• Peter Maxwell Davies
  • Naxos Quartet No. 5 (2004)
    (Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Naxos Recording Company

  • string quartet
  • 25 min

Programme Note

This Quartet is subtitled 'Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland', which refers not only to the dramatic nocturnal sweep of a lighthouse beam across different textures of sea and shore, but to the various lighthouse "calls" - each one can be identified by the individual rhythm of its flashes of light.

There are two movements. The work opens with a slow introduction, of which the first note, B flat, is the unambiguous tonic of the whole work. The cello, at first pizzicato, then arco, carried the main argument.

A fast sonata section follows, in which I have tried to lead the ear through quite complex and constant transformations in such a way that it remains always clear how the expansions and contractions of linear contour relate, and where in our journey we are in relation to the tonic, and to its dominant and subdominant, or their displaced substitutes. I regarded this as "play" - ludus - shades of Quartet No. 4 - with the constantly changing illuminated surfaces and shapes of the wave, and the relative strengths of the lighthouses' sweeps of light across them. In Orkney and Shetland you can usually see several lighthouses at the same time when out at sea. The exposition of the sonata ends with vigorous upward scales on violins one and two, then four big crescendo tremolos, the last with a long pause.

The development is short and dramatic, and extends and distorts gesture, rather than expanding the modal spectrum or changing thematic material in a new way. The recapitulation is a much shortened version of both the introduction and the exposition, with the introductory material now played "presto".

A brief coda takes us to C minor - the "wrong" tonality with which to end, but the "right" place in the ongoing process - the opening of the second movement resolves this, but returning to B flat. This is a slow movement using the same material entirely, and with the same form. This development is also about intensifying gesture, and here, at the end of the recapitulation builds the climax of the whole work.

The coda goes right back to the opening of the first movement, and I thought of its ultimate fade-out as the sweeping beam of the North Ronaldsay light dissolving into the first light of dawn - a phenomenon I see, and enjoy, most days.

The quartet is dedicated to Thomas Daniel Schlee, composer, administrator and friend, with affection and gratitude.


Naxos Quartet No. 5: I. Largo
Naxos Quartet No. 5: II. Lento


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