Opera + Classical Music Features

Obituary: Peter Maxwell Davies

“He’s either quite brilliant or mad”

Thus said Violet Carson in 1950 of the young Peter Maxwell Davies, following his submission of an early composition to the radio programme Children’s Hour. Max (as he was always known), a man with a subversive sense of humour, probably hugely enjoyed the fact that one of his earliest critics was to become Coronation Street’s notoriously no-nonsense northern battleaxe, Ena Sharples.

Max studied at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he formed, along with fellow students Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, John Ogden and Elgar Howarth, New Music Manchester (eventually known to the history of British music as The Manchester School). Subsequent studies with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome and Roger Sessions at Priceton were to influence Max’s early work profoundly, and to place him firmly (in the public eye, at least) in the ‘mad’ bracket of Carson’s predictions. His earliest brush with public outrage was perhaps the 1969 premiere of his music-drama Eight Songs for a Mad King, which explores, through extremely angular music (and not a small amount of screaming), the madness of George III, and Max’s similar compositions (such as the foxtrot-haunted St Thomas Wake, Vesalii Icones – the dance piece marrying of the Stations of the Cross with Vesalius’ anatomical drawings – and the portrayal of the Miss Havisham prototype in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot) increased his reputation as a composer who liked to shock; at the Proms performance of his major orchestral work Worldes Blis in 1969, many of the audience walked out. It seemed natural, then for Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of the British film industry, to commission Max to write the score for his disturbing cinematic account of sexual obsession disguised as demonic possession, The Devils.

Max, however, weathered the storms of public disapproval well; although sometimes deeply upset by audience reaction, he was always a firm believer in the power of music to communicate with everyone, however difficult this might prove for the listener: “An audience shouldn’t listen with complacency”, he said – and subsequently added, of his own work, that “…what they can expect always, is that they’re going to be made to think”.

In 1971, attracted by the bleak landscape, the absence of human noise, and the quality of light in the Orkney Islands, Max moved to a small isolated cottage on Hoy, where he was to spend the next thirty years (moving, in 2002, to Sanday). It was from this point on that his music began to acquire a more contemplative feel, and he commenced working on post-serialist ways of structuring music in a formal way – using the mathematical complexities suggested by magic squares in pieces such as Ave Maris Stella (1975) and A Mirror of Whitening Light (1977). His absorption of the Orkney landscape also left its more obvious aural trace in pieces such as Hymn to St Magnus (1972) and Stone Litany (1973), and his settings of texts by the native poet, George Mackay Brown (who said, of his first meeting with the composer “The young dark composer – Beethoven in his twenties might have looked like him”) secured his position as an adopted Orcadian, and gave him the confidence to set up, in 1977, the St Magnus Festival, dedicated to performing his works.

Over the next four and a half decades, he turned more and more to classical forms, which were composed – possibly coincidentally – in sets of ten. Begun in 1976, the series of ten symphonies was completed in 2013; a set of ten concertos (each one for a different instrument or instruments) commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council was begun in 1986, and finished with the triumphant Concerto for Orchestra ten years later; the ten Naxos String Quartets (commissioned by the eponymous record company) were written between 2001 and 2007.

Notwithstanding the rigour of writing these more formal classical works, Max, by his own admission enjoyed variety – the madness still intermingling with the brilliance; in an interview with Ali Howard in 2011 he said: “I’ve always wanted to do the daftest, most ridiculous things – the most difficult, the most obscure. And if somebody comes along and says, ‘Will you write a piece of music for something totally impossible?’ I will say, ‘Yes, of course’”, and this attitude has led to a massive musical legacy – that encompasses four full-length adult operas (including the biographical challenging early work Taverner), two formal ballets, works for children (including his posthumous children’s opera, The Hobgoon, to be performed this summer), works of protest (such as his 1980 Yellow Cake Review, which contains Max’s  most well-known piece, the bittersweet piano interlude Return to Stromness) and lighter works such as the arrangement of Sandy Wilson’s score for Russell’s 1971 film The Boy Friend or Mavis in Las Vegas, inspired by the telephone error of a hotel, who managed to book ‘Maxwell Davies’ as ‘Mavis’.

The years of prodigious output brought – possibly reluctantly, as Max was also a shy and self-deprecating man – recognition as a major composer of the age; in 1987, he was knighted, and in 2004 he was appointed as Master of the Queen’s Music for a ten-year tenure, and earlier this year he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Oxford University in 2005, and continued his relationship with academia through his visiting Professorship at The Royal Academy of Music. As well as his work as a composer, Max also worked regularly as a conductor – mostly conducting his own works, but also the works of others, and he worked with a number of orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Although he began his career as a challenging and anti-establishment iconoclast, Max mellowed in later life, so much so that he became a vocal fan of the monarchy; he still reserved, however, a tinge of the old sharp-eyed asperity – the asperity that accompanied his vocal support of alternative sexuality, his strong championship of the arts in the face of financial cuts, and a determination to prevent the exploitation of the Orkney Islands for uranium – for politicians: “frankly”, he said, in 2010, “I have been disappointed so much with our dishonest politicians. They are not telling the truth, any of them.” 

Max’s death, at 81, after a long struggle with leukaemia, leaves a large hole in Britain’s musical life. His work has never perhaps enjoyed the popularity of that of composers such as John Tavener or the more post-modern school such as Thomas Adès or Jonathan Dove, but, along with his fellow Manchester-School composers Goehr and Birtwistle, he represents the post-serialist transition of British music into the age of experimental modernism and beyond, without which, the current crop of composers would have less freedom to seek their own voices.

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