Any attempt to define the output of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies demands an appreciation of its sheer breadth and abundance – from the mainstream European modernism identified in his music of the 1950s, via the dramatic iconoclasm characteristic of works from the 1960s and the naturalistic soundscapes created after his move to Orkney in the early 1970s, to the implicit Classicism of the series of symphonies and concertos that span the 1980s and 1990s.
This extends now to a body of ‘light’ music, including the popular An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (1985) and Mavis in Las Vegas (1997), whose overt espousal of dance styles seems a world away from the disturbing incorporation of foxtrots in St Thomas Wake or Eight Songs for a Mad King (both 1969).
Even so, there is an integrity to Davies’s approach that has been conscious and thoroughgoing: the development of a strong and personal compositional technique at the service of artistic communication and the active engagement of performers and audiences. Formative in this were studies with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome (1957–8) and Roger Sessions in Princeton (1962–4), between which Davies taught at Cirencester Grammar School, writing the first of his works for children and amateur performers. The urge for theatrical expression initially found focus in works for the Pierrot Players (later The Fires of London) and subsequently bore fruit in full-scale operas – Taverner (1962–8, 1970), The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1976), The Lighthouse (1979), Resurrection (1987), The Doctor of Myddfai (1995) – and ballets, Salome (1978) and Caroline Mathilde (1990).
The particular qualities of light, land and sea associated with Orkney leave their first aural traces in vocal pieces such as Hymn to St Magnus (1972) and Stone Litany (1973) and continue through orchestral textures to the Orkney Saga series, begun in 1997. Seven numbered symphonies (1976–2000) and an Antarctic Symphony (2000) explore concerns for large-scale structural coherence in the post-tonal era. This corpus is counterbalanced with a recent concentration on chamber music, which includes a piano trio (Voyage to Fair Isle, 2002) and Clarinet Quintet (2004) and is crowned by a cycle of Naxos String Quartets (begun in 2002), together with a proliferation of choral music, from the substantial oratorios Job (1997) and Canticum canticorum (2001) to the more intimate Missa parvula (2002) and a variety of other liturgical pieces with and without accompaniment.
Through numerous conducting engagements in Europe and the USA, Davies maintains direct contact with those for whom his profusion of works is created. His succession of honours continued in March 2004 with the appointment as Master of The Queen’s Music. His fulfilment of the role to date has produced the large-scale Commemoration Sixty, to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and many effective miniatures. Following his collaboration in 2006 with Andrew Motion on an anthem for the Queen’s 80th birthday, The Golden Rule, Davies again set words by the former Poet Laureate in the oratorio The Five Acts of Harry Patch (2008) by way of a tribute to the last-surviving British soldier to have fought on the Western Front during the Great War, who sadly died in July 2009.
Profile © Peter Owens
- Foxtrotshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01tnl2m.jpg2014-05-26T16:19:00ZCharles Hazlewood explores classical foxtrots for orchestra.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/db16dadb-0024-4758-b35e-111ca52c53ea?clipfocus=p01zt70fSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 50 mins
- Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad Kinghttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01z9jc2.jpg2014-05-17T20:50:00ZA look at Peter Maxwell Davies's music theatre work, Eight Songs for a Mad King.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/db16dadb-0024-4758-b35e-111ca52c53ea?clipfocus=p01z9jccSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King
- Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: A Reel of Seven Fishermenhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01z9j4r.jpg2014-05-17T20:38:00ZStephen Johnson explores Peter Maxwell Davies', A Reel of Seven Fishermen.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/db16dadb-0024-4758-b35e-111ca52c53ea?clipfocus=p01z9j5lSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 57 mins
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: A Reel of Seven Fishermen
- Composers: Sir Peter Maxwell Davieshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02byzyj.jpg2010-10-19T10:05:30ZMaster of the Queen’s Music and renowned composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, looks back at a career spanning more than 50 years. He talks about studying composition at university and being told that he would never be good enough to make a career out of it and his controversial early work which prompted a mass walk out of the BBC Proms in the sixties. Max also describes how the quiet Orkney landscape (where he resides) affects his work today. Features the BBC SSO rehearsing ‘Overture: St. Francis of Assisi’ the day before they perform the world premier of the piece.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/db16dadb-0024-4758-b35e-111ca52c53ea?clipfocus=p00bny9xSelected ClipSelected ClipVideo 9 mins
Composers: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
- Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on the music that inspired himhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02bq8ld.jpg2010-09-23T11:55:14ZThe composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, talks about the variety of music that inspired him when he was younger. In particular he mentions the contemporary music of that time which his parents didn’t like. Features an extract of 'Overture: St. Francis of Assisi'.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/db16dadb-0024-4758-b35e-111ca52c53ea?clipfocus=p00b6vbjSelected ClipSelected ClipVideo 1 min
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on the music that inspired him
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