Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

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A Calendar of Kings

For vocal quartet

opus number: 228
completion date: 2002
duration: 6 minutes
scoring: Four female voices
world premiere: 30 November 2002, First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
The Anonymous Four
commissioner: The Anonymous Four, with funds provided by Abendmusik, Lincoln Fine Arts Series, Lincoln, Nebraska
publisher: Chester Music Ltd
category: Vocal/choral work
difficulty level: 1 (easiest)
text: George Mackay Brown, from the poem sequence Following a Lark
programme note: Short Note by Roderic Dunnett

This astonishingly beautiful six-minute a cappella piece for four voices, echoing Max's lovely Cirencester carols of the 1960s, is a setting of a poem from one of George Mackay Brown's last collections, Following a Lark. The work was written for the Lincoln Fine Arts Series and premiered in 2002 at the First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska by Anonymous Four, whose pure and perfect renderings of (amongst others) Hildegard of Bingen need no introduction. There's a medieval charmed innocence about Max's Christmas carol too, as it evokes, in Brown's gentle, haiku-like lines, the Three Wise Men, who - full of awe - journey to find Jesus's crib ('the horses grazed among snowdrops'... 'a midwinter inn') through what sounds suspiciously like an Orkney landscape.
composer’s note: A Calendar of Kings sets a George Mackay Brown poem concerning the journey of the three Magi from the East to the scene of Christ's nativity. From the imagery, with ice, snowdrops, daffodils, etc. it is clear that the journey lasts a season, and that the poet has transplanted the setting from the Middle East to his native land and seascape in Orkney, bringing the nativity home in a very vivid way indeed.

In setting these lines, I was very aware of the idea of a journey: the music, though it sets out from and returns to the key of F minor, takes modulatory turns which slowly affect the way we interpret this key. A very strong tie is slowly established to C flat (B natural) rather than to C, its (usual) dominant, so that at the close, after the shift to B minor, the sound of E sharp (F natural), the tritone below this chord, makes a convincing arrival point, I trust, and an inevitable-seeming conclusion.

I based the main thematic material of 'Calendar' on the opening phrase of a Mass I wrote recently for Westminster Cathedral, London. The rising figure suggested the idea of a quest to me in what I hoped would prove to be a vivid and powerful way.

Throughout I tried to vary the "orchestration" - the tessitura and density of texture - as much as possible working with four women's voices only, as well as pacing events to suggest a ritual journey. The sense of mystery and awe was all-important.
recording: Harmonia Mundi - 907 325
Wolcum Yule - Anonymous Four
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