Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Ave Maris Stella

For instrumental ensemble

opus number: 63
completion date: 1975
duration: 32 minutes
scoring: Flute (+ alto flute), clarinet in A (or bass clarinet in A), marimba (four octaves C to C), piano (if available, an instrument with a third, 'sostenuto' pedal is helpful), viola, cello
world premiere: 27 May 1975, Theatre Royal, Bath (Bath Festival)
The Fires of London
commissioner: Bath Festival with help from the Arts Council of Great Britain
dedication: Hans Juda, in memoriam
publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
category: Instrumental work
difficulty level: 6 (most difficult)
press quotes:

Ave Maris Stella… is one of his profoundest and most luminous works… Vintage Max indeed.

Sunday Times
March 2008

This extended work for chamber instrumental ensemble combines Maxwell Davies's medieval mysticism, his skill at writing for the new virituosos among us, and his intense musicality into one supremely successful work.

New York Times

programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Conceived as both a challenge and a tribute to the virtuosity and musicianship of The Fires of London, this is a rare piece of modern chamber music: music for six people working together, unconducted, on a journey that is arduous but hugely gripping for both performers and audience. Its symphonic impetus is maintained continuously through nine sections of varied character, starting out from a cello threnody and ending with an unquiet adagio marked by tolling marimba, whose part throughout is as important as the others.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin © 1996

In 1975, Maxwell Davies wrote Ave Maris Stella, whose depth and profundity quickly established it as a masterpiece of contemporary chamber music. The work broke important new ground in several ways. First, it uses a pitched percussion instrument, the marimba, as an absolutely equal voice in the musical argument (an idea that Davies consolidated a year later in his Symphony No.1, which uses an entire group of pitched percussion not as a colouristic resource, but as equal to the other orchestral choirs in the discourse). Second, it takes a heterogeneous sextet of mixed timbre and invests it with the focus and concentration of a string quartet. Finally, it is specifically intended for unconducted performance, because the composer felt that the presence of a conductor would disturb the lucidity of the musical thought.

The choice of the plainchant Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) as the basis of the work reflects the circumstances of its composition in Maxwell Davies's then newly restored Orkney croft overlooking the Atlantic. The original chant is sounded by the flute near the work's end, but appears much more prominently in a transformed state as the cello line that dominates the first movement and returns powerfully on the flute at the start of the eighth.

The work is written for a mixed instrumental sextet which is variously deployed, but often divided into its three constituent timbral duos (strings, winds, piano/percussion). Davies further developed this disposition in his Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982), and Elliott Carter also used it in his 1983 sextet for The Fires of London, which he explicitly called Triple Duo.

In Ave Maris, it is undoubtedly the marimba and its partner the piano who face the highest hurdles in the extension of instrumental virtuosity, while it is in the ensemble's response to rhythmic demands that the work's collective virtuosity inheres. This response depends entirely on Maxwell Davies's characteristically practical approach: in every bar, one of the six instrumental parts acts as a pulse-giver against which the other parts can be measured, while the resultant intensity of listening and counting becomes part of the overall musical effect.

Ave Maris Stella unfolds in nine concentrated and distinct movements played without a break. The nocturnal, elegiac quality that permeates significant parts of movements six and eight, and all of movements one and nine, represents the root experience of the work, which was written in memory of The Fires' friend and Treasurer, Hans Juda. These inward-looking and meditative sections, above all the ninth movement, with its slow, irregular marimba pulsations quite graphically depicting a heartbeat on the threshold between life and death, find their place within an overall view of the work as a time-cycle. In this light, the work spans both an entire lifetime and a single human day. In both cases, the journey circles back to its point of origin.

As a twenty-four hour cycle, Ave Maris can be heard to 'begin' and 'end' at the Hour of the Wolf, the time of utter suspension when nocturnal sounds have ceased and those of day not yet begun. The first movement represents this stillness growing into aluminous dawn, the second, the burgeoning sunrise (with the newly introduced clarinet timbre acting as a potent musical symbol of the crowing of the cock), and the third, the emergence of full day. From here on, we proceed, not in clock order, but through a series of moments specifically 'lit' at different times of day and night. There is a particularly striking jump at movement four, which plunges us unexpectedly into nocturnal activity only to re-emerge into the daylight of movement five.

We end, as we began, at the Hour of the Wolf. In actuality, this is a time strongly associated with both birth and death. The searing cry with which the work leaves us points this double significance with uncanny accuracy.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.
composer’s note: Ave Maris Stella is based not only on the well-known plainsong but also on this setting of a text by Roderic Dunnett, which I use for my Ex Libris sticker.

The nine sections are to be played without a break and the piece is to be performed without a conductor.

It is dedicated to the memory of Hans Juda, the late Hon. Treasurer of The Fires, and our very dear friend. It was conceived as a virtuoso vehicle for the group, where each individual part demands new technical resources from the player concerned. For myself, I tackled the purely technical problem of making so rhythmically complex a work practicable without a conductor, who might distract from the chamber music quality of the thought.

The well known Ave Maris Stella plainsong forms the backbone of the music - familiar in settings by Dunstable and Monteverdi inter alia, 'projected' through the Magic Square of the Moon. Although magic squares are generally seen as permutations of numbers, this is no more true than with bell-permutations, which are memorable by their patterns of courses rather than by chains of numbers. I conceive magic squares originally as dance patterns, whose steps pass through 'mazes' and consequently as note patterns, memorable without reference to numbers.

Ave Maris has nine sections, of increasing formal complexity, until No. 7, which has seventeen over-lapping subsections, crystallizing in No. 3 into a simple transformation of the first section. All the previous music is planned so as to spiral upwards towards the climactic ninth section, characterized by slow, irregular marimba pulsations.

For me the work has, retrospectively, as well as its elegiac feeling a specially evocative flavour, in that it was the first large work written through a splendid winter and completed in my newly restored house in Orkney, described by George Mackay Brown as 'incredibly perched on a high ledge above the Atlantic'.
recording: The Fires of London
Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2038

The New York New Music Ensemble
GunMar Recordings GM2047CD
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