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Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies Tribute

Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies

Our Musical Director Loz Kaye pays tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies, patron of MLGC, who recently passed away.

“Peter Maxwell Davies, known as Max, was one of the key figures of British musical life in the late 20th and 21st centuries. His music was by turns thrilling, beautiful, uplifting, challenging, even shocking.

Born in Salford, seeing a production of ‘The Gondoliers’ at Salford Central Mission at the age of four proved to be the inspiration for a remarkable career. He became part of a ‘Manchester School’ of musicians including Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. He studied at the University of Manchester and the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM). They showed there is life beyond the capital when it comes to music, making an artistic Northern Powerhouse long before that became an easy slogan.

Max showed British contemporary classical music could be avant garde, and on its own terms. If continental contemporary music was too much ‘about the head’ in 1960s he was head and guts with pieces like Eight Songs for a Mad King, Worldes Blis, and Vesalii Icones.

As an out gay man before the environment got easier for LGBT+ people, he broke the mould and helped so many of us who came after. It was clear you could get on have a career in music as an LGBT+ person without having to be a tortured closeted genius.

For me as a gay listener, his music did embrace some of our sensibility. The acid campery of the foxtrots in his earlier music in the middle of fearsome complexity was as daring and hilarious as a drag queen gate crashing the Proms. Later that humour mellowed, for example with “Mavis in Las Vegas” based on a misunderstanding of his name in a Vegas hotel booking.

But after all, that was just one element in an extraordinary body of work embracing a huge pallette of artistic experience- symphonies, string quartets, solo works, opera.

I know that work helped me as a young person to open up the possibility of music, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without that.

It is just as much his approach to music making that will be his legacy. Community engagement was fundamental to him, not a grudging add on. The St Magnus festival in his adoptive home of the Orkney Islands was a wonderful achievement, and I very much enjoyed performing as part of it during the 1990s.

He could write pieces like ‘An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise’ which spoke immediately to an audience without losing the desire to keep exploring. His music often addressed vital contemporary concerns, the Iraq war, the beauty of nature under threat. He showed composers can enter the political debate and keep subtlety and integrity.

These are certainly values we cherish at MLGC. It’s through these values Max’s legacy will live on."