Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Max Maximus Optimus

by Professor Hovhanness I. Pilikian

April (2005) was the month of Max (as the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would like to be known) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Some shall disagree with me – some always do – but I am certain that Max is Britain’s greatest living composer, hence the Latin titles I have given him… I am glad that at least Her Majesty the Queen agrees with me, having just appointed him the Master of her [the Queen’s] Music.

Max is also one of the most intensively formally educated men around – has studied Music in Manchester, Rome and at the Princeton University (USA). The sheer quantity let alone quality of his work is impressive. I wish to focus here exclusively on his Symphony No. 8 – the Antarctic (premiered on 30th April at the RFH), a symphonic poem against Pollution, which I think will emerge as the first great work of the 21st century music. It proves yet again that a composer with pure sounds as his palette can nevertheless be political following Beethoven’s lead.

Musical inheritance detected in a composer’s work (otherwise labelled as ‘influences’, ‘references’, I call them continuities) should not be regarded as detrimental to the originalities of the composer’s own conceptions. Of all the arts, especially in Music, continuities are essential to preserve an aristocratic=classical progeny that endures and leads to greatness. Repetition is the Soul of Music.

Max, musically, is of the highest noble birth – I would say out of the wedlock of Wagner and Stravinsky, with some midwifery from Debussy!

I am no fan of later Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex – 1927), and especially dislike Wagner’s (1813-1883) oeuvre – incestuous, overstretched, macho racist absurdities (no wonder Hitler loved him), but I am passionate about Max’s own music produced in the last half a decade.

Stravinsky could not cope with his own volcanic originalities exploding in The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913), and went off tangent into collage and neo-classical hot air (Pulcinella 1920). It is still a crux in Stravinsky scholarship as to why?

Wagner on the other hand, had difficulty finding his way back home to his tonics… even though incredibly he became the greatest single influence on all music post-him – Strauss, Mahler, Sibelius, you name it, could not be born without his massive input.

But thank god for the failures of Wagner and Stravinsky – for here comes Max, and marries them off in his music (the Antarctic Symphony) – evolving their music the way they would have done, if only they could or knew how to…endowing their continuities with such rich and huge complexities, that the Wagnerian-Stravinskian originals in comparison sound like children playing…Max has become an absolute master of complex orchestration.

Debussy’s (1862-1912) music is illustrative, of some simple overall images (most famously La Mer=The Sea 1905). Max’s music on a parallel track (the Sea is crucial to Max’s music too – he lives drenched in it on Orkney Islands off Scotland) is profoundly, intensely, incredibly visual, almost on every phrase and cadence, more so than a symphonic poem by Strauss.

No other composer seems to me to possess such an extraordinary cinematic visuality – as a film-director, like a Fellini or Kurosawa. This is why I was appalled when the powers that be, forced on us the concert-goers at the RFH premiere of the symphony, projections on a huge screen of Max going on slow-motion walk-abouts among the icebergs of Antarctica, which made a nonsense of the unique visuality of his music – I had to shut my eyes throughout to focus on it.

The ending of the Antarctic Symphony is a coup de theatre – it doesn’t end so much as it fades into the vastness of the universe, like a drop dripping from a stalactite off the edge of an iceberg.

It very much reminded me of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – the Everest of Western Classical music – the ending of which is most unique in world music – a kind of Lullaby, as Jesus (murdered for and by our sins) sleeps in peace in his Father’s (not Mother’s) arms (Bach’s daring reversal of the maternal stereotype!), ready to wake up – for Resurrection. Bach’s music here, unending, merely fades into God’s universal space.

It remains for me to confirm that, besides being the great composer that he has become in the last half a decade (Max too had his ‘modern-music’ excesses earlier in his career), Max is also a very great writer of the English language, undiscovered yet – the Diary extracts of his Antarctic experience published in the programme prove it.

Finally, and incidentally, Max is also a first class raconteur – having heard him, I could also confirm that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies could have been a great stand-up comic (the classical gentle kind), were he not the great composer that he is, and, that right at the start of our new 21st century.

P.S. or, How to Create an Objet d’Art from the Armenian April the 24th

On the 24th of April, the national mourning day for the Armenians world-wide, remembering the attempted genocide of their people in Ottoman Turkey, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies gave a magnificent lecture at the Royal Festival Hall concerning the present and the future of Music in Britain. He had no hesitation in decrying the evils of money-obsession and globalization, causing massive soul-destruction globally – I would call it the American Genocide of the human Soul.

Suddenly, I was inspired to buy the impressive programme-booklet with the composer’s picture on the cover, and get Sir Peter himself to autograph and date it – 24th April… thus creating a unique museum-piece for the Soul of Armenia, which I then gave as a priceless heirloom gift to my friend in Yerevan, Artsvi Bakhchinyan, the great encyclopaedist of the Armenian contribution to world culture.


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