Sir Peter Maxwell Davies


Amongst composers of the 21st century, only a relative few have come to be regarded as having reached the very peak of their profession. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies not only occupies such a position, ranking among the world’s most eminent composers today - Boulez, Henze, Carter, Birtwistle – and a recognised successor to the avant-garde generation of Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Nono, Berio, Takemitsu and Xenakis; but has also confirmed himself to be a composer of a distinctly British hue, rendering him also, perhaps surprisingly, a natural successor to the close-worked tradition of (particularly) Elgar, Tippett and Britten.

The musical language is different, but the power of imagination and quality of craftsmanship are of the same order. Max’s output embraces every genre, from symphony (not just the eight that bear the name but over a dozen more works that merit it) and concerto (Strathclyde Concertos 1-10 for chamber orchestra, plus others with full orchestra, together embracing almost every orchestral solo instrument), opera and music theatre, ballet, children’s operas and both choral and instrumental music for young performers; as well as film music, oratorios, solo cantatas with ensemble or solo accompaniment (piano, or guitar as in Dark Angels), choral music, including music for the Christian liturgy, song cycles, cabaret, chamber music for diverse ensembles (with clarinet, piano and especially the cycle of ten Naxos Quartets), solo instrumental works (including for guitar), plus keyboard music for piano or organ.

Over the course of six decades, Maxwell Davies’s status has adapted from enfant terrible to leading cultural figure, playing a key role at the very heart of the British establishment. His appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music in 2004 recognises his influential role as a leading British composer and figure of world standing: it is both a tribute to the revolutionary, yet enabling influence he has had upon the public perception of the English contemporary music scene and a launchpad that, along with his presidency or patronage of many centrally important bodies (such as Making Music, the former Federation of British Music Societies), offers him added powers to champion the musical causes about which he feels most passionately.

Far from being tamed by his new status and responsibilities, Davies remains a geriatric terrible, who frequently speaks out, both in his music and in public forums, on political or social matters with which he feels passionately at odds, such as ‘green’ issues (with which Max engages in major works such as Black Pentecost, The Turn of the Tide) and the Second Iraq war, about which he made violent and satirical protest in the third of his ten Naxos Quartets.

linkMusical origins

Max’s musical origins lay with the European avant-garde of the post war period. He familiarised himself, while still at school, with scores by Berg and Bartok, Webern and Schoenberg, as well as those of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert; and all of these influences (along with, for instance, that of Bruno Maderna, whose classes Max subsequently attended at Darmstadt, and Roger Sessions, with whom he studied in the United States) had a substantial impact upon his evolving musical persona and his mature approach to composition.

By the mid-1950s, having been encouraged, along with Harrison Birtwistle, young virtuosi John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth, by composer Richard Hall and their contemporary Alexander Goehr at the Royal Manchester (now Royal Northern) College, and having rounded off a university thesis on the complexities of Indian music, Max was ready to prove himself as a composer. This he immediately did with aplomb: his Five Little Pieces for piano (performed by Ogdon) and Trumpet Sonata (written for Howarth) created a stir in both Manchester and London.

linkStudy and development

To hone his technique further, Davies embarked on an 18 month period of mostly private study with the Italian Modernist Goffredo Petrassi, whose command of a wide range of traditional and avant-garde styles, including serialism, enabled him to offer intense individual criticism which transformed the highly promising young composer into a budding master craftsman. Under Petrassi’s guidance Max began and finished his orchestral work Prolation, a remarkable exercise in refined serial techniques, including serialisation of duration and dynamics, inspired by Boulez and Webern, and St. Michael, a strong, bold work in similar vein for a 17-strong ensemble (eight wind and nine brass instruments).

Furthermore, having previously immersed himself back at home in Manchester in the sacred choral music of the English Renaissance, notably Gibbons, Tallis and Byrd, which he heard sung by the cathedral choir directed by Allan Wicks, he now armed himself with the Catholic handbook the Liber Usualis and spent much time in Rome listening first-hand to the sung masses of Palestrina and Victoria at the Benedictine monastery on the Aventine Hill.

Both prior and subsequent to an equally important period exploring advanced (even electronic) serial composition in the United States at the University of Princeton under Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim, the young Davies went through two other phases which were crucial not just to his personal development as a composer but to his future role as a national figure and prominent spokesman on music education.

The first was three years running the music department at Cirencester Grammar School in Gloucestershire (1959-62). Here Max’s determination that his pupils should learn to compose as well as perform, and to dispense with the rote learning then common to most schools, was recognised for the bold innovation it was – taken up more widely since then, it has delivered a comparable revolution in English music making as the introduction of the Kodaly method in Hungary. He composed a number of works for his talented pupils (notably the carol sequence O Magnum Mysterium and Five Klee Pictures as well as arranging/recomposing pieces by Byrd, Tallis, Couperin and Jeremiah Clarke), many of which are published by Schott or Boosey and Hawkes. Other works for his Cirencester students remain as yet unpublished.

Secondly, while at Princeton and just turning 30, Davies embarked on the text for his first opera Taverner, whose composition, momentarily set back by an untimely fire at his cottage in Dorset, occupied much of the middle and late 1960s. He prefaced it by introducing spin-off works, notably the First and Second Fantasias on an In Nomine of John Taverner, the latter of which, first performed in April 1965 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Pritchard, incorporates substantial passages of the opera and with its concluding Mahlerian adagio can reasonably be viewed as, in effect, Davies’s first ‘symphony’. This hard-hitting, disturbing opera’s premiere finally took place at Covent Garden in 1972 under the late (Sir) Edward Downes. The work was revived in Glasgow as part of Max’s 75th birthday celebrations in 2009, and a BBC recording under Oliver Knussen has now been issued on NMC.

linkDefining a musical voice

This emergent and formative period of the 1960s, which also included a period as visiting professor at Adelaide University in South Australia during which he composed the Latin choral work The Shepherd’s Calendar for students and school pupils in Sydney to a Unesco commission, also embraced several striking works drawing on the Monteverdi Vespers (a striking portrait of the Italian composer still hangs on Max’s wall), notably the Leopardi Fragments (revived by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Oliver Knussen at the Wigmore Hall in January 2010) and many innovative arrangements of Dunstable and other early composers.

During these seminal, productive years Maxwell Davies joined Birtwistle in founding The Pierrot Players (later the Fires of London). The two composers’ initial collaboration offered a platform to Max’s dazzling monodrama Revelation and Fall (a bleak setting of Trakl’s poetry, sung by the group’s remarkable regular soprano soloist, Mary Thomas), the darkly sinister choral and instrumental motet Ecce manus tradentis (a work dealing with the Gospel story of the betrayal of Christ by Judas, the second part of which Davies at the time described as ‘the bleakest piece I have written’), the instrumental piece Antechrist and the blackly parodistic Missa super l’homme armé setting fragments of St. Luke (with Vanessa Redgrave as the original speaker).

This dramatic and exciting phase of Davies’s creative output culminated in 1969 with no less than five eye-catching world premieres, all of which transformed Max’s fortunes and established him, once and for all, as a focal musical figure across six continents (in 2001, with the Antarctic Symphony, he added a seventh): Fantasia and Two Pavans; the shivering cycle Eight Songs for a Mad King (first of two such works in collaboration with librettist Randolph Stow); the bombastic proxi-symphony St. Thomas Wake: Foxtrot for Orchestra (graphically evoking Max’s own childhood wartime memories of Salford and written for the city of Dortmund in Germany); the blackly disturbing dance cycle Vesalii Icones, based on anatomical drawings by the 16th century Flemish draftsman Andries von Wesel (Andreas Vesalius) and depicting the fourteen Catholic Stations of the Cross,and before that Worldes Blis.

Maxwell Davies has compared Worldes Blis - the entire work is based on a famous 13th century monody – to taking a walk in a treeless landscape, where cloud, light and the sea and its reflection constantly modulate or affect the view one has (something similar might later be said of his second, fourth and sixth symphonies). Reflecting on the period of his life then just about to begin, he since observed that ‘Orkney’s wildest island seems to be a natural extension and a living-out of the territory explored and cartographed in Worldes Blis’, a work which he says he identified ‘with a feeling of enormous space, distance, vast perspectives, a sense of solitariness in a large landscape’. The gripping final Lento section alone is sufficient to justify the view that with its concentrated intensity, Worldes Blis may be viewed as not just Max’s real masterpiece up to that date, but one of the most enduring orchestral achievements of the Sixties European avant-garde, or indeed of any historical period.

Just as Webern found a foundation for his approach to serial composition in the works of Emperor Maximilian’s court composer Heinrich Isaac, so medieval music, already an inspiration for Max’s early works such as the Dunstable-influenced wind sextet Alma Redemptoris Mater and the choral cantata Veni Sancte Spiritus, married with the examples of, in particular, Sibelius, Haydn and Beethoven to provide a formidable intellectual foundation for the extension of Davies’s style to embrace concentrated larger forms, not least the symphony and concerto, with confidence from the 1970s onwards.

One stylistic feature is Maxwell Davies’s trademark emphasis, in structure, melody and harmony alike, upon the diminished 5th (or augmented 4th), which reflects not least an early desire on his part, albeit in the wake of Impressionistic users of the whole tone scale such as Janá?ek and Debussy, to ‘tame’ or render acceptable the controversial medieval ‘diabolus in musica’, a procedure that resonates not a little with his perception of the individual in conflict with society regarding his intellectual stance or personal lifestyle.

This raises the question of how best to listen to Maxwell Davies’s more recent music: there can be no doubt that the comment of Paul Griffiths, one of the most eminent scholars regarding Davies’s and many other 20th century composers’ music, regarding Ligeti obtains here also: ‘From time to time, there appear textures so complex and so active, they cannot be perceived as a whole: instead, the ear selects.’ Max has made remarkably similar comments during his introduction to some of his (especially larger) musical canvases, such as the Antarctic Symphony: the ear should respond as it will, and pick out what seems to it salient. Later other things may become apparent. On other occasions, however, Davies’s textures are so refined, pared down and exquisitely coloured by orchestration, it is possible to follow a single or a pair of musical lines almost without effort. He is also scrupulous, as were Sibelius and Haydn before him, in placing ‘signposts’ so that key transitions in any orchestral works or even string quartet are easily evident.

Another Max trademark, less ominous though equally distinctive, is the appearance of the plaintive call of the curlew, often heard flying across the Orkney landscape, in several works from his First Symphony onwards. The falling sound could be likened to the keening lament found in the music of James MacMillan, the British composer who has perhaps derived most of all from the friendship and example of Maxwell Davies.

The spur for this new emphasis was his move to Orkney. Max first visited the islands in 1970 and immediately recognised them to be his new spiritual home. The isle of Hoy, above the tumultuous Pentland Firth, was to remain his base for a quarter of a century, before he moved to the one of the northernmost islands, Sanday, where he has lived since the late 1990s. During this time he retained a base in either Edinburgh or London - more recently, in order to perform his duties as Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, a role which enables him to continue his influential musical pastoral role begun at Dartington and Cirencester and continued via the Hoy Summer Schools, which he founded and at which he taught and encouraged young composers for two decades; just as with the Fires of London he gave the premieres of scores of works by up-and-coming contemporary composers from across the world.

Max was fortunate to meet, on that first trip to Orkney, the painter Ian McInnes (to whom he later dedicated the instrumental septet Seven Skies of Winter), the Catholic Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown and the schoolmaster and English scholar Archie Bevan. The last two in particular became his intellectual and emotional mainstay on Orkney, the Bevans furnishing a welcome, second home, security and intellectual stimulation, while Brown’s poems and plays yielded libretti for many of Davies’s song cycles, children’s choruses, larger choral works and stage works: among numerous notable examples are Into the Labyrinth, Westerlings, Winterfold, Solstice of Light, The Three Kings, the Sails in St. Magnus series, Kings and Shepherds (a carol composed in 2008 and performed at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s as a Christmas gift for her Majesty the Queen) and the chamber opera The Martyrdom of St. Magnus. Brown’s writings were equally the inspiration for works like A Spell for Green Corn and The Beltane Fire. Maxwell Davies’s Sixth Symphony, which was completed just at the time George Mackay Brown died, is dedicated to his memory.

Max first set George Mackay Brown’s poetry in 1974, the year Bunertoon, the crofter’s cottage he rented on a stormy clifftop on Hoy, was finally renovated and sparsely furnished. From Stone to Thorn, the song cycle to texts by Mackay Brown written for Mary Thomas, and continuing the Stations of the Cross imagery Davies had already espoused onto in his late 1960s works, led on to a clutch of vitally important transitional works: Hymn to St. Magnus, Stone Litany and above all Ave Maris Stella, the work written for his by now world famous sextet The Fires of London, in which Davies finally established the compositional processes which enabled him to address the issue of the Symphony and which also underlies, in an even more developed form, many others of his large scale and smaller works. The tours with the Fires to all parts of the globe, including North and South America, Australia and many countries of Northern and Central Europe, enabled Maxwell Davies and his prodigiously talented colleagues to emerge as one of the most exciting contemporary music ensembles worldwide during the 1970s until their dissolution in the late 1980s.

This period, following in the wake of Ave Maris Stella and its striking successor Image, Reflection, Shadow, both ensemble works of extraordinary intensity composed for the Fires, also saw Davies embark on what was to prove a cycle of seven symphonies. A quarter of a century later, exactly coinciding with the Millennium, the process culminated with the premiere of Symphony No. 7 at the 2000 St. Magnus Festival, the event Max founded in 1977 with St. Magnus Cathedral organist Norman Mitchell. The first festival took place in June that year, a pattern still flourishing over 30 years later. The festival regularly commissions new works and draws outstanding artists and exhibitors from around the world.

Davies’s First Symphony was composed in 1975-6 and received its premiere at the Royal Festival Hall from the Philharmonia Orchestra (for whom Worldes Blis had also been commissioned) under Sir Simon Rattle. lt was dedicated to Sir William Glock, former Controller of the BBC Third Programme (Radio 3) and a key influence, since the Dartington Summer Schools in the 1950s, on the young Davies’s emerging career. It also pointed a way forward to Davies’s continuing association with not just the Philharmonia (who also premiered Symphony No. 5 at the 1994 BBC Proms; the work was recently revived by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester under James MacMillan, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival conducted by Paul Daniel and by the SCO under Knussen in Glasgow and Edinburgh), but as Composer in Association with three other leading British orchestras: the BBC Philharmonic from his home city of Manchester (who gave the first performance of Symphony No. 3 under Edward Downes, and of numerous other works thereafter, including Symphony No. 7); the Royal Philharmonic, who were to premiere his Sixth Symphony (a work of Mahlerian epic proportions written for the 1996 St. Magnus Festival); and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of which he is now Composer Laureate. The Second Symphony, a quite extraordinary evocation of light and wave moment inspired by the Orkney landscape, was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered there at Symphony Hall under Seiji Ozawa in February 1981, and points the way forward to many later works, not least the Antarctic Symphony, also written for the Philharmonia, which followed on in 2001 from the Sibelius-like cycle of numbers 1-7. Symphony No. 4, first heard at the BBC Proms with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer, is the only chamber symphony of the seven and forms the crux of the whole emerging cycle.

It was his association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra which also yielded the ten Strathclyde Concertos, which in turn furnished a formula for the ten Naxos Quartets two decades later. Beginning with the oboe and then cello concertos, Maxwell Davies contrived works for solo pairs (No. 3 for horn and trumpet, and No. 5 for violin and viola) and for wind sextet (No. 9), as well as a concerto for orchestra (No. 10) and a further four for solo instruments (clarinet, flute, double bass, bassoon). The works typified the masterly professional empathy Davies has not just for his material, but for the capacity and character of the individual players and orchestras he is writing for, something also evidenced by his concertos for other full-sized orchestras (two concertos for violin, plus trumpet, piccolo and so on).

The emergence of Symphony No. 7 also coincided with the most recent of Davies’s operas, Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk, a fascinating and surreal work written in collaboration with David Pountney. This followed on from the pair’s previous grand opera The Doctor of Myddfai, which Pountney directed for Welsh National Opera and Davies’s own hard-hitting extravaganza to his own libretto, Resurrection, a violent but comic parody of the maladjustment that befalls the individual when mistreated and misunderstood by society and family (thus, as it happens, in part aligning himself with the preoccupations of his friend Henze with the role of the repressed outcast in bourgeois society and the necessary violent response required of the individual to counteract it).

The remarkably detailed, subtle and elaborate construction of Resurrection, which has as yet been staged only in Germany and Hungary, and is also based on terrifying woodcuts of the New Testament Book of Revelation, not only looks back to Davies’s major Expressionist output of the 1960s such as Vesalii Icones and Missa super l’Homme Armé, but testifies par excellence to the tautness of construction which also obtains in his other principal stage works, such as the landmark Taverner, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus, The Lighthouse (the latter two like Resurrection horror stories in their way, as was his film music for The Devils), but also Le Jongleur de Notre Dame and The Number 11 Bus. A new Pountney-Maxwell Davies opera, dealing with serious issues of rebellion against autocracy and repression, has been commissioned by the Juilliard School, New York and the Royal Academy of Music, London for 2011.

Rather less exacting but no less enjoyable, and often comically tongue-in-cheek, are Davies’s stageworks for children, prominent among which are The Two Fiddlers, The Great Bank Robbery (both of which in certain respects anticipate the full-length opera Resurrection), Cinderella and Jupiter Landing. There are other works (featuring Spiders and Dinosaurs) for performance by younger children. Davies has composed numerous song cycles for choirs of younger children: Songs of Hoy (to words by George Mackay Brown) and Kirkwall Shopping Songs (to Max’s own text), which have the merit of being both earnest, serious musical compositions and lighthearted at the same time.

The comic element is an important part of Max’s make-up. It was first evident in his superb parody arrangements for Ken Russell’s film/movie The Boyfriend, made shortly after the harrowing experience of The Devils, and continues through works like the Ojai Festival Overture (first performed by the SCO at the Libbey Park Bowl, Ojai, California) and the delightfully childlike Cross Lane Fair, one of a clutch of symphonic poems executed for the BBC Philharmonic over the past 15 or so years; and also includes his most popular works, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, which includes a Scottish bagpiper and remains one of the most widely performed pieces of Classical Music the world over. The Northumbrian pipes, used in Cross Lane Fair, are another instrument for which Davies has composed attractive specialised works.

More serious and dark are the ballets: first the terrifying Salome, and later the bitter-sweet Caroline Mathilde, both written for leading Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt, the one for his own company and the other for the Royal Danish Ballet. With hints of Un Ballo in Maschera alongside a strikingly romantic and almost Tchaikovskian visual potential, the latter is one of Maxwell Davies’s works that most obviously deserves taking up by theatres of the world.

Certain works, quite apart from the slow movements of the symphonies and the first Violin Concerto (written for and recorded by Isaac Stern), the exquisitely lyrical Cello Concerto or the superb later work for cello and orchestra, Linguae Ignis, have a plangent, elegiac quality which fits their commemorative role. Such works include Tenebrae super Gesualdo, Threnody in Memoriam Michael Vyner and Sir Charles his Pavan, each written in memory of pupils, friends or colleagues. Some works acquire such a feel by association or retrospectively, such as the eloquent instrumental ensemble Shakespeare Music, a BBC commission written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964, a miniature Canon in honour of Igor Stravinsky’s 90th birthday, Commemoration 60, written in 2005 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, or The Five Acts of Harry Patch, commissioned by Portsmouth Grammar School just a year before the death in 2009 of the oldest survivor of 1914-18 trench warfare on the Western Front.

The last was written in collaboration with the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, with whom Maxwell Davies also collaborated on works such as the Proms piece A Little Birthday Music, a setting of Motion’s specially commissioned poem ‘The Golden Rule’, designed to celebrate the 80th Birthday of Queen Elizabeth II and performed by hundreds of schoolchildren at the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and The Sorceror’s Mirror, premiered in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge in June 2009 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge.

Several such works confirm the especially close relationship Maxwell Davies has enjoyed with two countries in particular: the Unites States, where he studied at Princeton; and Italy, where he studied with Goffredo Petrassi in the late 1950s.

Works like Linguae Ignis, premiered in May 2002 in Florence as part of the Maggio Musicale Festival (by which Davies has been honoured several times), the massive symphonic poem Roma Amor, recently given its UK premiere at the BBC Proms and dedicated to his teacher, the Third Symphony, which draws on the architectural perspective of Brunelleschi, Naxos Quartet No. 7, which commemorates seven of Rome’s churches and pays similar homage to the architect Borromini, or A Sad Paven for These Distracted Tymes, first performed in 2005 at Reggio Emilia by the Pavel Haas Quartet and strikingly evolved from a striking lament by Thomas Tomkins, all bear testimony to Max’s long love affair with Italy, to which he returns frequently. He himself speaks Italian like a native. Recently he completed his Overture: St. Francis of Assisi, premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in October 2009 and reflecting a lifelong fascination with the Italian saint.

Likewise Veni Sancte Spiritus, written for the choir of Princeton University to celebrate the tercentenary of the State of New Jersey, and likened by one critic to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, the first Violin Concerto composed for Isaac Stern, Ojai Festival Overture, the Second Symphony (written for the Boston Symphony) or A Reel for Seven Fishermen (written for the San Francisco Symphony), as well as the tripartite large scale oratorio Job, composed for the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and the Vancouver Bach Choir, all draw attention to Maxwell Davies’s close associations with the US and also Canada, both of which he has often visited as Britain’s leading composer-conductor.

Max also has long established connections in Germany and Austria (he speaks German fluently), Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, where many of his works have been performed, often under his baton, in cities including Berlin, Bremen, Leipzig (where he has conducted both orchestras), Oslo and Copenhagen. It was in Copenhagen, in fact, that his magnificent ensemble piece De Assumtione Beatae Mariae Virginis (a work for 14 instruments that carries on the torch lit by ensemble works like St. Michael, Seven in Nomine and Image, Reflection, Shadow), received its world premiere on 10 May 2002.

Ave Maris Stella and Eight Songs for a Mad King recently featured at the 2009 Sacrum Profanum festival in Cracow, Poland. The opera Resurrection was premiered in Darmstadt and received a second production from Balázs Kovalik in Budapest, where the choral song cycle Seven Songs Home, written to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Zoltán Kodály was also inaugurated by a children’s choir from Miskolc; the oratorio Canticum Canticorum (The Song of Songs) was first heard in Nuremberg, Cinderella, The Medium and The Lighthouse (as well as Eight Songs) have received numerous performances throughout central and northern Europe, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot achieved a new production at Mönchengladbach in 2009, his Second Violin Concerto ‘Fiddler on the Shore’ was commissioned by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and premiered there with the composer conducting in March 2009, and Das Rauschende der Farbe, a celebration of the life of the pioneering German Expressionist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 Dresden-1907 Worpswede, near Bremen), received its world premiere in Bremen, with the UK premiere by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester during November 2009.

While Revelation and Fall is based on the Austrian poet Georg Trakl’s expressionistic collection Offenbarung und Untergang, the satirical chamber opera Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk, after being toured throughout Belgium by Muziektheater Transparent, received a further new production by David Pountney in Vienna. Last Door of Light received its premiere by the famous Camerata Salzburg, with the composer conducting, during July 2008 as part of the Carinthia Summer Festival in southern Austria, of which he has been featured composer more than once, just as he was the subject of two major retrospective festivals at London’s South Bank, for his 55th birthday in 1989 and his 70th in 2004.

Davies’s massive compositional output has gained unforeseen wider publicity thanks to the appeal and attractive immediacy of not just An Orkney Wedding but many perfectly-turned miniatures, such as the choral Lullabye for Lucy or the mesmerising piano piece Farewell to Stromness (taken from his environmental protest work The Yellowcake Revue), which have featured high on Classic FM Radio’s audience top favourite lists in the UK, and remain among his most enchanting and popular works.

Davies’s two masses for Westminster Cathedral, one with dramatic double organ, the other simpler and optionally a cappella, along with amusing choral works like Corpus Christi, with Cat and Mouse and his two setting(s) of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh and Wells Cathedral, are 20th or 21st century classics of their kind. Another striking choral piece is Hymn to the Spirit of Fire, first performed in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in 2008 and dedicated to Sir Paul McCartney. Max has also written several substantial widely-performed works for solo guitar and for organ, including an Organ Sonata.

Among Maxwell Davies’s most recently premiered works are a Violin Sonata (St. Magnus Festival 2008), the String Trio and Three Sanday Places (City of London Festival 2009), and a String Sextet, introduced by the Nash Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall in October 2009 as part of a birthday tribute concert.

Much of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s huge output has been commercially recorded, including each of his operas (most recently Taverner on NMC) and a good number of his orchestral works, including the symphonic cycle (although the Antarctic Symphony still awaits a commercial recording) and ten Strathclyde Concertos. The Martyrdom of St. Magnus and The Lighthouse were originally issued on the Unicorn-Kanchana and Collins Classics labels, which are no longer available, but many of the works previously released by Collins Classics are to be re-issued by Naxos over the coming years, following the success of the label-sponsored Naxos Quartet cycle, of which recordings were released between 2004-2008.

© Roderic Dunnett, August 2009