Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartet no. 1, op. 229

performed by the Maggini Quartet

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was born September 8, 1934 in Salford, Lancashire. He told his parents at the ripe young age of four that he wanted to be a composer, after having seen Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers.

One of his early compositions was submitted to a children’s radio program and was seen/heard by one Violet Carson, who apparently said “He’s either quite brilliant or mad.” Conductor Charles Groves approved of the work, and the program’s producer Trevor Hill helped with getting Davies’ career started, making him resident composer of the program, called Children’s Hour.

After attending a grammar school, Davies studied at the University of Manchester as well as the Royal Manchester College of Music (now called the Royal Northern College of Music), where among his fellow students were Harrison Birtwistle and John Ogdon.

Davies spent some time as Director of Music at a grammar school before winning a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton (as Wikipedia says, with the help of Copland and Britten, obviously great people to have giving you assistance). Princeton!

There he was able to study with both Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. As little as I’ve written about Babbitt, he’s one of the most interesting composers I’ve come to be aware of, and I’m terribly interested in his music even if it’s a little intimidating to write about, so to learn so late that P.M. Davies studied under him (and Sessions!) is quite exciting. Davies spent some time as Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, before relocating to Orkney, in the U.K., which proved to be an important influence in his compositions, as we shall see. He also spent a decade as Composer in Residence at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, until 2002, around which time he began the composition of this set of string quartets, about which more presently.

There are a total of ten quartets in the Naxos set, a cycle commissioned from the wonderful Naxos records. Composition began in 2001, and the Maggini Quartet was chosen to record all ten, obviously on Naxos. The first of the ten, which we are discussing today, was premiered on 17 October, 2002. All ten works in the set are what the composer referred to as “chapters in a novel” per a dead link on Wiki. Also worthy of mention, despite this being the “Naxos quartet no. 1” is that this is not the composer’s first quartet overall. There are some works that date from the ’60s and 80s, but this is the first in this particular set of ten.

So, Orkney.

Well, actually wait.

Naxos. They’re certainly not a flashy record label, but offer wonderful music, and a wonderful variety of music, and one of the things I do love about their site is the About this Recording link on many of their releases, and we indeed have one here. Go take a lookGo take a look. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to hear/read a composer’s own thoughts on a piece in as much detail as this, but also a bit intimidating to try to write about when the composer himself has already done so, so I won’t be trying to explain anything here.

Now, the composer’s notes might seem rather daunting, or even a little bit pedantic. At first, he mentions that “the first slow bars of the Quartet recall the mood of the start of Beethoven’s F sharp minor piano sonata, in that they provide a nostalgic glimpse into a “safe” world of the past,” which sounds innocuous enough. He also says that “The exposition of this first movement is based on classical models: Haydn looms large…” Amid those two musically comforting statements, however,  composer’s mention of a “twelve-unit “most perfect pandiagonal square,”” admitting that it “sounds more daunting than it is,” some kind of matrix or (semi?) serial-inspired organization of pitches or something. He says it “works as a catalyst to musical invention,” but there’s nothing too cacophonous or atonal going on here. It might seem a little acerbic at first or fifth listen, but I promise, there’s some shimmering delicacy and expression here to come to appreciate. His explanation of the first movement is complicated but Also encouraging, impressive even, in what he asserts it accomplishes. Admittedly, it’s difficult to hear lots of that in passing, but thankfully, we don’t need to get it all to enjoy it. It’s really pretty gripping music, stuff to close your eyes to.

The second movement begins as a passacaglia, yet another traditional form, and later on, the composer mentions the influence of “Orkney folk fiddle gathering,” at least one of the references to his (new) hometown. It serves as a slow movement, but there’s also lots of action her as well, in a lyrical sense, as well as in one of contrasts. Can you hear the Orkney landscape, a place of solitude, natural beauty, rich history, and a strong identity? (I say this as if I’ve been there, but photos are breathtaking.)

The final movement is far shorter than those that precede it, at only a few minutes long. There was mention of Haydn and Beethoven in the first movement, and of “a well-known Chopin piano sonata finale.” The composer says “the physical sound of the third movement was suggested by a strong breeze through dry heather,” a description I absolutely love. It’s a scherzo, and ends this seemingly epic-large quartet with an understated whisper, but an outstandingly effective one.

There are a few points I want to make with this piece, and although I can’t claim to be an expert about the work, or to know what (else) the composer was thinking when he wrote it, I feel it illustrates a few things worth considering.

For one, this is very modern music, written only a decade and a half ago, but contrary to the negative idea so many people have of modern classical music, it is of outstanding integrity. Sure, it doesn’t actually sound like Haydn, and might take some getting used to, but it has a lot to offer, and in a very traditional form. I also say this having come quite late to Davies’ music, and I’d go so far as to say I had quite a bad impression of him after really being very unimpressed with a few pieces I took a swing at, but I’m glad to have found this work, and maybe I’ll come around to his symphonies too.

Secondly, and very minor, at least relative to this piece, is that Davies was a student of Milton Babbitt, and yet, at least here, he’s not writing serialist music. In fact, many of Babbitt’s students would probably say that he was under no assumption that that’s what his students would or should write. Granted, I am especially interested in Babbitt’s work, but Davies is clearly individual, working in his own idiom, and for that we should be thankful. I’m looking forward to the remaining quartets in this set.

So yeah, there is excellent classical music still being written, and not all of it is recycled neo-neo-Classical or serialist or minimalist or electronic or spectralist or whatever. In fact, it’s all just music, but it’s easy to let things like date of composition, or the composer’s name, or who he studied with, or a label, or even other works of the composer’s, get in the way of discovering something perhaps truly special. So don’t do that. Just go listen.


And with that we, we wrap up our English series. We began with a transplant from Hanover, and end in Orkney. What an amazing bunch of music we listened to. I’ll be putting a review article up about the whole series, but if you missed anything, and it’s likely you did, go have a look at the whole series here. Unfortunately, it’s in reverse chronological order this way, but that’s okay.

Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you enjoy this. I put a lot of time into it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s