B I G S I R
Sir Peter Maxwell Davier - Mm to his friend - is the most distinguished UK
composer of his generation. Brian Maton follow^ the trajectoty of a brilliant career tbat encompas~umusic for Mad Kings, Cbildnn'l Chofr~and O r k q Wedding~.
Photo by Neil Drabble.
T H E R E I S a photograph that says everything. Peter Maxwell Davies strides at the head of a band of child musicians. A pied piper without a pipe, it is he who looks entranced; the children look merely concentrated. In the background, there is a standing stone, moor, sea - an atavistic landscape.
I t might also be Percy Grainger, but that the shock of curls is black-to-grey, rather than Grainger's self-consciously Aryan blond and that Grainger's public virtue camouflaged a disconcerting private vice and a thoroughly unsublimated violence alien to Davies. Musically, at least, there is some kinship between them. In both, there is the same extraordinary range of effort, folkishly simple to dazzlingly complex, the same iron discipline and indifference to schools, the same suspicion of (Grainger's words) "the spectacle of one composer producing music for thousands of musical drones" and, fundamentally, the same total integrity. Grainger's ideal was a music that was "cosmic and impersonal, and thus fundamentally differentiated from the strongly personal and 'dramatic' music of non-Nordic Europe with its emphasis upon sex, possession, ambition, jealousy and strife"; Davies has made a music that exactly balances the personal and the cosmic, the dramatic and the purely musical, and he has fashioned i t out of those self-same fallen ingredients.
Whereas Grainger's "farthest north of humanness" was a lonely self-violence, Davies's is a small croft on a northern island. He moved to Hoy, in Orkney, in 1970, and there rediscovered a community with something like that old anthropological ideal of art as making. "People who make music are much more receptive because they know from the inside what it's like to be sitting there playing, or standing there singing." Davies's first job, as a music master at Cirencester Grammar School, followed hard on the heels of master-class stints with Goffredo Petrassi in Italy and Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt in the States and was a kind of re-education in the poverty of theory.
Though widely known and respected as a composer of vocal, theatre and instrumental works for children, he takes a sceptically lower-case view of the Romantic Child.
"They're little horrors, and there's no getting round chat, but they have got huge potential as people who improvise and create marvellous music. They do have an innate grasp but it's got to be directed. There is a place for freedom within music, but so often when people are given freedom, what comes out has an awful family resemblance to what came out the last time and the time before. That's doodling, and doodling I find very unimpressive. When I used to be in a classroom situation I didn't care what they did so long as they were directink all their person, all their being, towards making music."
The same is inescapably true of Davies himself, in y r k s wire @ magazine