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Peter Maxwell Davies, 1934-2016


peter-maxwell-daviesWith deep sadness I learned that Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the most protean and progressive composers of our time, died yesterday at 81.  In his long and productive life of writing, performing, and teaching, Davies, like Britten, paid particular attention to the musical development and enrichment of young people. The last time I saw him was six years ago when he came to NEC for a festival in February 2010 and conducted An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise in Jordan Hall, and I recalled with delight that he had conducted it with the Boston Symphony a few years before.

The public at large called him Sir Peter, but his friends, and there were many, always called him Max. I first knew him during 1962-’64 at Princeton, when I was a graduate student and he was a visiting Harkness Fellow. My classmates always wondered why he wanted to join us—unless, as a third-year student wryly said, he came to learn how to stop composing. Nevertheless, Max came to Sessions’s and Babbitt’s seminars and endured our polemics and pilpuls; he complimented me on my presentation on mechanical musical instruments, but expressed exasperation the next week, saying he couldn’t understand how a group of a dozen students could spend three hours trying to make a Schenker graph of the first eight bars of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109. Max asked me then what I would recommend for bell sounds that would be practical in the theater; he was then well-advanced in writing his opera Taverner, about the great Tudor composer’s trial for heresy.

In 1986 Sarah Caldwell produced this very impressive work in Boston, only the second production it had anywhere. (For the deeper bells I had recommended to Max that he experiment with spiral coils of steel wire, like those found in 19th-century American striking clocks, but in the end he chose higher-register instruments.) With occasional trips back to Europe for performances, Max stuck around until spring 1964, inspiring us all with his example and his productivity, and commenting on our compositional efforts, but especially brightening the dusty classrooms of Clio Hall with his irrepressible charm and gentle humor. I remember that after I helped him decide on the kind of hifi equipment to buy, we opened a bottle of Metaxa to celebrate.

When I first visited England, in 1971, I and a couple of friends visited Max at his apartment on Fitzroy Square, and we enjoyed an Indian dinner at a local restaurant (I think it was the grotesquely named Kwality, but the food was very good), and the next night we went to a concert by The Fires of London, a small professional ensemble he was directing, and heard the delightful newly orchestrated score for The Boy Friend. (My classmate Stephen Pruslin had moved to London to be the pianist of this expert chamber group.) A day or so later I heard Max’s Second Taverner Fantasia (1964, not part of the opera) at Queen Elizabeth Hall directed by Charles Groves, and I still consider that one of the most startling and poignant orchestral works of the last half-century. I remember being able to buy a published score at a small kiosk right in the lobby; one wishes Symphony Hall had a similar amenity.

I regretted that Max’s Eight Songs for a Mad King became an iconic work in America (as Vesalii Icones didn’t), seeming to define his popularity here, because it made for too facile a springboard for irresponsible stage direction. But I dig the music, and I like the scary film score for Ken Russell’s The Devils, too [trailer here]F. I haven’t heard anything like enough of his more recent music, written after he retreated to the island of Hoy to compose in seclusion. I will miss Max very much; so will many others among his friends here. He enjoyed coming to Boston, and for those visits we are all richer.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I share Mr. DeVoto’s sorrow since I also knew Max back in the early seventies through a friend of his. I had heard some of his earlier music such as “O Magnum Mysterium” in the sixties but nothing prepared me for the music Mr. DeVoto mentions from Ken Russell’s masterpiece “The Devils” with Max’s score performed by the fantastic Fires of London. That was nothing short of jaw-dropping and one of the most original scores to be composed for a film that was later recorded as a suite. A pity the original score has yet to see the light of day on CD.

    In years hence I’ve heard many of his symphonies and concertos and attended a performance of “The Lighthouse” and then his second symphony in the early eighties where we had a chance again to catch up and visit for a while. I regret I never saw him after that and it seemed impossible he became 81 what seems almost overnight. I am so glad so much of his music is recorded and available and lives on.

    Comment by Peter Barkley — March 15, 2016 at 4:18 pm

  2. I was living in London shortly after Max’s Pierrot Players became his Fires of London, whose pianist, Stephen Pruslin, had been a student at Brandeis when I was in my early teaching years there. Stephen invited me to attend a half-dozen rehearsals of the Fires—intimate rehearsals, no raised stage, Max and musicians sitting five feet from me. It was thrilling to watch (and listen to) Max working with his players. And yes, he was warmly welcoming to the occasional guest at such sessions. (Stephen Pruslin, by the way, wrote the libretto for Harrison Birtwistle’s opera, “Punch and Judy.”)

    I was lucky enough, while in London, to see performances by the Fires of London of both “Vesalius Icones” and “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” I’ve since seen two performances of that latter work by other groups, though happily they weren’t “springboards for irresponsible stage directions.” The striking cover of the Boosey and Hawkes full score of “Eight Songs” is surely one of the most beautiful of score covers, reproducing in reverse white-on-black the page on which the staves are up-ended vertically to form the “cage” imprisoning the mechanical bird (the flute player) that is urged to “chatter and sing” with the mad protagonist.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 15, 2016 at 10:41 pm

  3. This is a very nice remembrance of Max. However, the Second Tavener Fantasia is definitely part of the music of the opera. Nearly all of the piece is used (verbatim) as orchestral accompaniment (and interludes) within the opera’s score. After decades of being unavailable except through printed score or archival tape, the enterprising NMC label released an excellent recording of the opera in 2009:

    Comment by Carson Cooman — March 16, 2016 at 10:01 am

  4. Readers might like to remember BLO’s production of The Lighthouse at the Kennedy Library in 2012. Here is a link to the BMInt review:

    Comment by LoisL — March 18, 2016 at 4:32 pm

  5. I vividly recall the Boston/US premiere of The Lighthouse back in 1983:

    The small theater was totally different from the JFK library, but the production was altogether excellent. The intimate space gave nobody, audience or artists, any place to hide.

    Comment by perry41 — March 18, 2016 at 5:52 pm

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