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This work was thought through in outline following a visit to the ruined pre-Reformation church of Hoy in Orkney, on a fine Spring afternoon after I had played the harmonium for the tiny congregation in its large bleak Victorian replacement. The old church is surrounded by the graves of centuries, the more recent ones with familiar names, largely of people who lived in houses now ruinous – crofters, fishermen, clerics, sea-captains. Next to it stands the chief farmhouse, the Bu, going back to Viking times. Perhaps this is a cliché, a sentimental mulling –over of the obvious, but I thought of the lives and deaths encompassed here, expressed through hundreds of years of music in the church, and in the big barn of the farm.
The plainsongs ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Victimae Paschali Laudes’ are used throughout the work – the first concerning the Day of Judgement, from the Mass for the Dead, the second particular to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. These are subject to constant transformation – the intervallic contour slowly changes from one into the other, and their notes are made to dance through Renaissance astrological ‘magic square’ patterns.
The orchestra consists of double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets and strings.
The first movement has an introduction, which at first sounds like an Orkeny dance tune heard through a smokey, alcoholic haze, and played in a typically robust style. This recedes – it is as if one goes out of the bar to explore the night landscape with a clearer, crisper, air.
An exposition follows, with intermittent references to the opening, when the sound of the dance occasionally floats on the wind from afar, followed in turn by a development which takes off in a quasi-traditional way from the dominant of the opening A major.
The ‘recapitulation’ is disguised as further development and what sounds like a coda referring back to the dance opening is a ‘real’ recapitulation of the exposition much abbreviated. It is such games – here with sonata-form references – which gave rise to the ‘academic’ title.
The second movement is slow, taking as its starting point the last idea of the first. This is, without any as-it-were ‘quote’ references, an evocation of the island land and seascape. The discourse is punctuated by dramatic flourishes in the brass which define the formal sections, and the whole movement can be heard as a development of the first movement with the finale as a modified recapitulation.
This finale starts with a liberty – I have transferred a free orchestral representation or impression of the wheezy ciphering harmonium of the Victorian church, in imagination, to the older church at the shore and mingled its hymn with sounds of wind and storm – a natural occurrence at winter services. As the first movement moved out into the natural landscape from the dance in the barn, so this moves out of the church and embarks on a wild sea. I have brought back echoes of the harmonium-derived sounds, as the dance music was recalled before and after the work ends with such an echo, high and quiet, on string harmonics.
SINFONIETTA ACCADEMIA was commissioned to celebrate the quarter-centenary of Edinburgh University with financial assistance from the Scottish Arts Council, The first performance was given on 6 October 1983 at the Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Edward Harper.
© Peter Maxwell Davies 1983