Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

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Concerto Accademico

for string orchestra and string quartet

opus number: 319
completion date: 2012
duration: c. 20 minutes
scoring: String orchestra, including “solo” string quartet role
world premiere: 13 September 2012, Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna
Performed by Orchestra Mozart and Pascal Rophé, conductor
commissioner: Regia Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna & Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
publisher: Schott
category: Chamber orchestra work
composer’s note: The Concerto Accademico was commissioned by the Regia Academia Filarmonico od Bologna and the Stuttgart Kammerorchester, and since I was granted the diploma of the Bologna Academy in December 2011, I decided to make this work not only an expression of gratitude, but also, perhaps, in part, a presentation of academic qualification, to justify this singular honour.



It is scored for string quartet and string orchestra, and is based upon a plainsong heard at the outset, associated with the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples at Pentecost, and their subsequent speaking (or singing!) in tongues. This plainsong was woven into three magic squares involving six, nine and ten sets of note-length and pitch, subjected to constant transformation, and forming a matrix for ample isometric and proportional form-building on a micro and macro level. On a surface level, the music abounds in most learned counterpoint, metric canon, and long-term tonal architectural torque.


I find that these academic preoccupations in no way inhibit spontaneous invention – in fact, they become a catalyst for exuberant instrumental fantasy, and a take-off point for improvisatory tangential thinking.


The string quartet, together with a solo double bass in the orchestra, slowly unfolds the plainsong, followed by a short slow introduction, in which the plainsong is extended, and folded into the magic squares, with the quartet picking up and holding aloft from the orchestra three chords, which are going to be pivotal in the work’s tonal discourse.


A loud and full coda flows directly into an ‘adagio molto’, where the tonal implications of the held chords are first followed through. Towards the close of this slow section, the quartet play a theme in unison against an orchestral backdrop imitating the church bells of Grotte di Castro, in Lazio, where the music was written.


Three scholarly metric canons, with ‘accelerandi’, lead into a quick finale, with no break. (The exact rhythmic notation of one of these is so intricate I thought it tactful to ask the ’cellist to play “con buonumore”!)


References to Orkney-Scottish folk fiddle music abound in this finale – the Orkney island where I live is still a society in which traditional folk music and dance are in the blood and in the air. A very fast central ‘transformation’ section, with particularly virtuoso writing for the quartet’s two violins and the viola and ’cello in pairs together, was directly inspired by the second, scherzo movement of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony, which in my conducting days I often performed.


A very tonally positive brief reference to the slow middle movement, and a final accelerating proportional canon lead to the work’s confident, but I trust still quite enigmatic, conclusion.


© Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
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