Loss and protest with Maxwell-Davies

I have no credible excuses for recent radio silence. It’s amazing how idle you can become when you’ve got so much time on your hands. Doing not very much, it turns out, passes the time extraordinarily quickly.

Yes, I’ve read a lot more, including committing to memory a number of famous poems, (good medicine for the little grey cells) and listened to more music. But I haven’t learnt Mandarin, nor written a book. Just haven’t had the time, you see.

It is high time, however, that I shared some music with you, and my choice today is the very simplest of tunes, but one, if you if you sink into it, you will also find to be  profound, comforting, as well as being peculiarly apt in the current environment.

If you aren’t familiar with the music of the British composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), this site is unlikely to alter that state of affairs after today: that’s because Farewell to Stromness, an interlude from The Yellow Cake Revue, is quite unlike any of his other music, much of it angry and dissonant, and almost all of it multi-styled.

‘Max’, as he was known to his friends, was a prolific composer and acclaimed conductor. He was a republican, but changed his views on the monarchy after being made Master of the Queen’s Music for ten years. He was also an environmentalist, and it is in this context that this piece needs to be taken.

Stromness is the second largest town in Orkney, where Maxwell-Davies had a home. The Yellow Cake Revue is a collection of cabaret-style pieces in protest to plans for a uranium ore mine: Stromness was just a couple of miles away, and would have been the most affected by pollution if the plans had gone ahead.

The piece was written originally for piano, but its transcription to guitar was an inspiration. There are several recordings, but I have deliberately selected the score so that you can just listen without visual distractions. We are told that the underlying pace is supposed to be representative of the villagers walking away from their contaminated homes.

And so ultimately it is a brief piece about loss and protest: a metaphor, you might think, for the global climate forty years after its first performance in 1980. But it is extraordinary how all that can be conveyed with such simplicity.

Click on the image –



22 thoughts on “Loss and protest with Maxwell-Davies”

  1. I’m not familiar with this composer, Nick, but this piece does link to our current situation as it has a sort of unending quality to it! It’s good to hear from you again and, dare I say it, I really think this could be an excellent time for you to start that book! Whatever the storyline it’s sure to be a winner with your great way of writing. I’m sure others will agree with me.


  2. Thank you for this, Nick. I’d meant to leave a comment on a previous post, where your father had described Dvorak’s music as “pop music”. Have I got that right? I’d wondered what he regarded as “proper” music!

    My own Father was very much a Beethoven man, with a generous helping of Rach, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and, yes, Dvorak! He and my Mother were also fond of music with a Spanish flavour, hence my memories of listening to “Soul of Spain” and Rodrigo’s guitar music around the house!
    With best wishes,


    1. Thank you, Andrew. I think he meant it slightly tongue in cheek, he was very much a Wagnerian, which might go some way to explaining his disdain for anything too sweet or cheesy! (If it’s possible to combine those two tastes together, but I think you know what I mean.)
      Are you by chance related to Wilcocksons who went to Ladycross? Perhaps you are one of them yourself?


      1. It’s uncanny but I thought you were going to say something about Wagner! For me all right in small doses – not that he does “small”. Blunt’s book, “The Dream King” is interesting background.

        My family were farmers in Derbyshire for many generations (1500s onwards). WW2 shattered the mould, so to speak, and the boys all went off to do different things.

        I imagine “Festival of Carols” is by one of yours?


      2. !! Reminds me of the, perhaps apocryphal, comment attributed to Rossini- ‘Wagner has some fine moments, but some awful quarter of an hours’!
        Yes, Victor HH was my great uncle.


  3. That is lovely. If it wasn’t for the young organist at church who keeps introducing us to contemporary (not pop) worship music, I would be clueless that there are very wonderful contemporary composers. I think that since my music education ended in 1968 with the atonal music of earlier in the century, I never got to know about later composers. This one moved me and speaks quite eloquently as music can do.


    1. Thank you, so glad you liked it. I struggle with a lot of mid/late 20th century stuff, because so much of it doesn’t have what I need – namely, something to sing along to! But occasionally you stumble on a surprise such as this. Which is why I try and keep an open mind as much as possible!


  4. This plaintive piece is lovely, the slow walking pace very evocative. I’m almost sure it was played at the wedding of HRH Prince Charles and Camilla, maybe I’m wrong, I seem to remember hearing it as the couple were walking into the ceremony.
    Incidentally, I agree with Rosemary, you should write a book, you have the talent!


      1. I found it on YouTube and listened to the piano version. It was good, too, but I really enjoyed listening to the guitar and following the score you provided. The piece was very powerful in its quiet way.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Nick, I hope all is well with you. Thank you for the Maxwell Davies recommendation. I had no idea he was capable of beauty and have avoided his music like the plague since first encountering it at a school music appreciation class! It was a delight. I rather agree on the idleness of lockdown. I have done lots of jobs but could have done so many more had I put my mind to it. The period would have been brilliant for learning a language or indeed an instrument but sadly it has been largely wasted on stuff that needed to be done but which nonetheless has not left me with a great deal to show for it! At some point we hope the French will lift their travel restrictions and then we shall drive to our house in the South West but until then it is regular walks round Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and occasionally the canal as well as a lot of reading. Keep well. As ever Tyrrell



    1. Thank you, Tyrrell. You and me both on his music, this was something of a surprise – and I gather the only music that was played at his funeral.
      I have, I think, succeeded in doing one thing in lockdown, but, teasingly, I can’t reveal it just yet. All may become clear in the next day or two – watch this space! Love to you both, Nick


  6. Nick

    Caught he first 20 mins of your radio show on Sunday .Greatly enjoyed it .Hope it went well for you

    BW Philip

    A. Philip Marsden
    M +44 7785 922096


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