Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

A Spell for Green Corn: The MacDonald Dances

For violin and orchestra

audio sample: A Spell for Green Corn: The MacDonald Dances
opus number: 161
completion date: 1993
duration: 20 minutes
scoring: Violin solo, 2 flutes (2nd + piccolo), 2 oboes, clarinet (in Bb and A), bass clarinet (in Bb), 2 bassoons (2nd + contrabassoon), 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 2 trombones (optional), timpani, *percussion (optional) (1 player), strings

*percussion (1 player): tambourine, glockenspiel, crotales (2 chromatic octaves), bass drum, bell tree
world premiere: 24 November 1993, City Halls, Glasgow
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, James Clark violin, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor
commissioner: Donald MacDonald (see Additional information)
dedication: Donald MacDonald
publisher: Chester Music
category: Light orchestral work
press quotes:

Similar to An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise but by no means the same is A Spell for Green Corn: the MacDonald Dances for violin and orchestra. Faithful to the precept that no plough should touch a field until a fiddle has passed over the furrows, the violinist imparts a blessing, furrow by furrow, with his tunes. This seemingly simple music conjures up a magic which probably only those who know the Orkneys can fully comprehend. And yet it is neither a question of colour nor of patriotism but of music rooted in the nature and in the people of the Orkneys. For me, with its easily grasped tunes and grand, even anthem-like architecture, it is one of the loveliest, most satisfying violin concertos of the twentieth century at the very least.

Wiener Zeitung
September 1994

programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The Spell is one quoted by George Mackay Brown in his book An Orkney Tapestry: 'Let not plough be put to acre except a fiddle cross first the furrow.' Davies's dancing concerto imagines the fiddler following a route from field to field, from dance to dance, accompanied by a bunch of companions in the form of an orchestra. As the music goes on, so it gets brighter and livelier, moving from the dark colouring of clarinets, bassoons and strings to full ensemble with prominent brass and (solo) tuned percussion, as if the dancers as much as the fields were beginning to glow with new life.

Extended Note by David Nice ©

Since its first performance in 1985, Maxwell Davies's brilliantly inventive An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (and bagpipes) has become a regular concert-hall party-piece, and justifiably so; not since Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Tippett's Ritual Dances has a British composer managed to combine the popular and the sophisticated with such successful results. Now it is joined - though surely not replaced - in the repertory by a new Orkney rite, commissioned by the Chairman of the Board of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for the composer's sixtieth birthday and the orchestra's twenty-first). An ancient blessing of the crops - the 'Spell for Green Corn' of the title - is, of course, quite a different ceremony from an Orkney wedding; and though the new piece bears superficial relations to the old, both in its chain of dances and storm that this time breaks midway through the work, the atmosphere is quite different.

The second part of the slow introduction, in which the lone, distant fiddler is supported by a magical cushion of strings followed by a hint of the storm to come, demonstrates that same uncanny matching of soloist and orchestra we hear in the most introspective sequences of the Strathclyde Concertos, and it helps to establish an almost supernatural background for the ritual. Then the dancing begins as, in the composer's words, 'we follow the fiddler Donald MacDonald' - playing, of course, 'a tune that any MacDonald would recognize' - along with all the islanders as he carries out the imperative of the fiddler Storm Kolson (the preface to the score takes it as quoted in George Mackay Brown's An Orkney Tapestry: 'Let not plough be put to acre except a fiddle cross first the furrow.' The other instruments follow close behind the soloists, bassoon first; a slightly slow dance unfolds against Scotch snaps from the clarinets and the violinist takes a well-earned rest while the woodwind trip a light-footed allegretto. The fiddler then encourages full strings to lend a touch of Nielsen with their flattened notes in the first ensemble, and a virtuoso concertante passage leads to a vigorous presto. Then, with woodwind chords casting strange lights in the sky and the cellos (and later the basses) struggling to hold a tune against the dazzling downpour from the rest of the orchestra, the storm is upon us. The violinist offers thanksgiving for its swift departure in a double-stopping adagio of profound simplicity, after which the path is clear for the dancing to proceed on its ever more brightly scored way.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.

Note détaillée en français par David Nice ©

Les mélodies folkloriques des violoneux écossais ont inspiré plusieurs oeuvres de Maxwell Davies. Celle-ci est basée sur "une chanson que tout MacDonald reconnaîtrait". La partition porte en exergue un vers du violoneux Storm Kolson, cité par George Mackay Brown dans An Orkney Tapestry ("Une tapisserie des Orcades"): "Que la charrue ne creuse pas un seul arpent tant qu'un violon n'a pas traversé le sillon". Davies ajoute: "Dans ces danses, nous suivons le violoneux Donald MacDonald, avec tousles habitants de l'île, serpentant à travers les champs pour une ancienne bénédiction des récoltes des Orcades: 'Incantation pour le blé vert'". Une tempête musicale intervient au milieu de l'oeuvre, se calmant dans le même esprit que le Chant des Bergers dans la Symphonie "Pastorale" de Beethoven. L'oeuvre est dédiée à Donald MacDonald, Président du Conseil d'Administration du Scottish Chamber Orchestra, qui l'a commandée pour célébrer le vingtième anniversaire de l'orchestre et le soixantième anniversaire de Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, le 8 septembre 1994.

Sur cet enregistrement, la promenade du violoneux est représentée par la position du violon solo qui change sans cesse pendant l'exécution.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (lang) von David Nice ©

Die volkstümliche schottische Fiedelmusik hat mehrere Werke von Maxwell Davies inspiriert. Das vorliegende Stück beruht auf "einer Melodie, die jeder MacDonald sofort erkennen würde". Die Partitur trägt als Motto einen Ausspruch des Volksgeigers Storm Kolson, zitiert von George Mackay Brown in "An Orkney Tapestry", der in Übersetzung etwa lautet: "Kein Pflug soll den Acker bearbeiten, bevor eine Fiedel über die Furche gegangen ist." Erklärend fügt Davies hinzu: "In diesen Tänzen folgen wir dem Folk Fiddler Donald MacDonald und den anderen Inselbewohnern, die bei einem uralten musikalischen Erntesegen der Orkney Inseln über die Felder ziehen A Spell for Green Corn (ein Zauberspruch für grünes Getreide)." In der Mitte des Werks hören wir einen musikalischen Sturm, der sich dann in einem ähnlichen Geist, wie wir ihn vom Schäferlied in Beethovens Pastorale kennen, wieder legt. Das Stück ist Donald MacDonald gewidmet, dem Vorsitzenden des Aufsichtsrats des Scottish Chamber Orchestra, der es in Auftrag gab, um den 20. Geburtstag des Orchesters und auch den 60. Geburtstag des Komponisten selbst am 8. September 1994 zu feiern.

In dieser Aufnahme wird das Umherwandern des Fiedlers dargestellt, indem die Solovioline die ganze Aufführung hindurch ständig ihren Standort wechselt.
additional information: Commissioned by Donald MacDonald for the 21st birthday of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and for the 60th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (8 September 1994).
recording: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, James Clark violin, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor
Collins Classics 13962

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, James Clark violin, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor
Collins Classics 15242
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