Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016) – known to all simply as ‘Max’ – was one of the leading and most celebrated British composers of the post-war period. This prolific, protean composer left behind a wonderfully diverse and thoroughly compelling body of work that comprises almost 550 compositions in every major genre.
You might think that if you have heard Max’s Farewell to Stromness – the delight of popular classical radio stations – and maybe even An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, or Mavis in Las Vegas (both full of Max’s characteristically impish humour), that you have heard Max at his best. Or maybe you have delved into Eight Songs for a Mad King or The Lighthouse, both of which have been much performed, and ‘know’ what he was up to. If so, then think again: here’s a playlist of Max pieces you should listen to before you join the heavenly choir!
Written when Max was 20 years old, this was the composer’s big breakthrough work – his Opus 1. The work certainly made a strong impression at the time and secured him his first publishing contract (with Schott). The music is brash and energetic, and is a stunning statement from a young composer with something significant to say. The work effectively demonstrates a synthesis between a rhythmic language indebted to Indian classical music, a Schoenbergian musical language and serial technique, and the influence of the continental avant-garde.
This work, written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, is a symphonic study on the composer’s own opera Taverner (completed in 1970). Clocking in at 40 minutes, it represents the culmination and consolidation of a compositional technique and musical language that Max had painstakingly constructed over ten or so years. It marked a watershed in his stylistic development, separating the ‘integrated and balanced style of composition’ – Max’s own description of his music written before 1965 – and the disintegrated and unbalanced style of composition exhibited in the works that followed.
According to Max he was given Georg Trakl’s Offenbarung und Untergang for his 35th birthday and it unleashed his creativity into the Neo-Expressionism of the late 1960s works. Typically for Max it uses material previously explored in the Second Taverner Fantasia but he also needed several new percussion instruments, which were created by Noah Morris. One of the delights of the sketches for this work is that, randomly, they contain a pencil and coloured self-portrait.
Even as late as the age of 42 writing his First Symphony, Max declared that ‘there is no orchestration as such’ – implying that the melodic lines were carried by whatever instrument happened to be available or useful at the time. But Stone Litany, written three years before that, shows that Max was being coy about his instrumentation – listen to the evocative opening with harp and flexatone and the glorious final soprano’s intoning of ‘Max the Mighty made these runes’ accompanied by a pair of wine glasses tuned to C and E flat!
This chamber opera, written just after his First Symphony, deserves to be much better known. It was based on George Mackay Brown’s Magnus and is both a study of power grabbing (Hakon) and self sacrifice (Magnus), but it also raises questions about what humans do to each other that is as relevant today as it was four-and-a-half decades ago.
Max rarely pleased all the critics all the time but Into the Labyrinth did manage to enchant and delight many of them. Above all this was because Max really engaged with the poetry of George Mackay Brown in this work and the settings tapped a depth of feeling, understanding and musical interpretation of the texts that show Max at his very best.
If one work summarises all the ideas and concerns that Max had up to the end of the 1980s, this is the one. Based on a series of 24 mock commercials, it is symbolic, alchemical, aggressive, critical and fiercely satirical by turns; it is also anti-commercial, anti-clerical and anti-establishment. The main character is a dummy who has all kinds of bits removed from him to make him conform, and at the end grows to enormous proportions but … you have to see it!
Roma Amor (1998)
Rome held great significance for Max, and in this Rome-inspired work he presents the listener with a personal set of recollections of the city and his time spent there as a student in the 1950s. Employing a very large orchestra, Max’s virtuoso orchestration depicts musically a city teeming with life, vitality and endless possibilities. And yet, set against this self-confessed ‘enduring love’ for the place, Max also bluntly acknowledges the darker side of the city’s history.
Violin Concerto No. 2 – Fiddler on the Shore (2009)
Impending environmental catastrophe through climate change and global warming is a theme that finds its way into several works from around this time, such as the Antarctic Symphony, Last Door of Light, Sorcerer’s Mirror and Sea Orpheus. The Concerto articulates this overwhelming fear of loss by the integration of Max’s own stylistic voice with that of a Scottish traditional folk fiddle style. The music communicates a powerful, emotional connection with a specific place and landscape – Max’s home on Sanday in the Orkney Islands – and this quality imbues the work with a deep sense of rootedness.
With the inclusion of a baritone soloist and chorus, this work holds a unique position in Max’s symphonic output. Remarkably it was written, for the most part, at a bedside desk at the University College Hospital in London where Max was undergoing chemotherapy treatment. On the one hand, the symphony is another meditation on his lifelong fascination with Rome and with the life and work of Italian architect Francesco Borromini; on the other hand, the work invites reflection on the composer’s coming-to-terms with his own demise. It is without doubt an emotionally powerful and exhilarating listening experience.
This playlist was curated by Nicholas Jones and Richard McGregor, the authors of The Music of Peter Maxwell Davies published by Boydell Press in 2020.