The centre -piece of a chamber orchestra trilogy (see also Sinfonia Concertante and Sinfonietta Accademica) and is a symphonic song-cycle in five continuous movements. The text, ponders the influence of modern times on ancient ways of life.
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Into The Labyrinth
Into The Labyrinth is the second of a set of three works for chamber orchestra written this year, and the only one using voice. It was written for Neil Mackie and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and commissioned by the Orchestra with funds provided by the Scottish Arts Council. The first performance took place on 22 June 1983 at the Saint Magnus Festival, in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, conducted by James Conlon.
George Mackay Brown wrote his play The Well for the Festival in 1981 and I extracted from it the present text for Into the Labyrinth. It concerns the change of lifestyle in the Orkney Islands under the assault of technology – the threat to the possibility of such a community being able to continue as such, in any meaningful way, relative to its past.
The scoring is for double woodwind and strings and there are five movements. The first is slow and the text is concerned with time – ‘but a single day, repeated over and over’.
The second is an almost Franciscan hymn in praise of the elements – fire, wind, earth and water – with basically strophic music, much of it making virtuoso demands on individual members of the orchestra.
The third movement, slow, follows with no break and is purely instrumental, a quiet reflection upon and summing up of the music of the previous movement.
The fourth movement is the most substantial. In the text, the Islander is interrogated as to what he found upon opening four doors into fire, water, wind and earth. His answers make clear the turning away from a life of contact with the elements. He is offered the key to the fifth door ‘out of the circle where we are safe, into the labyrinth’. He takes it and at the end of the movement the island stands empty.
Each verse is prefaced by an introductory figure; for solo cello – into the door of fire; then solo viola and cello, accompanied by low strings – into the door of water; again solo viola and cello, with the addition of some woodwind – into the door of the wind; and solo viola and cello, becoming full violas and cellos – into the door of the earth. After the words “a skull under a broken stone” this introductory figure expands into an extended melody for full strings continuing after the opening of the fifth door. The movement ends gently with flutes suggesting distant gull or curlew calls across the deserted islands.
The fifth movement reflects the first, suggesting very quietly in the orchestra, the possibility of some kind of renewal of island life under the closing words “if you listen, perhaps the song of water is still there, hidden, moving deep under the stones”.
Peter Maxwell Davies