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Expert Comment: the lasting influence of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

maxwell davies Sir Peter Maxwell credit Martin Lengemann Thursday 17 March 2016

Professor Stephen Pratt, from Liverpool Hope's Department of Music, reflects on the life, works and lasting influence of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. 

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who has died at the age of 81, was a most inventive and pioneering composer whose work took a number of unpredictable changes of direction during his long and illustrious career. To an extent, it was a life marked by paradox. As a young man, Maxwell Davies was an intense, at times almost reclusive figure, yet then – as for all of his career -  communication was, for him, the most important aspect of his composition. For all his later cheery personality, and enormous gifts as a speaker about music and as an educator, one often felt that he was probably most at home alone with his thoughts and sheets of manuscript. Developing a compositional voice through the 1950s, voraciously engaging with the most recent ideas from Europe and America, he nevertheless found his own path, drawing especially upon early English music.

As a student in Rome in the late 1950s, whilst many in Europe were pursuing complex modernist approaches, he frequently attended monastic services with his copy of the Liber Usualis, studying the art of melody from ancient plainsong. His national recognition can be said to have begun with a performance in the 1962 Proms season of his First Fantasia on an In Nomine of John Taverner; by the end of the decade his reputation was international, and his capacity for work seemed inexhaustible. In 1969 he completed the epic Worldes Blis and the colourful St. Thomas Wake for orchestra, music-theatre works Eight Songs for a Mad King and Vesalii Icones, and the opera Taverner in 1970. However, at the height of this London-centric success and notoriety, he decided, after a visit to Hoy in 1970, to re-locate to the Orkneys, which is where he lived for the rest of his life.

The influence of the landscape and culture of his new surroundings was immediately felt in his work, whether through collaboration with the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown (as for example in From Stone to Thorn,1971, or Dark Angels, 1973) or in the setting of runic inscriptions from Maeshowe on mainland Orkney (in Stone Litany, 1973). Here, too, he returned to writing for children, and thoroughly enjoyed the role of being a composer in and for the community. He set up the St. Magnus Festival, which not only highlighted local culture but brought artists of international standing to the island.  In the mid 1970s, he shocked many by producing a symphony – a musical form which had been almost derided in the 1960s – and this was to be the first of ten, which spanned from this point more or less to the end of his composing life. He also produced a series of ten concertos for members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council, and later (2001 -2007) a series of string quartets commissioned by the Naxos record label. Through all these works, a more diverse musical language was now in evidence, far removed from the extremes of his 1960s work, although he always maintained that there might be another Eight Songs just around the corner. In recent years, he spoke eloquently and revealingly about the thorny issue of stylistic changes in his work, thankfully recorded on film.

Max came to Liverpool Hope (Christ’s College) several times with his ensemble The Fires of London. The old lecture theatre (now Our Place) housed one of the first performances of his opera The Martyrdom of St. Magnus, and there was a notorious performance of Vesalii Icones. The dancer, Tom Yang, had decided in a performance the night before to dance two of the movements naked, and wanted to do the same again at Christ’s College. Max thought this to be wholly inappropriate in a church college, and went to explain the situation to Mgr. Bernard Doyle. Max was adamant, and so at the crucial point in the performance, the dancer walked off stage, and refused to dance; Max often recounted the story on visits to Liverpool, noting that word seemed to have got out about the previous night’s show as the front rows filled up very quickly for the performance! He also came with Eight Songs for a Mad King, and ran a large scale workshop of his Five Klee Pictures for an orchestra comprising local school children. I saw him last when he came to Liverpool for rehearsals and the first performance of his Ninth symphony, which he (rightly) described as a ‘tough little nut’.

Max did so much for the musical life of the United Kingdom. He campaigned tirelessly for music education, and music-making of all kinds. He has left a wealth of music, diverse and rich, ranging from simple diatonic songs to the most complex constructions; he had the gift of speaking in many musical tongues, and always with integrity and sincerity.

Image c/o Martin Lengemann/Intermusica 

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