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Peter Maxwell Davies

Publisher: Chester Music

A Little Birthday Music (2006)
Commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Proms and first performed in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen in the Royal Albert Hall on 19 July, 2006 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and massed children’s voices, conducted by Jiri Belohlavek
Text Writer
Andrew Motion
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
13 Minutes
children's choir

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Programme Note
Peter Maxwell Davies A Little Birthday Music (2006)
A Little Birthday Music was written to celebrate the Queen’s eightieth birthday, and sets a poem by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.

This kind of composition presents a great challenge – music which must make an immediate positive effect upon a large audience is unfashionable, and, given the expectations on the part of many of “modernism”, and of a deep musical conservatism on the other hand, steering a way through this thicket with integrity is clearly treacherous.

That was at least part of the attraction of becoming Master of the Queen’s Music – although there can obviously be no guarantee of success, I would be presented with opportunities to confront musical problems new to me.

The present work is a short essay with the rudiments of sonata form in the background, although it is, following Haydn’s examples, monothematic – the material though always transforming in detail, remains essentially constant throughout.

A slow introduction states the thematic and harmonic core, with F minor functioning as a substitute dominant for the home key of B major, quiet contemplative strings answering rhetorical brass and woodwind. A short transition featuring timpani leads to an allegro, firmly in the home key, with traditional first and second subject divisions still clearly defined, I hope, despite monothematicism.

The development takes it cue from Schoenberg’s early Chamber Symphony. It has two parts – a brief and compressed scherzo, and an adagio.

The recapitulation adds elements of fanfare to the first subject, while the second functions as a transition to an extended coda, which brings in children’s chorus, organ and military trumpets. Here as well as being extravert and celebratory, the music has moments of quiet reflection.

Peter Maxwell Davies

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  • 19 JUL 2006
    A Little Birthday Music World Premiere
    BBC Proms 2006
    Royal Albert Hall, London
    BBC Symphony Orchestra, Fanfare Trumpeters of the Scots Guards
    Choristers of Chapel Royal, St James's Palace; Choristers of Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace; City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus; Children's International Voices of Enfield; Finchley Children's Music Group; New London Children's Choir; Southend Boys' & Girls' Choir; Trinity Boys' Choir; Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor

Characteristically both classical and expressionistic, this excellently contrived piece combined the fire of Maxwell Davies's avant-garde past with the more formal accessibility expected of the Master of the Queen's Music, and succeeded in his avowed aim to raise the profile of new music for a wide and disparate audience....Rather as in a choral symphony, Maxwell Davies holds back the choir until the climax, following a powerful, excitingly wild orchestral exposition interspersed with reflective moments. An underlying Schoenbergian 'Grundestalt' evokes the idea of constancy and change, a main theme formed of rising and descending thirds which also generate its dissonant harmony. Contrast is provided by strident snappy figures for brass and wind, wildly developed by timpani, and subjected to highly-charged interactions amongst the woodwind and brass. At the climax, a slow bass drum beat and muted trumpets prepare the recapitulation, with the choirs entering gloriously at the moment of maximum tension, in a rich homogenous texture. Ingeniously aimed at maximum singability, the opening theme is used for the start of each of four stanzas, while an inverted variant sets the second line. The fourth line acts as refrain, 'The golden rule your constancy survives', a ceremonial chant-like falling chain of thirds, again supported with elusive and piquant harmony. Delightful word-painting mirrors the poem's varying imagery: the sinewy variant in the first stanza's 'night horizens twist in chains of light', the second stanza's limping rhythms to depict the 'heart to heart accelerates.' Before stanza three an elaborate trumpet solo, shadowed by drum roll and low string pedal, signals mood change, with increasingly acerbic, sparkling brass cadenzas commenting on each line, adding an aesthetic element of defiant questioning to the celebratory symbolism of the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Scots Band. The final refrain is expanded with more hymn-like authority, yet the sudden tonic triad which concludes the colourful orchestral coda is deceptively affirmative. The predominantly dissonant harmony lingers in the memory and highlights a deeper narrative that mirrors the poem's intriguing reversal of the conventional dichotomy between mankind's fickleness wih nature's constancy.
Malcolm Miller, Tempo,01/01/2007
Davies’s birthday ode starts with orchestra alone in a fairly typical example of the later ‘Max’ style. But after the usual classical practices have been observed, if in miniature, an entire royal kitchen sink is deployed in the concluding setting of the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s ‘The Golden Rule’. About 300 schoolchildren sang in unison; the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Scots Guards Band, complete with busbies, trumpeted from below the organ. The tune of this setting is cannily devised: direct and approachable, but with distinctive turns typical of its creator.
Keith Potter, The Independent,21/07/2006
The Queen’s presence at last night’s Prom signalled a celebration for 80th birthday that began with a new pièce d’occasion by the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Modestly entitled A Little Birthday Music, it steered a prudent course away from the knotty arguments that Davies has pursued in some of his other music and from the local colour of a piece such as Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. But it was by no means bland, and it did what it set out to do. For all that it ended on an affirmative tonic chord, the music sounded appreciably modern while being relatively easy on the ear. Shaped like a miniature, single-movement choral symphony, it had its dissonances and its rhythmic puzzles, but there was some compensatory harmonic mellowness. The principal theme, given out in muscular form by the trumpet at the start, turned out to be susceptible to all sorts of metamorphoses, economically supplying material for the equivalent of a first movement, scherzo, slow movement and finale. It was the closing section that deployed the chorus, singing a text by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, that ticked all the right politically correct boxes – coastal erosion, the ozone layer, corruption of language – while celebrating the constancy that the Queen represents. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra boosted by the Fanfare Trumpters of the Scots Guards and 250 children’s voices from various Chapels Royal, schools and youth choirs, the ending was aptly rousing.
Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph,20/07/2006
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