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Peter Maxwell Davies

Publisher: Chester Music

Symphony No. 9 (2012)
Commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. World premiere 9 June 2012 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, conducted by Vasily Petrenko.
Chester Music Ltd
Year Composed
25 Minutes

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Programme Note
Peter Maxwell Davies Symphony No. 9 (2012)
For orchestra and brass sextet
Dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee.

The new Symphony was written between December 2011 and March 2012: it was started in Lazio, Italy, and finished at home in Orkney.

I was in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, and realised the potential of the musical equivalent of a central nave with side chapels, where the nave is of one consistent style, and the chapels have other styles, often of a clashing later period, yet still maintaining, because of symmetrical relationships, some kind of strained unity. (This is not particular to Italian churches – one only has to think of Westminster Abbey!).

The work is in one continuous, quite concise movement, divided into two parts.
The first part starts with a slow introduction, which presents the basic thematic material of the whole Symphony, and where the extra brass players, placed to one side of the orchestra, have fanfare flourishes, which I hope are appropriate in a work dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen.

There follows an allegro proper, with the ghost of traditional sonata form, with an exposition, then a development section where material is systematically transformed by interval and rhythmic unit bending, rather than by the usual modulatory Austro-Germanic processes suitable to a more traditionally tonal work. (The work is tonal, but with modal inflections reminiscent of early music – for instance, there are substitute dominants, as in medieval plainsong, and the harmony does not always work from the bass upwards through the texture, but often above and below a tenor or ‘holding’ part, in any register, as in the thirteenth century polyphony.)

The brass sextet interrupts the ‘allegro’ with strident military-style marches (in my mind the equivalent of the church side chapels) with scant respect for its style. This bears no disrespect for military music or bands as such – which, as Master of the Queen’s Music I have come to know well and love – but it presented an opportunity to bear witness, in purely musical terms, to what I can only consider, at the deepest and most heartfelt level, our disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – comparable only to the folly of the medieval crusades and the Crimean War. (Having been bombed in the 1941 blitz, and witnessed people on fire running up the street, and having seen bodies dug out of the rubble, I feel that such treatment should not be unleashed on any population without the most compelling reasons, nor on our own military forces; while being not pacifist as such, it must be at least a part of a composer’s task to bear witness, as honestly as possible).
In the second, slow half of the work, the brass sextet integrates more into the orchestral texture, and the ‘chapel’ interruptions, while still contrasting, particularly in terms of speed, are ever more reconciliatory.

Very concerned that the Symphony should not end negatively, as so often I looked to Joseph Haydn for inspiration and guidance. I remembered his String Quartet op. 54 No. 2, particularly relevant with, like this work, a slow movement finale – anticipating Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Fragments of this quartet begin to appear – one of the ‘side chapels’ even consisting of a reworking of the Trio of Haydn’s third movement, and the mood changes to a cautious optimism.

While I feel it would be somehow morally indefensible to give this work a triumphant tonal ending, what happens is as positive as I could make it: the slow introduction returns, with even more ebullient fanfares, and all the diverse elements come together in a full-throated imploration for peace, reconciliation and a true democracy, even in quite difficult circumstances.

I am delighted the Symphony is receiving its first performance in Liverpool by the Philharmonic; I have always loved and admired Liverpool, and have fond memories of concerts conducted by Hugo Rignold in my student years, and, more recently, by Sir Charles Groves.

© Peter Maxwell Davies, 2012.

Preview the score:

  • 10 DEC 2016
    City Halls, Glasgow
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchesta
    Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
  • 10 DEC 2016
    City Halls Glasgow, Scotland
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
    Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
  • 04 DEC 2013
    Symphony No. 9 Country Premiere
    Helsinki Music Centre
    Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
    John Storgårds, conductor

    Other Dates:
    5 December - Helsinki Music Centre
  • 23 AUG 2012
    Symphony No. 9 London Premiere
    BBC Proms
    Royal Albert Hall, London
    Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
    Vasily Petrenko, conductor
  • 09 JUN 2012
    Symphony No. 9 World Premiere
    Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
    Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
    Vasily Petrenko, conductor

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's ninth symphony is merciless from start to finish..and keeps the voltage to the end.
Helsinki Times,05/12/2013
This brilliantly crafted work - Haydnesque in duration, Mahlerian in scope - is far from the kind of ceremonial work one might expect from the master of the Queen's music. Indeed, its attitude to militarism and war is not so far from Shostakovich's in his Seventh and 10th.
Paul Driver, Sunday Times,02/09/2012
Iraq and Afghanistan haunt this work, according to the programme notes of the composer, who was at the forefront of the 'not in my name' protests. However, this new symphony is very much fired, too, by its own internal conflicts. Not only do its dark timpani rolls, its sounds and alarums, and its anarchic interpolations from brass sextet speak of the chaos of war, they also obliquely summon up spectres of royal pomp and circumstance - this work is 'dedicated to HM the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee'... The symphony is typical Maxwell Davies: the old anarchist peeping over the parapet of the status quo (he is, after all, Master of the Queen's Music) and finding cunning compositional means with which to hold together menace and mischief. The work's main material is artfully transformed by interval and rhythmic bending. Its structure has been likened to a central nave with side-chapels of stylistic diversity. In the end it is a reference to Haydn that brings uncertain reconciliation.
Hilary Finch, The Times,27/08/2012
Davies may be Master of the Queen's Music now, but this Ninth Symphony may be dedicated to the monarch on her jubilee, but there is barely a bar in it that feels celebratory. Played without a break, the symphony unfolds darkly, before a brass sextet, seated above and to one side of the orchestra, introduces a succession of jaunty flourishes. These unleash a series of disintegrations and crises from which the remainder of the work seeks a fragile closure. ... indisputably one of his most engaged and [it] may well claim a lasting place in the repertoire.
Martin Kettle, The Guardian,24/08/2012
So this is not quite Davies' 'Fallujah' symphony, it is certainly not a light-hearted work. After a slow introduction, the Allegro is richly textures, and though hovering around tonal bases, it is thick with dissonance. It is both involving and dramatic, with circling low strings and brass at one point seeming to conjure up aircraft overheard. It gives way to a slow second half... Towards the end, the mood lightens to, in Davies' words, a cautious optimism, the interruptions being reworked snippets of a Haydn quartet. ... it was a pleasure to hear an 'establishment' figure showing how it's done.
Kimon Daltas, The Arts Desk,24/08/2012
Beautifully focused and the finale wonderfully elated and engrossing. There was some terrific choral singing, too.
Tim Ashley, The Guardian,12/06/2012
Musically, that translates to the use of a separate brass sextet who burst into the churning textures- scrunchy chords, glinting woodwind, frenzied timpani- to increasingly menacing ends. The effect is striking, particularly once the sextet’s almost vaudevillian umpah has given way to more discordant, disturbing sonorities as the two sound worlds grapple for prominence.
Neil Fisher, The Times,12/06/2012
The symphony, which has a lot to say and pus its message over in a concentrated, powerful way, certainly deserves another outing…
Glyn Mon Hughes, The Arts Desk,11/06/2012
The coruscating tuned percussion and braying high trumpets mark the score as uniquely his.
David Fanning, Daily Telegraph,11/06/2012
It was both strange and striking, the main body of the orchestra swirling in an ominous, other-worldly musical miasma or thundering in an urgent cacophony while a separate brass sextet offered a melodic but increasingly corrupted and perilously cock-eyed series of quasi-Edwardian military marches.
Catherine Jones, Liverpool Echo,11/06/2012
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