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David Drinkell

Peter Maxwell Davies RIP

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Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died, aged 81, after a life of 'maniacal productivity' (Daily Telegraph). His works covered an enormous range, from the early chamber pieces to his amazing handling of a big romantic orchestra. When I moved to Orkney, my first experience was the rehearsals for his 'Kirkwall Shopping Songs', one of the earliest of many Orkney school works he wrote - often with a first performance directed by the brilliant Glenys Hughes, who was for many years a music teacher there. As with subsequent pieces, I was struck by his uncanny instinct for knowing his performers' capabilities and writing up, rather than down, to them. I subsequently used the Shopping Songs with classes of many ages and they worked at all sorts of levels. As a music teacher in the county and Organist of St. Magnus Cathedral, I was involved in a number of first performances, whether as player ('Three Voluntaries'), singer ('Lullaby for Lucy', and an onstage role dressed as a monk schlepping round the stage at the old Kirkwall Arts Theatre singing some sort of Maxian plainsong - I can't remember the name of the piece), accompanist, listener or general dogsbody. The role of Widow Grumble in 'Cinderella' was written for my wife (as is) Elspeth, who was then a pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School. One of the other soloists, Paul Rendall, went on to be a professional tenor singer.

 

Max was one of those people who had enormous erudition and seemed to know about the most unlikely things. Beneath the gentle exterior lurked a needle-sharp intellect and very definite opinions which were always lucidly propounded.

 

His period of office as Master of the Queen's Musick was very productive and varied. As so often happens, a radical non-establishment figure enriched the establishment and was enriched by it.

 

May he rest in peace and rise in glory - the musical world will not be the same without him.

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I first met Max after he’d conducted a performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, during my first undergraduate year. This was a new work in live performance for me and I was mesmerised by the Austrian’s visionary score. I expressed this to Max, after the concert, also mentioning that I’d composed a few pieces.

 

Once he’d seen some of these, Max was most generous with his time and persuaded me that I had something to say; in contrast with those who should have had a more direct rôle in my compositional development.

 

I was present at several world premières, including the ‘notorious’ one of his “Eight Songs for a Mad King”. This was so much a work of the revolutionary (in several senses) late 60s and is one of those pieces of music theatre that needs a live, enacted performance, for full understanding.

 

Despite a reputation as a radical iconoclast and a ‘producer’ of cacophony, he was thoroughly grounded in the traditions of Western high art music and had the most extraordinarily keen ear. Anyone who doubts this should listen to his arrangements of Purcell- not a composer one would immediately associate with Max, unless one knew.

 

He was a brilliant teacher (influencing me strongly in his belief in the extraordinary creative abilities of young people), analyst, conductor (and not just of his music) and pianist. He would begin the day by loosening up his fingers (and brain) with, typically, Bach- on clavichord or organ.

 

There was probably no-one more astonished than he, when asked if he would become Master of the Queen’s Music. He proceeded to astonish himself, with his republicanism being won over by Her Majesty.

 

I have scheduled an “O magnum mysterium”, which will be in his memory.

 

Here is the link to the BBC’s fine obituary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-20683877. Radio 3 has done an admirable job of commemorating him, since the news broke yesterday.

 

His music will live on down the years, with a host of recordings by him and others.

 

He would chuckle at ‘Goodbye, Mavis !’ (this ‘Las Vegas’ work being played, as I post).

 

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'Farewell to Stromness' always goes down well when I play it as an organ piece - not at all typical PMD but rather lovely all the same. 'Totally agree with much of what is written above re his work with and for young people even if his more recent pronouncements about the current state of music in schools were (in my experience at least) rather wide of the mark!

 

A

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I play 'Farewell to Stromness' on the organ too. The picture on the cover shows Stevie Mowat's ferry leaving the harbour for Hoy, which is in the background. The view is roughly what I had from the music room in Stromness Academy when I started teaching.

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I first met Max after he’d conducted a performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, during my first undergraduate year. This was a new work in live performance for me and I was mesmerised by the Austrian’s visionary score. I expressed this to Max, after the concert, also mentioning that I’d composed a few pieces.

 

 

 

Oh wow! I wonder if I played 'cello in that performance!!

 

In my 'first life' I did a lot of work with Max and particularly 'Pierrot Lunaire', usually deputizing for Jennifer Ward Clarke. It was a situation that a lot of conductors/composers wouldn't have been happy with - but Max was always most welcoming. I also played 'Vesalii Icones' and also the '8 Songs for a Mad King' several times and also conducted a performance of it. Following the AQA Examining Board adopting the Messiaen 'Quator pour le fin du temps', for five years, as the A level set work, I tried to persuade them, unsuccessfully, to follow it with '8 Songs' - I was told there were 'political implications!'

 

From about 2004, bi-annually, I performed a number of large scale works with professional musicians and also schoolchildren aged between 10 and 18! In 2006 I conducted a performance of Britten's 'Noyes Fludde' (with 350 animals in the ark!!) preceded by Max's 'Kirkwall Shopping songs' In 2008 we commissioned 'Mankind' from the distinguished composer Michael Finnissy and, after its first performance, we talked with Max about the possibility of a new opera, for 2010, from him. Sadly it came to nothing.

 

His idea of a 'Choirbook for the Queen' was truly inspirational.

 

Max was a craftsman, he was a brilliant communicator - he was also a lovely man and the twinkle in his eye when something was going really well or, even, when he was stirring a little mischief is something I will not forget!

 

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

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As far as I can recall, the times I saw The Players/Fires in concert, Jenny was the ‘cellist.

 

“Political implications” dating back almost two centuries ? Could only happen here – or back in the USSR !

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