Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

The Martyrdom of St. Magnus

Chamber opera in nine scenes

opus number: 72
completion date: 1976
duration: 72 minutes
movement titles: 1. The Battle of Menai Strait
2. The Temptations of Magnus
3. The Curse of Blind Mary
4. The Peace Parley (Prelude to the Invocation of the Dove)
5. Magnus' Journey to the Isle of Egilsay
6. Earl Håkon Resolves to Murder Magnus
7. The Reporters
8. The Sacrifice
9. The Miracle
scoring: Cast

Earl Magnus, Reporter I, Prisoner, Monk tenor
Norse Herald, king of Norway, The Keeper of the Loom, Herald of Earl Magnus, Reporter II, Lifolf the Butcher, Policeman, Monk
Welsh Herald, The Tempter, herald of Earl Håkon, Reporter III, Policeman, Monk baritone
Bishop of Orkney, Earl Håkon, Reporter IV, Military Officer, Monk bass
Blind Mary (The Gipsy and Fortune-Teller), The Girl Ingerth, Mary O'Connell mezzo-soprano


Flute (+ piccolo and alto flute), clarinet in A (+ bass clarinet), horn, 2 trumpets, *percussion (1 player), **keyboards (1 player), guitar, viola, cello, double bass

*percussion (1 player): 2 bass drums (large, very large), pedal timpani (+ bowl), side drum, small side drum with snare, roto-toms, large cymbal (bowed), 2 Chinese cymbals (regular, very small), crotales, Burmese nipple gongs, tam-tam, Japanese gong (very large), sandpaper blocks, blackboard, plastic soapdish, glockenspiel, marimba

additional percussion (to be played by the singers, keyboard player and guitarist): 4 pairs claves, flexatone, railway whistle, tabor, Australian Aboriginal bullroarer (optional)

**keyboards (1 player): harpsichord, celesta, ***keyboard carillon or Celtic harp (when neither available, the part to be distributed between harpsichord and celesta), slightly out-of-tune upright piano, out-of-tune autoharp or zither

***keyboard carillon. This instrument can be hired from Keith Harding's World of Mechanical Music:
world premiere: 18 June 1977, St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney (at the first St. Magnus Festival)
The Fires of London, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, Murray Melvin conductor, Neil Mackie tenor, Michael Rippon baritone, Brian Rayner Cook baritone, Ian Comboy bass, Mary Thomas mezzo-soprano
commissioner: BBC for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II
publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
category: Dramatic work
text: Peter Maxwell Davies after the novel Magnus by George Mackay Brown
press quotes:

My experience of this superb piece has been intensified by gratitude that, even in our materialist age, artists can still find the means to create works which disturb our complacency, console our hearts and lay bare with compassionate clarity the deeper spiritual patterns which the conflicts and passions of daily life obscure. For admirers of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, and for those interested in serious new opera and music-theatre works, this disc is a necessity. For others, I will only say that I have found listening to this work both a disturbing and a healing experience. The painful harshness of its subject (and of some of its music) seems to me no more than an accurate reflection of the world we see around us each day, and like all great art, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus ultimately seeks to reconcile us to our state of human imperfection, even as it challenges us to work to bring the actions of our daily lives into closer harmony with the inner blueprint of the Divine Image that each of us carries.

January 1977

programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Magnus was a twelfth-century earl of the Orkney Islands, a Viking unusual for his pacifism, martyred in a dynastic struggle. The opera is a presentation of his story, based on George Mackay Brown's novel Magnus and devised to be played continuously, with a quite simple, stylized staging.

Blind Mary, accompanied by a guitar, introduces the first of the nine scenes, in which Magnus is involved in a battle between the Norsemen and the Welsh. He prefers to fight with the words of Psalm 23 rather than arms, and his side is victorious. In Scene 2 he withstands the temptations of fame, marriage, kingship, religious retreat and armed force; the much shorter Scene 3 has Blind Mary, again with guitar, lamenting the state of an Orkney torn by civil war between Magnus and Håkon. Bishop and heralds then agree on a peace conference to take place on the island of Egilsay, whether Magnus is seen voyaging in Scene 5; the great part of the scene is an aria in which he resolves to go ahead no matter what he fears might happen. The musical style then becomes much wilder as Håkon orders Magnus' execution, and in Scene 7 both action and music come forward to the present as journalists report on the political situation. Scene 8 is fully in the present, or the recent past: Håkon is a hysterical officer and Magnus merely a Prisoner, who quietly meets his fate. The last scene is Blind Mary's: she prays to Magnus for the return of her sight, and gains it, while the rest of the cast as monks add Magnus' name to the litany of northern saints.

In form the opera is somewhat liturgical, though often fiercely dramatic in its action and in its vocal comportment. The instrumental writing, too, is thoroughly virtuoso, being intended for The Fires of London with guitar and brass.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (kurz)

Magnus, ein Graf der Orkney-Inseln aus dem 12.Jahrhundert, war einh öchst ungewöhnlicher Wikinger, der als überzeugter Pazifist in dynastischen Kämpfen den Märtyrertod start. Die Opererzählt seine Geschichte nach der Vorlage des Romans Magnus von George Mackay Brown; sie wird - in eher einfacher, stilisierter Inzsenierung - ohne Pause durchgespielt.

Die Blind Maria, von einer Gitarre begleitet, oröffnet die erste der neun Szenen, worin Magnus in eine Schlacht zwischen Wikingern und Wallisern werwickelt ist. Er kämpft jedoch lieber mit den Worten des 23. Psalms als mit Waffen, und seine Mannen tragen den Sieg davon. In der Zweiten Szene widersteht er den Versuchungen des Ruhms, der Ehe, der Königswürde, des Rückzugs in Religion under der Heeresstreitmacht. Die sehr viel kürzere dritte Szene stellt, wiederum zur Gittarenbegleitung, die Blind Maria heraus: sie führt beredte Klage über das vom Bürgerkrieg zwischen Magnus und Håkon zerrissene Orkney. Bischof und Herolde einigen sich nun, eine Friedenskonferenz auf der Insel Egilsay abzuhalten, und dorthin begibt sich Magnus in der fünften Szene auf die Reise; der größte Teil dieser Szene besteht aus einer Arie, in der Magnus den Entschluß faßt, sich trotz seiner Befürchtungen kommenden Unheils nicht vom Weg abbringen zu lassen. Stilistisch wird die Musik nun überaus heftig und ungestüm, als Håkon die Hinrichtung von Magnus anordnet, und in der siebten Szene drängen Handlung and Musik unmittlebar der Gegenwart zu, wenn Journalisten überdie politisiche Situation Bericht erstatten. Die achte Szene spielt sich dann ganz in der Gegenwart oder der jüngsten Vergangenheit ab: Håkon ist ein hysterischer Offizier undMagnus nur mehr ein Gefangener, der sich still in sein Schicksal fügt. Die letzte Szene gehört wieder der Blinden Maria: sie betet zu Magnus um Widerherstellung ihres Augenlichts, und sie wird sehend, während die übrigen Mitwirkenenden - als Chor der Mönche - den Namen des Märtyrers in ihre Litanei der nordischen Heiligen aufnehmen.

Formal ist dies eher eine liturgische Oper, wiewohl sie sich in Aktion unde vokalem Ausdruck oft zu dramatischer Intensität steigert. Auch er Instrumentalsatz - ursprünglich für die Interpreten des 'Fires of London' mit Zusatz von Gitarre und Blechbläsern bestimmt - ist durchwef sehr virtous.
composer’s note: The first task in the composition of the opera was to reduce George Mackay Brown's novel to a workable sequence of scenes suitable for singing, where possible not omitting material but concentrating it. Inevitably, there had to be simplification - Magnus, for instance, is not such a complex character in the opera as in the novel, and certainly not as multi-faceted as in John Mooney's study in depth, published in 1935. The Battle of Menai Strait is reduced to a cypher of a battle - the music itself must fill in the scene set starkly by the two heralds; and the tinkers of the novel are reduced to one, Blind Mary. She, however, is amplified to become a seer-prophetess figure with, in the first scene, words from another publication of Mackay Brown, and in the last, words based on the poet, at the point where she receives her sight.

The music was composed quickly in the summer of 1976 on Hoy. It is continuous, the scenes being connected by instrumental transitions which either sum up the musical argument of the previous scene or set the mood for the next: often they carry a more developed musical argument than the text-settings themselves, where the word-setting determines a clear texture and necessitates a simple dramatic structure. The forces used are small - five singers (one woman and four men who each take several roles), plus flute, clarinet, horn, two trumpets, percussion, keyboards, guitar, viola, cello and double bass.

The novel has Magnus martyred in a (Nazi) concentration camp; I decided to bring the martyrdom forward to the present, as if in the country where the opera is performed - an attempt to make audiences aware of the possibilities with us for such a murder of a political or religious figure, whatever his convictions. It is no longer possible to persuade ourselves that 'such things couldn't happen here'. They have in the past and could so easily again if we are not aware of the insidiously persuasive nature of the forces which generate such possibilities.

I have tried to create a musical state that is at once communicative and dramatic, based in the first instance on the Gregorian Chant of the Church that Magnus would have known so well, but adapting and extending this to encompass as wide an expressive musical and operatic vocabulary as possible.

I think the music will provide quite some surprises.
synopsis: St. Magnus, whose late twelfth-century cathedral is the glory of Kirkwall, was a Viking pacifist.

The action of the opera takes place in the twelfth century and starts with the Battle of Menai Strait between the King of Norway (supported by Orkney and Shetland) and the Earl of Shrewsbury (supported by Wales). It was during this battle that Magnus first distinguished himself as a pacifist. The action then moves to Orkney and the quarrel between Håkon and Magnus, joint earls of Orkney, which culminates in the murder of Magnus by Håkon. For this the action moves forward to the present day, and the martyrdom takes place in a police cell in any contemporary totalitarian state. For the final scene, in which the blind crone Mary is cured of her blindness at Magnus' tomb, the action shifts back to the twelfth century.

The history of St. Magnus is recorded in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga.

Short Synopsis of Each Scene


Blind Mary, the seer, sings a Viking spinning song, in which the wool is the guts of the soldiers to be killed in the battle, the weights on the warp their slaughtered heads, the spindles blood-splashed spears 'weaving the web of victory'.

The Norse and Welsh heralds, on their respective longships, taunt one another; the battle starts. Magnus, refusing to fight, sings psalms and is not hurt by the arrows. His side - the Norsemen - is victorious.


The Keeper of the Loom - the guardian of the soul of Magnus, who has in his charge the loom upon which Magnus will weave the tapestry of his life - brings before him his own dark opposite, the Tempter, who presents Magnus with five temptations: first, the way of fame and glory; second, a proposition of marriage; third, the coat-of-state of the Earldom of Orkney; fourth, the possibility of becoming a monk in Eynhallow; fifth, a sword for battle. Magnus withstands all these temptations, finally breaking the sword he has just accepted.


Blind Mary describes the evils of an Orkney divided by civil war between its joint earls Håkon and Magnus, who have become enemies. She puts a curse on such 'saviours' as their murderous rival gangs of soldiers.


The heralds of Earls Magnus and Håkon discuss a possible peace formula with the Bishop of Orkney, while Blind Mary prays to the northern saints for the return of her sight. The meeting between Håkon and Magnus is arranged.


Magnus and his herald travel by boat to Egilsay for the encounter with Earl Håkon. Despite his premonition of treachery he persists in the journey.


Earl Hakon is presented with offers of security from Magnus, who is prepared to undergo exile, imprisonment, or physical mutilation. Håkon accepts the third offer, but then resolves that there will be only one earl in Orkney, himself, and that he will have Lifolf, his butcher, execute Magnus.


The cast, representing reporters, gives news flashes of the worsening situation between the factions of Håkon and Magnus in the negotiations on the Isle of Egilsay . Text and music make it clear that the action is moving forward through the centuries, so that by the end of the scene we are no longer in the Viking past, but in the present.


The Military Officer (Håkon) orders the butcher to execute the Political Prisoner (Magnus). The time is the present, and the execution that of any prisoner who sets his face against oppression and is prepared to die for his convictions.


The action moves back to the twelfth century again. Blind Mary prays for sight before the tomb of St. Magnus, against the litany of the monks. She receives her sight, and sees the audience present - 'dark faces, blind mouths, crying still for sacrifice'. She prays to St. Magnus to 'keep us from a bedlam of sacrifice', prophesying just such a course of events, before she dismisses the audience to 'carry the peace of Christ into the world'.
recording: Music Theatre Wales, Scottish Chamber Opera Ensemble, Michael Rafferty conductor, Tamsin Dives mezzo-soprano, Christopher Gillett tenor, Peter Thomson baritone, Richard Morris baritone, Kelvin Thomas bass
Unicorn-Kanchana DKP (CD) 9100
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