• Peter Maxwell Davies
  • De Assumtione Beatae Mariae Virginis (2001)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Athelas Sinfonietta, Copenhagen

  • 1(pic)11(bcl)1(cbn)1110percpf(cel)str(1.1.1.1.1)
  • 28 min

Programme Note

I have borrowed the title from a chapter in the thirteenth century compilation of largely mythical lives of the saints, by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine, the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend.

The latin prose is purple, full of hagiographical hyperbole of a density which, these days, can raise a knowing smile. It was Pope Pius XII who, half a century ago, promulgated his Encyclical on the Bodily Assumption of the Virgin: henceforth Catholics were required to believe, as an article of faith, that Mary actually and physically ascended to heaven. Previously they had merely been recommended to harbour no doubts as to the veracity of the event.

A recent rereading of Legenda Aurea rekindled my fascination in this seemingly arcane subject. At the time of the Enclyclical, as a callow student, I had wondered at such a fantastical and illogical doctrine. Shortly afterwards, I read, in Jung's Answer to Job comments which made some kind of sense of it:- what Pius XII had achieved, perhaps without awareness of some of the significance others would read into this, was a modification of the Holy Trinity itself. To God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost there was now a fourth element officially recognised - a Holy Quaternity whose last member, the Virgin Mary, was an unquestionably feminine principle. The Encyclical could be interpreted as a recognition of the Ewig Weiblich (Eternal Feminine) in a male-dominated religious matrix, or the recognition of the anima in a personal psyche.

My work is a belated celebration of this paradoxical awareness - as it were, by the back door - set in musical terms often not hagiographical, and much to do with my experiences in Rome as a student in the late nineteen fifties. For instance, I regularly took my Liber Usualis (the great compilation of plainsong for all liturgical occasions) to S.Anselmo on the Aventine Hill to follow the most austere Gregorian rituals, and, at the other extreme, witnessed Papal Mass in St. Peter's, with Pius himself rushed in aloft on a dazzling throne, by dashing youths at the double, amid rapturous acclamations of 'Viva il Papa'.

The work starts with a trombone statement of the plainsong Quae est ista, quae ascendit sicut auorora consurgens, pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol proper to the Feast of the Assumption, on August 15th. What interested me here was the reference to the Canticum Canticorum or Song of Songs. (The English bible here reads 'Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun'). It is the Old Testament Sulamit, in all her extraordinary and explicit sensuality, who here becomes the Blessed Virgin herself, rising to heaven - the kind of paradox explored in the music.

To attempt to explain the purpose, nature and meaning of paradox in music is not only difficult, but probably self-defeating: I think enough will be clear to point the listener towards the intended kind of listening.

The trombone statement leads to an allegro which explores the idea of 'assumption' through musical images of flight, suspension and hovering.

An adagio follows, initially soberly contemplative, but eventually incorporating musical imagery perhaps reminiscent of some of the more extreme post-baroque visual depictions of the Assumption.

A scherzo follows, which, while being on the one hand a varied recapitulation of the earlier allegro introduces new musical possibilities offered by foldings-in-upon-itself of the plainsong.

The last section consists of a sequence of dynamic recitatives, in which the trumpet figures largely - I was imagining the Beata Maria Virgo's flight somehow transformed into that of the golden eagle - and then, finally, a truly contemplative adagio. All this plays without a break.

Assumtione is scored for four woodwind, three brass, keyboard, percussion and string quintet. The writing is demanding in its virtuosity, in the full knowledge that Athelas will rise magnificently to all its physical and musical challenges.

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