The contradictions surrounding Peter Maxwell Davies, who has died aged 81, far outnumbered the consistencies. He was an enfant terrible who became a distinguished member of the UK’s classical music establishment. He spent part of the year in hermetic isolation on Orkney but was a ubiquitous presence in the colleges, cathedrals and concert halls of the land. Shy, commercially naive and enigmatic even to friends, he was the most media-savvy of composers, exulting in public recognition.
But the consistencies of Maxwell Davies’s life — his unwavering commitment to education, his loyalty to classical forms such as the symphony and string quartet and the sheer practicality of his outlook — were more important. Max, as he was known, was one of the most prolific composers of modern times. A trim, wizard-like figure, all dazzling eyes, sudden gestures and mask-like smile, he was often too hyperactive for his own good. Posterity is likely to shelve his production line of symphonies and concertos in favour of the punchy chamber theatre pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as his conservative late quartets and a couple of blatant crowd-pleasers, notably Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise.
Born in Salford on September 8 1934, Max succeeded against the odds. His school headmaster tried to stop his musical studies, the Society for the Promotion of New Music rejected his early pieces and his professor at the University of Manchester frowned on his modernist leanings. He later reflected that “it was probably an advantage to meet those horrible people”. That streak of bloody-mindedness was an essential part of the Max persona, but his achievement would have been less significant if he had not allied himself with two fellow students in the 1950s, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.
They formed the “Manchester School”, now acknowledged as the most dynamic force in postwar classical music in the UK. In a single swipe they smashed the cosy English consensus that modernism was a threat to civilised values. But if modernism had been their only guide, they would not have made the mark they did. The difference lay in their discovery of medieval music, a treasure that, until then, had been overlooked.
In plainsong and modalism, Max and his confrères recognised a rich seam of harmonic and structural possibilities, flexible enough to allow notes to sound good together, expressive enough to communicate at gut level. By adding it to their modernist armoury, they helped alter the course of music.
Taking advantage of the intellectually liberating climate of the 1960s, the Manchester three created a language so new that it was shocking. Max’s Worldes Blis was booed at its 1969 Proms premiere. Something about the music — maybe the seven percussionists whacking metal scaffolding, or the almighty din made by the rest of the supersized orchestra — triggered a collective revulsion. Hundreds walked out: no one could understand it. With the passage of time Max’s music became less abrasive. In 1985 he accepted a knighthood and from 2004 to 2014 he was Master of the Queen’s Music, but he never gave up his leftwing political views.
After periods of study in Darmstadt university, in Rome and at Princeton, and a spell of school teaching in Cirencester, he quickly learnt to support himself by composing and performing — first with the Pierrot Players, which then became the Fires of London. This practical side to his creativity, later exemplified by long-term relationships with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic, offers another clue to his success. Max always had a group on tap to inspire and perform his music.
After falling in love with Orkney during a holiday in 1970, he established not only a home there, in a windswept cottage on the west of Hoy, but also a midsummer festival, which he guided to self-sufficiency by rooting it in the community. Orkney’s legends and landscapes fuelled his next creative odyssey, but after the Symphony No 1 (1979), the spark of freshness began to falter. The experimentalism of his early works gave way to long-winded exercises in transformation and colour, the logic of which could only make sense in the context of the Orkney settings Max claimed as inspiration.
In 1999 he moved from the primitive isolation of Hoy to a more comfortable dwelling on the north Orkney island of Sanday. He devoted an increasing amount of time to teaching and lecturing, oozing venerability while, in private, suffering a series of setbacks. In 2006 he discovered that his longstanding manager, Michael Arnold, had misappropriated £500,000 (Arnold was jailed for false accounting) and in 2012 he had to go to court to secure the eviction of his partner, Colin Parkinson, from the home they shared. He was diagnosed with cancer in March 2013.
Max’s mellowing had one outstanding creative outcome: the 10 string quartets (2002-07) commissioned by the Naxos record company. The discipline of writing for the spare, intimate, classical quartet exposed the core of his musicianship. The old master began to write with concentrated inwardness, prompting favourable comparisons with Haydn and Beethoven.
He used his royal appointment to raise the profile of classical music, inaugurating an annual Queen’s Medal for Music, while continuing to express anti-establishment views on the Iraq war and the banking crisis. But when asked by the Financial Times if he saw himself as court jester or social conscience, using his position to speak out about things that concerned him, he said he had never dared to assume he was that important. “If I have a small voice and people are willing to listen, I’d be pleased. As a composer, once you are dead, you are lucky if people remember two tunes you’ve written.”
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