by Nicholas Maw

small orchestra
Small Orchestra
1(=picc+afl).1.1(=Ebcl).1 - 1110 - pno - strings (min
Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta with funds from the Arts Council of Great Britain
First Performance
7.5.92, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London: London Sinfonietta/Anthony Pay

Score and parts for hire

Programme Notes
Nicholas Maw Shahnama The Persian national epic, the Shahnama (Book Of Kings) by the poet Abu’l-Oasim Firdawsi, was completed in about 1010AD. It is a poem of approximately fifty thousand rhyming couplets, and describes the history of Persia’s great rulers from mythical times to about the middle of the seventh century. With its assortment of myths and legends emphasising heroic deeds and the conflict of good (usually a Persian prince or hero) and evil (witches, demons, etc., plus an assortment of foreign potentates) the poem acted as something of a propaganda exercise for the ruling class, and over the centuries came to be seen as the embodiment of Persian royal and national aspirations. Some of these legends are concerned with actual historical figures (such as Alexander The Great, known as Iskandar, who is shot in the eyes by the Persian hero Rustam); others of a shared Middle Eastern provenance are equally well known in the West through such sources as the Bible (such as the story of Joseph/Yusuf), or by being borrowed and written about by European writers (such as Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum). The importance of the Shahnama may be gauged form the fact that it was copied several times for the libraries of various Persian rulers between the early fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Each of these copies was lavishly and beautifully illustrated by some of Islam’s greatest artists, and they provide some of the finest examples of the Persian tradition of illustrative and decorative painting. My work was written entirely as a response to the visual experience of these beautiful illustrative paintings; I have deliberately refrained from investigating too closely the legendary or historical background of the individual paintings I have ‘translated’ into music, as I didn’t wish to write anything resembling programme music in the accepted sense of the word. My musical Shahnama can also be seen as something of a book, or folder, of musical paintings, which the players present to the listener. At the end of each piece the piano has a little flourish (always based around the chord that opens the work) which ‘turns the page’ on to the next illustration, and which finally closes the book at the end. The work is also a set of quasi-variations on the opening Title, and is scored for a small orchestra of single winds (with various doublings), trumpet, horn, trombone, piano, and strings. The work is arranged in a sequence of nine short movements as follows: Title A recitative for horn and trumpet, accompanied by the piano. Rustam And The Seven Champions Hunt in Turan A vigorous piece characterised by repeated notes, and enclosing an appropriate ‘hunting’ solo for the horn. The painting is by the artist Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, and was probably executed around his twentieth year. It is one of the illustrations for the great copy of the Shahnama executed for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp between 1522 and 1544. Majnun Prostrates Himself At His Mother’s Feet The touching story of Majnun and Layla bears some resemblance to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and likewise concerns two ill-fated lovers from rival clans. (And as with Romeo and Juliet, it also includes a scene of the hero lamenting at his beloved’s tomb). It comes from another renowned Persian book, the Khamsa (Quintet) of the poet Nizami (1141 – 1209), and this painting by an unknown artist is from a copy of the book made about 1470. In his grief, Majnun has been living the life of a hermit in the desert, and his mother comes to seek him out before returning home to die. Restrained woodwind octaves are set against intertwined muted solo strings. The Women Of Egypt, Overcome By The Beauty of Yusuf, Cutting Their Fingers As They Peel Oranges This painting also comes from a volume of Nizami’s works, and was probably painted around 1430. It is a Persian slant on the story of Joseph in Egypt. (Several other Persian miniatures deal with Yusuf’s dev

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News & Reviews

'Shahnama' reviews

'The concert's central event…exuded confidence…it revels in invention, delight, terror, without nostalgia or irony, simply unfolding musical tales from a resourceful and richly stocked musical imagination. Like a well - loved book, this is music to return to again and again. The lyrical lines and counterpoint, the distinctive harmonic atmosphere, were all relished by the Sinfonietta players.' The Independent (Robert Maycock), 9 May 1992 Read more

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