Magazine article Musical Times

In Memoriam: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Magazine article Musical Times

In Memoriam: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Article excerpt

born 8 September 1934, Salford; died 14 March 2016, Sanday

The life and work of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies provide a potently paradoxical portrait of British artistic endeavour during the long 20th century. Back in the 1960s, when the exceptional and the elitist came closest to acceptable orthodoxy in contemporary high culture, he was the energetic and provocative figurehead of much that was especially challenging in classical music: and the challenge arose not from experimental intransigence but from digging deeply into ways of integrating (without implausibly stabilising) a wide repertory of national and international archetypes. Magpie and maverick, Maxwell Davies combined voracious intellectual curiosity with deep scepticism about blinkered academic routines. Close as he was for a time to his fellow Manchester student Alexander Goehr, it is difficult to imagine him becoming Professor of Music at Leeds or Cambridge, at least without a licence to rethink university music study from first principles. Yet it seems that he was not without some of the innate puritanism of the working-class high achiever, the ultimate Grammar School Boy dedicated not just to goading the moribund establishment but also to reinforcing the aspirational complexity of classical music's most hallowed genres and best-loved collective rituals.

Despite lacking the political obsessions of Cornelius Cardew and the popularising propensities of his one-time collaborator Ken Russell, Max sometimes risked seeking out the margins of cultural diversity when his most productive sphere of activity was a turbulently, endlessly unstable mainstream. In some ways, therefore, the metropolitan bias of the 1960s - the decade that saw his most determined commitment to the chamber group The Pierrot Players (later The Fires of London) he co-founded with Harrison Birtwistle, and to the often lurid types of music theatre that brought such acclaim - provided an extended interlude, helped along by the fact that in those enlightened days, while still in his twenties, Davies could rely on the support of publishers and the goodwill of broadcasters and recording companies. But interlude it was - between the foundational decade of the 1950s, with its mix of visionary vocal and instrumental forays and educational enterprises, and the years of fulfilment following on from his move north to Orkney in the 1970s. Here his determination to erect vast musical monuments to the genres of symphony, concerto and string quartet involved the kind of radical rethinking of traditional formal templates and harmonic processes which in true Schoenbergian fashion marked their reverence for a vast range of models from (at least) Haydn to Mahler, Schoenberg and Sibelius by the explicitness of their stylistic distancing from such models. To this extent, Davies came to have rather more in common with a less radical denizen of the British mainstream like Robert Simpson than with Harrison Birtwistle, Jonathan Harvey or Brian Ferneyhough: and the adversarial affinity with Britten emerging in the 1950s with works for Cirencester schoolchildren flourished to the end, in those late operas Kommilitonen! and The hogboon, designed for young performers.

Central to his later output is a trio of cycles - ten numbered symphonies, ten Strathclyde Concertos (all written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) and ten Naxos Quartets (all premiered by the Maggini Quartet) - works which present such formidable challenges to performers and listeners that, after the initial efforts of various commissioning ensembles with premieres and premiere recordings, they have struggled to maintain much of a presence in the concert hall. …

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