed to put the people even more under the spell of the Trolls. Even the Minister, though he admonishes the people for their laziness, falls asleep himself.

Composer Notes

The Two Fiddlers is based on George Mackay Brown’s retelling of the Scandinavian-Orkney folktale in his book of that name, in which one of a pair of fiddlers is lured into a troll’s mound (as the prehistoric barrows were designated in popular imagination) where he plays for the trolls to dance. When he returns home, as he thinks the next morning, he finds that twenty-one years have passed.

I have extended the story to show what has been happening in the community in those twenty-one years, as a result of the Fiddler’s wish granted by the trolls as a reward for his music-making. He wishes that work be abolished, and we see in Act 2 how the trolls take advantage of this. They control the life of the community by mollycoddling and spoiling, and rob it of all vitality in the process. I am sure there is a moral in this, somewhere.

The challenge of writing a full-scale opera for performance by young people relating to their particular community, is one a composer would hardly want to miss. So often young people appear to have minimal difficulty with the ‘contemporary’ music that their elders might find puzzling, and their unbiased, though extremely searching freshness is always a great inspiration to work for and with.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Devised for a slightly older age range than Cinderella, perhaps for children from ten to fourteen, this is also a slightly longer and musically more elaborate piece. The story is an Orkney version of a widespread folktale. Two fiddlers are on their way home from a wedding when they encounter the trolls; Gavin escapes but Storm is drawn away to play for audiences underground. The grateful trolls grant his wish that his people should no longer have to work, but they trick him by keeping him much longer than he thinks. Meanwhile, Gavin acquires wife, children, grandchildren and material possessions; then Storm reappears, with twenty-one years gone for him in the twinkling of an eye. Reunited, the two friends go off to a party, where Storm finds that people have become utterly passive through the indulgence of the trolls, devoting their time to television, pop music and other horrors. He strikes up a new tune to break the spell and restore his people to useful activity. A celebratory haggis is piped in, and a final chorus points the moral.

Extended Note

Maxwell Davies is aware of the special conditions of writing music for young people. It must be reasonably within their comprehension and technical ability, but there must be no compromise or condescension, as children would see through this. Any work involving children must be adaptable to the needs of the moment and to the performing talents available. In The Two Fiddlers the inclusion of percussion instruments and other simpler instrumental parts ensures that even beginners can take part; and some instruments, like the bagpipes are optional. It is a comic opera and thus provides ample opportunity for playfulness and high spirits.

The opera is based on an Orcadian folktale, but given a modern moral. The folk inspiration is present in the music too. ‘A lot of it is tonal’, says the composer, ‘It has to be, especially when you’re dealing with folk music. All the fiddle music is based on folk music, and there’s a bagpipe tune – I had to learn how to write for bagpipes’. Being a twentieth-century composer Peter Maxwell Davies has tended to follow present day trends in music, i.e. use of dissonance, atonality, chord clusters, percussive effects on the piano. The music superbly reflects the atmosphere of the trolls and their lifestyle. The music is harsh, dissonant and very percussive in most of the troll scenes, but this is contrasted with the tuneful, tonal music of the folk dances and the fiddle music. This provides a marvellous sense of release from the tension created by the dissonance, and the effect (in places) is overwhelming. In Act 1, scene 3, Maxwell Davies uses montage as an effect to portray the clutter of Gavin’s life-style. Each instrument in the orchestra enters with its own independent ostinato melody/rhythm at a different point in time and tempo to the rest of the instruments. Thus a ‘cluttered’ musical texture is created and again the effect is most convincing. Other special effects include: the sound of tuned brandy glasses (tuned to A flat and C); bowed cymbals; cymbals struck with knitting needles, and a tam-tam scraped with a plastic soap dish. These are all special effects used to create the mysterious magical atmosphere. In this music Maxwell Davies displays his great ability to compose music which is suited to its medium.


First Performance

Orkney Arts Theatre, Kirkwall, Orkney (at the St. Magnus Festival)

Friday, 16 June 1978

Pupils of Kirkwall Grammar School