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The Music of Peter Maxwell Davies
by Nicholas Jones and Richard McGregor
Published 2020, 368pp
The Boydell Press

This is far from being the first book on the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, but it is the first since his death in 2016 and so the first to be able to survey the whole of his considerable output. I should like to declare an interest at this point. I first came across Davies’ music (the pleasant habit of referring to him as Max, universal in his lifetime, has now been replaced by the more formal surname) in 1972, when the publicity about his forthcoming opera Taverner led me to buy a seat for the premiere. I was bowled over by the work, which I thought then and still think is a masterpiece, and from that time on I tried to follow his works. He was very prolific, and I had other commitments, only managing to attend a proportion of live performances, but he has been quite well served by recordings, which have helped to fill out the picture, though a number of important works have still to be recorded.

We now have this substantial work by two enthusiasts for his music. Jones and McGregor have each written extensively on Davies Here they each take alternate chapters, writing on the music thematically rather than chronologically, though there is a biographical chapter first and a Postlude which covers the composer’s last years. He grew up in Salford and during his childhood experienced the horrors of the blitz, during which he would listen to foxtrot and Charleston records from a pantry under the stairs. Happier memories included attending a performance of The Gondoliers at the age of four, which made a great impression, and later experiencing what he described as an ‘aural vision’ of the music he was going to write. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music where his contemporaries included Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. They shared an enthusiasm for European modernism but Davies also became deeply interested in plainsong and early polyphonic music, and also in music outside the Western tradition; his thesis was on Indian music. 

It is unfortunate that the chapter on compositional technique and process comes next, because I found it by far the most daunting chapter in the book. Davies began by working with a version of serial technique as practised by Schoenberg. and there are numerous charts and tables showing how he used this. My problem is that I cannot hear it in the works, nor do I think that this is the best approach for a listener. The problem is compounded by an extended discussion of the work Blind Man’s Buff, which was very important in Davies’s development but which has not yet been commercially recorded, though it can be found on YouTube. (Indeed, throughout the book there are remarkably few references to recordings and there is no discography.) Davies later developed his own method of thematic transformation and development, often starting from plainsong as contained in the standard manual the Liber Usualis, and using his own magic square technique. Fortunately, this is first illustrated by the chamber work Ave Maris Stella, one of Davies’ finest works, which has been recorded twice. It is also helpful to know that in many of Davies’ works the controlling line is a ‘tenor,’ not necessarily in pitch but in that other voices may radiate both above and below it.

The chapter on genre gives a run down on Davies’ composing career, noting in particular his works for young performers as an integral part of his output along with the more ambitious neo-expressionist works, for which he is probably still best known, and the later symphonies, concertos and quartets. I found particularly useful the chapter on form and architecture with charts showing the construction of a representative group of major works including the whole set of Naxos string quartets – incidentally, surely one of the most enlightened examples of musical patronage in recent years.

The chapter on tonality and texture brings another daunting set of technicalities but also contains a useful discussion of Davies’ use of parody, pastiche and contrasting idioms in the same work, with St Thomas Wake: Foxtrot for Orchestra as a prime example. We also learn about his use of non-musical sources of inspiration, for example the Cyclops chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, with its insertions of passages in a deliberately inflated or parodic style, influenced a number of Davies’ works from Missa super L’Homme Armé on. This is developed further in the chapter on Allusion, Quotation and Musical Critique.

Everyone knows that Davies moved to Orkney in 1970 and there is a picture of his first home there. The landscape affected him deeply and he found he was unconsciously incorporating aspects of it into his works. Perhaps A Mirror of Whitening Light demonstrates this most clearly, but, alas, it is another work yet to receive a commercial recording, though again available on YouTube. Many works inspired by the Orkney landscape followed, but the chapter on landscape points out he was also drawn to other places and, in particular, Rome, where he studied for a time, which was the subject of the symphonic poem Roma Amor and also of his last symphony. Even further south was his expedition to the Antarctic, which produced another symphony, his eighth.

A Postlude deals with Davies’s difficult last years, which as well as the leukaemia which eventually killed him, includes the break-up with his then partner and also a court case arising from the fact that his agent’s husband was charged with stealing around half a million pounds from Davies and served a prison sentence.

A particularly valuable feature of the book is the complete list of Davies’ works, with dates and instrumentation. Works with opus numbers come to 338, and in addition to these there are nearly 200 unpublished works, most but by no means all of which are early. There are also numerous musical examples and some pictures. One issue is that the authors frequently choose for discussion works which have not been recorded, making it difficult for listeners. It also helps to have access to at least some of the scores.

This is a book for those who are already fans of Davies’ music and want to take some trouble to understand it better. For such listeners it is indispensable. We could, however, also do with a more popular introduction, an up-to-date equivalent of Paul Griffiths’ 1982 handbook, perhaps even a volume in the Master Musicians series. I would also welcome a detailed study of a major work, perhaps in the Cambridge series of music guides, maybe on Taverner or Ave Maris Stella. He deserves as much and although he has been quite well recorded, a number of major works, not all for large forces, still remain to be recorded. We must hope that Naxos, which has already supported him so well, or other labels, respond to the challenge.

Stephen Barber

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