For me, this study day at Cardiff University’s School of Music on the life and work of Peter Maxwell Davies (Unmasking Max: Peter Davies Concert & Study Day) was one of many events postponed due to the pandemic that I was itching to finally get to. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of Nicholas Jones from Cardiff University, the day finally went ahead, with the addition of a very special concert right smack in the middle of it.
Peter (or ‘Max’ as most called him) was well known for holding the title of Master of the Queen’s Music, as well as his musical theatre, orchestral, vocal and film soundtrack work. It’s the wild fieriness to his music that is best remembered, though I must confess, I believe some people would find a large chunk of his canon quite harsh and imposing. Saying this, his work with children and young people also proves his openness. We only need to think back to Welsh National Youth Opera’s production of Kommilitonen! in Barry to be reminded of this.
There were a lot of talks over the day, so I’m going to sum them up individually.
Rodney Lister, Boston University – ‘That Was Now, This Is Then’
Coming all the way from Boston just for the conference, Rodney Lister’s talk touched upon the complexity of Max’s music. Many of the themes in his various music theatre works are to do with the sharing of illusion, identity and rebirth. I marvelled at the many notes and ideas Max used – including magic squares and mathematical formulas to help whip up these pieces. One sketch of magic numbers resembled a frantic game of Snakes & Ladders. Rodney once told Max how two pieces of his spanning a few decades had similar instrumentations and foxtrot-inspired ideas. Apparently, he did not take it well.
Alexander Kolassa, Open University – ‘A crazy clutter of the mediaeval, medical mind’: Peter Maxwell Davies in Ken Russell’s The Devils’
The Open University’s Alexander Kolassa had a friendly, chipper attitude and brought to light Max’s soundtrack to still-controversial film The Devils. Due to its sexual and blasphemous nature, a proper release of Russell’s true cut has never been properly seen in this country. Max uses traditional and experimental modes to help create a score that is just as unwavering as the action of the film. When I asked him if any of the music had been lost due to the hacks made to the film, Alexander went back a few slides to show snippets of material that was indeed thought to be lost. I look forward to the day when I can finally sit in a cinema and watch The Devils as it is meant to be seen.
Upa Mesbahian, King’s College London – ‘The Lighthouse: A Tale of Collective Madness’
Certainly one of Max’s more well-known and interesting operas, Upa Mesbahian from King’s College London dissected the elemental Brechtian practices and psychological observations of the three singers and their characters in The Lighthouse. Loosely based on the Flannan Isle Mystery from 1900 (in which three sailors disappeared without a trace), the opera makes use of biblical and mythological prothesis to explain this still ongoing mystery. Max had to change the names of the lighthouse keepers as per the request of their living relatives (the opera premiered in 1979), and Upa speaks of the impact his move to the Orkney Islands had on him and his craft (his Dorset flat had burned down). The mystery, however, is located in the Outer Hebrides… perhaps a local told him about the story or perhaps he already knew it. Either way, it was a great talk on a fascinating work.
Incantations – Early Chamber Works Concert
I couldn’t believe my luck: a lunchtime concert filled with public premieres of Max’s work in between the talks. A selection of pieces that had not been heard outside of Max’s friends and family were our programme, during which promising pianist Yihan Jin played four pieces, some from early in the composer’s teenage years and others tributes to friends. The Cloud and The River had flickers of Debussy as well as a gentle misty feel; a pleasant appetiser.
Incantations was a firm favourite of the piano works, with menacing, chant-like chords and liberal use of the dampener pedal to create metallic rings of sound. Dedicated to Shirley McVoy, The Lagavulin of Riberac was too compact for me to find anything of note in it. I bumped into Shirley in a Costa before the concert (I also heard her utter “…difficult…” as we heard the Incantations). I wondered, afterwards, why she and her family did not stay to tell us more about their friendship with the composer.
Stehn Am Fuss Des Gebirgs for Cardiff Uni’s Contemporary Music Group was an eerie, almost unearthly few minutes, their time on stage never enough. Directed by Robert Fokkens, who made the whole thing glow, the spirit of medieval music haunted the space. A Little Thank You To Dave, written for a violin duo was a cheery little number, made more charming by the fine playing of both Sky Ratcliffe and Iona Frenguelli. It felt complicated, yet still maintained an ease – a very hard thing to accomplish.
The concert wrapped up with more surprises: Five Songs, another early piece, accompanied by German poetry. Along with some student musicians, the familiar face of harpist Valerie Aldrich-Smith from BBC National Orchestra Wales and Canadian-born soprano Jana Holesworth graced the stage. This was perhaps the most nuanced work, these songs dripping in romance and eloquence, showcasing Max’s already emerging experiments with form and instrumentation. Holesworth owned the selection, proving to be a highlight of the day. We’d all really like to see her more in Cardiff. We also have to look forward to a postponed performance of his Eight Songs For A Mad King in the spring of next year at Cardiff Uni.
Richard McGregor, Royal Conservatoire Scotland – Benvenuto Alla Resurrezione: Or …multiple threads interweaving in Davies’s music dramas’
Back to the talks and next up, Richard McGregor from the Royal Conservatoire Scotland, who had a good wit about him, shared his views on Max’s not always transparent process of composing. Whilst many pieces shared similar inspirations and themes, how Max got to their completion has not always been clear. In one letter, he wryly states “Symbolism obvious” referring to one of his shows. Another work of note is his Taverner, inspired by the composer of the same name, revelling in tritones, masks, masques and the stripping back of reality. Heavy stuff, indeed.
Richard also referenced a lesser-known work of Max’s that was not a big success initially: Resurrection. Essentially a piece that should have been done at least 20 years prior, it came off like a queasy mixture of kitchen-sink pastiche jabs at the church and even more rampaging attacks on pop culture/television. I was not convinced it would be of interest to me but after listening to the Naxos recording of Resurrection after the study day, I would say it is an outrageous opera. I drank up its frantic, absurd cocktail; the pop song finale being quite effective. It is the perfect companion piece to Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek, but I just don’t see it getting back on the UK stage anytime soon.
Sylvia Junge, ‘Music for Children and Amateurs: A Personal View’
Ending with a speaker of note, Sylvia Junge gave a perspective not a lot of people have on Max. Having known him for 45 years, their friendship blossomed as collaborators. She spoke of the boyfriends she had to console (Max had various feelings on his sexuality), his temper and his disdain for quirky productions of his work. She recalled a talk he gave about his most well-known piece Eight Songs For A Mad King and how much he came to resent it. How nice to finally have some musical examples in a presentation, too, as we heard five varying works – the opening to Five Klee Studies standing out most in its plodding rhythm.
Sylvia also said how important his work with children and amateurs had been over the years. He seemed to have a knack for working with and getting along with them: further proof of his accessibility. My only gripe was that there were some gatekeeping quips made about Americans doing performances of his Cinderella. Yet her touching conclusion to her sombre talk only proved the impact Max had on people (he passed away in 2016).
Overall, Max seemed to take his work seriously – but only as much as he needed to. It took this dedicated Unmasking study day to make me realise just how intriguing his music is and just how much of it there is out there. My thanks to Cardiff Uni for putting this on. I’ll certainly consider a trip to Orkney.
Cardiff University School Of Music, Sat 4 Dec
Eight Songs For A Mad King will be performed at Cardiff University School of Music in May 2022.
words JAMES ELLIS