Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

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Black Pentecost

For mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra

audio sample: Black Pentecost
opus number: 82
completion date: 1979
duration: 53 minutes
movement titles: 1. Adagio - Allegro molto
2. Lentissimo
3. Lentissimo - Allegro
4. Andante - Adagio
scoring: Mezzo-soprano solo, baritone solo, 2 flutes, alto flute, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones,*percussion (5 players), timpani, celesta, strings

*percussion (5 players): marimba, very large bass drum, glockenspiel, crotales, small Chinese cymbal (suspended), maracas, slapstick, claves (hardest wood to give highest, most piercing sound), small resonant metal bowl on kettledrum (ideally a Japanese temple gong), roto-tom, 2 flexatones, tam-tam (with plastic soap dish)
world premiere: 11 May 1982, Royal Festival Hall, London
Philharmonia Orchestra, Jan DeGaetani mezzo-soprano, Michael Rippon baritone, Simon Rattle conductor
commissioner: Philharmonia Orchestra
publisher: Chester Music
category: Orchestral work
text: From George Mackay Brown's novel Greenvoe
press quotes:

Maxwell Davies's response to potential environmental despoliation of his beloved Orkney produced one of the darkest and in some ways most impressive works of his symphonic period. George Mackay Brown's novel Greenvoe provides the text for Black Pentecost, a vocal symphony for baritone and mezzo in four movements - the first is purely orchestral. The novel describes the devastation of the imaginary island of Hellya by a secret strategic development, Operation Black Star, which for Maxwell Davies was prophetic of the proposed open-cast uranium mining on Orkney. The anger is kept on a tight leash most of the time as the music grimly recounts the agonies of the islanders, finally exploding when the baritone declared himself to be "the boss whose actions are necessary for the welfare of the western world".

Classic CD

programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The 'Black Pentecost' is the coming of uranium mining, which was a threat to Orkney when the work was written. The text tells of the destruction of old ways of life, the eclipse of the human by the technological. Davies sets it as a gripping dramatic cantata which is also a four-movement symphony, with the songs for imperious baritone and lyrical mezzo-soprano linked by orchestral transitions. The work is a lament, and at the same time a fiercely argued protest.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (kurz)

Mit «Schwarze Pfingsten» ist der bevorstehende Uran-Bergbau gemeint, der die Orkneys bedrohte, als das Werk geschrieben wurde. Der Text handelt von der Zerstörung alter Lebensformen, vom Schwinden des Humanen unter dem Ansturm der Technik. Davies hat daraus eine dramatisch fesselnde Kantate gemacht, die auch eine viersätzige Sinfonie ist, wobei die Gesänge für Heldenbariton und lyrischen Mezzosopran durch orchestrale Überleitungsteile verbunden werden. Das Werk ist zugleich Klage und leidenschaftlich artikulierter Protest.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin © 1996

In the wake of his Symphony No. 1 (1976), Maxwell Davies received two different stimuli to painting a large orchestral canvas with simpler brush strokes. The full-length ballet Salome (1978) required a clear narrative and dramatic design, while the differently simplified idiom of Black Pentecost enabled him to make a statement about the threat of uranium mining in Orkney.

The work's title comes from the end of George Mackay Brown's poem Dead Fires, which Davies had set in his song-cycle Dark Angels (1974):

Now, cold angel, keep the valley
From the bedlam and the cinders of a Black Pentecost.

A year earlier, Davies had already isolated the words 'Black Pentecost' as the title of a projected one-movement orchestral work which, however, eventually 'sprouted' into the four-movement Symphony No. 1. By the time the present work was in gestation, the image of a Black Pentecost had taken on a more precise and chilling significance: a uranium corridor had been confirmed beneath Yesnaby, a wild and beautiful place to the west of the town of Stromness on Orkney's 'mainland'. Open-pit mining was proposed, inciting a fierce and impassioned local response.

Davies's own contribution to this outcry was twofold: in its subject matter, Black Pentecost is the sibling of his anti-nuclear cabaret The Yellow Cake Revue (1980). The decision to base a polemical symphony with voices on passages from George Mackay Brown's novel Greenvoe attests to Brown's genuine prescience in articulating a threat that was not yet explicit when the novel was first published.

Greenvoe depicts the industrial exploitation of natural resources on the imaginary island of Hellya. Black Pentecost opens with a movement for orchestra alone. Musically it suggests a symphonic first movement in which an Adagio introduction releases into a powerful Allegro. It also acts as a 'pre-meditation' on the spiritual territory of the rest of the work.

There follow three further movements which hold in balance the requirements of symphonic design and the need to limn the progression of the chosen texts. Lyrically (the mezzo-soprano's litany of lochs and burns, or her occasional wordless vocalises), dramatically (the baritone's personification of 'Operation Black Star'), sometimes humorously (the mezzo as 'Bella Budge') and above all factually (with impassive enumeration producing an effect more powerful than rhetoric), the ritual destruction of Hellya is accomplished.

With its two vocal soloists, Black Pentecost can be understood as the 'Das Lied von der Erde' of Davies's symphonic output thus far. Mahler used his soloists to express valedictory sentiments at the end of a long symphonic career. The still youthful Davies of Black Pentecost used them to voice a lament, but one that strikes an uncompromising blow for the present and the future. Clearly, though, he took pains to express that protest by purely musical means. The work certainly 'bares its fangs' when necessary, but it ultimately impresses by its aura of hypnotically sustained meditation.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.
composer’s note: Black Pentecost was written in 1979 in response to a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra for their 75th anniversary. However, when the work was finished, the commission was taken over by the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The text is taken from the novel Greenvoe by the Orcadian poet and novelist George Mackay Brown. This novel describes the disruption and destruction, physically and morally, of an island in Orkney, with its small population, when 'Operation Black Star' moves in. It was published in 1971, and was prophetic of the impact of the oil industry, and the more recent threat of uranium mining, although there was then not a whisper of either. 'Black Star' is never defined closely, but the parallels with uranium mining - the pollution, the destruction of land and homes, the official lies, meant to reassure everyone that it is all quite harmless - were close enough to warrant making this work into an impassioned plea by George Mackay Brown and myself for Orkney to be left green, and that its way of life be allowed to continue and develop without the mass evacuations, etc. which would be necessitated.

The Electricity Authorities who were pressing for permission to prospect for uranium - with the blessing of the Atomic Energy Authority - sent representatives to persuade the Islands Council, and were met with not only a well-informed meeting, which had provided itself with evidence of the uranium-mining environmental disasters in the United States, Australia and Sweden, but by a mass demonstration of all Orcadians who could possibly be present, who kept silent vigil outside the council offices. The Council refused their permission on the grounds that such a small land area as these islands would be incapable of containing such a development and that it would be fatal to the main (very successful) industry - farming (who would buy radioactive butter or lamb?); the Government reserves the right to overrule this decision in case of 'national emergency'. Apart from being possibly illegal (due to Orkney being part of an unredeemed dowry pledge, it is still technically Norwegian) the local population is obviously unanimously against such a development and is pledged to oppose it to the extent of refusing to unload the bulldozers, etc. at the quay, and lying in front of them should someone else be persuaded or forced to do it, and to find any methods at all to prevent such a disaster.

The work opens with a long orchestral movement combining double variation and sonata-form archetypes - which 'set the scene' - a personal interpretation of the land and seascape I have lived with over the last years.

After a full climax and a reflective transition, the second movement starts with the baritone's words 'Black Star, Operation Black Star, was how they described it', and later, describing the first pollution - 'On this particular day the burn was all khaki-coloured scum'.

The third movement follows without a break, a slow introduction leading into an almost scherzo-like section dealing with Bella Budge, one of the novel's characters, being forced to leave her home, and take a boat to Kirkwall, for the first time in her life, clutching Kitty, her favourite hen. 'At Kirkwall she was lifted ashore. She disappeared among a crowd of seamen and dockers and lorry drivers. There was one last diminished squawk from the region of the harbour office.' In a coda, we witness the bulldozing of her home, Biggings, the next day.

The fourth movement, a sequence of passacaglie (again following without a break) confronts Mansie, the farmer about to be dispossessed, with the Black Star official: 'Black Star is necessary for the welfare of the western world. The fate of nations. If you refuse, the matter is out of my hands.' The work ends with the last inhabitants leaving the island - 'Muffled hammer thuds from the heart of Korsfea echoed faintly across the Sound. A half finished dome gleamed out of the Bu's cornfield. They picked up their heavy cases, and turned away.'
recording: BBC Philharmonic, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, Della Jones mezzo-soprano, David Wilson-Johnson baritone
Collins Classics 13662

BBC Philharmonic, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, Della Jones mezzo-soprano, David Wilson-Johnson baritone
Collins Classics 14442 (excerpt)
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