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YESTERDAY, WE CELEBRATED musicians as varied as Franz Josef Haydn, Jimi Hendrix, and Grace Slick. Today in Part 2, a remote Scottish town is threatened environmentally. There’s a happy ending, though, with music that comforts to this day.
The Story of Stromness. Stromness is the second-most populous town in the Orkneys, a collection of islands off the northern tip of Scotland. Its population today is around 2,200, and it was no larger in 1971 when British composer Peter Maxwell Davies set up residence in Orkney.
In the early 1970s, geologists discovered uranium deposits near the town, and the South of Scotland Electricity Board wanted to mine this “yellowcake” for fueling nuclear powerplants. It can be noted that the SSEB was located some 300 miles south of the Orkneys.
Yellowcake Mining. This uranium powder is obtained from leach solutions, the process as environmentally distressing as its name suggests. As described in Wikipedia, “Once the islanders understood the ramifications of solution mining the island, they (and the Orkney Islands Council) opposed the initiative unilaterally.”
Composer (and Orkney resident) Peter Maxwell Davies opposed it too.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Davies’ musical career began early when, as a 14-year-old, he submitted a composition, “Blue Ice,” to a children’s radio program in Manchester. Its singer there said, “He’s either quite brilliant or mad.”
Davies studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, earned an Italian government scholarship to study in Rome, and a Harkness Fellowship to Princeton. He then moved to Australia where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide, 1965–1966. He established his Orkney residence not long after returning to the U.K.
Personal Activism. Known to friends and colleagues as “Max,” Davies was openly homosexual. (Decriminalization of sexual activity between men didn’t occur in England until 1967, later in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Sexual activity between women was never subject to this legal restriction.)
Environmental Activism. Davies also had a keen interest in environmentalism. In particular, he concurred with a Public Examiner’s advising the Scottish Secretary of State to deny the SSEB’s request to mine Orkney: Davies composed The Yellow Cake Revue, a sequence of cabaret songs, recitations, and piano interludes.
Davies performed The Yellow Cake Revue at the Stromness Hotel, as part of the 1980 St. Magnus Festival. Plans for the uranium mine were canceled later that year.
These days, what with one thing or another, Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Farewell to Stromness” is a real comfort. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020
Thank you for introducing me to “Farewell to Stromness.” Lovely.