A Fantasia on the Nature of Genius
When the death of Peter Maxwell Davies was announced on 14 March, I took down a handful of CDs and began to listen. ‘Max’, as he was generally known, is often a dauntingly difficult composer, and I have struggled to keep up with his output, which includes ten symphonies and ten string quartets. On this occasion I felt that I really should tackle the gritty, dissonant First once again, as recorded by a very young Simon Rattle in 1978, but at the same time my instinct was to put on one of his many delightful occasional or descriptive pieces. Not, perhaps, Farewell to Stromness (the news bulletins had already found it made a perfect musical soundbite), but the wonderful Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, which culminates in a coup de théâtre involving a bagpiper; or Mavis in Las Vegas, a riotous pastiche of American popular genres sparked by a misunderstanding in a Las Vegas hotel, where the composer was signed in as ‘Mavis’. Or perhaps one of the less well known show-pieces: Cross Lane Fair, for Northumbrian pipes and orchestra (complete with evocations of a ghost train, a bearded lady, and a five-legged sheep) or Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights (swelling brass, glockenspiel, and crotales – tiny tuned cymbals).
I did grapple with the symphony, but once that duty was over, I indulged in a personal Maxfest, lay back and relished the Northern Lights, the various species of bagpipe, and Mavis’s raunchy glitter-ball. As I basked in these lighter pieces – what Graham Greene might have called ‘entertainments’– they confirmed a suspicion that I have had for some time: that the truest genius can sing both high and low.
It’s something that seems to apply to composers in particular, as can be seen by observing any concert audience: rapt attention for the serious passages, nods and smiles for the lighter ones, but something deeper still, that inimitable silence when light suddenly merges with dark and we feel ‘the complete consort dancing together’. Haydn or Mozart might seem in every