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
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