Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

the Man and the Music

– By Nicholas Jones

In 2000, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies declared – with characteristic humour and humility – that he would be ‘happy to be remembered by two tunes and a dictionary footnote’.1 In reality, his status as one of the leading international and highly distinguished composers of the post-war period is widely acknowledged, his position firmly cemented with six decades’ worth of high profile, worldwide performances of his music and extensive critical and scholarly engagement with his oeuvre.

This prolific, protean composer left behind a highly significant body of work that comprises nearly 550 compositions in every major genre, including art song and ballet, sonata and string quartet, mass and oratorio, symphony and concerto, music theatre and opera, as well as music for children and amateurs. This rich vein of music flowed from Davies’s creative imagination ostensibly unabated throughout his working life. To put it simply: Davies was possessed, come what may, with an obsessive compulsion – a dogged inner impulse – to compose.

He composed primarily at the desk. In 2008 he remarked that: ‘I am still a paper and pencil man … there is such a joy in the physical sensation of pushing a pencil across a piece of blank music manuscript, which I’ve always loved, always enjoyed that as a real, sensuous experience all through my creative life and I wouldn’t be without that.’ 2

His works, in spite of their diverse stylistic ‘masks’, display a remarkable technical fluency and underlying continuity, as well as a profound connection to, and engagement with, ‘the past’, which, fluctuating and interacting with the composer’s own predominantly modernist idiom, evokes in the listener a chain of historical resonances. Yet the works also represent a distillation of his life experiences: acknowledging the presence and importance of autobiography in Davies’s music enables us to better understand and interpret his works.

Throughout his professional life, Davies also articulated his views on a variety of subjects. These subjects range widely from specific compositional concerns and other music-related issues, to commentaries that reveal the composer’s interest in art and architecture, literature, popular culture, education, religion, politics and the environment. These writings and spoken-word items – comprising articles and essays, speeches and lectures, interviews, radio broadcasts and programme notes – attest to a lively, passionate, intelligent, humorous, thought-provoking and, on occasion, provocative commentator.

Early Years and Juvenilia

Davies was born on 8 September 1934, in Salford. When he was four, his family moved to Swinton and it was there, in 1942, that he began piano lessons and started to compose shortly afterwards. Over the next 10 years – up to the Quartet Movement, written in his first year at Manchester University – he was to produce nearly thirty works. These works offer a fascinating insight into how the composer’s compositional style and technique evolved during these crucial formative years. The vast majority of the juvenilia were written for piano, including his first composition, Early Morning Echoes (1942), and the highly ambitious and brilliant Parade (1949), a work that was a major breakthrough for the young composer, both stylistically and technically speaking. From 1949 to 1952 Davies himself premiered a number of these piano pieces – including part of Parade, which apparently baffled listeners – on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour.

Several works from this period were also written for vocal and instrumental combinations, such as the imposing Stehn am Fuss des Gebirgs for unaccompanied chorus – a setting, in the original German, of a fragment from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegy X – and Five Songs for soprano and instrumental ensemble – a setting, also in the original German, of five Christian Morgenstern poems. The latter cycle clearly demonstrates that Davies, even at such an early age (both works were composed in 1950), had a highly effective and intimate understanding of the instruments he was writing for, as well as an intuitive awareness of how they would sound in combination and with the voice. In addition to German and British literature, as a teenager Davies also acquainted himself with Indian poetry and the writings of Arthur Rimbaud, as well as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which became a recurring source of stimulation. But in all truth, the young Davies was a voracious reader, consuming anything that crossed his path, a practice that continued throughout his life.

During this early period, Davies experienced several pivotal moments in his own biography. The earliest of these was an outing, at the age of four, to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers at the Salford Central Mission, with the Pleasant Sunday Afternoons Orchestra conducted by Mr Lane – a moment of epiphany that had an intense impact on him and on his decision to be a composer. He also witnessed, first hand, the horrors of the Blitz, seeing a neighbour running up the street on fire and bodies being dug out of the rubble, as well as listening in the pantry under the stairs to foxtrot and Charleston records from the 1920s and 1930s – memories that shaped, nearly 30 years later, the composition of St Thomas Wake: Foxtrot for Orchestra on a Pavan by John Bull (1969).

As a teenager Davies attended the Hallé chamber concerts: in 1948, at the age of 13, he heard Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5, recalling later that it was the most exciting thing he had ever heard, finding it difficult to sit still on his seat.3 From 1949 he devotedly attended the main Hallé concerts conducted by John Barbirolli, and heard Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, as well as the complete cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies. He borrowed scores of Mahler and Schoenberg from the Henry Watson Music Library in Manchester; he read – in the original German, with a dictionary to hand – Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre and Berg’s analysis of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony; and he listened attentively to a wide variety of classical music on the radio and through the family’s record player, including Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.

It was also around this time, whilst walking with his parents on Helvellyn in the Lake District, that Davies experienced (in his own words) an ‘aural vision’: as the mist descended on the mountain, he heard, as it were, in the distance the music that he was eventually going to write. It would take him a further twenty years to fully realize this aural vision in musical terms. In October 1948, he started writing his first private journal, a practice that remained a constant throughout his life right up until a few weeks before his death. Totalling over 70 volumes, Davies’s journals and diaries are predominantly written in English, but they also feature passages written in German, Italian, Greek and Latin – and, fascinatingly, words written in his own invented alphabet. This alphabet – which was deciphered by British musicologist Richard McGregor in the late 1990s4 – also appears in the composer’s sketch materials, which, together with the journals and diaries, have been deposited in the British Library (the latter items are currently under embargo by the composer’s Estate).

Student Years: Manchester and Rome, 1952–59

The 1950s was a particularly important decade for Davies. It was the period when he established the fundamental elements of his compositional technique; the decade in which he composed his first acknowledged works; and a time, coinciding with his emergence as a composer of substance, when he travelled to Darmstadt (in 1956 and 1957), Paris (in 1955 and 1956) and Rome (in 1955 and 1957¬–8). It was also the period in which his interest in early music, Schoenberg’s serial technique and Indian classical music began to influence his own compositional thinking and resulting works.

In 1952, Davies was awarded a Lancashire County Scholarship to read music at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music) and Manchester University. It was in Manchester that he first met fellow composers Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle, pianist John Ogdon and trumpeter and conductor Elgar Howarth – a group of students (in Davies’s own words) ‘totally against the University and College establishment’.5 In 1953, together with cellist John Dow, they formed the New Music Manchester Group. Two years later, at the Arthur Worthington Hall at the University, Ogdon and Howarth gave the premiere of Davies’s Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, Op. 1, considered by the composer himself as a ‘breakthrough’ work.6 It certainly made a strong impression at the time – especially at the Group’s iconic follow-up concert at St James’s Square, London, on 9 January 1956 – and secured Davies his first publishing contract, with Schott & Co. If Davies’s Quartet Movement was written under the influence of Bartók and Stravinsky, then the Trumpet Sonata clearly demonstrates the powerful impact that Schoenberg and the continental avant-garde, especially Messiaen and Boulez, had made on Davies’s musical language and technique. The influence of all three composers is also evident in his Five Pieces for Piano (1955–6), as is Davies’s lifelong predilection for contrapuntal textures.

In his first published essay from 1956, Davies introduced a key theme that became something of an idée fixe in his writings of the 1960s, namely the nature and scope of compositional technique: ‘Most young composers are familiar with at least the most superficial aspects of Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, etc. – perhaps even of Messiaen or Stockhausen – but they know surprisingly little about more ancient composers – their training has led them to take for granted that they know all there is to know about them.’7 The reference to ‘ancient composers’ here is significant, particularly when one bears in mind that aspects of his own compositional technique were – precisely at this time – being shaped and influenced by early music, an attitude that set him apart even from his Manchester contemporaries.

The first composition that explicitly acknowledges the example of early music was Alma Redemptoris Mater, a wind sextet written in 1957. The 10-note set on which the work is based is derived from the plainchant Marion antiphon that Davies sourced from the Liber Usualis – a strategy that was soon to become a permanent fixture in his compositional technique. The work also uses the Dum Compleréntur plainchant and (according to Richard McGregor) Dufay’s Alma Redemptoris Mater, a work that Davies sourced from the Historical Anthology of Music.8 In his next work, St Michael – Sonata for Seventeen Wind Instruments (composed in the same year), Davies once again used plainchants (Dies Irae, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) from the Liber Usualis, but he also employed many early music techniques: his programme note, for instance, makes reference to isorhythm, hocket, cantus firmus, vocal contrapuntal techniques, canon and mensural canon.

In 1957 Davies was awarded an Italian Governmental Scholarship to study with Goffredo Petrassi. St Michael was the first of two works that Davies wrote under Petrassi’s watchful tutelage; the second, Prolation, was Davies’s first orchestral score. Prolation is governed by the proportions of a five-note set, both at a macro and micro level, and the structure is influenced by Gothic architecture and the notion of übergreifende Form (‘overlapping form’) – a formal concept that would prove influential in later works, such as the Third Symphony.9 The scoring owes much to Webern and his divided polyphony, where the main line of argument is dispersed through many of the orchestral instruments at a rate of two or three pitches at a time, and the musical language is greatly influenced by the continental avant-garde. But Prolation was very much a product of its time and somewhat unrepresentative of Davies’s music written before and after it. Nevertheless, the score does contain features that pointed to the future: the use of pitched percussion, which looked forward to the Orkney works of the 1970s; the emotional weight being given to the strings, which became a characteristic feature from the Second Taverner Fantasia onwards; the gesturing, upwardly thrusting motifs in the trumpets; and, in the opening bars, the single-note crescendo – a distinctive gesture that presages its use in the First Symphony.

Integration–Disintegration–Reintegration: the 1960s

In January 1959, shortly after his return to Britain from Italy, Davies was appointed Music Master at Cirencester Grammar School. During his three-year tenure, he composed several pieces for the school orchestra and choir – including Five Klee Pictures (1959) and O Magnum Mysterium (1960) – and made many arrangements of pieces by composers such as Dowland, Byrd and Tallis, Satie, Milhaud and Stravinsky, as well as items from The Mulliner Book and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. He also strongly encouraged the pupils to compose – an unusual strategy for the time. ‘One did not hinder their creativity with arcane rules about consecutive perfect fifths, except for examination purposes,’ he once explained, ‘but tried to have the children produce something as close to and, in the circumstances, as good as their own pristine creative vision.’10

Whilst at Cirencester, Davies prepared a performing edition of four movements from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers for the school orchestra and choir. The creative consequence of this task was far-reaching, with Davies composing three large-scale works that bore the fruits of the direct contact with the Monteverdi: the String Quartet (1961), the cantata Leopardi Fragments (1961), and the orchestral work Sinfonia (1962), all works that, following on from the rather cool, calculated complexities of Prolation, were more emotionally direct, lyrical and introspective. These qualities are also in evidence in his next orchestral work, the First Fantasia on an ‘In Nomine’ of John Taverner (1962), which received its premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Davies conducting, at the 1962 BBC Proms. He had been considering an opera on the subject of John Taverner since 1956, and this commission offered him the opportunity to deliberately prepare for such an undertaking.

Work on the opera, Taverner (which was eventually premiered in July 1972), rapidly increased when Davies was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to study composition at Princeton University with Roger Sessions and Earl Kim in 1962. It allowed him time to concentrate on nothing but Taverner, and when approached by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964 to write a work for them, Davies presented them with a symphonic meditation on the first act of the opera, already completed, and the second act, awaiting to be committed to paper. Continuing with a precedent established in the Sinfonia and the First Taverner Fantasia, Davies employs formal terminology with a specific classical ring to describe the main sections of his Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s ‘In Nomine’: sections 1 to 6 ‘make roughly a sonata-form movement’, sections 8 to 10 ‘make a scherzo and trio’, section 12 ‘is a closing extended slow movement’ for strings (where the presence of Mahler looms ominously over the proceedings), and section 13, the shortest section for woodwind only, refers back to the opening.11

According to Davies, however, his main compositional concern in the Second Taverner Fantasia was ‘to explore the possibilities of continuous thematic transformation, so that material is in a constant state of flux’.12 Thematic transformation processes were first used in the second movement of the instrumental ensemble work Seven In Nomine (1963–5) and immediately established itself as a permanent component of Davies’s compositional technique. In many respects, then, the Second Taverner Fantasia can be seen as the culmination and consolidation of a compositional technique and musical language that Davies had painstakingly constructed over ten or so years. It marked a watershed in his stylistic development, separating the ‘integrated and balanced style of composition’ (Davies’s own description of his music written before 1965) and the disintegrated and unbalanced style of composition exhibited in the works that followed.13

Certainly, the sequence of parodic, ‘Expressionist’ works of the period 1966–9 – such as Revelation and Fall (1966), L’Homme Armé (1968), Vesalii Icones (1969) and Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) – are riven with heterogeneity and discontinuity and characterized by disjunction and fragmentation in their most extreme forms. Eight Songs, a music-theatre work connected with George III’s mental illness, alludes to and quotes from a wide-range of musical styles and sources, from Handel’s Messiah to the foxtrot – a dance form that Davies used to symbolize total and absolute corruption.

In Vesalli Icones, the sound of a foxtrot is heard at the end of the work to represent the triumph of the Antichrist, a figure indistinguishable from the real Christ, but representing a total inversion of Christian beliefs. In another work from 1969, St Thomas Wake, a series of invented foxtrots, played by a ‘period’ band, are pitted against Davies’s own symphonic argument, articulated by a symphony orchestra, with no attempt made by Davies to integrate the two different styles. The foxtrot dance form is used primarily as a means to critique the ‘political and moral irresponsibility’ of the 1930s and its inability and abject failure to reflect those issues artistically. But, as we have already seen, Davies associated 1920s and 1930s dance music with his own experiences of the Blitz. Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 2005, he observed that ‘it was only when I was coming to the end of writing it [St Thomas Wake], I remembered the whole experience of the cubbyhole under the stairs and thought, that is what I’m touching here. This has to be lived through again in order to come to terms with it.’14

Composed concurrently with these works – but fundamentally very different in approach and aesthetic – was Davies’s colossal orchestral work, Worldes Blis (1966–9). Davies began work on this piece in Australia when he was Composer-in-Residence at Adelaide University. For him, the work was a deliberate attempt both ‘to reintegrate the shattered and scattered fragments of my creative persona’ and to reconnect with the architectural principles employed in the large-scale orchestral works written before 1965.15 But Worldes Blis proved to be a highly difficult work for Davies on many levels: it has complex and contested origins and influences; composition on the work was slow; and the premiere at the 1969 Proms was controversial, as a large number of the audience walked out – a devastating experience from which he took a long time to recover. But perhaps it was fitting, as he himself pointed out at the time, that the musical terrain explored in Worldes Blis was analogous to a physical terrain that he was soon to encounter first hand: Orkney, and the windswept landscape of Hoy.

In Orcadia: Hoy, 1970–98

Davies’s move to the Island of Hoy in the early 1970s engendered a seismic shift in his own stylistic direction, moving away from the tormented parody and hard-edged exuberance of the music-theatre works of the mid to late 1960s towards a more austere and objective musical language that complemented the prose and poetry of Orcadian George Mackay Brown. For Davies, the working relationship with Brown was absolutely essential to all of his creative endeavours from 1970 onwards, with the composer being inspired by and frequently collaborating with the writer on a number of significant works, including The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1976) – the chamber opera that launched the St Magnus Festival in 1977 (which Davies co-founded with Brown, Archie Bevan and Norman Mitchell).

The story of the first encounter between Brown and Davies – on Hoy in July 1970 when the composer was in Scotland on holiday – has been documented by both men: Brown’s in his autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, written just before his death in 1996 – which wonderfully depicts Davies as a ‘dark young composer – Beethoven in his twenties might have looked like him’ – and Davies’s in his 1976 essay ‘Pax Orcadiensis’ (Orcadian peace), a poetic missive of deep affection for a specific place and its people, history, culture, weather, landscape and seascape.16

Orkney’s landscape and seascape acted as powerful and compelling agents that exerted their own influence on Davies’s creative imagination. Stimulation also came from the natural world more broadly, especially from the soundscape of nature – birdcalls, weather and sea – and from specific places, including the serene–stormy splendour of Hoy’s Rackwick Bay and, later, Sanday’s Airon and Holms of Ire. He was a composer highly attuned to the soundscape of place, and very sensitive and acutely aware of his surroundings. But Davies’s aesthetic and cultural reaction to landscape went even further than this: subscribing to the notion of solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking – the landscape became the place in which Davies could contemplate, ruminate and think meaningfully and constructively about his music and the way in which it was put together. The landscape itself became an integral part of the compositional process, and while walking on a clifftop or on the beach he would ‘walk inside the harmonies in three dimensions all around’.17

Many works written during the 1970s betray the influence of the Orkney landscape, including From Stone to Thorn (1971), Hymn to St Magnus (1972), Runes from a Holy Island (1977), A Mirror of Whitening Light (1976–7), and the First Symphony (1973–6), the third movement of which, as Davies himself explains in his programme note, is an ‘invocation of the extraordinary, almost unearthly, treeless winter land and seascape of the Orkney island where I live. But it is not merely descriptive or atmospheric.’

The First Symphony signalled Davies’s engagement with musical genres that carry profound historical resonance. This work was followed by a further five symphonies during this period (in 1980, 1984, 1989, 1994 and 1996 – the Sixth being in memory of Mackay Brown) and a series of ten Strathclyde Concertos (1986–96) for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Davies also started to use terms such as ‘tonics’, ‘dominants’ and ‘tonality’ – terms loaded with historical significance. Whilst this practice, unsurprisingly perhaps, raised a few eyebrows in certain quarters, it clearly demonstrated that for Davies the appropriation and personal interpretation of such terminology held much relevance and consequence for his own compositional technique, and more specifically, for his ‘greatest preoccupation’: namely, ‘to make harmony work – both in the short term, from phrase to phrase, and in the long term, so as to give, over an extended architectural time-span, the impression of an inevitable-seeming harmonic quest’.18

But this concern with the vertical, harmonic dimension did not neglect the horizontal, thematic dimension. Davies continued to use thematic transformation processes, but in the early 1970s he added a new ingredient: magic squares. These were employed to generate thematic material derived from an initial set, itself based (usually) on a plainchant. There are a variety of numerical magic square species. Davies was particularly – but not exclusively – interested in those associated with the seven Ptolemaic planets: Saturn (3×3), Jupiter (4×4), Mars (5×5), the Sun (6×6), Venus (7×7), Mercury (8×8) and the Moon (9×9). According to the composer, ‘Projected onto the page, a magic square is a dead, black conglomeration of digits; tune in, and one hears a powerful, orbiting dynamo of musical images, glowing with numen and lumen.’19

This aspect of his compositional technique has attracted much attention over the years, both from composers and commentators, but it seems as if Davies became increasingly jaded by analyses that focused exclusively on ‘set-chasing’ (his own term) and failed to take into consideration other factors, such as the wider implications of symbolism and meaning. Whilst it is true that Davies was fascinated by the abstract patterns and compositional possibilities of magic squares, he was also very much attracted by – in much the same way as he was with plainchants – their symbolic potential. For instance, the 9×9 square of the Moon was selected for Ave Maris Stella (1975) to signify a connection between the Moon and the Virgin; and the 8×8 square of Mercury was selected for A Mirror of Whitening Light to reference the title’s association with alchemy and the spirit Mercurius, or Quicksilver.

In 1981 Davies was awarded the CBE for services to music, and this was followed six years later by a knighthood in the New Years Honours List. In 1985 he was appointed Associate Composer and Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and in 1992 he was appointed to the same role for both the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Davies conducted various orchestras and ensembles throughout his life, from his appearance at the 1959 Cheltenham International Festival of Music with members of the London Symphony Orchestra through to his retirement from conducting in December 2010. Conducting, however, was not an activity that Davies particularly relished, and he once remarked that he conducted the first performances of the First Taverner Fantasia and Worldes Blis himself because ‘nobody else would’.20 He received only one genuine conducting lesson in his life: from Leonard Bernstein in New York in the 1980s when Davies was touring with his chamber group The Fires of London.21 This instrumental ensemble started out as the Pierrot Players in 1967 under the joint direction of Davies and Birtwistle, but was renamed The Fires of London, under Davies’s sole directorship, three years later. From 1970 to 1987, The Fires premiered a number of Davies’s instrumental and vocal chamber works, including Hymn to St Magnus (1972), Blind Man’s Buff (1972), Miss Donnithorne’s Maggott (1974), Ave Maris Stella (1975), Runes from a Holy Island (1977), and Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982).

Temenos: Sanday, 1998–2016

Composed in 1998, the flute and orchestral work Temenos, with Mermaids and Angels was one of the first pieces that Davies wrote following his move to Sanday. ‘Temenos’, meaning sanctuary, refers to Airon, the location of the composer’s new home; the ‘mermaids’ represent the seals below the house, and the ‘angels’ the seabirds above it. In Roma Amor – another orchestral work from the same year – Davies presents the listener with a ‘personal set of recollections’ of Rome and his time spent there as a student in the 1950s. Roma Amor employs a very large orchestra (including an extended percussion section with flexatone and 3 church bells) and virtuoso orchestration to depict musically a city teeming with life, vitality and endless possibilities.

Davies’s environmental lament, The Doctor of Myddfai (1996), was significant in that it was the composer’s first operatic collaboration with a librettist. His collaboration with David Pountney led to two further projects: the music-theatre work Mr Emmet Takes a Walk (1999) and the opera Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!) (2010). Mr Emmet was premiered at the St Magnus Festival in June 2000, three days before the first performance of Davies’s Symphony No. 7 (2000). For Davies, this work represented the end of a symphonic cycle: the Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No. 8), written in the same year as the Seventh, stands outside of this cycle and was a ‘musical account’ (as Davies himself described it) of his visit to Antarctica in response to a commission by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the British Antarctic Survey to commemorate the writing of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica.

But it was chamber music that preoccupied Davies for the vast majority of his time on Sanday. The composer’s output in relation to this genre was prolific, with notable highlights including the series of ten Naxos String Quartets (2002–7); Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle (2002); sonatas for cello and piano (2007), violin and piano (2008), and solo violin (2012); The Last Island (2009) for string sextet; the horn trio, Stormwatch, Stormfall (2011); Oboe Quartet (2012); String Quintet (2014–5); the Sonatina for Violin Alone (2015); and the composer’s final composition, String Quartet Movement (2016).

In 2005 he was Appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Teaching composition to students and young composers was certainly nothing new for Davies; indeed, it had been a significant part of his professional practice since his participation in the Wardour Castle Summer School of Music in 1964 and 1965 – a teaching endeavour that he jointly undertook with Birtwistle and Goehr. This experience was followed by teaching roles at Adelaide University (1966) and the Dartington Summer School of Music (1969¬–84 and 2008). In Orkney, he established the Hoy Young Composers’ Summer Course (1989–96) and the St Magnus Composition Course (2007–).

As Master of the Queen’s Music (2004–14), Davies composed a great variety of music. This included several large-scale works, such as Commemoration Sixty (2005), written to mark the 60th anniversary of the ending of World War II, and a number of occasional works, including a series of nine Christmas carols (2004–12). The commitment shown by Davies in this role as national and public composer was also reflected in his continuing role as community composer. Contributions in this area included 6 Sanday Tunes (2002) and Start Point (2005–6) for the Sanday Fiddle Club.

Davies’s deep and sincere admiration for Scottish folk music can also be perceived in his Violin Concerto No. 2 (2009). Subtitled ‘Fiddler on the Shore’, the work was a celebration of Orkney traditional fiddle music and the seascape of the Sanday; but the concerto was also a dark contemplation on the vulnerability of the area to the threat of climate change. Impending environmental catastrophe through climate change and global warming is a theme that finds its way into other works from around this time, such as Last Door of Light (2008), Sorcerer’s Mirror (2009) and Sea Orpheus (2009).

In terms of orchestral music, the Second Violin Concerto was followed by a pair of overtures – St Francis of Assisi (2009) and Ebb of Winter (2013) – and two symphonies. Symphony No. 9 (2012), a one-movement work in two parts, witnessed a re-engagement with the symphonic ideas and preoccupations of his first seven symphonies, whilst the addition of a brass sextet (placed to the one side of the orchestra) playing dissenting military-style marches provided Davies with the opportunity to comment on what he saw as ‘disastrous’ armed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the inclusion of a baritone soloist and SATB chorus, Davies’s Tenth Symphony (2013) holds a unique position in his symphonic output. It was also a work that was written for the most part at a bedside desk at the University College Hospital in London, where Davies was undergoing treatment for leukaemia.


The Tenth Symphony was another meditation on his lifelong love and fascination with Rome, the specific source of inspiration in this instance being the life and work of Francesco Borromini. In the fourth and final part of the symphony Davies sets the architect’s last testament – written following his failed suicide attempt – as a dramatic quasi-operatic scena with the baritone soloist taking the role of Borromini himself.

For Davies at the time, the Tenth Symphony revealed ‘a somewhat different soundworld, which I can’t quite get yet’,22 an admission that opens up the notion of a ‘late style’. Although it is tempting to construct ‘periods’ into which Davies’s output can be situated, it is somewhat problematic as his stylistic evolution was not always straightforwardly linear. However, as this essay has shown, some specific phases can be identified: juvenilia up to 1952; student works written in Manchester and Rome; the 1960s; works written on Hoy, including symphonies and concertos; and works written on Sanday, including chamber music and choral works. This framework does not always indicate precise changes of style in his output, but it does reflect crucial turning points in his life.

Whilst the Tenth Symphony fails to comply with these seemingly rigid notions of periodization, the work, in actual fact, does suggest a final late stage in Davies’s development ¬– one in which the composer re-evaluated his own understanding of the symphonic genre and, as a result, challenged generic conventions. This final phase is also characterised by stylistic and technical summation, by an impending sense of death, and by a tone of voice that unmistakably intimates ‘lateness’ – one in which the work’s and the composer’s message is ambiguous, unreconciled and unresolved, and devoid of any sense of late-period ‘serenity’.

Davies was cleared of cancer in September 2013. However, in August 2014 his leukaemia returned. One of his final works, The Hogboon, a children’s opera, was composed whilst receiving chemotherapy treatment. The libretto, written by Davies himself, is preoccupied with the notion of reconciliation on multiple levels. The final two stanzas are extremely poignant, foreshadowing Davies’s eventual death on 14 March 2016 – a moment that brought to an end an eminent and multi-textured life and career as a composer:

The northern night-fire
Calls us to our sleep,
To be hallowed in our dreams
By the thrumming of the deep.

And so goodbye.
God bless you all.


1 Davies, ‘A Composers Point of View (II): On Parody, References and Meaning’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, ed. Nicholas Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 225–6.

2 Davies, in conversation with Sandy Burnett, July 2008 (podcast downloaded from

3 Davies, ‘Remembering Darmstadt’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 172.

4 Richard McGregor, ‘Reading the Runes’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 5-–29.

5 Davies, in Nicholas Jones, ‘Peter Maxwell Davies in 1950s: A Conversation with the Composer’, Tempo, 254 (October 2010), p. 14.

6 Ibid. p. 12.

7 Davies, ‘The Young British Composer’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 21.

8 McGregor, ‘Peter Maxwell Davies’s Sources: Reflections on Origins, Meanings and Significance’, in Peter Maxwell Davies Studies, ed. Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 153–4

9 Davies, ‘Realizing the “Aural Vision” of Prolation’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, pp. 43–5.

10 Davies, ‘Will Serious Music Become Extinct?’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 257.

11 Davies, ‘Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s “In Nomine”’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, pp. 67–9.

12 Davies, ‘Worldes Blis’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 95.

13 Broadcast BBC Radio 4, 30 January 2005.

14 Davies, ‘Worldes Blis’, p. 95.

15 Ibid., p. 67.

16 Brown, ‘Peter Maxwell Davies in Rackwick’, in For the Islands I Sing (Polygon: Edinburgh, 2008), pp. 76–79; Davies, ‘Pax Orcadiensis’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, 127–30. See also: Ros Drinkwater, ‘How We Met: George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies’ , The Independent, 10 July 1994.

17 Davies, in conversation with Sue Lawley, Desert Island Discs, broadcast BBC Radio 4, 30 January 2005.

18 Davies, ‘Indivisible Parameters and Spirit-Stirring Amalgams’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 299.

19 Davies, ‘A Composers Point of View (I): On Music, Mathematics and Magic Squares’, Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 216.

20 Davies, ‘The Orchestra is Becoming a Museum’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 106.

21 Davies, ‘A Conducting Lesson with Leonard Bernstein’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, pp. 285–6.

22 Davies, in conversation with Tom Service, ‘In Search of Borromini’, in Peter Maxwell Davies, Selected Writings, p. 297.