Peter Maxwell Davies - Sonata for ‘Cello & Piano (2007)Sequentia Serpentigena

Live performance filmed on Saturday 4th October 2014 at Hallé St. Peter's, Manchester in the presence of the composer. The film begins with a 7 minute 30 second introduction to the work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Psappha Ensemble
Jennifer Langridge - cello
Benjamin Powell - piano


Peter Maxwell Davies
Sonata for ‘Cello & Piano (2007)
Sequentia Serpentigena

I. Traditor Autem
II. Nequaquam Morte Moriemini
III. Rerum Sapientia Custos
IV. Amplexus Placide Tumulum
V. In Immortalitatem Litium
VI. Saevit In Umbram

The Sonata for ‘cello and piano is the direct outcome of encountering the ‘pievi’ – early medieval rural churches – of Tuscany. In particular, it was inspired by the elusive and enigmatic nature of the imagery of their stone carvings.

I have concentrated on just one image, that of the snake, which in Jewish and Christian tradition is a symbol of temptation and betrayal, and of sinfulness in general. However, in the pieve, older significances, which can be traced back to Estruscan times, can be discerned, and these meanings, quite contrary to the usual readings, are now beginning to be fathomed, helping us to understand for instance why the pieve of San Vito, Corsignano, has no stone carving apart from decorative elements, and that of small, extended snakes.

I took as a basis for the whole work the Gregorian chant proper to Maundy Thursday, ‘Traditor autem dedit eis signum’, concerning the betrayal of Christ by Judas. We therefore start from a conventional Jewish-Christian standpoint, but the meaning of the plainsong is made to modify as the movements progress, with systematic changes of contour by intervallic expansion and the contraction, by magic square workings in both the melodic and rhythmic fields, and other, related transformation processes, not least, on the harmonic plane.

There are six movements, played with only the briefest of pauses between them.

Gregorian chant proper to Maundy Thursday concerning the betrayal of Christ by Judas

The first movement is very short. First, the plainsong is uncoiled sinuously by the solo ‘cello: next, the piano (alone) extracts the pivotal notes out of this melody, then turns the resultant seven-pitch figure upside down at a distance of the diminished fifth (this interval was considered to be “diabolus in musica” – the devil in music – by some medieval theologians with musical preoccupations). Finally, we hear, on ‘cello harmonics, a combination and reduction of the piano’s fourteen-note figure into a nine-note melodic outline, and all is prepared for exploration.

“Ye shall not surely die” – words of the Serpent to Eve, Genesis III

The second movement, ‘moderato’, is concerned still with the pervading traditional serpentine symbolism, exploited against a background of musical imagery borrowed from Schumann and Brahms.

(The serpent as) guardian of knowledge

A serpentine discourse on the snake as font of magical knowledge, particularly a knowledge imparted by snakes to humans of the language of birds – there are several mysterious carvings in the pievi of serpents whispering into willing human ears, which are certainly not those of Eve. This archetypal image can be traced back to ancient Greece.

(The serpent) “gently wound round the tomb”. In Vergil’s Aeneid, book V, during Anchises’ funeral rites a gold and azure serpent moves from Anchises’ tomb, partakes of the ritual food placed about, then returns to the tomb.

This is an “adagio”, touching upon the chthonic/underworld associations of serpent lore, with the snake as arbiter between the living and the dead.

of never-ending strife

The fifth, very brief movement starts out as a military march. There are only three sections of just a few measures each of quasi-military bravado – each followed by a short slow passage, reflecting upon any hollowness the “alla Marcia militare” might suggest: which snake said what into whose ear, when?

(The serpent) rages against the shadows
Here, I imagine the serpent in his Dionysiac incarnation, fighting shades, to be torn by them to pieces, and entombed, in preparation for resurrection in a serpent engendered – or even uroborus (serpent eating its own tail) engendered-eternal cycle of ritual death and rebirth.

Psappha’s YouTube Channel

You can also visit Psappha’s YouTube Channel, where you can watch:

  • Films of works by emerging composers
  • Films of Psappha’s Hong Kong Residency (2013)
  • All of the films on Psappha’s website