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A reissue to celebrate the coming 80th birthday of Peter Maxwell Davies

Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

The English composer (and Master of the Queen’s Music) Peter Maxwell Davies was born on September 8, 1934. That means that he will be celebrating his 80th birthday in less than two months. It therefore seems appropriate to reproduce the following tidbit from his Wikipedia page:

At age four, after being taken to a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers, he told his parents that he was going to be a composer.

(Wikipedia gives a specific BBC Radio broadcast as the source for this item.) I lead with this observation not so much to glorify juvenilia as to observe that Maxwell Davies’ first significant encounter with music took place in a theater, rather than a concert hall. This may explain why so many of his compositions, even some which might normally be taken simply as “chamber music,” include theatrical elements as part of the performance.

Regular readers of this site also know that, over the past several years, Naxos has been reissuing many of the recordings of Maxwell Davies conducting his own compositions that were originally released on Collins Classics. These include both the full cycle of his “Strathclyde” concertos and his symphonies. Given his personal history, it therefore seems appropriate that the most recent of these reissues is a theater piece, the chamber operaThe Lighthouse” that Maxwell Davies composed in 1979.

In the articles I wrote about Maxwell Davies’ symphonies, I kept returning to the concept of what I called “landscape rhetoric.” The basic idea is that Maxwell Davies used both sonorities and rhetorical devices for his instrumental resources to capture his own impressions of the physical environment in which he did most of his composing, his seaside dwelling in Orkney, an archipelago located just north of the northernmost tip of the Scottish mainland. One might say that the symphonies depict nature unimpeded by any human intrusion.

In contrast “The Lighthouse” is explicitly about such an intrusion. Here, again, we can turn to Wikipedia for a useful summary of the plot for this opera:

The scenario was inspired by a true story. In December 1900 a lighthouse supply ship called the Hesperus, based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The lighthouse was empty - all three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order, but the men had disappeared into thin air. The composer has taken liberties, and changed the name of the lighthouse to Fladda, this being not a usual name in the Western Isles of Scotland, to avoid offence or distress to any relatives of those concerned in the original incident.

The opera is structured as a prologue followed by a single act. The title of the prologue is “The Court of Enquiry;” and the text is based on the testimony given by three of the officers on that supply ship when they encountered the deserted lighthouse. This, in itself, involves a clever bit of theatrics. The roles of the officers are sung by a tenor (Neil Mackie), baritone (Christopher Keyte), and bass (Ian Comboy). However, their voices are the only ones we hear. All questions put to them are taken by a solo horn. (When I saw this opera staged by Jack O’Brien in San Diego, the horn player sat in the balcony. This meant that the sailors could face the audience as if they were facing the officers of the court.) The prologue is then followed by the single act, which speculates on what happened with the three vocalists now taking the roles of the three lighthouse keepers (Sandy, Blazes, and Arthur, in descending order of vocal range).

The title of this act is “The Cry of the Beast.” Over the course of the act, we become acquainted with the character flaws of each of the three keepers. Maxwell Davies gives each of them a song that reveals those flaws, not only through the words but also through his unerring ear for the connotative power of instrumental sonorities. The “Beast” itself is a ghostly embodiment of the past sins of all of the keepers come to take vengeance. The nature of that vengeance is left for the audience to decide, since all that is known for sure is that the keepers disappeared from their lighthouse.

Instrumental support for the three vocalists is provided by members of the BBC Philharmonic; and, as with past recordings, Maxwell Davies is the conductor. Having seen staged performances of several of his works, I have to confess that even the best auditory experience cannot compensate for the absence of the theatrical. Nevertheless, as a conductor Maxwell Davies has a keen sense of evoking the dramatic connotations that reside in the music itself. This is a recording that will probably inspire curiosity among those who have not seen the opera staged and revive salient memories among those who have.

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