Hey, guess who’s moving to England! Spoiler alert: it’s me! I’m going to be the new librarian (well, “Head of Learning Resources”) at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. And I’m super looking forward to it. Okay, sure, I’m a bit nervous, but I’m mostly excited. It will be a chance to combine my enjoyment of music librarianship with a person-facing role, which I think will be great.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve very much enjoyed working at the National Library on their Music Retroconversion Project. I’ve learned so much about music librarianship and cataloguing and libraries. And it’s been fun to work on a project that has a definite endpoint and final product. I was also given the opportunity to write three blog posts about the project for the National Library’s Blog – which was really cool. However, I did miss getting to interact with library patrons – they make every day different and I like helping people find what they’re looking for.
Moreover, working in a music school library has kinda been a background totally-never-gonna-happen-fantasy dream for me since university.
When I was studying my ILS Masters at the University of Strathclyde, we were assigned to create “schema” (i.e. different models of organising knowledge) for a set of 10 items. I chose a collection of showtunes for solo voice with piano accompaniment, and arranged them in ways that would best suit a hypothetical Musical Theatre School Library. It was one of my favourite assignments because, aside from the obvious perk of working with showtunes for uni credits, I found it really interesting to think about what information would be needed by the school pupils if they were looking for audition pieces. I enjoyed the problem solving aspect of arranging my schemas to suit that. Things like key, range, time-signature, tempo, voice type, number of bars, etc. didn’t obviously fit into the standard bibliographic categories, so I chose models that gave me the freedom to customise.
This was the first spark that made me think it would be really cool to work in a music school library, but I didn’t seriously think that could happen, since there are very few such jobs in the country. Therefore, imagine my delight when JUST as my National Library contract was coming to an end, the position at Chetham’s School of Music was advertised!
So, obviously I applied and was pleased when I progressed to the interview stage. I travelled to Manchester by train for the interview, and it was my first visit to Manchester ever. I was so excited. I went down the day before and stayed at a nearby Travelodge. That evening I had a sausage supper from the local chip shop, and the staff there were super friendly and wished me luck for my interview. I completed the interview while wearing a mask (which was definitely an experience). And the people at Chetham’s were all very lovely and the school was this really pretty castle-like building in the centre of Manchester. What’s more, the school shares a site with Chetham’s Library, the oldest free public reference library in the English-speaking world. I didn’t get the opportunity to visit it because it’s currently closed, but I will at some point because it looks just like something out of a fantasy story. I’m sure there’s all kinds of magical tomes and cursed writings and probably a ghost or ten hiding among the stacks!
Anyway, shortish story shorter, the people at Chetham’s School liked me and offered me the position and I start in November! How utterly, awesomely, amazingly super is that?!! Yay!
I was Anti-Rickrolled by a catalogue card today! In case you don’t know, Rickrolling was a trend few years ago, where a person’s expectations of seeing a funny, cute, interesting, exciting, etc. video were subverted by the video instead turning out to be a clip of Rick Astley singing the song Never Gonna Give You Up. The internet is weird.
So, anyway, in my job as Junior Editor on the National Library of Scotland’s Music Retroconversion Project, I review hundreds of music records each day, against scanned images of the original catalogue cards, to check they are correct to go into the online catalogue.
The batch I am working on right now initially shows the front of the card with the title, performer and shelfmark of the music record, then you click to see the back of the card, which displays a list of song titles.
Imagine my excitement when one of the cards I was reviewing was a Rick Astley album! I even said out loud to no-one, “Oh my gosh, am I actually going to get Rickrolled by a catalogue card?!”
My somewhat-unjustified elation was cut short when I clicked to see the back of the card – and the song wasn’t there. There was a whole bunch of different Rick Astley songs that I’d never heard of, but not the famous one! Not the one that was used to subvert, annoy and prank expectations. And thus, by not having the song on the record as I’d been anticipating, I was if anything MORE Rickrolled that I’d have been otherwise.
It’s the fourth of May – do you all know what that means? It’s Star Wars day! I first got into Star Wars when I started university ten years ago and, although I’ll never be as keen as most of my friends are, I enjoy it quite a lot. I’ve seen eight of the films, some of the Ewok TV show and about 15 minutes of the Star Wars Holiday special. I also own a teddy Ewok – because I found the idea of a teddy of a teddy alien delightful! And now that Calum and I have purchased a Disney+ subscription together, I think we are in store for several Mandalorian evenings! (Ooh, Star Wars themed Mandalorian evening… that is an idea I can get behind!)
Anyway, I want to share with you a display I created while I was still working at Milngavie Library. Here’s a bit of background: Milngavie Library has a LOT of Star Wars books. Fiction, non-fiction, adult, junior – from the hard in-depth The Military Science of Star Wars to a Lego Star Wars boardbook for tiny children Stories from the Galaxy. We have trashy paperback novel spin-offs, fancy hardback novel spin-offs, graphic novels for all ages, huge art books filled with beautiful screenshots or intricate spaceship designs… I counted fifty-seven Star Wars books for adults and a quick search of the catalogue just now returned 107 titles about or relating to Star Wars. You get the idea. The point is, we had a lot of Star Wars books, and I wanted to make the readers aware of this. So I created a display. This was around Christmas time, so it lined up perfectly with the release of Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker.
And I went full out! (Well, as full out as you can get on a zero-money, limited-timescale budget.) I papered the display in black and covered it with a string of Christmas lights to look like stars. I printed and laminated a bunch of stills from the films (with maybe a slight partiality to baby Yoda memes). I also printed, cut out and laminated a few pictures of the space ships used in the show, including a Death Star, the Millennium Falcon and “some kind of Jedi Starfighter” (Calum P. Cameron, 2020) that at the time I had thought was an X-wing. I hung these from an awning that I’d created to shield the Christmas tree lights from the bright surroundings and make them show up more.
One of my library colleague lent me his toy lightsaber (that actually lights up if you press it) for the display – which was a huge success, particularly among the children. I wrote a very corny piece of text to act as the library themed opening scroll text and one of my other colleagues showed me how to prop it up on a pair of Christmas wrapper tubes, that I’d marker-penned black, so that the text appeared to be getting further away:
A long time ago in a library far, far away… Episode 4 May 2020 THE LIBRARY JEDI The new Star Wars movie is about to be released in cinemas and our REBEL LIBRARIANS have compiled a display of some of the Star Wars books carried by MILNGAVIE LIBRARY. It is up to you, the MILNGAVIE ALLIANCE, to circulate the books and bring the enjoyment of Star Wars to people across the galaxy. But bring the books back on time, or Vader will get you…..
I also cadged some black paint from the children’s afterschool club that meets in the same community centre. With permission, I painted one of the children’s librarian’s papier-mâché golden eggs black, and once it had dried, I used her gold sharpie to make Death Star markings. (I utterly destroyed the pen, but purchased a replacement from the local Tesco before anyone noticed!) This papier-mâché Death Star was too heavy for the wool that I used to hang the laminations with, but one of my colleagues found a black pipe-cleaner that I was able to use instead – and it worked perfectly! The display now had two Death Stars, but so did the Empire, so I felt it was appropriate.
It was a really fun display to make, and plenty of my colleagues and other people who worked in the community centre got involved. Although the display had to exclusively feature the adult Star Wars books, since it was set up in the adult library, it was right across from the door, so everyone could see it when they entered. Lots of children really enjoyed it, as did parents – and even some childless adults were into it. I don’t know what it did for the Star Wars book circulation numbers, but it contributed to the library being a fun place to be in for a few months. So I’d say it worked well!
The lyrics to Schubert’s lied, Der Zwerg (1822), are taken from a Romantic ballad written by Matthäus von Collin. Although the music is undoubtedly powerful, the story of the failed romance between a lady and a dwarf is somewhat more suspect…
Opening rhythm, which also appears in his ‘Unfinished’ symphony, was often used by Schubert to symbolise erotic undertones.
Huh, it’s like the nineteenth-century equivalent of a trigger warning. How considerate.
‘In the grey light the mountains already fade away; the ship drifts on the sea’s smooth swell.’
Ahem… “swell”? I take your ‘erotic undertones’ and expose them to the world!
‘On board, the queen sails with her dwarf.’
What, like, her pet dwarf? That’s disturbing.
‘She gazes up at the high curving vault, at the far blue distance, woven with strands of light, crossed by the pale band of the milky way.’
That’s poetic. I mean, obviously it’s poetic – it’s a poem. But still, I appreciate the colourful word-painting.
‘She cries out: “Never yet have you lied to me, stars. Soon I shall depart. You tell me so. In truth, I’ll gladly die.”‘
ASTROLOGY™, leading gullible young lovers to their deaths since the tragedies of Ancient Greece.
‘The dwarf steps towards the queen, to tie the red silk cord about her neck; and weeps, as though he meant to blind himself with grief.’
A red silk cord, huh? And I thought the nineteenth century was meant to be all sexually repressed and stuff…
‘He speaks: “You yourself are to blame for this wrong, because you have forsaken me for the king. Now only your death can kindle joy in me…’
Hey, mister unnamed dwarf, quit victim-blaming and go see a psychiatrist. These feelings are not normal.
‘… I grant that I shall hate myself for ever, because I have brought about your death with this my own hand; still must you pale before your early grave.”‘
Well, if you’ll hate yourself forever, don’t frickin’ murder the woman you lust after. Jeez, it’s not that difficult to just, y’know, NOT kill a person.
‘She lays her hand on her young heart, and the heavy tears run down from her eyes, which she would raise to heaven in prayer.’
See what you’re doing, unnamed dwarf dude? Is there nothing in your head telling you this might be a bad idea? You don’t HAVE to kill her, you know. Ignore the stars! Change your destiny! Live a little!
‘”May you reap no anguish from my death,” she says.’
…What are you doing, lady?! You should be fighting back! You don’t HAVE to die, you know. Ignore the stars! Change your destiny! Live a little!
‘Then the dwarf kisses her pale cheeks, and forthwith her senses fail.’
You are both terrible, terrible people. The dwarf because he murders his lover; the lady because she is literally too dumb to live.
‘Bemused by death the dwarf gazes upon the lady, and with his own hands commits her to the deep.’
I’m not sure bemusement is the appropriate emotion right now, unnamed dwarf dude. Don’t tell me you didn’t realise what would happen if you strangled a girl to death? ‘Cause that’s super unprepared even for a Byronic villain like yourself.
‘His heart burns with longing for her.’
Well, then he shouldn’t have murdered her, should he?
‘He will never more set foot on any shore.’
So wait, he kills the girl he fancies so that he’ll finally be happy but then kills himself anyway? What’s the point in that?! Dude, you could have just killed yourself in the first place – without murdering your ex-lover – and you’d be no worse off (and the kid you’re attracted to would be considerably better off). What the heck is wrong with you?!
End of lied.
Seriously, WHY does Romantic poetry so seldom contain any characters with basic common sense?! It is unbelievably infuriating!
Moral of the story: obsession with another human being will turn you into a crazy murderer?
BETTER MORAL OF THE STORY: If ever find yourself in the role of a lover in a Romantic tragedy, avoid looking at the sky. Astrology can kill.
I was very pleased and excited to have been awarded a bursary to attend the International Association of Music Library (IAML)’s 2019 Annual Study weekend, which took place back in April. The report that I wrote about the experience is here, so please do check that out. As always, I never want to JUST plug my writing on other sites here, and like adding something extra to this blog when I do shamelessly promote myself. So, for that reason, please enjoy this rundown of all the awesome foodstuffs provided at the conference. Firstly, look at the quaint pick-n-mix that was made available. The sweets were in little flowerpots and the bags were tiny paper cones. How adorable is that?
There was also a rainbow cake to celebrate 20 years of the Cecilia database, which contains information about all of the different music collections in the UK and Ireland. It’s a potentially really helpful tool, that I’m hoping might assist me in my future job searching. And the cake was really lovely – it tasted like vanilla.
I did not get a picture of any of the conference dinners or lunches that were provided. But they were pretty nice, too. I did learn very quickly, after the first night, that, as a fussy eater who doesn’t like to eat slabs of meat, I was better to request the vegetarian option. It meant I got to eat a wide variety of different risottos, and there was a very nice (if a little hard to cut) chocolate tart at the fancy conference dinner party.
I got a little nervous when it came to the dinner party. Everyone was beautifully dressed up, and I didn’t have anything special to wear (and I also wasn’t sure whether the bursary had provided for the dinner, so that was also a little stressful before it was sorted out). Everything turned out fine, though. And one of the waiters joked that I was very posh for drinking the Bottlegreen Elderflower Cordial with (gasp) sparkling water!
Although I don’t drink alcohol, I was quite proud of myself for being sociable in the bar at the end of each day. It was a little noisy, but I really enjoyed talking to the music librarians, who were all really nice and friendly. I did stay up quite late both evenings, so I was super tired from all the excitement and socialising. It was quite nice to have a little break when everyone was getting ready for the dinner party.
The staff were also really nice and let me take some of the complimentary berry teabags to my hotel room. It was really relaxing to unwind in the early hours of the morning, watching Poirot with my fruit tea before going to sleep.
All in all, it was an awesome conference and the food was generally really nice. But for my proper thoughts on the conference from a music librarianship perspective, do check out the report I wrote for IAML.
Gosh, is it Piano Day again, already? Last year, I celebrated with this post about joining the Henry Ford Band. So much has happened since then!
I played keyboard with the Henry Ford Band, and they’ve released their album on Spotify, Amazon and iTunes! My acquaintance with the bassist then led to my being asked to play the piano for Carla and Seana’s art exhibition at Glasgow Skypark, which I really enjoyed and wrote about.
I’ve written four dance reviews with Bachtrack, and honed my skills at writing reviews that are less enthusiastically complimentary that many of my others. I do find writing negative reviews harder because I don’t like being mean, but I think it’s important to be able to critique constructively, so it’s a good skill to have practised. I don’t think I’m alone; I’m sure it’s a common challenge for many critics who value being fair and genuine.
I finally got around to actually sitting (and passing) the ABRSM Grade 8 piano exam, which makes applying for certain jobs considerably easier. Plus, it’s nice to have the official certificate – it’s very pretty!
I also went on a one-day course at the National Library, where I learned a bit about how the Library is organised and the features it offers. I saw all sorts of old manuscripts, including some medieval choir books, in which the monks had drawn funny faces to amuse the altar boys during long services. I also read some very cute correspondences between author Muriel Spark and her artist friend, Penelope Jardine. These two were such avid fans of a British TV soap drama that, whenever one of them had to miss an episode, the other would write a detailed description of the programme, including describing the advert breaks!
I’ve been back at university doing a Masters in Information and Library Studies (yesterday was the last day of teaching), and it’s been absolutely fantastic. I’ve made many new friends, learned all sorts of skills, and become a better person. Yesterday, as a fun, last-day exercise, we were asked to take what we’d learned from the course and, in groups, create a design for a library, assuming we had unlimited resources. My group decided to create the University of Mars Academic Library. It included anti-gravity elevators, a virtual reality holodeck, vacuum partitions to block sound waves and allow for quieter study areas, book-retrieval drones, lots of plant life for oxygenation and a scream-into-the-void balcony for finals week! It was a super fun activity, and I’m a little sad that the course is practically over (except a few final submissions and the summer dissertation).
As part of my Masters, I also completed a placement in the Music Library at the Edinburgh Central Library, where I was reclassifying their collection to follow Library of Congress subject fields. It was really fun, and I got the opportunity to attend a staff meeting and design a display for International Women’s Day. The reclassification project is very time consuming, and it wasn’t possible for me to do the full collection within my eleven-week placement. But, excitingly, they have agreed to keep me on to continue the project, so I get to continue gaining Music Library experience, which is totally awesome!
It seems a little surreal how many amazing experiences a single year can offer. I am excited to discover what the next year holds!
When I was studying for my BMus at the University of Aberdeen, I wrote this essay on Peter Maxwell Davies’s music. I quite like it; I hope you do as well.
The compositions of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies have been very influenced by his feelings towards the musical establishment of the time. At university he went out of his way to learn about music that was not taught in lectures and as a younger composer he used modernism and the avant-garde to rail against the snobbery of the musical elite. As he got older and gained more renown as a composer, his musical style shifted into more universally accessible territory and from 1970 onwards he was greatly influenced by the culture of Orkney and the music of Sibelius.
Combining Medieval/Renaissance Music with Modernism/Serialism
Peter Maxwell Davies read music at Manchester University from 1952 to 1957, and while he was there he developed an interest in music that was not on the syllabus. In his own time, he studied renaissance and medieval polyphony, for which he had a particular fascination, and he also shared an enthusiasm for the new music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg with some his university classmates, though many of his peers and lecturers were more dismissive of the new forms. He wrote several pieces during his time at university that utilised his understanding of new music. The Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, Op. 1, followed the classical serial forms more closely than anything that Davies would write after it; and the set of Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 2, contains polyphonic passages that indicate influence from the sonatas of Schoenberg and Boulez, and its distinct rhythmic cells draw inspiration from Messiaen and Indian music. Much of Davies’s familiarity with serial music, however, comes from his studies in mainland Europe and the influence of the compositions of Luigi Nono and, less directly, Berg and Mahler.
Alma Redemptoris Mater, also written while Davies was at university, was the first of his published compositions to integrate material from a medieval source. Paul Griffiths and other musicologists have conjectured that the work is based on a motet written by John Dunstable, and David Roberts, although he regards that interpretation as too derivative, has demonstrated how the oboe section from the third movement comes from the Sarum plainchant antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater. The notes of the oboe line are a quotation of the pitch classes used for the word ‘Alma’ in the Sarum antiphon, with the first three pitch classes of the antiphon being restated at the end of the oboe line, as can be seen in Figures 1 and 2.
Although Roberts would disagree, Griffiths also cites the structure of Davies’s Alma Redemptoris Mater as following that of Dunstable’s motet 40 and argues that the form of the cantus firmus in Davies’s presto mirrors the duo in the motet. But regardless of whether Alma Redemptoris Mater was based on Dunstable, the medieval influences are indisputably very much present in the work, and in this regard it can be viewed as the precursor of other more substantial works of Davies’s early career,  such as the opera Taverner and the ‘motet for orchestra’ Worldes Blis, which is an avant-garde work based on an English song from the thirteenth century. Davies continued to nurture his love of old and new music and a great deal of his compositional technique brings together and combines medieval chant-like melodies with post-tonal expressionism.
The avant-garde (up to 1970)
Peter Maxwell Davies was from a northern working-class background and as a young man he was appalled by the backwards snobbery of the British music scene. His avant-garde compositions of the 1960s were often used to ridicule the music establishment of the time.
Eight Songs for a Mad King
The titular mad king in Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King is based on George III, who experienced raving fits in the years after the American Revolution. It was said that George III would spend days on end at his organ teaching his birds to sing. In a parody of the ‘mad scene’ staple of opera, Eight Songs for a Mad King features the singer who plays the king running frenetically between the players – a flautist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist – who are performing from inside big plastic birdcages. It is an uncomfortable work, placing the audience in the role of voyeurs and forcing them to confront their macabre fascination with the grotesque portrayal of the mentally ill.
In Eight Songs for a Mad King, Davies used quotation, directly borrowing and reworking the music of other highly regarded composers, in order to deride the primarily middle- and upper-class audiences. The seventh song in the work, ‘Country Dance’, places Handel’s Messiah as the butt of the joke. The opening tenor recitative of Handel’s composition ‘Comfort Ye, My People’ has become a farce, with the lyrics being set against discordant musical lines. There is even a direction in the midst of the opening passage that instructs the music to be sung ‘like a horse’.
This work was written for The Pierrot Players, a group of virtuoso performers that Davies had set up with his university friend, Harrison Birtwistle. Being more familiar with the abilities of this small group of talented musicians allowed Davies to write music that was more challenging than would generally be expected. The vocal requirement for the King is particularly demanding, with complex gibbering and a range extending to over five octaves. The percussionist, not placed in a cage, has a wide variety of instruments to play, including some unconventional ones: a digeridoo, an anvil, a scrubbing board, a football rattle and toys that make bird noises.
Another avant-garde work written for The Pierrot Players was Vesalii Icones. This group of fourteen dances, each named after one of the fourteen stages of Jesus Christ on the Cross, was composed in 1969, the same year as Eight Songs for a Mad King, and like Mad King it uses parody and quotation to mock the musical styles of the elite. But, more significantly, it also targets the insincere, sanctimonious religious practices of the Christian Church. This is clear from the offset, as the work features a naked dancer and a cellist dressed as a choirboy as the soloists.
Davies has stated that he views the Victorian practice of sanitising hymns, and religious material in general, “almost the ultimate blasphemy,” so Vesalli Icones contains irreverent imitations of the offending musical style. In the sixth dance of the work, entitled ‘The Mocking of Christ’, a mangled nineteenth-century hymn is played on an out-of-tune piano by the naked dancer, and it contains clumsy doubling of harmonies and clunky, heavy fingering that mimics an amateur player fudging the accompaniment. Meanwhile, the second number, ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, includes a “sickly sweet”, sycophantic melody of feigned adoration.
This subject of the betrayal of Christ runs throughout the work, and Davies borrows from some of his earlier compositions that deal with this theme: Missa Super l’Homme Armé and Ecce Manus Tardentis. The former of these pieces was based on a fifteenth-century mass, which, in turn had derived from the medieval song, l’Homme Armé. This indicates that even Davies’s most experimental compositions were affected by his interest in early music. Portions of the earlier compositions occur in various forms throughout Vesalli Icones, and both can be heard in the eighth number, ‘St. Veronica Wipes His Face’. The l’Homme Armé is played by the live instruments while a tape recording of Ecce Manus Tardentis is collaged over the top of it. It seems likely that this crackly tape, which ends up taking over from the live performers, represents the fact that bad recordings cheapen the sublimity of religious music.
The final number of Vesalli Icones changes the original ending of the Passion story. In Davies’s version, it is not Christ who rises from the tomb, but an indistinguishable copy: the Antichrist. Both the Antichrist figure and the foxtrot that he dances were typical features in Davies’s compositions around that time. Playing with the foxtrot style gave Davies the opportunity to expose the “fake nostalgia” for the declining music genre, and he used it to symbolise hedonistic corruption in several of his other compositions, including a pair of arrangements of music by Purcell, and his popular modernist piece St. Thomas Wake. The figure of the Antichrist occurs again in a few of his later operas, Resurrection and, the next work that will be discussed here, Taverner. 
The opera Taverner is based on Edward Fellowes’s inaccurate account of Taverner’s life in which the renaissance composer converts to Protestantism and becomes a religious zealot, denouncing all of his previous musical creations. It was completed in 1970, having taken 14 years to write.
Davies incorporates material from some of his earlier compositions into Taverner. The opening three-note motif of his trumpet sonata, op. 1, is employed as the first idea in Act 1 of the opera and Davies even went so far as to compose two fantasias on Taverner, and a later chamber work named Seven In Nomine, which allowed him to ruminate on and experiment with the musical material that would be moulded for the full opera. These three compositions hold up as works in their own right, despite containing a lot of the same material as the opera. For example, the precursor works all feature a chord with the notes D – F# – E – G#, which went on to be used in the leitmotif for the court jester who appears as a symbol of death in Taverner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chord became known as the Death Chord.
In Taverner, Davies uses the full orchestra to resemble the titular character’s thought patterns, perhaps implying that in renouncing all music Taverner is fighting against his own nature. Indeed, the difference between the orchestral writing in the two acts is striking. Where the orchestra was smooth and melodic in the opening of Act I, when Taverner is still a Catholic composer, the same musical material is sped up, simplified and more percussive for the start of Act II, which takes place after Taverner’s conversion to Protestantism. The process of Taverner’s transition begins in the final scene of Act I, and the orchestra is used again to reflect the intensity of Taverner’s different thoughts. In particular, the orchestral accompaniment becomes very sparse in sections when Taverner doubts himself, as if to show that his doubts are less fierce than his convictions.
The connection between the orchestra and Taverner’s inner thought pattern is emphasised in Act I, Scene 3. Taverner is not present so the orchestra falls silent leaving only a few viols and a lute to accompany the singers. The use of period instruments here is just one of the ways Davies links his music to the era that the opera is set in. The music for this scene, which takes place at the Royal Court, combines Davies’s own harmonies with elements from dances that would have been common amongst the upper classes at the time, the pavane and the galliard. Much of the music in the opera comes from reworking music written by Taverner himself. The renaissance composer’s In Nomine appears in various forms, building up to be revealed in a recognisable format at the end of the opera. Even the libretto, written by Davies himself, primarily consists of spliced together quotations from diaries, sermons, biographies, court records of heresy trials, and other documents from Taverner’s time.
The more classical composer (from 1970 onwards)
The year Taverner was completed, 1970, was a pivotal year for Davies with regards to his compositional process. Richard Taruskin has argued that the lukewarm reception of audiences towards his more outlandish pieces prompted Davies to turn away from the avant-garde in favour of a more classical music style, positing that Davies completely cut himself off from the modernist movement in frustration because his compositions failed to shock audiences the way he intended. While there is undoubtedly a general trend towards Davies becoming a more traditional composer, Taruskin’s narrative seems like an oversimplification. Both Vesalii Icones and Eight Songs for a Mad King had received mixed receptions, and while half of the audience were appalled, the other half was ecstatic. Likewise, although Worldes Blis had been met with angry reviews,St. Thomas Wake, which included several pastiches of foxtrots that made the work more accessible, was one of Davies’s most popular compositions at the time.
What’s more, Davies did actually write some modernist music after 1970, and the trend towards a classical style seems to have been a gradual one. 1975 saw the completion of Ave Maris Stella, a considerably less pioneering piece than some of the works mentioned previously, but which used a serial-like technique to ascribe each of the notes of a plainsong hymn to a number in a ‘magic square,’ which Davies then transformed into a nine-pitch series that was expanded into nine movements for this piece. Similarly, his short avant-garde opera, Resurrection, was completed significantly later in 1987. It features a child (played by a dummy) with an exploding head, a cat that transforms into a dragon with rock music accompaniment, the onstage removal of the child-mannequin’s brain, heart and genitals, a staged shooting of members of the audience, and the non-sequitur appearance of the Antichrist, who rises dramatically from a tomb at the close of the opera amidst a flashing disco light show. This is hardly the type of production that would be expected from a man who had completely turned his back on modernism seventeen years previously. However, Warnaby suggests that Resurrection was, in fact, the point in Davies’s compositional progression where “the fractured manner of the 1960s had been exorcized.”
1970 was also the year when Davies left his secluded cottage in Dorset and moved to an even more secluded home on the isle of Hoy in Orkney. The rustic landscape and local legends and literature had a profound effect on his compositions. He wrote several lyrical piano works inspired by places in and around Orkney, including Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground; his Orkney Saga, based on a series of tapestries in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, utilises the twelfth-century Hymn to St Magnus; and the narrative orchestral work Reel of Seven Fishermen was inspired by a George Mackay Brown poem about the dangers of the sea. As well as being inspired by the Orcadian geography and culture, Davies became very involved in the local community. He was part of the group that formed the St Magnus Festival, and wrote music, which often included local references, for school children and choirs to perform.
This was also the point where his music really entered the public’s favour and Davies received an increased number of commissions for his compositions. This meant that he was being paid to write music that would appeal to a wide audience.
From Berg to Sibelius
Davies’s compositional style has been affected by his writing for specific performers. Having worked with Mary Thomas, her virtuosic vocals shine through in many of Davies’s compositions for solo soprano and Alan Hacker’s primal sharpness on the clarinet can be heard in pieces like Hymnos (1967). In the later portion of his career, the similarities between Davies’s and Berg’s compositions dwindled, but in its place Davies’s work grew to be closer in style to that of Sibelius, who Davies has acknowledged was an influence on his writing.
The influence of Sibelius can be seen in how Davies’s approach to classical structures in his symphonies has developed over time. His earlier symphonies are much closer in form to classical symphonies than some of his later ones. They contain distinct, if ghostly, movements. The movements of the more recent symphonies blend together, one movement moving into the next, and the overall macrostructure of the work takes a larger role. Placing a greater emphasis on the overall shape of the work allowed Davies to discretely introduce the material of the upcoming movement early on, and the piece is always preparing for the arrival of the next part before the previous part has properly departed. This creates a ‘smudging’ effect as the movements flow into each other.
This idea of the architecture of a piece was nothing new for Davies. The importance he placed on the overall form of a work can be traced back to his university days and the early piano works that he wrote during that time, however his symphonies naturally demonstrate a more mature approach, and the blending technique was developed through the increased exposure to Sibelius.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s compositional style has always been affected by the attitudes of the contemporary music scene, whether that be to work with them or fight against them. In his early career he was a bit of a rebel, writing parodies and quotations that poked fun at the highbrow elitism prevalent in the music scene at the time. At university he had studied medieval polyphony and serial modernism of his own accord, even although the formal opinion of the time was that these styles were not important enough to be taught in detail. His interest in these genres has had a huge impact on his compositions throughout his musical career and he used his modernist, avant-garde compositional style to confront and explore the social, religious and ethical issues that he found important. As he matured as a composer he gained more of a public backing and his compositions gradually moved towards a more classical, lyrically pleasing style. The influence of composers like Sibelius became more apparent and after his move to Orkney his involvement with the local Orcadian culture was reflected in his compositional output.
Davies is a much more complex composer than might be ascertained if his most recent output were to be viewed in isolation; he has gone through the hot-headed rebellion stage and come out of it with a greater appreciation for the more classic aspects of music. Some of his earliest ideas about musical form, such as the importance of the overall architecture of a piece, have remained with him throughout his career while other compositional techniques, like using lewdness and sensationalism to provoke an audience into giving a reaction, have been left behind. That is not meant to undermine the music he produced as a younger man, much of which was extremely thoughtful and worthwhile, rather to define the transition from young revolutionary to respected classicist. The latter could not have existed without the former, and in both stages, Davies created interesting, important and aesthetically pleasing music. Read More »
I was recently invited to play the piano for an art exhibition at Skypark business centre in Glasgow! How did it happen? Well…
If you remember, a wee while ago, I played keyboard for the Milngavie-based Henry Ford Band on their debut album, The Angry Young Man. That album’s available to listen to on Spotify, by the way, and to purchase on iTunes and Amazon music. At some point I believe there will be a CD released, although I’ve yet to hear further details about this.
Anyway, a couple of local artists, Carla Faulkner and Seana Doherty, were looking for a pianist to play a baby grand piano at the opening of their new exhibition and Geoff Foord, the Henry Ford bassist, suggested that I might be interested, and gave them my details.
Happily, I was available that evening, and since the artists were perfectly willing to give me free rein choosing the music, I felt that this was a feasible task and amazing opportunity. I selected a collection of twenty-or-so Pamela Wedgwood pieces: mostly New Age, smooth jazz background music with a few more upbeat jazzy numbers thrown in, for contrast. They are all pieces I already knew and regularly play for fun, so didn’t require too much preparation, the most difficult being Grade 6 level.
The day (Thursday 31st Jan) arrived, and I was excited. After university finished for the day, I walked along to the Skypark – and, thanks to Google Maps, I only got lost once! The foyer was beautifully decorated with Carla and Seana’s artwork, and the baby grand was lovely. Having had less experience playing grand pianos than uprights, I always find I need to adjust my playing for them. The keys on grand pianos tend to have more resistance and the sound comes from further away, making the instrument trickier to play fast and it is slightly harder for me, as the player, to hear the music in a noisy area. But the grand piano also gives a fuller sound and (as another less relevant point in its favour) is easier to record because you just have to set up microphones at the holes in the soundboard.
I played for almost the entire three hours of the exhibition, with a ten-minute break midway though to warm up away from the door (it was snowing outside!) and eat one of the delicious cupcakes that were provided. Even although I knew the pieces well, playing in a public setting is very different from playing at home. I tried to retain my concentration, but kept getting distracted by the action in the room – it’s probably just psychological, but I felt that any time a person came over to view the pictures behind me, I had to concentrate more to avoid making mistakes. There were also some little children at the event who were excited by the piano, which was adorable!
I did discover that my playing stamina has deteriorated slightly since I finished practicing for piano exams. Where before I was able to play non-stop for five hours, on Thursday only playing for three was pretty much my limit. A couple of songs before the end, I was finding my eyes were struggling to focus on the music and when I got home I fell asleep almost instantly.
That said, even although the playing was intense, it was an amazing opportunity that I really enjoyed. I’ve always fancied the idea of playing background music; I love it when there’s a pianist at restaurants, it makes me want to join in! Having now had the opportunity to try it out, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the endurance of those players; but I’d also like to play in a similar setting again at some point. The event coordinator at Skypark did ask for my details, so we’ll see if anything comes of that, I guess.
All in all, the experience was super fun and a really great night. Thanks to Carla and Seana for inviting me, and to Geoff for advocating for me in the first place. I’ll leave you with a Pam Wedgwood piece I recorded earlier. Enjoy!