A Fan­ta­sia on the Na­ture of Ge­nius

The London Magazine - - JOHN GREENING -

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

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