Nicholas Maw's Breakthrough: Scenes and Arias Reconsidered

By Gloag, Kenneth | Musical Times, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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Nicholas Maw's Breakthrough: Scenes and Arias Reconsidered


Gloag, Kenneth, Musical Times


IN A fitting tribute to the recently deceased Nicholas Maw (19352009) published in this journal, Arnold Whittall began: '31 August 1962 was the date when a prescient historian could have been persuaded that contemporary music in Britain would not evolve in just one direction but would take strengtii from die intricate interplay of contrasting and even conflicting aesthetic impulses.'1

The date that Whittall highlighted is that of the first performance of Scenes andar?as, a work that suggested diat Maw was a young composer who was inspired to 'resist the seductive turbulence of post-tonal modernism, and the abrasive tendencies then embodied with such flair by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle' while creating 'a no-less intense alternative, ambitiously conceived to avoid die obvious dangers.'2 Scenes andar?as is a work for which others have also made great claims. In a review of the first performance, Robert Henderson described it as leaving 'a lasting impression of a vigorous musical ?mpetus';' while Anthony Payne defined it as 'Maw's first great work' and claimed that 'it stands every chance of becoming a twentieth-century masterpiece \4 Later commentaries on Maw's music also drew attention to die importance of Scenes and arias. Bayan Northcott declared it to be a 'manifest masterpiece V ana" Andrew Burn saw it as marking 'the first watershed in Maw's career'/' The significance of this work was also clear to the composer, who described it as a 'breakthrough'." Given the importance thus attached to Scenes and arias, it seems somewhat regrettable that this work has not received more frequent performances or been subject to more extensive critical scrutiny and detailed analysis. This article will seek to revisit and reinterpret the work, developing some analytical insights that emerge from starting points found in die limited but stimulating literature on this music.

Nicholas Maw first emerged as a composer in late 1950s and early 1960s Britain as part of a generation that was coming to terms with die impact of European modernism as defined by serialism. Indeed, all Maw's early works, such as the Flute Sonatina (1957), Nocturne (1955-58) and Six Chinese songs (1959), reflect, to some extent, this encounter with serialism. However, in adapting serial techniques to his own purposes Maw was already generating a meaningful distance between himself and the new orthodoxies of modernism and the avant-gardist aspirations of the postwar period. H Looking back on this period from the perspective of the 1980s, Maw recalled: 'the particular style that prevailed when I was beginning in the 1950s - the Darmstadt version of the post- Viennese school - was one that rejected too much of the past for my temperament.'9 He would very quickly abandon serialism and his emergent musical language was already being formed through meaningful dialogues with past musical sounds, materials and conventions. These dialogues helped to distance Maw's music from what was assumed to constitute contemporary music in the early 1960s, a distance most neatly articulated in Maw's Essay for organ (1961?63), a work that is based upon an almost neoclassical redefinition of tonality within what is essentially a keyboard suite.10 However, in contrast to die suggested neoclassicism of the Essay for organ and the earlier encounters with serialism, Scenes and arias will come to look in rather different directions, providing an enticing reflection of Maw's interest in music from 'somewhere between i860 and 1914'."

If Maw's early works, although technically competent, indicate a degree of uncertainty and a search for a stylistic identity, Scenes and arias can now in retrospect be heard as the resolution of that uncertainty, forming the moment at which Maw finds his own distinct compositional voice. For the composer, Scenes and arias was a self-conscious attempt to find a new path: 'It certainly did feel like a breakthrough: indeed it was designed as such'.

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