Commissioned to write a piece for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, Davies provided a musical General Assembly of his own: a bright overture based on an Australian aboriginal song which gives rise to 'national anthems' of various kinds and instrumental colourings. Finally the 'anthems' are combined, 'if not triumphantly', Davies says, 'at least in a manner whereby they get along together'.
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The art of occasional overture, commissioned for a specific celebration, has given rise to some remarkably fluent and even inspired exercise in the 19th century. Tchaikowsky and Glazunov both composed curtain-raisers for important public events which have survived in the repertoire; a later generation of Russian composers found itself under more compulsion to serve the state, but Prokofiev and Shostavkovich both obliged in a far from perfunctory fashion- while at around the same time the young Britten wrote several occasional overtures which help to extend our appreciation of his purely orchestral output.
Of all these glittering survivors, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Time and the Raven comes closest – albeit unintentionally – to Prokofiev’s Russian Overture of 1936, a highly sophisticated collage and combination of folk tunes, dazzlingly orchestrated and paraded before us with breathtaking slight of hand. The difference is that Max’s material is mostly his own; having listened to a vast cross-section of national anthems, he plumped instead for a treated version of an Australian aboriginal song – launched by an alto flute and first violins – which is then developed, treated and in the composer’s words, ‘uninterrupted by the “National Anthems” which are not “real” either- again, so as not to give offence, one way or the other – rather, they are outcrops, growing directly from the internal thematic process’. You will hear the contrast clearly delineated by shifts in orchestration and the tempo (one notable intruder is a slow march theme, adagio). Finally, as in the Prokofiev overturn the “Anthems” meet in a majestic apotheosis, rounded off by a boisterous coda which threatens to end in a jubilant fortissimo but in fact fades away to nothing on along double-bass harmonic- the layers instructed to ‘stop playing one by one’ until only the section leader is left.
The subtle truce is ion tune with the meaning title, borrowed from a painting by a Scottish artist John Bellany. In it, the composer remarks ‘the Raven becomes a symbol of warning-in my work, dark music hints at what could be, were attitude to nationalism not to modify’. Hence the non-triumphant ending, hinting at the manner in which the anthems ‘can get along together, and accommodate each other. That is, perhaps the most “real” for which we can hope. Despite the note of caution, the orchestration of suitably celebratory proportions, with triple woodwind, a sizeable (though by no means overblown) brass ensemble and a percussion department which includes an impressive array of drums and a very brief flourish from the flamboyant flexatone, a favourite Maxwell Davies purveyor of the bizarre. The work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and will swerve as a showpiece on the orchestra’s UN tour.
© David Nice
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