Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies was a genius - but one whose music was only accessible to the very few.

I can remember (just) the excitement when a new Symphony or Concerto by the likes of William Walton or Ralph Vaughan Williams or Dmitri Shostakovich came out. These great composers each produced a body of works which are rightly still key parts of the concert repertoire. Along with the other great orchestral composers of the twentieth century (Elgar, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Copland - to name a few) their work reached out to music-loving members of the general public. They defined classical music as much as the Greats of the past - but did so in a modern context. Above all they did so melodically – you could come away from a concert humming the tunes.

So who have the successors to Copland and co been (he was the last to die in 1990, twenty-five years ago)? Can you name a Symphony that you play and listen to which was first performed after say Walton’s second (1957) or Shostakovich’s 15th (1971)? Can you think of an exciting concert where a great violist or cellist or pianist performed a new work by a modern day composer equivalent (say) to the first performance of Elgar’s violin or cello concertos or of a piano concerto by Rachmaninov?

Peter Maxwell Davies wrote few, if any, hummable tunes and few, if any, works at all that any but that small subset of music fans – those who like “modern music” – enjoy. The music to my ears is mostly discordant noise. I fully accept that my adverse reaction is due to the fact that I don’t understand his music. I am not a musicologist – to me music is about melody. The thing is that for four hundred or more years (from Bach through to the beginning of the twentieth century) music was to a greater or lesser extent melodic and accessible – it flowed logically through understandable pathways from beginning to end. Beethoven and Mahler symphonies or Bach and Brahms concertos are all like this despite being very different in style or construct. Stravinsky is sometimes accused of being the break to this but I disagree. “Rite of Spring” has its discordant moments, but then so did Berlioz or Wagner. But you can hum the wonderful tunes.

It was around the middle of the 20th Century that the musical tradition from Early Music through the inter-war masterpieces by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Walton, Vaughan Williams and the rest started to be under threat. Benjamin Britten, who had produced great neo-classical orchestra works like his “Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra”, hisVariations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” and his “Simple Symphony”, was in the vanguard of this. He had shown that he could have been a classical symphonist in the pre-war tradition of Elgar or Vaughan Williams – but he chose not to be. Others were the same, even a composer as melodic as Leonard Bernstein wrote three symphonies that whilst no doubt brilliant are hard to understand and rarely performed today. It is almost as if these great composers felt that they would suffer opprobrium if they wrote a symphony or a concerto with tunes!

When this year’s Proms concert details are revealed all the old symphonic and concertos warhorses will be there – because that is what the public wants. And the public is right. Watch how there will be a clever tribute to Maxwell Davies with the scheduling of one of his impenetrable “masterpieces” along with some music that people actually want to hear – maybe Elgar or Walton!  A full evening of Maxwell Davies won’t fill the Albert Hall!

So if we want to hear recently written melodic music in the great orchestral tradition what do we do? Well all is not lost. John Adams, Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki, John Rutter and others have written or are still writing music that you might actually want to pay money to hear. As do the film composers like John Williams or Ennio Morricone or composers from the musical theatre like Stephen Sondheim or Claude-Michel Schönberg. But composers in the great classical tradition who have not been seduced by the intellectual elitism of serial form and its variants are few and far between.

Like Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies was quite capable of writing more conventional classical music - like his lovely and rightly popular Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise”. But mostly he didn’t and my guess is that few of his symphonies and other major works (including the Operas) will be much performed again. Of course his fans will point their fingers at me and say that I’m just revealing my ignorance and that he was a truly great composer. No doubt for them he was. But for me I regret that we do not have a body of work from him that will add to our British tradition of accessible orchestral masterpieces.   


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