Classic Mornings

Memories to the Max


I can’t believe it. Max is 80! It almost seemed like yesterday that he was here, sitting in the studio and chatting with me.

Actually, the more I thought about it, that was long before WILL-FM moved into Campbell Hall for Public Telecommunication, which was back in 1998. OK, so it has been awhile.

In the meantime, I have seen a story about him from time to time. At one point, he became Master of the Queen’s Music – yes, Queen Elizabeth II! He served in that capacity for 10 years, until just recently. That  added a good bit of retroactive humbling to that which I had experienced during those couple of hours back in 1995 when I had the chance to interview him.

Max is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. I had been told years ago that many called him “Max.” I was a little nervous about taking the liberty. I simply called him “Sir Peter” when he was here. In two interview sessions, I chatted with him about his work with children and about the music he had written for young people.  After listening to the interview tapes, a special program emerged from it all. I gave it the title: A Child to the Max: Stories and Music From Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. For as many times as I listened to all the program elements – the stories told in Max’s energetic, charming voice and the voices of the children singing some of his songs -  I guess it always made me  think of him as a kid at heart. That’s the story behind the program title. Now he’s 80.

Sir Peter has written lots of works over the years: orchestral, vocal and chamber. His music can be quite challenging and imaginatively adventurous. A CD of his music came into the Friends of WILL Library back in 1991 titled: Peter Maxwell Davies: A Celebration of Scotland (Unicorn-Kanchana 9070). That particular recording caught my attention. I regularly played a number of selections from it on the air. When word came that the composer was going to be in town as a part of a tour with the BBC Philharmonic, I wondererd whether he would be interested in talking primarily about the music on that recording. Somehow I sensed there might be some great stories.

I wasn’t aware that he was such a marvelous story-teller, nor was I aware of the extent of his involvement with music education.  He admitted that he never anticipated the inspiration he would derive from teaching music at Cirencester Grammar School in Gloucester, a position he accepted only to earn money after he returned from music study with Goffredo Petrassi in Italy back in 1959. It sounded like such an awakening for him. I knew early on exactly how the radio special would open, namely with Sir Peter’s voice, sort of in mid sentence, reflecting on this experience of years ago: “...I think it was a very salutary lesson. I learned to trust my own inspiration. I’d had my instruction with Petrassi in Rome and I’d gone to Cirencester.  And there, I think it was a very good counterblast to that, where the kids would get by the simplest means a very good effect, and I would be so intellectualized while I was trying to work something out. It taught me a lot. Go for the immediate image, don’t make things too complicated and trust your inspiration. And that’s what I learned from working with kids.” While he spoke,  a piano began to play the simple Scottish-flavored tune of his best known work Farewell to Stromness. He went on to say that being a composer in the grammar school classroom sparked the children to compose and to improvise in groups and individually. He insisted that they learn to read the dots – the notes, but they started to provide themselves with their own music. He too wrote music for the school orchestra, chorus and little groups

The music for children is very much intertwined with the Scottish-influenced music on A Celebration of Scotland. The stories he told about the various pieces were likewise about both children and daily life in small villages on the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, where he has lived since 1971. Some of you may have heard the work he wrote for the Boston Pops Orchestra’s centennial celebration titled An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise. (The title is a play on the title Night Ride and Sunrise by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, whose music Sir Peter has admired.) It was inspired by the wedding of a friend and neighbor on the Orkney island of Hoy.  In fact, it was the first wedding on Hoy in 32 years. Lesser known is the “sequel” of sorts: a choral piece titled Lullaby for Lucy, which is the setting of a poem by the late George Mackay Brown. It’s an acrostic poem, in which the first letter of each line spells the name: Lucy Rendall. Lucy is the daughter who was born to the celebrated couple of the Orkney wedding – the first child to be born in the valley of Rackwick for 32 years. Sir Peter saw both works as symbolizing a hopeful new beginning for that part of the country which had been devastated by depopulation. On the recording Lullaby for Lucy is sung by the children of The Choir of St. Mary‘s Music School in Edinburgh. There was another recordiing available at the time by a professional vocal ensemble.  It was quite nice, but didn’t have the effect of children singing about the arrival of another child. (By the way, I noticed recently a story in the Herald Scotland which told of the 24 year old Lucy planning to have the song be a part of her wedding back in 2005. In the article, she said that she had come to realize how special she and the song were.)

Sir Peter wrote both the music and lyrics for a collection of songs on the same recording titled 7 Songs Home. The songs are a sort of day in the life of school children on Hoy, from the time they leave school to the time they arrive home. It includes their encounters with nature on the way home and their playful fantasies.  In those songs the sound of the seashore, the backfiring of a tractor and the rumbling of its engine are simply and imaginitavely portrayed by the children.

A Celebration of Scotland features Renaissance Scottish Dances in Maxwell Davies’ own 20th century orchestration and Scottish tunes from a children’s opera he wrote called The Two Fiddlers.  In the interviews, it was fun to hear Max recount another children’s opera: one which he wrote for 5- and 6-year-olds called The Spider’s Revenge. It features what he described as probably one of the slowest pieces of music ever written: The Dance of the Snails. He went on to reminisce about the costumes of the butterflies and dragonflies and those of the snails constructed out of grocery boxes, painted with various colors and with silver paper trailing behind. He added that you could call the opera an ecological piece.

His best known work, Farewell to Stromness, was written as a part of a music revue that protested a proposed uranium mine near a small town on the Orkney Islands called Stromness. Max told the story of the thousands of people who showed up for a successful silent protest in the nearby town of Kirkwall, standing for hours in the rain. Listening to Farewell to Stromness in his own performance at the piano was never the same after he told that story.

That one recording contained bits and pieces of so many stories and emotions. As I had hoped he would, Sir Peter helped to bring them together in a very colorful way during the interviews.  I’m still thinking about it all, prompted by the composer/story-teller’s 80th birthday.  Over the years, I wondered whether I had unfairly spent too much time just on his music for children, neglecting his other works. I felt a little better about it all when I noticed an early July blog post by Glasgow-based music critic Kate Molleson at The Guardian’s website She reported a birthday celebration for Max at this past summer’s St. Magnus Festival on the Orkney Islands, an annual event which he co-founded in 1977. In contrast to the recent Proms event in London on his birthday (September 8th), the summer celebration took place at a packed Kirkhall Grammar School where local young musicians performed many of the composer’s works for children. He was there to listen – and to receive a birthday cake. I understand that his appearances are rarer these days as he hasn’t been in the best of health. All the more reason to extend this sincere wish for good health on the occasion of his 80th birthday: Good health to the Max ! 

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