Commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra

  • 2+afl(pic).2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/4320/timp.5perc/cel/str
  • mezzo soprano, baritone
  • 53 min

Programme Note

The Black Pentecost is the coming of uranium mining, which was a threat to Orkney when the work was written. The text tells of the destruction of old ways of life, the eclipse of the human by the technological. Davies sets it as a gripping dramatic cantata which is also a four-movement symphony, with the songs for imperious baritone and lyrical mezzo-soprano linked by orchestral transitions. The work is a lament, and at the same time a fiercely argued protest.

Black Pentecost was written in 1979 in response to a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra for their 75th anniversary. However, when the work was finished, the commission was taken over by the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The text is taken from the novel Greenvoe by the Orcadian poet and novelist George Mackay Brown. This novel describes the disruption and destruction, physically and morally, of an island in Orkney, with its small population, when 'Operation Black Star' moves in. It was published in 1971, and was prophetic of the impact of the oil industry, and the more recent threat of uranium mining, although there was then not a whisper of either. 'Black Star' is never defined closely, but the parallels with uranium mining - the pollution, the destruction of land and homes, the official lies, meant to reassure everyone that it is all quite harmless - were close enough to warrant making this work into an impassioned plea by George Mackay Brown and myself for Orkney to be left green, and that its way of life be allowed to continue and develop without the mass evacuations, etc. which would be necessitated.

The Electricity Authorities who were pressing for permission to prospect for uranium - with the blessing of the Atomic Energy Authority - sent representatives to persuade the Islands Council, and were met with not only a well-informed meeting, which had provided itself with evidence of the uranium-mining environmental disasters in the United States, Australia and Sweden, but by a mass demonstration of all Orcadians who could possibly be present, who kept silent vigil outside the council offices. The Council refused their permission on the grounds that such a small land area as these islands would be incapable of containing such a development and that it would be fatal to the main (very successful) industry - farming (who would buy radioactive butter or lamb?); the Government reserves the right to overrule this decision in case of 'national emergency'. Apart from being possibly illegal (due to Orkney being part of an unredeemed dowry pledge, it is still technically Norwegian) the local population is obviously unanimously against such a development and is pledged to oppose it to the extent of refusing to unload the bulldozers, etc. at the quay, and lying in front of them should someone else be persuaded or forced to do it, and to find any methods at all to prevent such a disaster.

The work opens with a long orchestral movement combining double variation and sonata-form archetypes - which 'set the scene' - a personal interpretation of the land and seascape I have lived with over the last years.

After a full climax and a reflective transition, the second movement starts with the baritone's words 'Black Star, Operation Black Star, was how they described it', and later, describing the first pollution - 'On this particular day the burn was all khaki-coloured scum'.

The third movement follows without a break, a slow introduction leading into an almost scherzo-like section dealing with Bella Budge, one of the novel's characters, being forced to leave her home, and take a boat to Kirkwall, for the first time in her life, clutching Kitty, her favourite hen. 'At Kirkwall she was lifted ashore. She disappeared among a crowd of seamen and dockers and lorry drivers. There was one last diminished squawk from the region of the harbour office.' In a coda, we witness the bulldozing of her home, Biggings, the next day.

The fourth movement, a sequence of passacaglie (again following without a break) confronts Mansie, the farmer about to be dispossessed, with the Black Star official: 'Black Star is necessary for the welfare of the western world. The fate of nations. If you refuse, the matter is out of my hands.' The work ends with the last inhabitants leaving the island - 'Muffled hammer thuds from the heart of Korsfea echoed faintly across the Sound. A half finished dome gleamed out of the Bu's cornfield. They picked up their heavy cases, and turned away.'


Black Pentecost: I. Adagio - Allegro molto
Black Pentecost: II. Black Star, Operation Black Star was how they described it
Black Pentecost: III. Bella Budge presided over a diminishing republic of hens
Black Pentecost: IV. It is a pity that the whole life and economy of the island…


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