• Peter Maxwell Davies
  • Sea Elegy (1998)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Orchestra

  • 2(pic)2(ca)2(bcl)2(cbn)2220timp.percstr
  • SATB
  • soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor, baritone
  • 16 min

Programme Note

A companion-piece, this time with voices, to the profound meditation of A Reel for Seven Fisherman, Sea Elegy sets the four Mackay Brown poems to which Davies referred in his eloquent note on the earlier work. The chorus’ mighty invocations in the first poem to ‘Great Sweet Mother’ Sea yield to sparer textures and solo writing for ‘The Door of Water’ and an introspective choral setting of ‘The Lost’. Then the terrible might of the sea reasserts itself in an orchestral interlude to preface ‘A Drowning’, the climactic setting which – as in A Reel – is reinforced by the composer’s own experience of how ‘the waters opened’.

Extended Note by David Nice

The sea’s terrible power has been either an explicity or underlying theme in much of Maxwell Davies’s music, but its special claim on the livelihoods and lives of fishermen has inspired two of his most powerful works. First there was A Reel of Seven Fishermen, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and premiered there in May of last year: a powerful meditation on a poem by George Mackay Brown enriched by the composer’s own observations of “the sea and the rocks before my window on Hoy, Orkney (the place where I live and the location in the poem)”. Following close on its heels comes Sea Elegy, a stark and powerful setting of Mackay Brown’s The Sea: Four Elegies in his Winterfold collection, from which Maxwell Davies quoted in his note on the earlier work. Along with another, quite literally brighter, Orkney-inspired work, Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights, it was the last of Max’s works to be completed in his Bunnertoun home on Hoy before his departure to the island of Sanday further north.

The almost ritualistic invocations of chorus and orchestra in the first poem to in the first poem to ‘Great Sweet Mother’ Sea yield to sparer, suddering textures and solo writing for ‘The Door of Water’ and an introspective choral setting of ‘The Lost’. When the terrible might of the sea reasserts itself in an orchestral interlude to preface ‘A Drowning’ which, as in the similarly climactic section of A Reel of Seven Fishermen, is reinforced by the composer’s own experience of what happens when ‘the waters opened’. He explains in his note to the earlier work how, ‘collecting driftwood on the shore below my house, I was struck down by a sudden, huge rogue wave. For a time which seemed infinite – it was probably a minute or so – I was rolled over and under the waves, which were beyojnd struggling against – The grey door of water did not shut behind me – I was hurled on to the boulders, bruised, cut and squirting sea, while my sack of wood bobbed away, out into the bay’. In A Reel, there is time for the grief of the Epilogue, finally transformed by solo clarinet into purest folk-melody; but for the drowned of Sea Elegy there are only a few bars’s grace, following the terrible force of the wave, before the powerfully abrupt end.

David Nice

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.

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