A Folktale from Orkney
The Two Fiddlers by Peter Maxwell Davies
Water and rock. The Orkney Islands, lying directly above the northern tip of the Scottish mainland. Here the azure waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic meet. Almost artfully, they’ve cut large and small islands out of the soft red sandstone, carpeted in velvety green. In this magical region one finds the remains of Neolithic settlements like the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. No less impressive is the legacy of the Vikings and, later, Norwegians, who left behind palaces and St. Magnus Cathedral. The “old red sandstone” lends the Orkneys a unique colouring that seems to waver between red and ochre. You can see this not only on the coasts, where the rocks protrude from the green covering of grass and heather, but also in the buildings and monuments erected on the various islands over five millennia.
Numerous folktales from the old magic times exist in this region, one of which the composer Peter Maxwell Davies and librettist George Mackay Brown adapted for the stage: The Two Fiddlers. Davies and Brown were more than familiar with the story, for they had lived in Orkney for many years. And as inhabitants of Scottish islands, somewhere on the periphery of Europe, far from urban culture and surrounded by the raging sea, it might even, now and then, have occurred to them that there could be more than a kernel of truth in these tales. At the same time they were innovative 20th-century artists, able to translate material of this sort into the present with lightness of touch, wit and skill.
Since the beginning of the 1970s, Davies spent roughly half the year in Orkney. The rest of the time, “England’s leading composer” (The New York Times) stayed in luxurious hotels while touring the world for concerts, recordings and stagings of his works. In 1987 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and thereafter entitled to be called Sir Peter. With friends and colleagues, he continued to prefer the simple “Max” from his schooldays. Davies found his own musical language in adapting avant-garde numerical principles to an increasing preoccupation with tradition. It was as a member of the “Manchester Group” that he made his name in the mid-1950s along with fellow students Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr – attracted to the European avant garde, they attended the Darmstadt summer courses, meeting Boulez and Stockhausen. Davies continued his studies in Rome with Goffredo Petrassi. After returning to England in 1959, he soon acquired the reputation of an enfant terrible,but even with his recognition as a composer, he needed to support himself until 1962 by serving as director of music at Cirencester Grammar School in Gloucestershire. There he wrote pieces to be performed by the school’s choir and orchestra and became aware of the special conditions of composing for young people: “It must be reasonably within their comprehension and technical ability, but there must be no compromise or condescension, as children would see through this.”
Davies and Mackay Brown, 13 years his senior, developed a close working relationship, which he described as being absolutely essential to everything he created since first coming to Orkney in 1970. In a later interview, he also stated that “the spirit of George – even when he was alive – was in a way hovering over me. The way in which he could make very plain English language work very hard for its living and mean a lot more than it said on the surface.... I enjoyed his humour tremendously and at the Bevans’ house in Stromness very often we would spend a whole evening just laughing and joking over glasses of beer and whisky and wine.... Unlike me I think he was very reticent about actually discussing his work and talking about how he created. He much preferred to talk about the quality of the whisky and the wine! ... I think George must have been very musical deep in his soul. You read his words and they are very, very musical.”
From 1971, Davies and Mackay Brown collaborated often on a wide range of stage and other vocal works. Their short opera The Two Fiddlers had its premiere in 1978. Davies composed it for the 500 pupils of Kirkwall’s largest school. Typically, he entrusted the children with full responsibility for a work’s presentation. They not only appeared on stage; they also played in the orchestra together with professional musicians, just as in today’s performance. But Peter Maxwell Davies was not a teacher by calling, and his love for children had its limits. About working with them, he once said: “In all the works I write for children to play and sing, I am presenting myself with the musical childhood I didn't have. When writing this music I must always bear in mind certain practical considerations: the music should be demanding enough to challenge its destined age-group, but not to the point of discouraging the performers; and it should sound right and fulfilling when it is well rehearsed.”
The plot of The Two Fiddlers is based on the Orkney version of an ancient folk legend, but it ends with a very contemporary message. The two fiddlers Gavin and Storm fall into the clutches of goblins. Gavin manages to escape, but Storm is pulled down into the underworld where he has to play for the trolls’ dancing. As thanks for his musical services, they grant him his wish – that his people no longer have to work. When he returns home, what seemed to him only a few hours turns out to have been 21 years in Gavin’s “real” world. Storm sees the unfortunate consequences of his well-meant wish: People have become lazy and passive. The fiddler plays and the power of music breaks the spell, returning the people to constructive activity.
The folk inspiration is present in both the text and the music. Long stretches of the piece are tonal. As the composer explained, that’s inevitable when you work with folk music, and the Fiddlers is based on Scottish folk music. At the same time, Davies doesn’t deny his ambition or approach as one of the 20th century’s leading composers. He makes use of dissonances, atonality and chord clusters as well as percussive piano writing. The music of most of the troll scenes is raw, dissonant and highly rhythmic. It contrasts with the sonorous, tonal sphere of the folk dances and fiddle music. The way he builds up and releases tensions, always hewing closely to the tale’s words and content, shows his mastery of compositional and music-dramatic processes.
To depict Gavin’s bewildering journey, Davies works with a montage in the third scene of Act I. Each instrument of the orchestra begins with an individual ostinato, at different times and different tempos. This musical tangle not only illustrates the action, it also has its own quality. Other interesting effects are produced by brandy glasses tuned to A flat and C, knitting needles used as sticks for the cymbals, and the tam-tam played with a soap dish. Perhaps one of Davies’s greatest skills was to compose with stylistic assurance and without artistic compromises so that his works are happily played everywhere by professional musicians and amateurs, adults and children, whether in remote Orkney or the middle of Berlin. – Peter Maxwell Davies died, aged 81, on 14 March 2016 at home on Sanday, in the Orkney Islands.