Commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. World premiere 9 June 2012 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, conducted by Vasily Petrenko.

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  • 25 min

Programme Note

For orchestra and brass sextet
Dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee.

The new Symphony was written between December 2011 and March 2012: it was started in Lazio, Italy, and finished at home in Orkney.

I was in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, and realised the potential of the musical equivalent of a central nave with side chapels, where the nave is of one consistent style, and the chapels have other styles, often of a clashing later period, yet still maintaining, because of symmetrical relationships, some kind of strained unity. (This is not particular to Italian churches – one only has to think of Westminster Abbey!).

The work is in one continuous, quite concise movement, divided into two parts.
The first part starts with a slow introduction, which presents the basic thematic material of the whole Symphony, and where the extra brass players, placed to one side of the orchestra, have fanfare flourishes, which I hope are appropriate in a work dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen.

There follows an allegro proper, with the ghost of traditional sonata form, with an exposition, then a development section where material is systematically transformed by interval and rhythmic unit bending, rather than by the usual modulatory Austro-Germanic processes suitable to a more traditionally tonal work. (The work is tonal, but with modal inflections reminiscent of early music – for instance, there are substitute dominants, as in medieval plainsong, and the harmony does not always work from the bass upwards through the texture, but often above and below a tenor or ‘holding’ part, in any register, as in the thirteenth century polyphony.)

The brass sextet interrupts the ‘allegro’ with strident military-style marches (in my mind the equivalent of the church side chapels) with scant respect for its style. This bears no disrespect for military music or bands as such – which, as Master of the Queen’s Music I have come to know well and love – but it presented an opportunity to bear witness, in purely musical terms, to what I can only consider, at the deepest and most heartfelt level, our disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – comparable only to the folly of the medieval crusades and the Crimean War. (Having been bombed in the 1941 blitz, and witnessed people on fire running up the street, and having seen bodies dug out of the rubble, I feel that such treatment should not be unleashed on any population without the most compelling reasons, nor on our own military forces; while being not pacifist as such, it must be at least a part of a composer’s task to bear witness, as honestly as possible).
In the second, slow half of the work, the brass sextet integrates more into the orchestral texture, and the ‘chapel’ interruptions, while still contrasting, particularly in terms of speed, are ever more reconciliatory.

Very concerned that the Symphony should not end negatively, as so often I looked to Joseph Haydn for inspiration and guidance. I remembered his String Quartet op. 54 No. 2, particularly relevant with, like this work, a slow movement finale – anticipating Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Fragments of this quartet begin to appear – one of the ‘side chapels’ even consisting of a reworking of the Trio of Haydn’s third movement, and the mood changes to a cautious optimism.

While I feel it would be somehow morally indefensible to give this work a triumphant tonal ending, what happens is as positive as I could make it: the slow introduction returns, with even more ebullient fanfares, and all the diverse elements come together in a full-throated imploration for peace, reconciliation and a true democracy, even in quite difficult circumstances.

I am delighted the Symphony is receiving its first performance in Liverpool by the Philharmonic; I have always loved and admired Liverpool, and have fond memories of concerts conducted by Hugo Rignold in my student years, and, more recently, by Sir Charles Groves.

© Peter Maxwell Davies, 2012.