The Mystery of the Lighthouse
Celebrating 43 years since Max’s powerful chamber opera saw its premier
As summer draws to a close, we, at the Max Trust, wish to extend an invitation to explore a seminal work by Maxwell Davies, a piece that seamlessly combines elements of spectral narrative, mystery, and psychological intrigue. This September marks the 43rd anniversary of the world premiere of one of Max’s most performed works, his chamber opera 'The Lighthouse'.
Inspiration for the opera began with Craig Mair's literary work cantered around the Stevenson family of Edinburgh. It draws its origins from this factual narrative of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from a remote Scottish beacon in 1900, encapsulating the essence of their enigmatic disappearance.
The narrative unfolds with a prologue in which three officers hailing from a lighthouse vessel present their testimony to a Court of Enquiry, recounting their arrival to relieve the keepers and discovering an empty post. The central act transitions to the past, spotlighting the keepers who endure an extended stay at the lighthouse. Their demeanour is fraught with tension, and they seek solace in poignant 'set piece' songs, each expressing their own burden of guilt. From the mist, their history resurfaces to torment them. A brilliant light's arrival is perceived as the Antichrist's advent, precipitating their replacement by the incoming relief officers—and thus the opera closes, and the enigma endures unresolved.
The opera debuted in Edinburgh, Scotland, on September 2, 1980, during the Edinburgh Festival. Vocalists Neil Mackie, Michael Rippon, and David Wilson-Johnson were accompanied by The Fires of London chamber orchestra, conducted by Richard Dufallo. Later moving to Sadlers Wells Theatre in London for performances on July 14, 17, and 18, 1981, the work would keep its original cast under John Carewe's baton.
In 1983, the Boston Shakespeare Company, directed by Peter Sellars, presented a new production starring Michael Brown, Sanford Sylvan, and Kenneth Bell, with musical direction by David Hoose. In his review for The New York Times of the opera, John Rockwell characterized the production as:
"...superbly realized musically and thrilling as theater."
Max took inspiration for the work’s form from a particular place. Commenting upon the structure of the work, Max remarks: “The structure is based on the Tower of the Tarot, whose number symbolism is present in the structure of all the music, and which erupts into the surface of the opera in the form of the words sung by Arthur during the card game representing the Voice of the Cards, which on this level transforms the game of crib into a play of fate with Tarot cards, summoning up all the power of their baleful influence.”
In the work’s opening prologue, taking part in the Edinburgh Court of Inquiry, an investigation into the keepers' disappearance takes place. Three ship officers, guided by the orchestral horn in questioning, quickly begin to contradict one another before the Court reaches an open verdict. In the prologue's end, the three officers reveal the lighthouse's current abandoned state, and flashes of its automatic signal chime in synchronicity with the orchestra.
The main act, bearing the sub-title The Cry of the Beast, sees the setting shifts to the interior of the lighthouse, featuring the three keepers, (Blazers, Arther and Sandy) at a table in a state of mutual unease. Among them, Arthur stands as a man of fervent religious zeal, often at odds with Blazes, who holds no tolerance for Arthur's pretences. Acting as a mediator, the third keeper, Sandy, attempts to defuse their tensions.
When Arthur temporarily departs to illuminate the lantern above, Sandy and Blazes engage in a game of cribbage. This leads to a dispute, and upon Arthur's return, the atmosphere becomes palpably tense. To alleviate the tension, each delivers a song, allowing the composer to employ his favoured technique of parody. Among them, Blazes unveils a rustic ballad, unmasking his violent history and murderous deeds. Sandy takes on a romantic parlour-song guise, concealing a dark secret. Finally, the pious Arthur raises a fervent hymn depicting an apocalyptic vision. This moment marks a distinct change in the musical language of the opera so far, as Alexandra Coghlan writes in his piece for The New Statesman:
"Rejecting the consolation of melody for much of the work, the composer offers us a brief reprise in a set-piece that sees each of the three keepers sing a song to their companions."
Guided by Arthur’s apocalyptic vision of the antichrist, the trio ventures outside the lighthouse, their sanity unravelling. The atmosphere grows colder as fog envelops the lighthouse, and Arthur initiates the foghorn, proclaiming the eerie cry of the Beast resonating across the dormant world. This summons ghosts from the three keepers' pasts, potentially connected to their earlier sung confessions. Though unseen, the ghosts' presence, convinced by the keepers, drives them into a frenzy of guilt and desperation as the apparitions beckon Sandy and Blazers to join them.
Arthur descends from the lightroom, convinced that the Beast's call echoes over the sea, believing that the Golden Calf has arrived to claim them. Calling for divine aid, the trio start to sing a De Profundis and confront the spirit, now seen as the Antichrist. As the storm reaches its climax, and the Beast's eyes blaze the brightest, all a sudden the keepers transform into the ship's three officers, portrayed by the same vocalists, the approaching Beast's light being revealed to be that of the lighthouse ship.
The officer's commentary leaves room for interpretation about the exact nature of the keepers' disappearance. Perhaps the officers attempted to convince themselves of an alternate reality or conspired to conceal the truth. Upon the entry of the relief keepers, their indistinct appearance suggests they might be the same three as seen earlier. However, as the lighthouse flashes its automatic signal, the possibility arises that all that the audience has witnessed so far is in itself a ghostly apparition within the long-abandoned and sealed lighthouse.
Commenting upon the tempestuous nature of the work along with Max’s powerful orchestration Alexandra Coghlan comments: "Benjamin Britten may be the greatest English composer of the sea, but in Maxwell Davies’ abrupt orchestral squalls and unexpected textures we get a violence quite unlike the swelling grandeur of Britten’s Suffolk coastline. Sounds as well as music emerge from a pit in which percussion instruments outnumber all others. Trombone splatters are tempered by plaintive little flute gasps, with muted trumpets supplying the 'crack of the blackbeaks’ wings'."
One of the opera's distinct qualities is its innovative narrative structure. Utilizing techniques like flashbacks and shifting perspectives, Max’s hauntingly beautiful score constructs a powerful sense of suspense and unease. This non-linearity not only reflects the disjointed memories and perceptions of the characters but also engages the audience to grapple with the unexplainable and the unsettling. It’s chamber ensemble creates an intimate and atmospheric sonic landscape, effectively evoking the turmoil of its protagonists and transports the audience into an enigmatic world.
Through its fusion of historical mystery, psychological drama, and supernatural intrigue, the opera challenges conventional operatic norms and invites contemplation on the mysteries of the human psyche. In this work, the past becomes a haunting presence. "The Lighthouse" showcases Maxwell Davies' prowess in combining all these elements into an operatic experience that defies conventions. Remaining timeless in it’s thematic resonance, The Lighthouse continues to be performed, its ability to intrigue and captivate remaining undiminished and marking the work as an enduring exploration into the mysterious realms of the human mind.
Listen below to a performance of the work by the Psappha Ensemble conducted by Etienne Siebens
Max's Enchanting Children Opera The Two Fiddlers
A Look back at Max's enchanting childrens' opera and the captivating paintings paintings of Fernando Farulli
This month at the Max Trust we are delighted to feature Peter Maxwell Davies’ enchanting children’s opera ‘The Two Fiddlers’ and explore the stunning set paintings created for it’s Italian production by Fernando Farulli. This enchanting work, inspire by a short story by George Mackay Brown, follows the journey of two wandering fiddlers who receive a wish from trolls to free their people from work, leading to unforeseen consequences.
The first performance took place in 1978 at the Festival in Kirkwall, garnering immense acclaim. This opera possesses a remarkable enduring charm that successfully resonates with audiences across borders, particularly in Germany, where their own folklore of trolls adds to its allure. Two years later the work had its European premier in Italy, near Florence. It was here that Max forged a lifelong friendship with Mauro Ceccanti, the esteemed leader of the Orchestra dei Maggio Musicale Florentino. This friendship led to the creation of several new pieces for Mario’s ensemble, ContempoArtEnsemble alongside other pieces for his two talented sons, Vittorio and Duccio.
For the 1980 Italian performance, the organizers commissioned eminent Florentine artist, Fernando Farulli, who happened to be a close friend of Mauro. Fernando's brother, Piero Farulli, was the esteemed viola player in the Quartetto Italiano and the founder of the prestigious music school in Fiesole. After Fernando Farulli's passing, the subsequent owner of his paintings generously donated four of the stunning set designs to the Max Trust. These invaluable artworks have found their home in the Royal Academy of Music since 2019.
The rather difficult task of composing an opera for children is masterfully executed by Max, placing the work within the tradition of fellow English composers such as Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Williamson, and Gordon Crosse - beautifully capturing the essence of community spirit, a hallmark of the children's opera genre.
The libretto, skilfully crafted by Max himself, draws inspiration from an Orkney myth and short story by George Mackay Brown. The story revolves around two wandering fiddlers who encounter a mischievous horde of trolls. Upon playing music for the trolls, they are granted a wish – that their people shall be forever free from toil and labor. However, this seemingly idyllic wish leads to unforeseen consequences, as lethargy, laziness, and other vices befall their community. The enchanting spell can only be broken through the power of music, bringing everyone together to celebrate the virtues of the Protestant work ethic.
In Max’s hands this simple narrative comes to life on stage as a captivating tale, leaving ample space for whimsical fantasy, and gentle moral lessons, offering the perfect canvas for a young cast to showcase their talents. Through this opera, young audiences can be charmed while reflecting on the folly of a world shaped by adults, offering delightful entertainment while being subtly thought-provoking. The composer's lighter side shines through in this piece, showcasing his mastery in seamlessly blending easily accessible melodies and rhythms within a distinct 20th-century style. The composition avoids condescension while keeping the performers engaged, and the overall result is brimming with enthusiasm and innovative musical concepts. A preview of the work can be listen to here.
Max's 9th Symphony
Marking eleven years since the crucial work saw its premiere in Liverpool
As we welcome in the new regency of King Charles and a new chapter for the United Kingdom, here at the Max Trust we invite you to explore Max’s tentative and exhilarating 9th symphony – dedicated to Charles’ predecessor, the late queen Elizabeth II, on her Diamond Jubilee. This month marks the 11th anniversary of the momentous work, expressing feelings of deep conflict and hesitant optimism.
Work started for the symphony between December 2011 in Lazio, Italy and reached its completion in March 2012 at Max’s home in Orkney. The work was premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko and took place at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in 2012.
On the piece's origin, Max recalls‘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.’
The work consists of one continuous movement divided in two parts, the first starts with a slow introduction presenting basic thematic material where an additional brass sextet, placed to one side of the orchestra, interjects with fanfare flourishes. This is followed by a lively section that takes the form of an allegro possessing the echo of the traditional sonata form. Again, this Allegro is greeted by interruptions from the brass players with strident military style marches. Commenting on these interjections, Max wrote these were meant to ‘bear no disrespect for military music or bands as such’ and were in fact ‘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’.
In the second section of the work, the brass sextet integrates itself into the orchestral texture in a spirit of reconciliation. Seeking an up-lifting ending to this expressive work, Max looked to a composer who had long served him for inspiration and guidance, Joseph Haydn. Remembering his String Quartet op. 54 No. 2 with its slow movement finale, a precursor to Tchaikovsky and Mahler, Max integrates fragments of the quartet. A reworking of the third movement of Haydn’s trio emerges, inviting a change in mood to a cautious optimism
Feeling it would be ‘morally indefensible’ to give the work a triumphant ending, Max’s subtle finale is commented on by FourOverFive’s review of the premier: ‘…the music gains in brightness and clarity, to the point where, a few minutes from the end, the orchestra as one suddenly bristles with energy, and for a short time works together in a climactic peroration. But Max pulls the symphony away from this, concluding by allowing the different sections of the orchestra to speak one final time before falling back to a sober, minor-tinged ending. Not so much triumph as an expression of hope for a future that, if everyone works together like this, might just be possible.'
Perhaps the composer himself said it best: ‘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.’
Below you can find the first part of the 9th Symphony performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic
Kommilitonen! (Young Blood)
Marking thirteen years since the political opera had it's premiere at the Royal Academy of Music
This past month marks thirteen years since Max’s opera Kommilitonen! (Young Blood) premiered at the Royal Academy of Music in the spring of 2010. This powerful work combating themes of oppression, with David Pountney as librettist, places itself as a key part in Max’s work in Opera and Music Theatre.
As Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times remarked: ‘There are many impressive things about Kommilitonen!... Best of all is Mr. Davies's exhilarating score. Here, for once, is a modern opera that exudes musical modernism.’
The piece consists of three interlocking stories of students involved in political action in three different situations. “Die Weisse Rose” was the name taken by a group of students at the University of Munich, led by Sophie and Hans Scholl. They produced leaflets protesting against the National Socialist government of Germany in 1942-3 until they were arrested and guillotined. “Soar to Heaven” follows two characters, Wu and Zhou, involved on opposite sides of the Cultural Revolution in China. “The Oxford Revolution” tells the story of James Meredith, who fought a lonely battle against segregation and racial prejudice to become the first black student to enrol at “Ole Miss”, the University of Mississippi, in the USA.
Below is a short preview of the work from it's performance at the Stadttheater, Bremerhaven.