Peter Maxwell Davies signs off on a high


Review of Symphony No. 10 by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Symphony No. 10 by Sir Andrzej Panufnik. London Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Sir Antonio Pannano conducting.

‘Sometimes, the music knows something you don’t’

So said British composer, and former Master of the Queen’s Music, Peter Maxwell Davies who passed away earlier this year.

The first recording of his Tenth Symphony has just been released on London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO label. Antonio Pappano conducts while Simon Halsey directs the chorus. The cd also includes the compact, at just over 15 minutes, Symphony No. 10 by Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991).

Very early in his career Peter Maxwell Davies took the decision to steer clear of the obvious in his compositions. His music, he decided, would not come to him from the muses or be plucked, as it were, from the air. He eschewed the idea of music for music’s sake. His would be a constructivist approach, focusing on the theoretical and following a set of pre-ordained rules or structures. He developed, in particular, a life-long striving to express architectural conceptions in sound. He looked to medieval and renaissance Europe for inspiration, to Thomas Aquinas and the architect Brunelleschi. He studied the sacred music of the time, not least plainchant. When, in the 70s, he moved to The Orkney Islands he was no less inspired to map in music the topography around him.

Maxwell Davies built his tenth, and final, symphony around the life and work of the Italian Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Written while he was been treated for cancer it deals with creativity and mortality. Add to that the pressure to conform and the importance of staying true to your principles.

The music of Maxwell Davies, with its theoretical underpinnings, can be quite demanding on the listener. The composer made no apologies for this saying that, once you figured out the structure involved, all would become clear. This did not necessarily mean that the music would be any easier to listen to! Ivan Hewitt, in The Guardian, said his sound ‘embodies a keen-edged and tragic lucidity’. Wonderfully put.

Maxwell Davies said of his Tenth Symphony: ‘I feel I’m building a church in music, and I want to create something as aurally startling now, in its context, as a Borromini church must have been visually then’.

The work consists of four parts with alternating instrumental and choral parts. The first, an instrumental, builds slowly on the back of the brass section, ebbing and flowing, layers of intensity punctuated by reflective interludes. Metallic percussion suggests a helter-skelter rush of activity. All the while there is plenty of space – work like this should not be rushed. With one last clangorous outpouring and an end-of-day siren the first part ends with a self-reflective violin solo.

In Part 2 the choir sings the mean-spirited and anonymously-penned ‘Al Borromeino Sonetto’: ‘An architect without architecture … he and nature have nothing in common … his style is opposed to Nature and Art … he’s just an ass.’ This likely contributed to the already fragile architect’s decision to take his own life. Maxwell Davies clearly relates to the architect’s singularity of purpose.

The sonnet is followed by words from Borromini, sung by baritone Markus Butter, justifying his much criticised work on the Oratorio dei Fillipini. The choir ends the dialogue with the mocking and dismissive: ‘Weep and sigh, sigh and weep, the Great Borromini’.

In the next instrumental part we are back to work. The church before us is awe-inspiring in its scale and design. Again we have the ebb and flow, the work is becoming more detailed – less brass, more wind. Still we have those open spaces: time to appraise before pressing ahead.

In the fourth and final part the choir is in restrained and melancholic mode as it sings ‘A se stesso’ (‘To himself’) by poet Giacomo Leopardi. This, more than anything, gets across the despair in which the depressed and, by now, semi-deranged, Borromini found himself. ‘Now can you rest forever, / Oh weary heart of mine. Gone is the last illusion, / which I had thought eternal.’

Markus Butter then gives us Borromini’s last testament as he runs out of patience with life: ‘I took the sword … threw myself with sufficient strength to make the blade enter my body, right through to the other side’. His delivery is punctuated by appellations from the chorus to the saints.

Peter Maxwell Davies, or ‘Max’ as he was affectionately know, has produced a true parting masterpiece with his Tenth Symphony. It is almost as if everything he had done previously had been leading to this synthesis of structure and melody, dissonance and harmony.

The bonus track, Panufnik’s Symphony No. 10, was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Consisting of one movement in four sections it personifies the personality of the composer: warm, passionate and somewhat introverted.

Panufnik fled Poland for England in the late 1940s as the Communist regime made ever greater demands of him. If he felt he would be lauded in his new home he was mistaken as he was seen as being somewhat old hat. While back in Poland Panufnik’s music was embraced by the people in their struggle to be free, it was not until the late 1970s that he finally received the universal credit he deserved. The composer, considered by his peers to be ahead of his time, found that his services were in demand again.

Like Maxwell Davies, Panufnik uses external influences to provide a structure for his compositions. In the case of the Tenth Symphony he uses something called the “golden ellipse” which is based on the Fibonacci Series (just look it up, ok!). He opens with a short invocation before strings and organ lead us into more meditative territory; an underlying tension begins to build, albeit initially cloaked in soft melody. The climax, when it comes is almost violent in nature. If this were a movie this would be the car chase, with guns! The tension then ebbs away in the final section and we are left with a gentle and reflective finale. Beautiful.

Other Peter Maxwell Davies compositions to check out:

Want to delve a little deeper into Pater Maxwell Davies huge body of work? The sheer volume of music available can make this a daunting task. Maybe start with the ‘light music’ compositions ‘Farewell to Stromness’ and ‘Mavis in Las Vegas’; his 1960s expressionist work has, according to the experts, stood the test of time – for a totally off-the-wall experience check out, on Youtube, his music-theatre work ‘Eight Songs for a Mad King’ (1969); ‘From Stone to Thorn’ (1971) gives a great sense of the topography and ever changing sea around his Orkney’s home; The Lighthouse (1979) is a misty, moody detective mystery cum ghost story which is, in its way, a page-turner. The Third Symphony (1985), like the Tenth, takes an architectural approach without compromising negatively on the aural front.

That poem which features in the final part of Maxwell Davies Tenth is so depressingly fantastic that I have included it below:

A se stesso

Or poserai per sempre,
Stanco mio cor. Peri` l’inganno
Ch’eterno io mi credei. Peri`. Ben
In noi di cari inganni,
Non che la speme, il desiderio e`
Posa per sempre. Assai
Palpitasti. Non val cosa nessuna
I moti tuoi, ne` di sospiri e` degna
La terra. Amaro e noia
La vita, altro mai nulla; e` fango il
T’acqueta omai. Dispera
L’ultima volta. Al gener nostro il fato
Non dono` che il morire. Omai
Te, la natura, il brutto
Poter che, ascoso, a comun danno
E l’infinita vanite` del tutto.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)

English Translation:

To Himself

Now can you rest forever,
Oh weary heart of mine. Gone is the last illusion,
which I had thought eternal. Gone. Clearly I see how
die for lack of hope and desire.
Rest forever. You’ve laboured
enough. There is nothing that merits
your efforts, nor is the earth worthy
of your sighs. Bitter and tiresome
is life, nothing more. And the world is a slough.
Quieten down. Despair
for the last time. To humankind Fate
gave nothing but death. Then despise
yourself, and nature, the evil power
that secretly governs the common woe,
And the endless void of everything.


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