PETER FROST pays tribute to the great composer PETER MAXWELL DAVIES, as much a radical in his life and politics as he was in his music.
PETER MAXWELL DAVIES, who has died at his remote home in the Orkneys at the age of 81, became famous as an avant-garde composer. But he was also left-wing, openly gay, anti-Establishment and a staunch republican.
Since the early 1970s he lived on the remote Orkney island of Hoy without electricity or running water. Later, even Hoy proved too accessible and Davies moved to the even more remote Sanday, where he dwelt until his death.
Born in Salford, Maxwell Davies’s father was a factory manager and, as a youth, he seemed destined for work in a factory or mine.
But, aged just four, he was taken to a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. He returned home able to sing the entire score note for note and vowed there and then to be a composer.
A well-meaning relative tried to arrange an apprenticeship for him as a bricklayer but instead he went to study at the Royal Manchester College of Music. Here, with fellow student Harrison Birtwistle and others, he founded the Pierrot Players. The group performed many of Davies’s early works in the 1960s.
Though Salford-born, Davies’s earliest music was pastoral in the tradition of English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams. Later work would be far more radical, some would even say discordant.
His output covered a wide spectrum, from symphonies, chamber pieces to works for solo instruments, music, operas, ballets, children and some notable film scores, including The Devils and The Boy Friend for director Ken Russell.
Throughout his life, much of Davies’s music was inspired by his strong political opinions. His String Quartet No 3 was composed in opposition to the Iraq war. He marched against it and was an outspoken critic of war criminal Tony Blair.
His 2011 opera Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!) praised student activists including James Meredith, the black civil-rights activist who fought to enter the segregated University of Mississippi and the German anti-nazi Sophie Scholl, who helped found the White Rose resistance movement in wartime Germany.
Davies had a keen interest in environmentalism. He wrote The Yellow Cake Revue, a collection of cabaret-style pieces protesting at plans to mine uranium ore in Orkney, that he performed with actor Eleanor Bron.
The most well-known melody from the revue, Farewell to Stromness, portrays the plight of residents of that village having to leave their homes as a result of uranium contamination.
One of his most provocative works is Eight Songs for a Mad King, for a male singer and instrumental ensemble, with a libretto based partly on the rantings of King George III.
At one US performance Davies had the lead soloist grab a violin from one of the musicians, tear its strings off and smash it to bits, while a London production had the protagonist sitting naked on a toilet and smearing excrement about the stage.
But The Lighthouse, a haunting small-scale opera telling the true story of three Scottish lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished in 1900, was one of his most frequently performed works and Taverner, a two-act opera based on the life of the 16th-century English composer John Taverner whose music he deeply admired, also proved popular.
Famous for his strong republican views, in 2005 Davies was caught eating a dish of swan pate. The birds are a protected species and the property of the Queen but Maxwell Davies, explaining that the swan had flown into a power line, received an official police caution.
But in 2010 his appointment to the post of Master of the Queen’s Music indicated that perhaps his previously staunch republican views had softened.
It certainly brought his amazing music, and perhaps some of his political views, to a wider audience.
- Peter Maxwell Davies, September 8 1934-March 14 2016.
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 23 March 2016