Time passes – and as the SCO marks Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 75th birthday with a performance of the symphony he wrote for the orchestra in 1989, it’s easy to forget how much has changed since Max, then the young firebrand of British composers, wrote his first orchestral works in the 1960s.
At that time his most intense working relationships were with chamber musicians and soloists – the clarinettist Alan Hacker, the pianists John Ogdon and Stephen Pruslin, the trumpeter (and later conductor) Elgar Howarth. ‘I didn’t think it was possible then for a composer to have that kind of relationship with an orchestra,’ Max told me when I phoned to congratulate him on his birthday and ask him about a career which now spans the best part of six decades. The orchestral pieces he wrote in his twenties and early thirties were massive, often controversial statements: St Thomas Wake, a complexly ironic ‘foxtrot for orchestra’, or Worldes Blis, a large-scale, single-movement work of Mahlerian intensity and forbidding severity.
It was with Max’s move to Orkney around 1970 that his music began to take on a less fraught, less expressionist atmosphere, and to engage idiosyncratically but unmistakably with the symphonic tradition. But he continued also to work with the Fires of London, a group of six players he had founded himself a few years earlier and for whom more than half of his works between the late 1960s and 1987 were composed. What really brought about the shift in style and in his approach to composing that still characterises Davies’s music today happened slightly more than a decade later.
The SCO first encountered Max’s music in the early 1980s, when it performed the three panels of his chamber-orchestra triptych (Sinfonia Concertante, Into the Labyrinth and the Sinfonietta Accademica – the last of which was premiered by the SCO under another English-born composer with strong Scottish associations, Edward Harper). The orchestra appeared regularly at Orkney’s annual St Magnus Festival (of which Max was founder and artistic director), performing works by both Max and others, and it was a last-minute substitution for an indisposed conductor here that gave Max his first experience of conducting the orchestra. A flourishing relationship was quickly established on two fronts: composing and conducting. By the time he wrote Symphony No 4, Davies was mid-way through a series of concertos for the orchestra’s principals – ten in all, including two double concertos and culminating in an effervescent Concerto for Orchestra (Strathclyde Concerto No 10) – and at the same time was deepening his knowledge of the classical repertoire by conducting works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
The extraordinary list of works Max has written for the SCO since the mid-1980s bears witness to this engagement. With the Fires of London, Max had conducted his own pieces and new works by contemporaries he admired. Now, the clean-cut textures and gestures of Symphony No 4 suggested a new classicism of outlook. And the example of earlier masters seems to have prompted something else in Davies’s music, too. The Strathclyde Concertos are an amazingly varied cycle of pieces, astonishingly and impressively lacking in any hint of composition by rote. In writing them, Max seems to have acquired the creative confidence to do something which came naturally to Mozart and Haydn but which is unusual among composers in our own era – to revisit the same genre again and again, bringing something fresh to it each time. Having written ten concertos in ten years, Davies went on to write four more symphonies between the mid-1990s and the millennium, before announcing a change of focus to chamber music which has already yielded a cycle of ten string quartets (the ‘Naxos’ Quartets) as gloriously varied and vividly communicative as the orchestral cycles. It is a rare composer who becomes classical in his own lifetime, but Davies has achieved this extraordinary feat twice.
Max himself conducted the premiere of Symphony No 4, at the BBC Proms in September 1989 (two days after his 55th birthday). This weekend’s performances are conducted by Oliver Knussen, another renowned British composer-conductor. Although he is a generation younger than Davies, Knussen’s conducting career began considerably earlier, and ran largely parallel to his composing career until the more recent artist-in-association posts that have brought the two strands of his work together. Meanwhile, Max himself has gone on to similar posts with other orchestras, and younger colleagues such as James MacMillan have followed in his footsteps. Today, almost every British orchestra has a formal working relationship with one or more composers. But the model of the composer who conducts because he composes, and whose composition is in turn informed by his conducting and by his intense working relationship with a particular group of orchestral musicians, could be said to have been created by Max’s groundbreaking, fertile encounter with the SCO.
© 2009 Joh