James Davy on the former Master of the Queen’s Music

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies died on 14 March, aged 81. He was one of the truly outstanding voices of twentieth-and twenty-first-century music. Standing in the European avant-garde tradition, he could also work less complex musical material into successful and satisfying forms, guaranteeing a slightly higher degree of acceptance in popular circles than many of his contemporaries. A vocal opponent of organised religion, he nonetheless produced a good deal of music with religious themes or content for liturgical or concert performance.

As a composer sitting apart from religious tradition, Maxwell Davies – he was often known simply as ‘Max’ – brought into the Church music with a breath of the air outside. Not a composer to be lumped either with the ‘holy minimalists’ or with the modern nostalgics, his choral music is lucid and translucent and lyrical, similar to the medieval and renaissance models from which he drew inspiration. His harmonic language is not easily assimilated, but the resultant music is of real quality, neither sentimental nor cerebral (or frankly rebarbative) as was much written for choirs in the same years. That so few have been able (or willing) to inhale this fresh air has surely contributed to his music’s lack of widespread performance in the liturgy, as does its complexity to perform. In fact, at least one writer suspected his Ave Maria of being a hoax when it was published as a supplement to The Musical Times.

The Church of England has often been slow to accept complex contemporary music, leaving it to Collegiate foundations and more adventurous cathedrals and churches, where time and talent permit the large amount of rehearsal required to wrangle such demanding music into a state whereby the performance is a heartfelt part of the liturgy, rather than a concertized add-on. That said, not all of Maxwell Davies’s music is so complex, and some has a straightforward charm and directness – particularly those pieces written during his time as Master of the Queen’s Music. His reputation for complexity and the lack of the easy appeal that guarantees repeated hearings may have prevented more frequent or wider performance of easier pieces such as the Missa parvula for unison trebles and organ, composed for Westminster Cathedral, and a Mass for two organs and choir based on Pentecost plainchant melodies.

Away from the Church, Maxwell Davies went a stage further in the use of older musical material, using it to construct secular works including the Missa super L’Homme Armé and the overture Antechrist. His opera Taverner deals with the turbulence of the English Reformation (and perceived dangers in the power of religious organisations) and is built on a melodic device from a mass setting by John Taverner, a popular starting point for composers in the sixteenth century, as well as in the twentieth.

Maxwell Davies had many concerns, including war, the environment, musical outreach and education, and wrote much music for young people. The Hogboon, a children’s opera, is shortly to receive its première. He received a police caution in 2005 for being in possession of a dead swan – a protected species. He admitted the unwitting offence, having turned a previous find into à delicious terrine’, which he offered to the investigating officers. He also noted with wry disappointment that ‘they also took a pair of swan wings they found in a shed. I was going to give them to the Sunday School for their Nativity Play. Those they have already got are looking a bit dusty, and these would have been ideal for the angel Gabriel.’

ND James Davy is Director of Music at Chelmsford Cathedral.