It was Maeshowe, in particular, that
inspired Davies’s Stone Litany: Runes from a
House of the Dead, a work for mezzo-soprano
and orchestra. The cairn is visible from a
great distance, a grassy mound rising in a
farmer’s field. The visitor enters the tomb
through a low, narrow passage, emerging into
a main chamber whose walls and ceiling were
ingeniously constructed of heavy stone slabs
without mortar. The entrance is aligned so that
at the winter solstice, the rays of the setting
sun travel through the narrow passage, setting
the chamber aglow. Acoustical studies of the
tomb have produced speculation around its
unsettling aural effects: chanting voices or
drums played in its center seem to emerge
from its three side cells, which were likely used
to house the dead.
Stone Litany evokes Maeshowe’s mystery,
and the birth of human speech itself: the
singer’s voice emerges in a series of trills, gasps
and utterances out of dark-hued orchestral
scoring and the high, warped whistle of the
flexatone — the wind across an ancient field.
Davies’s text for Stone Litany comes from
the collection of runic “graffiti” carved into
the central room’s walls, possibly by twelfth-century Vikings who broke into the cairn
to seek shelter during a winter storm — the
composer had them translated into Norn,
Orkney’s Old Norse dialect. The power of
the piece lies, in part, in the way the singer’s
voice weaves in and out of a rising orchestral
force that suggests not only the harsh natural
environment, but also the voices of the dead
clamoring to be heard.
Around the time the Norsemen were
carving their runes into the walls of Maeshowe,
another story was gaining force: the life and
death of Magnus, a twelfth-century Viking
earl of Orkney. Set in the early thirteenth-century Orkneyinga Saga, the story finds
contemporary resonance in George Mackay
Brown’s novel Magnus. That novel, in turn,
was the basis for Davies’s chamber opera The
Martyrdom of St. Magnus.
Magnus, in the saga, is a pacifist and
devoted Christian betrayed and executed by
order of his cousin and co-ruler, Hakon. The
drama culminates on Easter on the lonely isle
of Egilsay, as Magnus prays and kneels gladly
to the sacrifice, asking only that executioner
deliver his axe blow straight to his forehead as
a mark of respect.
Miracles followed, and the martyr’s story
became linked to Orkney’s yearly agrarian
cycle of winter darkness and spring renewal.
The opera’s first and last scenes belong to an
Orcadian peasant woman. Like the singer of
Dark Angels, she is accompanied by a guitarist.
She is first a blind beggar, then a prophetess,
and finally, a symbol of Orkney’s people as
their own destiny unfolds. Raving horn fanfare
suggests the chaos of Hakon’s ruthless power
grab, dissolving against the quiet plainchant
undergirding Magnus’s music.
St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall offers the
most vital incarnation of the martyr’s role in
Orcadian culture. Magnus’s nephew Rognvald
initiated construction on the red sandstone
cathedral in 1134 to honor the saint and house
his relics. Those relics — including the skull
with its two wound marks — were discovered
during restoration work in 1919, and a modest
brass plaque marks the spot where they rest
today, in the southeast wall of the choir. It
was from a podium near that spot that Davies
conducted the premiere of The Martyrdom of
St. Magnus as the centerpiece of the first St.
Magnus International Festival in June 1977.
Maybe it’s no surprise that this vibrant
midsummer music-and-arts festival was
dreamed up at the Bevans’ kitchen table.
“Max wanted to give something back to the
community,” says Elizabeth. And with the
help of the Bevans and others, he realized that
dream. The festival, now in its fortieth year,
is considered one of Britain’s finest, drawing
visitors and acclaimed artists from around
the world. Musical education and the local
community remain at its heart: some four
hundred community members take part in
performances, including young musicians
who play side by side with professionals from
visiting orchestras. Performers often stay
with local families, a tradition that echoes the
Bevans’ early hospitality to a stranger.
In the four decades that followed his move
to Orkney, Davies’s own international stature—
not only as a composer, but as a conductor
and music educator—would continue to grow.
Considered one of the most eminent and
prolific contemporary classical composers,
he produced over three hundred works, from
solo pieces and chamber music to symphonies,
operas, children’s musical theater and film
scores. Knighted in 1987, he held the post of
the Master of the Queen’s Music from 2004 to
2014. Critic Paul Russell called his music “one
of extraordinary humanity . . . one of profound
sympathy, an enlargement of the human spirit.”
But the renowned figure “Sir Peter” would
always be “Max” to his friends, colleagues and
neighbors. And while he eventually left Hoy’s
rugged terrain for the more level isle of Sanday,
he kept up his long walks, listening for musical
structures in Sanday’s land and seascapes, its
ancient sites, the shimmer of the Northern
Lights in winter. He also continued his lifelong
support of music education, writing new pieces
for the Sanday Fiddlers Club and the island
schools. His grand piano now lives in the
Sanday Community School.
Fittingly, Davies’s last completed work, Op.
330 of a celebrated career, is a children’s opera
featuring young singers in prominent roles.
The Hogboon takes its name from an Orcadian
folk figure, an ancient mound dweller and
crofting family’s guardian spirit. In the opera, a
hogboon helps the young hero, Magnus, defeat
a sea monster plaguing an island community. It
premiered to a full house at London’s Barbican
Theatre in June 2016, three months after
Hogboons, sea monsters, a local hero
named Magnus. It’s hard not to hear Rackwick’s abiding influence. Such figures — along
with dwarves, trowies and other fairy
folk — abound in its lore, particularly on the
steep southern slope of the Knap of Trow-ieglen, where a footpath leads to a massive,
hollowed-out boulder called the Dwarfie Stane.
A prehistoric tomb, or the dwelling place of a
dwarf or giant? How did it get here? It depends
who you ask.
At dusk, the rock gleams unearthly white
against the heather, beckoning the walker.
Crawl inside, lie down on the smooth cold bed
of stone. Do something weird with your voice,
just to hear what the stone thinks.
It’s getting dark, time to go. But as the
walker emerges and stands upright on the
steep slope, she can’t help but think of someone
else who once stood here, listening, searching
for a way to give the spirits of this place,
human and otherwise, a voice in music.