‘Sometimes, the music knows something you don’t.’
These words, spoken by Peter Maxwell Davies before a performance of his Sixth Symphony on 12 March 2013, refer to the coincidence of the completion of that work with the death of his friend and collaborator George Mackay Brown in 1996. The morning after the performance, Maxwell Davies received a cancer diagnosis that was to prove life-changing if not life-ending and one that in retrospect had seemed to him a long time coming. The crystallising of the new Tenth Symphony around the life and work of the Italian Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599–1667) had been in progress since at least the beginning of 2013 and one thing that did not change as a result of Maxwell Davies’ illness was his desire to press ahead with a composition that is essentially a meditation on creativity and mortality in the full knowledge that he might not live to finish it.
The Symphony is conceived in four parts, none of which conforms for long to any formal archetype evoked by Maxwell Davies’ other symphonic works. Instead it is the (subjective) drama of Borromini’s life and the (objective) design of his architecture that underpins a sequence that alternates purely instrumental movements with settings of texts from three sources.