Contemporary Composer – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Arnold Whittall Mon 14th March 2016

Arnold Whittall celebrates a great British composer and recommends some key recordings

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (photo by Martin Lengemann)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (photo by Martin Lengemann)

There are whole books to be compiled about the extraordinary diversity of the music written by British composers born during the 1930s; Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Nicholas Maw, Cornelius Cardew, Gordon Crosse, Jonathan Harvey – and that is only a partial list. Back in 1963, Goehr and Davies were already prominent enough to be included in Murray Schafer’s British Composers in Interview (Faber & Faber): and the Davies section ended with the 29-year-old composer declaring that ‘I want to communicate with the audience right away. But I must remain musically honest, and make no concessions to any debased or commercial taste.’ 

Peter Maxwell Davies facts

  • Born

    Salford, Greater Manchester, September 8, 1934

  • Early Education

    Leigh Grammar School, Royal Manchester College of Music and Manchester University

  • Teachers

    He benefited most from studies in Italy with Goffredo Petrassi (1957-8) and at Princeton University (1962-5) with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt

  • Other formative experiences

    Contact at Manchester with Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon; working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School (1959-62); co-founding the Pierrot Players (1967); moving to Orkney in 1971

  • Breakthrough works

    Alma redemptoris mater for wind sextet (1957); O magnum mysterium for choir, instrumental ensemble and organ (1960), written for performance at Cirencester

  • Credo

    ‘Classical music cannot become a museum culture, however tempting such a proposition may be. All performers, to be really alive, must be in a constructive relationship with contemporary culture, and this means live composers.’ (2005) 

Half a century later, he would doubtless say the same, having invested much of his creative identity in constructivist techniques deriving ultimately from the Schoenbergian 12-note method. The resulting music has rarely been either dry or dull. But even in his Ken Russell phase, devising music for the films The Devils and The Boy Friend (both 1971), and with dramatic extravaganzas like Eight Songs for a Mad Kingand Vesalii Icones (both 1969) the foxtrots that blew apart the striving counterpoints of his most characteristic textures were structurally disruptive devices, disconcerting rather than emollient. The Davies version of a pop song heard near the end of his opera Resurrection (1987) also reinforces the nightmarish surrealism of that work: musical honesty demanded that audiences should never be lulled into false security or complacency. 

Being at odds with the establishment came naturally to a musically gifted working-class child born in the mid-20th century. Yet benefiting from the institutions associated with that ‘establishment’ – grammar schools, free university education – left Davies determined not only to teach but to root his creative work in aspects of the British early music heritage that could be shown to interact with those broader international and contemporary features found during his studies in Italy and America. His earliest compositions already possess a lyrical intensity distinguishing them from the terse fragmentation favoured by some older contemporaries, and that intensity continued to determine the character of his huge and well-varied output. Even when – after a brief spell of full-time schoolteaching – he was working predominantly with the six musicians of the Pierrot Players (later called Fires of London), he was exploring larger orchestral and vocal forms, and the first main phase of his compositional development culminated in the full-length opera Taverner (1970). 

Today, Taverner (begun in 1962) can be seen to have connected his early delight in expressionistic parody with a symphonic weightiness that echoes and elaborates Alban Berg’s debt to Mahler. In Davies’s opera the 16th-century composer John Taverner is not just at odds with the Tudor establishment but driven to distraction by his struggle to survive; and such a determined sense of struggle has continued to define Davies’s musical aesthetic. The orchestral motet Worldes blis (1969) was the most extreme example of his early ambition to reconfigure symphonic music as a gigantic transformation of continuously proliferating instrumental lines derived from plainchant rather than from pithy Beethovenian motives, generating immense waves of tension that struggle to find any genuine sense of release. Worldes blis had an uncomfortable Proms premiere, and the cycle of compositions actually called a ‘symphony’ which Davies began four years later was not just a defiant reassertion of comparably uncompromising thinking: it was also a new take on the possibilities for fusion between aspects of traditional symphonic form and the musical language whose elements had underpinned most of his earlier works. Many of Davies’s symphonies were composed during his years on the Orkney Islands. The Second Symphony, in particular, uses imagery evoking that very location – ‘a direct response to the ocean’s extreme proximity’ – and is also firmly committed to a newly-evolved understanding of tonality ‘extended’, the composer wrote, ‘to form new methods of cohesion’. Even listeners who respond to such a vivid depiction of turbulence in the natural world can have difficulty in registering both the tonality and the cohesion in this symphony. But there was no doubting the urgent sincerity of the composer’s engagement with environmental issues (drilling for oil in the North Sea) and those longer-term regional aspects of folk music and puritanical religious observance that inform compositions like Black Pentecost (1979), An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (culminating in the appearance of a bagpipe player in full costume) and The Beltane Fire (1995). 

Perhaps the most accessible and substantial of these enterprises is the sequence of 10 Strathclyde Concertos (1987-95) written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and named after the local authority that commissioned the series. Less monumental than the symphonies, and with a flexibility of form and style that encouraged the various soloists to rise to the highest levels of virtuosity, the Strathclyde Concertoswere early beneficiaries of a contract between Davies and the Collins Classics recording company that saw timely CD releases of much of his later instrumental music under his own direction. The demise of Collins Classics and the collapse of the support network provided by the family of the composer’s long-term business manager led to a period in which few recordings were released. But during his decade as Master of the Queen’s Music (2004-14) the situation improved, not least with the Naxos label’s reissue of Collins Classics discs. Naxos was also behind the series of 10 string quartets written for the Maggini Quartet between 2002 and 2007, all speedily released in pairs on five CDs. 

The 10 symphonies written between 1973 and 2014, combined with the 10 Strathclyde Concertos and 10 Naxos Quartets provide a very substantial spine to the composer’s output, but it is remarkable how many other significant and memorable works crop up after 1973. From magical chamber scores – Ave Maris Stella (1975), A Mirror of Whitening Light (1977), Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982) – to operas that have stood the test of time (most notably The Lighthouse) and choral works like the oratorio Job (1997) and the Mass (2002), the range has been phenomenal, the determination to challenge while not sinking into irrelevance consistent and intense. In a Royal Philharmonic Society lecture from 2005, near the start of his stint as Master of the Queen’s Music, the composer chose the uncompromising title ‘Will serious music become extinct?’, and included the affirmation that ‘perhaps religion has this in common with great art: it is not there to offer comfort but – pace King Lear – to make manifest “the mystery of things”.’ With the triumphant first performance of his Symphony No 10 in February 2014, composed under the shadow of life-threatening illness, Davies offered a powerful endorsement of the sense in which the struggles of a single creative artist – in the 10th Symphony, the great Renaissance architect Borromini – can serve and enhance that process of manifestation. In a heartfelt tribute to Michael Tippett on his 80th birthday, Davies wrote of that ‘transcendent and visionary quality which is a continuing example…to all who care about the possibility of music today expressing man’s highest aspirations’. It makes good sense to apply these same words to Peter Maxwell Davies himself. 

Recommended Recordings

Taverner

Soloists; BBC Symphony Orchestra / Oliver Knussen

(NMC) M b NMCD157 (3/10)

This 2009 release of a 1996 BBC recording presents a revelatory performance of Davies’s first opera, a work that stands for all the essential aspects of the composer’s creative development... Read the review

 

Ave Maris Stella. Psalm 124. Dove, Star-Folded

Gemini / Ian Mitchell

(Metier)

A rare and outstanding example of a relatively recent recording of works for smaller forces, including Ave Maris Stella, music whose visionary eloquence and intensity Davies has never surpassed. 

 

Piano Works 1949-2009

Richard Casey pf

Prima Facie M b PFCDO17018

This double album contains an interview between pianist and composer, and also the first recording of Parade, written when Maxwell Davies was just 15, alongside a range of compositions representing all phases of his mature work. 

 

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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