ITALIAN church architecture has long been a passion of Sir Peter
Maxwell Davies, the composer and (until April) Master of the
Queen's Music, whose almost epic Tenth symphony had its première
this month at the Barbican Hall, in London.
Brunelleschi's Florentine Duomo provided the design
inspiration for Davies's Third Symphony. Bramante, whose interior
plans for St Peter's, Rome formed the basis of the later completion
by Michelangelo, figures high in his pantheon.
Yet none has more preoccupied him than Francesco Borromini
(1599-1667), the brilliant, individualistic, tempestuous, and
self-congratulatory architect of numerous churches in Rome -
including St Agnes's on the historic Piazza Navona, the
Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, and not least the papal
basilica, St John Lateran, which houses Michelangelo's huge and
sombre sculpture of Moses.
Maxwell Davies brings many of these church locations - St Ives,
St Mary of the Sorrows, and poignantly, the Falconieri Chapel,
which the architect completed shortly before his self-inflicted
death - into his Tenth Symphony, forming the words of a kind of
memorial chant maintained by members of the London Symphony Chorus,
under the direction here of the Royal Opera's Music Director, Sir
They offset a gloomy text, falling broadly into three parts: a
vitriolic anonymous attack on Borromini's character and competence
as a church architect; a tragic, despairing, self-addressed virtual
farewell to life: "Or poserai" - "Now you can rest for
ever, O weary heart of mine", nihilistic lines penned two years
before he too died by the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo
Leopardi, one of Davies's literary favourites; and Borromini's
disgruntled - and here terrifyingly projected - description, in
vigorous detail, of a frenzied suicide attempt.
Davies's passion for ecclesiastical design, which dates back to
his student days in Rome, is primarily structural. It underlies the
entire workings of the new Symphony - as it has other works in the
past - not least his Seventh Naxos String Quartet, the titles of
whose movements are taken from Borromini's churches. The composer
says of his symphony: "I feel I'm building a church in music; I
wanted to create something as aurally startling now, in its
context, as a Borromini church must have been visually then."
The programme note refers tothe vivid writing of the purely
instrumental first movement, where opening utterances of marimba
and then clarinet soon yield to vigorous woodwind chorus and
snapping trumpets, as if they were a kind of "building site": a
marshalling yard of the materials to be assembled, almost as if the
development section and exposition were intermingled. The
scherzo-like third movement is also just instrumental.
Much hinged on the carefully rehearsed chorus, whose enunciation
of the opening invective and intoning of the Leopardi near-Sonnet -
virtually a cappella, with sprinklings of minimal clarinet
and flute (Davies's use of alto flutes alone is mesmerising), and
latterly pizzicato cellos and violas - was compelling. But, above
all, I admired the German baritone Markus Butter, who turned the
final sequence into a superb declamation: virtually an operatic
scena. Maxwell Davies's symphonic writing as a whole is a
far cry from being properly appreciated and respected; but this
work, with its intriguing format, left one in little doubt that the
word "masterpiece" applies.