When I was studying for my BMus at the University of Aberdeen, I wrote this essay on Peter Maxwell Davies’s music. I quite like it; I hope you do as well.
The compositions of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies have been very influenced by his feelings towards the musical establishment of the time. At university he went out of his way to learn about music that was not taught in lectures and as a younger composer he used modernism and the avant-garde to rail against the snobbery of the musical elite. As he got older and gained more renown as a composer, his musical style shifted into more universally accessible territory and from 1970 onwards he was greatly influenced by the culture of Orkney and the music of Sibelius.
Combining Medieval/Renaissance Music with Modernism/Serialism
Peter Maxwell Davies read music at Manchester University from 1952 to 1957, and while he was there he developed an interest in music that was not on the syllabus. In his own time, he studied renaissance and medieval polyphony, for which he had a particular fascination, and he also shared an enthusiasm for the new music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg with some his university classmates, though many of his peers and lecturers were more dismissive of the new forms. He wrote several pieces during his time at university that utilised his understanding of new music. The Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, Op. 1, followed the classical serial forms more closely than anything that Davies would write after it; and the set of Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 2, contains polyphonic passages that indicate influence from the sonatas of Schoenberg and Boulez, and its distinct rhythmic cells draw inspiration from Messiaen and Indian music. Much of Davies’s familiarity with serial music, however, comes from his studies in mainland Europe and the influence of the compositions of Luigi Nono and, less directly, Berg and Mahler.
Alma Redemptoris Mater, also written while Davies was at university, was the first of his published compositions to integrate material from a medieval source. Paul Griffiths and other musicologists have conjectured that the work is based on a motet written by John Dunstable, and David Roberts, although he regards that interpretation as too derivative, has demonstrated how the oboe section from the third movement comes from the Sarum plainchant antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater. The notes of the oboe line are a quotation of the pitch classes used for the word ‘Alma’ in the Sarum antiphon, with the first three pitch classes of the antiphon being restated at the end of the oboe line, as can be seen in Figures 1 and 2.
Although Roberts would disagree, Griffiths also cites the structure of Davies’s Alma Redemptoris Mater as following that of Dunstable’s motet 40 and argues that the form of the cantus firmus in Davies’s presto mirrors the duo in the motet. But regardless of whether Alma Redemptoris Mater was based on Dunstable, the medieval influences are indisputably very much present in the work, and in this regard it can be viewed as the precursor of other more substantial works of Davies’s early career,  such as the opera Taverner and the ‘motet for orchestra’ Worldes Blis, which is an avant-garde work based on an English song from the thirteenth century. Davies continued to nurture his love of old and new music and a great deal of his compositional technique brings together and combines medieval chant-like melodies with post-tonal expressionism.
The avant-garde (up to 1970)
Peter Maxwell Davies was from a northern working-class background and as a young man he was appalled by the backwards snobbery of the British music scene. His avant-garde compositions of the 1960s were often used to ridicule the music establishment of the time.
Eight Songs for a Mad King
The titular mad king in Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King is based on George III, who experienced raving fits in the years after the American Revolution. It was said that George III would spend days on end at his organ teaching his birds to sing. In a parody of the ‘mad scene’ staple of opera, Eight Songs for a Mad King features the singer who plays the king running frenetically between the players – a flautist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist – who are performing from inside big plastic birdcages. It is an uncomfortable work, placing the audience in the role of voyeurs and forcing them to confront their macabre fascination with the grotesque portrayal of the mentally ill.
In Eight Songs for a Mad King, Davies used quotation, directly borrowing and reworking the music of other highly regarded composers, in order to deride the primarily middle- and upper-class audiences. The seventh song in the work, ‘Country Dance’, places Handel’s Messiah as the butt of the joke. The opening tenor recitative of Handel’s composition ‘Comfort Ye, My People’ has become a farce, with the lyrics being set against discordant musical lines. There is even a direction in the midst of the opening passage that instructs the music to be sung ‘like a horse’.
This work was written for The Pierrot Players, a group of virtuoso performers that Davies had set up with his university friend, Harrison Birtwistle. Being more familiar with the abilities of this small group of talented musicians allowed Davies to write music that was more challenging than would generally be expected. The vocal requirement for the King is particularly demanding, with complex gibbering and a range extending to over five octaves. The percussionist, not placed in a cage, has a wide variety of instruments to play, including some unconventional ones: a digeridoo, an anvil, a scrubbing board, a football rattle and toys that make bird noises.
Another avant-garde work written for The Pierrot Players was Vesalii Icones. This group of fourteen dances, each named after one of the fourteen stages of Jesus Christ on the Cross, was composed in 1969, the same year as Eight Songs for a Mad King, and like Mad King it uses parody and quotation to mock the musical styles of the elite. But, more significantly, it also targets the insincere, sanctimonious religious practices of the Christian Church. This is clear from the offset, as the work features a naked dancer and a cellist dressed as a choirboy as the soloists.
Davies has stated that he views the Victorian practice of sanitising hymns, and religious material in general, “almost the ultimate blasphemy,” so Vesalli Icones contains irreverent imitations of the offending musical style. In the sixth dance of the work, entitled ‘The Mocking of Christ’, a mangled nineteenth-century hymn is played on an out-of-tune piano by the naked dancer, and it contains clumsy doubling of harmonies and clunky, heavy fingering that mimics an amateur player fudging the accompaniment. Meanwhile, the second number, ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, includes a “sickly sweet”, sycophantic melody of feigned adoration.
This subject of the betrayal of Christ runs throughout the work, and Davies borrows from some of his earlier compositions that deal with this theme: Missa Super l’Homme Armé and Ecce Manus Tardentis. The former of these pieces was based on a fifteenth-century mass, which, in turn had derived from the medieval song, l’Homme Armé. This indicates that even Davies’s most experimental compositions were affected by his interest in early music. Portions of the earlier compositions occur in various forms throughout Vesalli Icones, and both can be heard in the eighth number, ‘St. Veronica Wipes His Face’. The l’Homme Armé is played by the live instruments while a tape recording of Ecce Manus Tardentis is collaged over the top of it. It seems likely that this crackly tape, which ends up taking over from the live performers, represents the fact that bad recordings cheapen the sublimity of religious music.
The final number of Vesalli Icones changes the original ending of the Passion story. In Davies’s version, it is not Christ who rises from the tomb, but an indistinguishable copy: the Antichrist. Both the Antichrist figure and the foxtrot that he dances were typical features in Davies’s compositions around that time. Playing with the foxtrot style gave Davies the opportunity to expose the “fake nostalgia” for the declining music genre, and he used it to symbolise hedonistic corruption in several of his other compositions, including a pair of arrangements of music by Purcell, and his popular modernist piece St. Thomas Wake. The figure of the Antichrist occurs again in a few of his later operas, Resurrection and, the next work that will be discussed here, Taverner. 
The opera Taverner is based on Edward Fellowes’s inaccurate account of Taverner’s life in which the renaissance composer converts to Protestantism and becomes a religious zealot, denouncing all of his previous musical creations. It was completed in 1970, having taken 14 years to write.
Davies incorporates material from some of his earlier compositions into Taverner. The opening three-note motif of his trumpet sonata, op. 1, is employed as the first idea in Act 1 of the opera and Davies even went so far as to compose two fantasias on Taverner, and a later chamber work named Seven In Nomine, which allowed him to ruminate on and experiment with the musical material that would be moulded for the full opera. These three compositions hold up as works in their own right, despite containing a lot of the same material as the opera. For example, the precursor works all feature a chord with the notes D – F# – E – G#, which went on to be used in the leitmotif for the court jester who appears as a symbol of death in Taverner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chord became known as the Death Chord.
In Taverner, Davies uses the full orchestra to resemble the titular character’s thought patterns, perhaps implying that in renouncing all music Taverner is fighting against his own nature. Indeed, the difference between the orchestral writing in the two acts is striking. Where the orchestra was smooth and melodic in the opening of Act I, when Taverner is still a Catholic composer, the same musical material is sped up, simplified and more percussive for the start of Act II, which takes place after Taverner’s conversion to Protestantism. The process of Taverner’s transition begins in the final scene of Act I, and the orchestra is used again to reflect the intensity of Taverner’s different thoughts. In particular, the orchestral accompaniment becomes very sparse in sections when Taverner doubts himself, as if to show that his doubts are less fierce than his convictions.
The connection between the orchestra and Taverner’s inner thought pattern is emphasised in Act I, Scene 3. Taverner is not present so the orchestra falls silent leaving only a few viols and a lute to accompany the singers. The use of period instruments here is just one of the ways Davies links his music to the era that the opera is set in. The music for this scene, which takes place at the Royal Court, combines Davies’s own harmonies with elements from dances that would have been common amongst the upper classes at the time, the pavane and the galliard. Much of the music in the opera comes from reworking music written by Taverner himself. The renaissance composer’s In Nomine appears in various forms, building up to be revealed in a recognisable format at the end of the opera. Even the libretto, written by Davies himself, primarily consists of spliced together quotations from diaries, sermons, biographies, court records of heresy trials, and other documents from Taverner’s time.
The more classical composer (from 1970 onwards)
The year Taverner was completed, 1970, was a pivotal year for Davies with regards to his compositional process. Richard Taruskin has argued that the lukewarm reception of audiences towards his more outlandish pieces prompted Davies to turn away from the avant-garde in favour of a more classical music style, positing that Davies completely cut himself off from the modernist movement in frustration because his compositions failed to shock audiences the way he intended. While there is undoubtedly a general trend towards Davies becoming a more traditional composer, Taruskin’s narrative seems like an oversimplification. Both Vesalii Icones and Eight Songs for a Mad King had received mixed receptions, and while half of the audience were appalled, the other half was ecstatic. Likewise, although Worldes Blis had been met with angry reviews, St. Thomas Wake, which included several pastiches of foxtrots that made the work more accessible, was one of Davies’s most popular compositions at the time.
What’s more, Davies did actually write some modernist music after 1970, and the trend towards a classical style seems to have been a gradual one. 1975 saw the completion of Ave Maris Stella, a considerably less pioneering piece than some of the works mentioned previously, but which used a serial-like technique to ascribe each of the notes of a plainsong hymn to a number in a ‘magic square,’ which Davies then transformed into a nine-pitch series that was expanded into nine movements for this piece. Similarly, his short avant-garde opera, Resurrection, was completed significantly later in 1987. It features a child (played by a dummy) with an exploding head, a cat that transforms into a dragon with rock music accompaniment, the onstage removal of the child-mannequin’s brain, heart and genitals, a staged shooting of members of the audience, and the non-sequitur appearance of the Antichrist, who rises dramatically from a tomb at the close of the opera amidst a flashing disco light show. This is hardly the type of production that would be expected from a man who had completely turned his back on modernism seventeen years previously. However, Warnaby suggests that Resurrection was, in fact, the point in Davies’s compositional progression where “the fractured manner of the 1960s had been exorcized.”
1970 was also the year when Davies left his secluded cottage in Dorset and moved to an even more secluded home on the isle of Hoy in Orkney. The rustic landscape and local legends and literature had a profound effect on his compositions. He wrote several lyrical piano works inspired by places in and around Orkney, including Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground; his Orkney Saga, based on a series of tapestries in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, utilises the twelfth-century Hymn to St Magnus; and the narrative orchestral work Reel of Seven Fishermen was inspired by a George Mackay Brown poem about the dangers of the sea. As well as being inspired by the Orcadian geography and culture, Davies became very involved in the local community. He was part of the group that formed the St Magnus Festival, and wrote music, which often included local references, for school children and choirs to perform.
This was also the point where his music really entered the public’s favour and Davies received an increased number of commissions for his compositions. This meant that he was being paid to write music that would appeal to a wide audience.
From Berg to Sibelius
Davies’s compositional style has been affected by his writing for specific performers. Having worked with Mary Thomas, her virtuosic vocals shine through in many of Davies’s compositions for solo soprano and Alan Hacker’s primal sharpness on the clarinet can be heard in pieces like Hymnos (1967). In the later portion of his career, the similarities between Davies’s and Berg’s compositions dwindled, but in its place Davies’s work grew to be closer in style to that of Sibelius, who Davies has acknowledged was an influence on his writing.
The influence of Sibelius can be seen in how Davies’s approach to classical structures in his symphonies has developed over time. His earlier symphonies are much closer in form to classical symphonies than some of his later ones. They contain distinct, if ghostly, movements. The movements of the more recent symphonies blend together, one movement moving into the next, and the overall macrostructure of the work takes a larger role. Placing a greater emphasis on the overall shape of the work allowed Davies to discretely introduce the material of the upcoming movement early on, and the piece is always preparing for the arrival of the next part before the previous part has properly departed. This creates a ‘smudging’ effect as the movements flow into each other.
This idea of the architecture of a piece was nothing new for Davies. The importance he placed on the overall form of a work can be traced back to his university days and the early piano works that he wrote during that time, however his symphonies naturally demonstrate a more mature approach, and the blending technique was developed through the increased exposure to Sibelius.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s compositional style has always been affected by the attitudes of the contemporary music scene, whether that be to work with them or fight against them. In his early career he was a bit of a rebel, writing parodies and quotations that poked fun at the highbrow elitism prevalent in the music scene at the time. At university he had studied medieval polyphony and serial modernism of his own accord, even although the formal opinion of the time was that these styles were not important enough to be taught in detail. His interest in these genres has had a huge impact on his compositions throughout his musical career and he used his modernist, avant-garde compositional style to confront and explore the social, religious and ethical issues that he found important. As he matured as a composer he gained more of a public backing and his compositions gradually moved towards a more classical, lyrically pleasing style. The influence of composers like Sibelius became more apparent and after his move to Orkney his involvement with the local Orcadian culture was reflected in his compositional output.
Davies is a much more complex composer than might be ascertained if his most recent output were to be viewed in isolation; he has gone through the hot-headed rebellion stage and come out of it with a greater appreciation for the more classic aspects of music. Some of his earliest ideas about musical form, such as the importance of the overall architecture of a piece, have remained with him throughout his career while other compositional techniques, like using lewdness and sensationalism to provoke an audience into giving a reaction, have been left behind. That is not meant to undermine the music he produced as a younger man, much of which was extremely thoughtful and worthwhile, rather to define the transition from young revolutionary to respected classicist. The latter could not have existed without the former, and in both stages, Davies created interesting, important and aesthetically pleasing music.