Cart 0

Rhythm A Day Blog for March 14, 2020: Passing of Peter Maxwell Davies

Posted by Wolf Murphy on

Passing of Peter Maxwell Davies

"Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the prolific English composer long known as an anti-establishment anti-monarchist avant-gardist enfant terrible — but whose work was so renowned that he was named Queen Elizabeth II’s official music master anyway—died on Monday at his home in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. He was 81."

New York Times Obituary, March 14, 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies is one of the most important composers of modern European music. He was also quite a character, known for walking out of restaurants and stores if they played Muzak.

It's said he walked out a great deal.

At 4 years old he was taken to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Gondoliers.” After one listening he proved able to sing the entire operetta note for note, and decided to become a composer. At 14, he submitted a composition called Blue Ice to the radio programme Children's Hour in Manchester. BBC producer Trevor Hill showed it to singer and entertainer Violet Carson, who commented, "He's either quite brilliant or mad"—and so his early career was launched.

He believed in challenging his musicians and his audience. From an interview:

". . . they're going to be made to work.  I feel very strongly that you must aim for the highest possible intelligence, musicality, whatever factor in that audience and not pander to them, and I really mean make demands on their musicality, just as you make demands on the musicians' musicality.  At first this might cause difficulties, but when you hear a work for the second, third, or twentieth time, then they begin to get to know it, and if it's not got plenty of levels (depth) in it, then they're going to start getting bored. . . . The demands are related to their questing of the best possible out of the people concerned.  It's this going for the highest possible factor that I'm very concerned about.  You don't underestimate either players or audience in any circumstances."

His music frequently shocked audiences and critics. In Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), he took a canonical piece of music – Handel's Messiah—and parodied it to subversively explore the periods of madness of King George III.

Peter Maxwell Davies

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, overseeing the definitive recording
of his piece
Eight Songs for a Mad King.
(University of Salford Press Office/CC BY SA)


He was openly homosexual his entire adult life, a life-long supporter of gay rights, and Vice-President of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. He was an avowed environmentalist and expressed this in his music. The Yellow Cake Revue featured cabaret-style pieces, performed with actress Eleanor Bron in protest of plans to mine uranium ore in Orkney. One piece features a slow, walking bass line that portraying the residents of a town forced to leave their homes because of uranium contamination. (The mining proposal ultimately was defeated.)

He marched in protest of the 2003 Iraq War, and was an outspoken critic of the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The Swan Incident

In 2005 his house was raided by police, having been apprehended with a terrine he had made from a swan—a protected bird considered property of the Crown. He stated he had found the swan electrocuted by a power line near his home and intended to take the opportunity to eat it. He received an official caution but was not charged.

Musically speaking . . .

Davies was a polystylist: a composer who would draw upon (and combine) any musical styles that suited his theme and intentions. Thus the orchestral piece St Thomas Wake features a suite of foxtrots played by a twenties-style dance band; Resurrection (1987) includes parts for a rock band, and so on.

For our rhythm for today we are going to look at a percussion sequence inspired by a trip he made to Antarctica which led to the creation of his 8th Symphony. Check out the percussion section:

". . . five percussionists (xylophone with Japanese temple gong and 2 cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, crotales, tubular bells, bell-tree, very small high wood-block, Chinese cymbals, clashed cymbals, 4 suspended cymbals (very small, small, medium, large), nipple gong, tam-tam (with plastic soap-dish), tuned brandy glasses (with water), 2 small pebbles, football rattle, biscuit tin (filled with broken glass), 3 lengths of metal builder's scaffolding (5 inches or 18 cm, 12 inches or 30 cm, 16 inches or 40 cm) to be hit by a mallet) . . ."


I'd play that kit!

So here is the opening from "Lockroy Antarctica" adapted for hand drums.

Today's Video Lesson

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.