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Peter Maxwell Davies

Publisher: Chester Music

De Assumtione Beatae Mariae Virginis (2001)
commissioned by Athelas Sinfonietta, Copenhagen
Chester Music Ltd
Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
28 Minutes
Programme Note
Peter Maxwell Davies De Assumtione Beatae Mariae Virginis (2001)
I have borrowed the title from a chapter in the thirteenth century compilation of largely mythical lives of the saints, by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine, the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend.

The latin prose is purple, full of hagiographical hyperbole of a density which, these days, can raise a knowing smile. It was Pope Pius XII who, half a century ago, promulgated his Encyclical on the Bodily Assumption of the Virgin: henceforth Catholics were required to believe, as an article of faith, that Mary actually and physically ascended to heaven. Previously they had merely been recommended to harbour no doubts as to the veracity of the event.

A recent rereading of Legenda Aurea rekindled my fascination in this seemingly arcane subject. At the time of the Enclyclical, as a callow student, I had wondered at such a fantastical and illogical doctrine. Shortly afterwards, I read, in Jung's Answer to Job comments which made some kind of sense of it:- what Pius XII had achieved, perhaps without awareness of some of the significance others would read into this, was a modification of the Holy Trinity itself. To God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost there was now a fourth element officially recognised - a Holy Quaternity whose last member, the Virgin Mary, was an unquestionably feminine principle. The Encyclical could be interpreted as a recognition of the Ewig Weiblich (Eternal Feminine) in a male-dominated religious matrix, or the recognition of the anima in a personal psyche.

My work is a belated celebration of this paradoxical awareness - as it were, by the back door - set in musical terms often not hagiographical, and much to do with my experiences in Rome as a student in the late nineteen fifties. For instance, I regularly took my Liber Usualis (the great compilation of plainsong for all liturgical occasions) to S.Anselmo on the Aventine Hill to follow the most austere Gregorian rituals, and, at the other extreme, witnessed Papal Mass in St. Peter's, with Pius himself rushed in aloft on a dazzling throne, by dashing youths at the double, amid rapturous acclamations of 'Viva il Papa'.

The work starts with a trombone statement of the plainsong Quae est ista, quae ascendit sicut auorora consurgens, pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol proper to the Feast of the Assumption, on August 15th. What interested me here was the reference to the Canticum Canticorum or Song of Songs. (The English bible here reads 'Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun'). It is the Old Testament Sulamit, in all her extraordinary and explicit sensuality, who here becomes the Blessed Virgin herself, rising to heaven - the kind of paradox explored in the music.

To attempt to explain the purpose, nature and meaning of paradox in music is not only difficult, but probably self-defeating: I think enough will be clear to point the listener towards the intended kind of listening.

The trombone statement leads to an allegro which explores the idea of 'assumption' through musical images of flight, suspension and hovering.

An adagio follows, initially soberly contemplative, but eventually incorporating musical imagery perhaps reminiscent of some of the more extreme post-baroque visual depictions of the Assumption.

A scherzo follows, which, while being on the one hand a varied recapitulation of the earlier allegro introduces new musical possibilities offered by foldings-in-upon-itself of the plainsong.

The last section consists of a sequence of dynamic recitatives, in which the trumpet figures largely - I was imagining the Beata Maria Virgo's flight somehow transformed into that of the golden eagle - and then, finally, a truly contemplative adagio. All this plays without a break.

Assumtione is scored for four woodwind, three brass, keyboard, percussion and string quintet. The writing is demanding in its virtuosity, in the full knowledge that Athelas will rise magnificently to all its physical and musical challenges.

Read about this work at

Preview the score:

  • Ensemble
    London Sinfonietta
    Oliver Knussen
  • Soloist(s)
    various artists
...a sort of chamber symphony that makes explicit Davies's lifelong fascination with plainchant, but crams a dazzling ornate piano part into its complex textures.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,01/05/2005
Tightly woven, sometimes almost mellifluous... the work showed us a composer far subtler in designs and colours than Davies the shock jock ever was, or wanted to be. Inspiration for the piece came from a recent rereading of the hagiographical 13th-century Golden Legend. As so often now, Davies also supplies an autobiographical hook, returning to his student days in Rome, when some services attended were plain as sliced bread and others, Papal Masses, resembled cherry-topped ice cream. A trombone began, chewing on the plainsong. Then, through two allegros and two adagios, the Virgin Mary (often associated with the trumpet) ascended into Heaven, sometimes sober in mood, sometimes brazenly. The music's journey climaxed in a blaze of white lights, followed by a bare flute and a whisper from percussion and double bass. A masterly conclusion; a pungent performance.
Geoff Brown, The Times,26/04/2005
De Assumtione Beatae Maria Verginis is one of the most engrossing of such recent large-scale works. The title comes from a 13th century lives of the saints and the 'theme' itself relates to the Fast of the Assumption: Maxwell Davies builds a substantial structure on its rhythmic and harmonic premises - conflating, as he has done frequently in the past, the inherent dynamic of sonata - and symphonic-form so that contrasts in mood and pace articulate the larger span; one which culminates in stark brass recitatives and an inward final adagio.
Richard Whitehouse, The Classical Source,22/04/2005
Probably the finest example of an El Greco to be found outside Spain is the Assumption of the Virgin, painted in 1577. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting currently resides, "the composition is divided into earthly and heavenly zones that are connected by a complex network of gestures and poses and a palette of silvery, almost supernatural colors." Which could also serve as a reasonably accurate description of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' De Assumtione Beatae Mariae Virginis, composed in 2001, but receiving only its second performance on Saturday night. In the course of the work's half-hour span, Davies draws upon a lifetime's experience to produce music of an at times unearthly beauty; dense, busy music which yet has a sense of repose and tranquility at its centre. (One could contrast this with his earlier work in which, no matter how quiet the music, the underlying sense of violence was never far away). That sense of "almost supernatural colours" showed itself in the various clusterings of instruments, especially in their highest and lowest ranges: the subterranean growling of doublebass, bass clarinet and contrabassoon, for instance, or the ear-cleansing ringing of the piccolo and crotales (tuned cymbals). Bill Linwood and his hand-picked ensemble gave the work a riveting performance, from the solemn, processional-like trombone of the opening to the spectacular trumpet solo - bringing briefly to mind John Bunyan's "so he passed over, and the trumpets sounded for him on the other side" - and brief flute epitaph of the final pages. The music itself is of a ferocious level of complexity and difficulty (one could clearly see the musicians furiously counting when not actually playing) and yet paradoxically the work is not merely greater than the sum of its parts, it is somehow other. A masterpiece? I shouldn't be at all surprised. A superlative performance? Oh yes, without doubt.
Deryk Barker, Victoria Times,01/03/2004
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