Archives for posts with tag: Peter Maxwell Davies


With James MacMillan’s Symphony No 4 just performed at the Proms, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of representative British symphonies composed over the past decade. I’ve listed one symphony per year and made it a rule that no composer can have more than one entry. The dates used refer to the premiere performance where possible or to the date of composition where the premiere took place a long time after the work was composed (or where there hasn’t yet been a concert performance).

As with all these things, this inevitably leads to some compromises – 2006 and 2011 were “famine years” as far as the symphony was concerned, whereas 2007 was crowded with new works. Omissions from the list include works by Ronald Stevenson and Giles Swayne (both 2007), and by Ronald Corp (2009) – not to mention just as notable alternative symphonies from the listed composers and many others by perhaps lesser known names, such as the highly prolific Derek Bourgeois, who has now written over 100 symphonies.

Excluding Bourgeois, there are over 50 symphonies on my full list that were composed or premiered between 2005 and 2015 – and I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed. Astonishingly, recordings are available for all but two of the eleven symphonies listed.

James MacMillan: Symphony No 4 (premiere 3 August 2015, BBC Proms). The Proms premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990 made MacMillan internationally known. The first symphony “Vigil” came out in 1997, followed by No 2 (for chamber orchestra) in 1999 and No 3 “Silence” in 2002. (Listen again).

Michael Nyman: Symphony No 11 “Hillsborough” (premiere 5 July 2014, Liverpool). Nyman recently began to plan a series of 19 symphonies, some of them re-using themes and material from earlier works. The first of these (starting at numbers 5 and 6) received their premieres in 2013. Recording: MN Records

David Owen Norris: Symphony (premiere 27 May 2013, Dorchester). David Owen Norris is better known as a pianist and broadcaster, but studied composition with Eric Thiman and John Gardner. The London premiere of his Symphony is on October 1 2015 at St Paul’s Covent Garden, where the Piano Concerto in C and a new choral work, Turning Points, will also be performed.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No 9 (premiere 9 June 2012, Liverpool). The first of Maxwell Davies’ cycle was composed in 1976 and premiered two years later. Numbers 7 and 8 were both composed in 2000. No 10 was first performed at the Barbican in February 2014. Recording: Youtube

Christopher Gunning: Symphony No 7 (composed 2011). Gunning studied with Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett, but became best known as a composer of film and TV music (such as La Vie en Rose and Poirot). His first symphony was composed in 2002. Most of them have been recorded. Recording: Discovery

David Matthews: Symphony No 7 (premiere 24 April 2010, Manchester). Matthews has written eight symphonies (between 1978 and 2014) with a ninth in the works. The sixth, his biggest, was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2007. Dutton is working on recordings of the full cycle. Recording: Dutton

Richard Causton: Chamber Symphony (premiere 16 October 2009, Birmingham). Causton’s breakthrough work was The Persistence of Memory for chamber orchestra in 1995. His Chamber Symphony uses a combination of live and pre-recorded music. Twenty-Seven Heavens, for large orchestra, premiered in 2012. Recording: NMC

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No 2 (premiere 15 June 2008, Sydenham). Sawyers studied with Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. He has been particularly successful in the US. Symphony No 1 appeared in 2004. A third symphony has been commissioned by the English Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Nimbus

John McCabe: Symphony No 7 “Labyrinth” (premiere 14 September 2007, Liverpool): McCabe, who died in 2015, wrote thirteen symphonies before he was eleven, but there are seven numbered symphonies in the official catalogue, the first composed in 1965. Recording: Youtube

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony No 6, op 124 (composed 2006, premiere 2009, St Petersburg). As well as the seven numbered symphonies (1956-2012), Butterworth wrote symphonic studies, concertos, brass band pieces and around 40 chamber works. The final symphony (No 7) had its premiere on 28 February 2012 in Huddersfield). Butterworth died in 2014.

Matthew Taylor: Symphony No 3 (premiere 7 January 2005, St John’s Smith Square). Taylor studied at Cambridge under Robin Holloway, and later with Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold. His largest body of work is chamber music, but he has also written five concertos and three symphonies, the first in 1985. A fourth symphony has been commissioned for 2015/16 by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Dutton


Fifty Modern Classics
: This was a formative work for me. I went with a friend to see a performance in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall while I was still at school (it must have been 1974 or 1975). I can’t remember who the soloist was, but I do remember that the clarinetist Alan Hacker was there, as was Mary Thomas, who performed Pierrot Lunaire at the same concert. I also recall that I found the whole thing very hard to take, but at the same time very exciting. My friend was bolder than I, and got us back stage afterwards where we met Maxwell Davies himself, who was very friendly and encouraging.

Eight Songs for a Mad King is a monodrama for baritone and six players with a libretto by Randolph Stow, based on the words of George III, whose illness was chronicled by (among others) Fanny Burney. The flute, clarinet, violin and cello represent the bullfinches that the King taught to sing, and in some performances they are placed in giant birdcages. The percussionist represents the King’s keeper. Just as Pierrot sings to the moon, the King’s dialogue is directed at the instrumentalists, and he is both inspired and frustrated by their responses. It’s humorous as well as haunting and sometimes shocking. The music is peppered with references and quotations from other music, particularly Handel, though there’s also some Birtwistle in there. The third movement – a dialogue with the flautist – is portrayed in the score in the shape of a birdcage (shown above), with the King’s line notated in the vertical bars and the flute part, representing the bullfinch, moving within and between them. The words are particularly poignant here as the King recalls how the young ladies of the court now fear him and keep away. “Madam, let us talk, I mean no harm, Only to remember”.

This is first of all music theatre, and even in performances where the theatre element is minimalized, there are two moments in particular where the drama takes over. In the seventh, “Country Dance”, the King begins with an explicit reference to The Messiah. “Comfort me, comfort me my people, with singing and with dancing”. The ensemble breaks into an off-kilter foxtrot, and the King reacts violently, grabbing the violin and smashing it. And at the very end of the piece, as the King contemplates his death, he runs from the stage with the percussionist following, beating time as the desperate words fade into the distance: “He will die howling, howling, howling…”. However “difficult” the music is perceived to be, it’s impossible not to be moved by the theatricality when it’s seen in live performance.