Magazine article Gramophone

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Celebrating His 80th Birthday This Year, the Master of the Queen's Music Shows No Sign of Slowing Down

Magazine article Gramophone

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Celebrating His 80th Birthday This Year, the Master of the Queen's Music Shows No Sign of Slowing Down

Article excerpt

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.'

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 King and 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 has 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).

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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'. …

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