Remembering Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016)

By Kevin O’Connell, Head of Composition, RIAM 

The musical world has shrunk with the announcement of the passing of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He was composer, conductor, teacher, polemicist and (not least, we like to think) visiting artist at the RIAM.

Commentators are already assessing his place in the greater scheme of things. I would prefer to talk about his visits to the RIAM and his interactions with our students. His manner was courteous to a fault: no tantrums, no blood on the floor. On his most recent visit he spent a good hour going round the table asking every student to talk about his or her interests. This led to a funny incident. One of our then students, Robert Coleman, is also a trained architect. I had an idea that this subject would set Max off, and I was not wrong. He ran with it for twenty minutes, expostulating on Roman baroque architecture. Only later did the significance of this subject become apparent. The composer was already contemplating his Tenth Symphony whose subject is the life and work of Francesco Borromini.

At a workshop with the Con Tempo Quartet Max talked much about sonority and colour in the ensemble. This intrigued me, because colour always seemed to be a secondary charactersistic in his spartan sound-world. Structure too was important. He informed one student who had composed a rondo that the excurses (exquisitely apt word) were not long enough to balance the statements of the main theme.

I queried the occurrence of an inadvertent dominant seventh in the work of one of our students. Max defended this chord on the basis of its resolution in the voice-leading. This led him to share the experience of seeing Pierre Boulez conduct a piece by Alexander Goehr at an early Darmsatdt gathering in which Goehr had written a conspicuous octave doubling. Every time he came to this passage, the French maestro assumed the expression of someone who has trodden on something foul.

At a dinner with Denise Neary, Max talked candidly about the still recent story of his being defrauded of his money by a former agent. The official loss was estimated at around £450,000, but he said that he would never know the true figure. This story showed that the man-of-the-world had a certain innocence and even naivety. He did not care about money and the extent of the crime was an appalling shock to him.

His recipe for success as a composer? ‘Well, I think you have to work very hard.’ As simple, sharp and spare as the man himself. On the days when I find the frustrations of the life too much and am tempted to despair, I hear his voice in my head admonishing me: ‘enough of the self-pity. Plant your backside in a chair and work.’

Peter Maxwell Davies became a Fellow of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 2011.