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Peter Maxwell Davies

Publisher: Chester Music

The Lighthouse (1979)
commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival
Text Writer
Peter Maxwell Davies
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 12 Minutes
tenor, baritone, bass
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Programme Note
Peter Maxwell Davies The Lighthouse (1979)

Part ghost story, part psychological drama, this opera is based on the true story of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared mysteriously from a remote Scottish lighthouse in 1900. In the prologue, three officers from a lighthouse ship report to a Court of Enquiry how they arrived to relieve the three keepers and found the place deserted. The main act flashbacks to the keepers, working the lighthouse far longer than usual. They are nervous and pass the time by singing characteristic ‘set piece’ songs – which express their individual guilt. Out of the fog, their past emerges to taunt them. They see the arrival of a blinding light as Antichrist, in which they are replaced by the relief officers: the mystery is unresolved.


This is a mystery story in the form of a chamber opera. The prologue is set as a court of enquiry into the unexplained disappearance of the three keepers from a lighthouse. Questions are posed by a solo horn, which may sound from among the audience, and three officers give answer. Gradually, they move from straight testimony into fantastical imaginings of evil during a 'flashback' to the lighthouse; but then we snap back to the courtroom.

In the main act the three singers become the vanished keepers. They have been together for months, long enough to be fully aware of each other's weaknesses; petty bickerings suggest a relationship which is stable, but liable to become highly unstable at any moment. They sing songs to reduce the tension, Blazes beginning with a rough ballad of street violence, accompanied by violin and banjo. Sandy's song, with cello and out-of-tune upright piano, is a thinly disguised description of sexual bliss, and Arthur's with brass and clarinet, is a tub-thumping hymn. But the songs serve only to resurrect in their minds ghosts from the past, and as the fog descends each of the keepers becomes convinced that he is being claimed by the Beast. They prepare to meet its dazzling eyes, which become the lights of the relief vessel, and the three men reappear as officers, met at the lighthouse only by an infestation of rats. They leave, and at the end the last hours of Blazes, Sandy and Arthur begin to play over again.

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The original inspiration of this work came from reading Craig Mair’s book on the Stevenson family of Edinburgh. This family, apart from producing the famous author Robert Louis, produced several generations of lighthouse and harbour engineers. In December 1900 the lighthouse and harbour supply ship Hesperus based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles light in the Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was empty – all three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry, and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order, but the men had disappeared into thin air.

There have been many speculations as to how and why the three keepers disappeared. This opera does not offer a solution to the mystery, but indicates what might be possible under the tense circumstances of three men being marooned in a storm-bound lighthouse long after the time they expected to be relieved.

The work consists of a prologue and one act. The Prologue presents the Court of Inquiry in Edinburgh into the disappearance of the keepers. The three protagonists play the part of the three officers of the lighthouse ship, the action moving between the courtroom, the ship, and the lighthouse itself, and the inquiry is conducted by the horn of the orchestra, to whose wordless questions the protagonists answer, making the questions retrospectively clear. The Court reaches an open verdict. At the end of the Prologue the three officers together tell us that the lighthouse is now automatic and the building is abandoned and sealed up, while the lighthouse itself flashes its automatic signal to a rhythm which is reflected in the orchestra.

The main act itself bears the sub-title The Cry of the Beast. The scene is set inside the lighthouse with the three keepers at a table in a state of edginess with each other. Arthur is a bible-thumping religious zealot, constantly at loggerheads with Blazes who has no truck with his hypocrisy. The third keeper, Sandy, trues peace-making moves to keep them apart. When Arthur leaves the table and goes aloft to light the lantern, Sandy and Blazes have a game of crib. They quarrel over this, and when Arthur returns, the atmosphere becomes extremely tense. Sandy suggests that Blazes should sing a cheerful song to help break this tension. This Blazes does, followed by Sandy and Arthur. Each song, though light and superficial on the surface, might be taken as an indication – Blazes sings a jolly song about an adolescent’s career of crime in city slums leading to murder and the death of his parents. Sandy sings a love song, which when taken up and accompanied by the other two keepers, takes on a new meaning suggesting that his love-life might not have been as innocent as would at first appear. Arthur sings a holy-roller rabble-rousing ditty about God’s revenge on the Children of Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf – a projection into God’s will and bible history of his own boundless and unexpressed aggression.

Subsequently, the atmosphere turns chill – fog swirls about the lighthouse and Arthur starts the foghorn with the words “the cry of the Beast across the sleeping world – one night that cry will be answered from the deep”.

From the mists, ghosts from the past of the three keepers emerge to take their revenge – they might be directly from the songs each keeper sang if these were taken as personal revelations. These ghosts, which we do not see but which the keepers persuade each other are visible, drive them into a state of such guilty desperation that they become crazed. The ghosts call upon Blazes and Sandy to go out with them into the night.

When Arthur comes down from the lightroom he is convinced that the Beast has called across the sea – the Golden Calf has come to claim his servants. The eyes of the Beast dazzle. Calling upon God’s help, bellowing a hymn, the three keepers move out to defend themselves against the spirit, which they know see as the Antichrist.

At the climax of the storm and the brightest point of the light from the eyes of the beast, the keepers are replaced by the three officers from the lighthouse ship – played by the same three singers, and the light of the approaching Beast is seen perhaps to have been the light of the lighthouse ship.

From the remarks of the ship’s officer, the exact nature of the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance is open to interpretation, as is, indeed, whether the officers are trying to persuade themselves that some truth they fear is not so, or perhaps they are trying to cover something up.

When the relief keepers enter the lighthouse, although they are not seen very clearly, it is more that possible that they are the same three we saw at the opening of the scene. But, as the lighthouse is seen to flash its “automatic” signal, there is a further possibility that we have been watching a play of ghosts in a lighthouse abandoned and boarded up for eighty years.

The structure is based on the Tower of the Tarot, whose number symbolism is present in the structure of all the music, and which erupts into the surface of the opera in the form of the words sung by Arthur during the card game representing the Voice of the Cards, which on this level transforms the game of crib into a play of fate with Tarot cards, summoning up all the power of their baleful influence. The work makes extraordinary demands on the singing and acting capacities of the three protagonists, and demands extreme virtuosity from a small band.

Peter Maxwell Davies

Peter Maxwell Davies - The Lighthouse (Prologue) from Psappha Ensemble on Vimeo.

Peter Maxwell Davies - The Lighthouse (part 2) from Psappha Ensemble on Vimeo.

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
    Neil Mackie, Christopher Keyte, Ian Comboy
    Peter Maxwell Davies
  • 28 MAR 2020
    Landestheater / Innsbruck / Austria
    Tiroler Ensemble für neue Musik
    Seokwon Hong, conductor

The most frequently performed of Maxwell Davies’s operas, The Lighthouse owes its appeal to a score of atmospheric concision. Benjamin Britten may be the greatest English composer of the sea, but in Maxwell Davies’ abrupt orchestral squalls and unexpected textures we get a violence quite unlike the swelling grandeur of Britten’s Suffolk coastline. Sounds as well as music emerge from a pit in which percussion instruments outnumber all others. Trombone splatters are tempered by plaintive little flute gasps, with muted trumpets supplying the “crack of the blackbeaks’ wings”. [...] Despite its age, Maxwell Davies’ music still feels fresh. Perhaps it’s the specificity of the music-world he conjures, his familiarity with the island landscape he creates, but there’s nothing strikingly dated here. Even a guitar in the chamber band finds its place in the colouristic blend. Rejecting the consolation of melody for much of the work, the composer offers us a brief reprise in a set-piece that sees each of the three keepers sing a song to their companions. [...] There’s a balance between feral abandon and precision in all of Maxwell Davies’s scores, and here these warring oppositions find themselves amplified in the contained studio space of the Linbury. [...] In Maxwell Davies’s hands a potential ghost story becomes a terrifying psychological drama about the fragility of civilisation and the “beast” that lurks just beneath the surface in all of us. The ghosts here are no alien spirits but the guilty secrets of the past – flesh and blood spectres whose weapons are also very much of this world. In this latest production by English Touring Opera it’s a show that will haunt you well beyond its brief 80-minute span.
Alexandra Coghlan ,,16/10/2012
Written a couple of decades after the Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse is cast in a similar mould. This is also a chamber opera, lasting only 75 minutes and with a small orchestral ensemble of 12 players that belies its size in the other-worldly sounds the composer draws from it. It is ideal for a company that goes out on the road... Maxwell Davies tests his performers to the limit.
Richard Fairman, Financial Times website,15/10/2012
Few instances of that staple mystery, the unexplained maritime vanishing (As in the Mary Celeste or the Bermuda Triangle) can be more baffling than that of the three keepers who dematerialised without trace from their lighthouse in the Hebrides in 1900. Peter Maxwell Davies's fictionalised reconstruction of this tale has been hugely successful since its premiere in 1980, and one can soon hear why. Perhaps nobody since Britten has so masterfully used music to create atmosphere - not just a subtle spookiness, but also a marvellously vivid seascape evoking the lurch of the waves, the salt in the spray, the cawing of the gulls. Parallel to this is a narrative of explosive psychological tension, handled with consummate theatrical adroitness. ... a truly gripping yarn, and it's not often one can say that of an opera.
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph,12/10/2012
A genuinely Poesque donouement suggests that the composer could have had a side career as a macabre mystery writer. By the time of the opera's composition, eight years of Orkney air had blown the arch-modernism out of Davies' music, but we are still dealing with a fairly cold and abstract sound world. We see the composer working with a fine paintbrush, creating sparse textures with little sustained foward motion. The diverse instrumentation eschews the comfort of a familiar orchestral sound, throwing up snippets of guitar, crotales, flexatone, jangly out of tune piano. A deafening climax, when it comes, is all the more surprising. It may not be emotional music, but it is certainly atmospheric, and it is easy to see why The Lighthouse maintains a position in the repertory.
Kimon Daltas, The Arts Desk,12/10/2012
In his version, the three lighthouse keepers are sick of themselves and of each other, the abysses within and between them cracking open during the second act. In an attempt to defuse the tension, each sings a song – giving the composer the opportunity to draw on his long-favourite device of parody. One of the keepers, Blazes, launches into a rough-hewn ballad that reveals his violent family history and murderous past. Sandy waxes lyrical in parlour-song idiom about a romantic love idyll that also turns out to enclose a dark secret he would prefer to forget. Religious obsessive Arthur (pictured left) intones a tub-thumping hymn. His vision of a threatening apocalyptic beast leads the three increasingly deranged individuals outside the lighthouse, where their fate awaits. Davies frames the action with scenes of the naval officers at the subsequent inquiry and just after their arrival at the lighthouse.
George Hall, The Guardian,12/10/2012
Peter Maxwell Davies has found a subject that could only work as opera, and he treats it to one of his most evocative scores. His beloved Orkney is everywhere in this music: the orchestration is steeped in its storms and gulls... After a Prologue whose ostinato passages suggest the disciplined atmosphere of a naval hearing, the main Act unfolds through brooding, extended figures in the accompaniment that are interspersed with those paroxysms of mayhem that were a ‘Max’ hallmark in his 1970s’ Fires of London days. (There are unmistakable shades of The Devils in this music.) The composer’s affinity with popular music, too, is given free rein in the dark songs each lighthouseman sings to lift, if not leaven, the oppressive mood. The opera’s final section, a vivid depiction of psychological hell, is a virtuoso drama in its own right. The three protaganists are pushed to the limits of their craft as they drag themselves and the audience into a self-destructive orbit of despair around the stone tower. A seastorm brings madness in its wake, and by its end “the room is full of ghosts called out by the foghorn”. Yet even here, as the dance of death gives up the ghost, Maxwell Davies has a final surprise to spring.
Mark Valencia,,11/10/2012
Peter Maxwell Davies’s 75-minute The Lighthouse (1980) is ideal for an opera company on a budget – high in quality but demanding only three singers and 12 instrumentalists. Besides writing ingratiatingly for voice, Maxwell Davies supplied assertive, jagged, inventive, rhythmically vital, idiomatically conceived instrumental writing.
George Loomis, The Financial Times,16/02/2012
“The Lighthouse’’ by Peter Maxwell Davies, opened last night at the John F. Kennedy Library and it is another clear success, a night of darkly riveting modern chamber opera played out against the backdrop of Boston Harbor. [...] Davies’s score, with his own libretto, is a marvel of economy, deploying the most modest vocal and instrumental forces - admittedly pushed to the very edge of their techniques, and sometimes beyond - to create distinct characterizations for each keeper, sketch three misty backstories, and then push each man, under extreme stress, into the abyss of his past. [...] Davies’s wonderfully pungent music is full of rasps, rattles, shutters, and cries. It pushes singers and instrumentalists into extremely high and low registers, churns subliminally in the background, and ultimately telegraphs an atmosphere of pristine dread.
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe,09/02/2012
...terse and haunting, it explores the documented mystery of three keepers in 1900 who disappeared from the Flannan Isles lighthouse, on the Outer Hebrides' outer rim. Psappha's production, directed by Elaine Tyler-Hall, is solid. So is the musical delivery, undertaken with the verve expected from a group who have carved a formidable niche reviving the composer's music-theatre pieces. The Lighthouse wears its age well. By 1980 the mad clown in Davie's music had been subdued; he'd refreshed his language with classical forms, descriptive writing, even take-home tunes. Indeed, his ear for pictures is so strong that Aaron Mardsden's black, minimalist setting stunts nothing, for the craggy rocks, wind gusts and squawking sea birds are all in the music.
Geoff Brown, The Times,01/10/2009
This intriguing chamber opera takes a disturbing look at the potential for paranoia, madness and despair in a claustrophobic lighthouse. Max's ever inventive orchestration delighted and captivated throughout.
John Byrne, Musical Opinion,01/02/2005
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