A composer mourned: After Max, there will be music

Sixty-plus years ago in Manchester, five students of widely varied backgrounds resolved to change the face of music. There was Peter Maxwell Davies, a middle-class Mancunian; Harrison Birtwistle, from a subsistence Lancashire farm; Alexander Goehr, son of a Berlin refugee conductor; Elgar Howarth, who played trumpet and composed; and John Ogdon, who Birtwistle said was ‘the most brilliant of all, nothing was beyond him’.

Max was first out of the traps, writing a staggering trumpet sonata for Howarth and assuming a leadership role that he held all his life. After college, he founded Fires of London with Harry to perform their emergent works. Goehr went on to Cambridge, Ogdon to win the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Howarth conducted operas by Max and Harry at Covent Garden and around the world.

But while Harry kept pushing at the frontiers of tonality, Max settled into an establishment role, accepting multiple commissions for symphonies and concertos – ten of each – and speaking up for music education and endangered orchestras. He was a prodigiously articulate man and a very congenial colleague.

maxwell davies caricature

(c) John Minnion/Lebrecht Music&Arts

In 1971 Max moved to the Orkney Islands, for privacy and contemplation. A gay man in a prurient society, he suffered pain and publicity when relationships ended badly.

He wrote with such ease and excess that one concerto was forgotten when the next rolled up. A violin concerto for Isaac Stern is seldom heard. His middle symphonies are a bit of a blur. But the first symphony and the last are filled with passion and urgency and his Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, a fusion of the organic and the imaginative, will endure to the end of time.

Max died today, on Orkney, aged 81.

maxwell davies dartington
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies at Dartington Summer School of Music, 2009. Photo Kate Mount/Lebrecht Music & Arts

Tributes from Simon Rattle and Peter Donohoe here.

And here from composer John McLeod.

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  • A fine composer, and a life well lived. Britain has no-one quite like him now.

    Sadly much of his music has become unavailable on disc – let’s hope that situation is rectified, albeit posthumously.

    • Sad news indeed. Fortunately the old Collins Classics recordings are all re-appearing (or have already re-appeared) on the Naxos label. There is no shortage of Sir Peter’s music on CD and long may it remain so.

  • So very sorry to read this news. Just led three performances of his glorious “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise” over the weekend. RIP, Sir PMD.

  • Most of all, sadly not mentioned here, he wrote prolifically and brilliantly for children. This is something igored by supposedly musical people who don’t stop to think what initially inspired the performers they go to hear, let alone attend performances for or by children. I’ve directed several school and other children’s groups in his cong cycles and music theatre works and they’re a delight. Every child should know them and ideally every child should perform in them. When I stayed on Orkey a few years ago, the B&B owner told me her daughter had taken part in one of Max’s theatrical pieces. She said, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but my daughter loved every minute.

  • RIP
    Perhaps the most treasurble of the String Quartets predates the better known NAXOS quartets. It’s simply called “String Quartet” and comes from the 1960s.Like a distillation of a slow movement of a Mahler slow movement, the ear clings on to every note.

    • I came across a lovely performance of this beautiful work, a popular piece that shows up frequently on Sirius radio’s Symphony Hall. This is an arrangement for guitar, played with obvious love by Matthew McAllister (I love his reaction to the ambulance siren at the very end). Just a reminder of Max’s sweetness and love of his homeland.


  • Very sad news indeed. A great composer and a lovely man.
    I had always wanted to work with him and subsequently
    I had the honour of playing guitar and banjo in his 60th birthday concert and recording of Resurrection with the BBC Phil conducted by Max.

  • So glad he lived long enough for the Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society to be awarded to him a few weeks ago.

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