The spell is one quoted by George Mackay Brown in his book An Orkney Tapestry: 'Let not plough be put to acre except a fiddle cross first the furrow.' Davies's dancing concerto imagines the fiddler following a route from field to field, from dance to dance, accompanied by a bunch of companions in the form of an orchestra. As the music goes on, so it gets brighter and livelier, moving from the dark colouring of clarinets, bassoons and strings to full ensemble with prominent brass and (solo) tuned percussion, as if the dancers as much as the fields were beginning to glow with new life.
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Scottish folk-fiddling has informed a number of Maxwell Davies works, including the song-cycles ‘ The Blind Fiddler’ and ‘Fiddlers at the Wedding’, the orchestral favourite ‘An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise’, the Violin Concerto and the children’s opera ‘ The Two Fiddlers’, from which Maxwell Davies extracted a popular set of instrumental dances. The last predicts the form of ‘The MacDonald Dances’, which relate to it as ‘technicolor’ orchestral blow-up. However, the new work is based on entirely independent material and features “a tune that any MacDonald would recognise”.
The score bears as motto a line of the fiddler Storm Kolson quoted by George Mackay Brown in ‘An Orkney Tapestry’. ‘Let not plough be put to acre except a fiddle cross first the furrow’. Maxwell Davies adds: “In these dances, we follow the fiddler Donald MacDonald, along with all the islanders, winding around the fields in an ancient Orkney musical blessing of the crops – a ‘Spell for Green Corn’.
© Stephen Pruslin