Peter Maxwell Davies: Farewell to Stromness

Context

Composed in the late 1970s and premiered in 1980, Peter Maxwell Davies’ solo piano work, Farewell to Stromness, is one of his most accessible works. The piece was written as a protest against a proposed uranium mine near the small village of Stromness, where the composer lived for some time.

Originally composed as a solo piano piece, Farewell to Stromness has been re-orchestrated many times for a range of different instruments and ensembles. The piece became even more popular when Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles used an arrangement by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the blessing of their marriage in 2005.

The work isn’t necessarily quintessential Davies, however the simple melody has become one of the most recognisable tunes. Davies spoke to The Guardian about this work around the time of it’s premiere:

 

“My little piano piece Farewell to Stromness has almost become a folk tune. People just say, ‘I like that piece’, and they don’t know who wrote it. It gets played an awful lot at funerals these days. And that’s very unusual, for a so-called serious composer, to write a piece that people like so much, and they don’t care who it’s by.”

 

The Music

Marked ‘At a slow walking pace’ the opening crotchets set the calm and tranquil scene. The melody starts in bar five and is comprised of triplet semiquavers, a crotchet and a quaver. This structure is used throughout the piece as the melody develops in various ways. 

The accompaniment becomes more prominent as the melody grows. Instead of just one note, Davies starts writing chordal movement underneath the melody. This still keeps the simplicity and quaint character of the piece alive. As the dynamics grow and diminish throughout, the music swells in richness before resorting back to a sparse score. This adds to the light and shade of the piece. 

A reprise of the opening melody after the developmental section brings the piece down to its quiet close. Davies’ exploration of this melody is intriguing as he passes it through various dynamics, rhythms and harmonies. The character, however, stays quite the same with the tender touch of Davies shining through.

 

Final Thoughts

Often heard now in its string orchestra version due to the 2005 Royal Wedding, nothing can really beat the original piano version. The beguiling simplicity of the melody adds to the overall charm of this lovely work by the late Peter Maxwell Davies.

 

Happy Reading!

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