Saturday, March 19, 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies, Part 1

I suppose I should be contrite that I have written hardly anything about Peter Maxwell Davies in this blog until now, just after he passed away. But you can't do everything. So now seems an appropriate moment to talk about his contribution to music.

Peter Maxwell Davies (1934 - 2016)

I would like to approach him from a slightly different angle: as a guitarist, it seems natural to look at his guitar music first as he made a solid contribution to the repertoire. We have Julian Bream to thank for the fact that nearly every 20th century British composer wrote something significant for guitar.

I suppose I should confess first of all that the utterly beautiful piece "Farewell to Stromness" that I posted on my miscellanea yesterday was actually originally written for piano:


But its extreme simplicity has made it easily transcribable to guitar and other instruments and it is in the guitar transcription that I know it best. The two important pieces for guitar by Maxwell Davies are first "Dark Angels" for soprano and guitar, written in 1973 and the Sonata for guitar written in 1987.

"Dark Angels" is a very difficult piece for both singer and guitarist, rhythmically complex and with a wide tessitura for the voice. Here is a performance (with the lyrics) by Susan Young and Alex Dunn:


The text is by the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown.

The Sonata for guitar from 1987 is fairly brief at around eleven minutes duration. Here is a performance by David Tannenbaum.


I find this a more pleasing piece than the songs, but I'm not sure why. They both share about the same level of dissonance. I suppose it is that I just don't care for this kind of vocal writing.

The first piece that garnered Maxwell Davies wide recognition was "Eight Songs for a Mad King" for a chamber ensemble plus voice. The ensemble is modeled after that of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire". This performance was under the supervision of the composer and the credits are at the beginning.


This is a brilliant depiction of madness and it cleverly utilizes tunes from a mechanical organ owned by George III and the libretto is based on words of the king. I have known this piece from the mid-70s when I purchased a vinyl recording of it. Now this is without a doubt a brilliant and dramatic piece of music, highly effective in its way. And I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't make it past the first few minutes. The depiction of madness is not a pleasant experience though there was a time when the inhabitants of London did visit Bedlam, the insane asylum, just for entertainment.

Here is my problem with this piece: it is very much in the tradition of Pierrot Lunaire, another depiction of madness, though in a more sedate Viennese manner. That, along with a lot of the music of the 20th century, is really recording the dissolution--the trainwreck--that was the end of European culture. From the brilliance of the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to the numerous advances of the 19th century, Europe went from strength to strength. And then it all went horribly wrong with the Great War to End All Wars (with a 20 year intermission to design more and better killing machines). Is it any wonder that artists went just as far off the rails as everyone else? They were, after all, just reacting to the carnage.

So I see Pierrot Lunaire and its successor Eight Songs for a Mad King as being the end of a story, with no real path forward. This is why I am so interested in someone like Steve Reich because he, instead of just doing Pierrot Lunaire over again, made a truly fresh start.

Another piece from around the same time as the Eight Songs is Maxwell Davies' music theatre piece "Vesalii Icones". Only a few excerpts are available on YouTube:


2 comments:

Craig said...

I don't have very much of Davies' music in my collection, and what I do have is entirely choral. There's a disc issued by Hyperion a few years ago that is quite good.

I have been curious about the 10 string quartets which were commissioned by the Naxos record label -- I believe they are actually called "the Naxos quartets". I might make a point of tracking those down.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I want to have a look at the symphonies and the quartets, which I don't know either.