Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Born 8 September 1934.

English composer and conductor

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Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King

A look at Peter Maxwell Davies's music theatre work, Eight Songs for a Mad King.

Featured in BBC Music Clips


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

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