on 5 April 2016
Music and literature both require allotted time through which to render their presence, unlike the visual arts of painting and sculptor where samples may hang about awaiting our attention.
It could be assumed that those reading the reviews of the Maxwell Davies Symphonies might already have some acquaintance with the work of the composer who died (he suffered from leukaemia) in March 2016 at his Orkney home in the Island of Sanday.
The performances on this disc were both directed by the composer himself, and so we may assume (again), I suppose, that the renditions are in accordance with Davies's intentions. In this sense we the listeners are very privileged—what wouldn't one give to have a Brahms or a Sibelius symphony directed by their composer?
Addressing the non-specialist listener, the work of cotemporary composers such as Davies, one might anticipate some difficulty in explaining exactly what we mean by the term music. Those expecting to find melody may be disappointed
The late Ian Parrott (former Gregynog Professor of Music at the then Music Department in the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth), himself a composer of symphonies, remarked to me that a great deal of contemporary so-called classical music might better be described a "sonic craft". (What IS classical music?—see below.) Whether Davies comes into this latter category is for you, the listener, to decide.
Any craftsman who creates works for musical instruments is entitled to be regarded as a composer of music. But would he/she be justified in expecting to be taken seriously if all they achieved was to notate for disorganised sound?
All art must have the potential to "live", implying "growth". The single element in music from which growth may flourish is termed the "motif". It is the manipulation of the motif in the context of harmony and motion, surely, that determines the success or otherwise of a work in sound justifying the result to be called music.
For the creative mind there has to be "motive" to accompany "motif", otherwise the result may turn out to be nothing more than a shallow demonstration of egotism.
The comprehensive notes to the disc under review are by Richard Whitehouse. They repay careful study before embarking upon the listening process.
Davies's symphonic output, comprising ten symphonies, spans a long period in his musical career from 1976, the year of the First Symphony to the Tenth (2013). The composer first came to Orkney in 1970 (the same year as myself) he settling for the island of Hoy (initially), whereas I went for Rousay. (I understand Davies, or should I refer to him as Max?, gave Rousay the once-over, though we never actually met despite corresponding and with a history of overlapping interests within music itself and beyond.)
Symphonic textures were present well before the First Symphony as instanced in the shorter works from the 1960s at a time when the young composer sported a crop of jet-black cranial hair (unlike me with a similar crop, Max did not appear to appreciate time lost in the business of shaving the chin and its environs!).
Much has been said about the influence on Max's music arising out of his Orkney years. This is understandable—his modest dwelling on the hilly island of Hoy (much of Orkney is flat with other hills on Rousay and the Orkney Mainland) was exposed to the elements raging in off the Atlantic from the west, and from the North Sea for the rest. As I put it to a well-published poet, who thought she might find a cure in Orkney for writer's block ("blighter's rock"), "conditions here flush out the bowels of the mind".
Certainly the mature symphonic period for Max encompasses his domicile here in Orkney and for me much of his later music has the tang of the place clearly recognizable once you become accustomed to the idiom.
Whitehouse speaks of the early period of coming to terms with symphonic organization in the First Symphony leading in subsequent works to what he describes as textural clarity. That may be the case but there is far more to it than that. Art is about scale, and true art is a harmonization with the natural world. From Palestrina to Bruckner, from Schoenberg to Glass and on, the work has to be appropriate to the duration in time it has in which to breathe.
The Fourth Symphony is in four clear-cut movements:
There the concession to "standard symphonic constraint" ends. No key signatures, for example?
So, how does one assess the success or otherwise of a work that in duration in this performance lasts near-on forty-three minutes? That, again, is for you to decide.
The Fifth Symphony, in contrast, is in one continuous movement, Whitehouse drawing parallels here with the Sibelius Seventh. Once again one has to contend with length in time. Davies prefers something a little longer (over twenty-six minutes) to Sibelius.
I first encountered the Sibelius in my early twenties with a short lifetime of musical experience behind me, and was able to feel comfortable with the work at a live "Prom." performance in the Royal Albert Hall; not quite so with Davies. It requires more attention and more patience in order to sort out the composer's intentions (not that any of this can ever be anything more than a personal interpretation, satisfying or otherwise).
It is interesting to note that there was a gap of six years between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. In contrast to the Sibelius Seventh, which unfolds in a continuous "swell" of sound, Max is more violent with sharp contrasts in volume and calling upon percussion for his effects. Both have their motifs, though of deferring time spans.
According to Whitehouse, the direction of the Fifth is not taken up again until the ninth Symphony but all developments in Davies's symphonic style are to be appreciated in the context of "cohesion and inevitability". Again, that is for you the listener to discover.
What IS Classical Music?
The following footnote is intended as light relief. It follows out of my own lifetime of over eighty years of musical experience. This year I shall be involved as a backroom boy (as I have been for over a decade) in the 40th St. Magnus Festival here in Orkney, sadly without Max!
What IS Classical Music?
When I was a very young boy I often heard it said that my parents "loved classical music". This term, "classical" (applied to music), became imbedded in my sub-conscious to mean something rather better than other kinds of music. In those days (1940's) the implication was that if music wasn't classical it might be jazz. (What is jazz, do I hear someone ask?) The boundaries have become blurred since then.
Beethoven was "classical music" par excellence; and Chopin—a name most of my acquaintances at the time had difficulty in pronouncing—was also pretty "classical " (though to a lesser degree than Beethoven since he wrote accessible music mainly for the piano). In my youth I was labelled, likewise, a "classical music" enthusiast and a race apart from the rest of humanity. I resented this label for the reason that I enjoyed jazz and was considered in my youth something of a "jazzy" pianist. Jazz has now taken its rightful place in the history of music and is just as entitled to be called classical as is the other stuff.
There is the added problem in that the word classical gets confused with the word classic itself. There are classics in all walks of creative life both ancient and not so ancient. It is quite clear that when people use the phrase classical music, classical has nothing to do with a classic work of art. No, classical music is a term used by the masses to denote a species of music likely to be beyond their comprehension. For most people, I fancy, music is associated with enjoyment at most and is a side-issue (background or wallpaper) at worse.
I have struggled all my life to find a way of distinguishing between branches of music that could be designated under such headings as "pop" (for popular—as if "classical music" isn't popular!) and "serious" music. "Pop" may be defined through its appeal to a certain "class" of individual, its commercial outlets and its treatment by the media etc. Anything that isn't "pop" might be thought of by the public at large as "classical music". But what name to give it? "Serious" will not do. Quite apart from the pomposity such a word engenders, would one, for example, regard the more frolicsome numbers of Brahms's Hungarian Dances as serious? That great general public would, if asked, categorize Albert Roussel as a "serious" composer. But was Roussel any more serious about his craft than, say, Joplin?
What word, then? Imagine yourself going into a record shop in some large town where you hope to acquire a recording of a piece by, say, Benjamin Britten. You ask, "Do you stock recordings of music by Britten?"
There's no need to say whether Britten is "serious" or "classical" or anything. It appears from this that one might do without the terminology all together. But there are circumstances in which this won't do, or will it? Somebody wants to know what kind of musician I am. I play (on the piano) all sorts, but for a living I play the likes of Haydn and Schubert—I am "serious". Then, for an encore, I put in one of those Hungarian Dances. I am no longer serious to some and still serious to others.
The dilemma is apparent. It is summed up in that little aphorism: "one person's quiet smoke is another's drinking water". So I find myself, at last, lunging for a name for this breed of music with which I am mostly associated—let us call it "musica-tolerabilis". If nothing else, it will introduce an element of stability into the argument—music that endures and is endurable! In that way I would get Scott Joplin and many others into my repertoire, which would satisfy me, but not that wretched "man in the street", perhaps.
Ultimately, I give up. But I still refuse to use the term "classical music" in any meaningful sense outside the period encompassing Haydn to . . . ? The late keyboard Trios of Haydn live comfortably in any post-baroque period. So, there you have it, and both Max and I shared a great enthusiasm for the music of Franz Joseph Haydn.