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Maxwell Davies and the String Quartet

Paul Driver talks to the Sir Peter Maxwell Davies about the role of the String Quartet throughout his work.

The earliest published composition by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (b1934) is a movement for string quartet written in 1952. It was part of a full-length work submitted to the Society for the Promotion of New Music and burnt in a fit of anger at the work’s rejection, as was a string trio from the same time. Only a sketch of Quartet Movement, as it is now known, survived, and appropriately the latter was premiered at the SPNM’s 40th anniversary gala at London’s Barbican Hall in 1983.

Davies produced sonatas and chamber music in his youth and early manhood but naturally became keen, he told me on the phone from Orkney, to ‘explore the things I didn’t know’.

However, his first mature String Quartet appeared as early as 1961. This extraordinary, short but dense work epitomizes the sort of new things he was discovering – discovering and brilliantly codifying. Plainsong fragments subjected to permutation processes with a kinship to Schoenberg’s serial technique, and elaborated in diverse melodic, rhythmic and canonic ways: this procedure became, for Davies, the rock-solid basis of an oeuvre.

Virtually all his works make use of it, and its subtleties are uniquely apparent in the first published (Schott) edition of the String Quartet through the use of both black and red inks: red for cantus firmus-like lines with fixed rhythmic proportions, black for decorative lines in relatively free rhythm.

With remarkable assurance the quartet refers at once backwards - to the techniques of Monteverdi, the textures of Purcell - and forwards (to the austere idioms of Boulez and Nono), while remaining recognisably within the bounds of the medium beloved of Haydn.

Notable, too, is the way that what Davies calls the ‘ghost of a march in A minor’ steps in to provide the first of his many throwaway, structurally ironic endings.

Given this richness of significance, it is surprising that Davies disregarded the quartet medium for nearly 20 years. His concern was to a large extent with chamber music of another kind – works, dozens of them, for his Fires of London ensemble with its Pierrot lunaire-ish line-up of flute, clarinet, violin/viola, cello, piano, percussion and (often) soprano.

But in two of his profoundest, most compositionally (as well as executively) virtuosic works for the group – Ave Maris Stella (1975) and Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982) - he draws close to the concentrated intensity of the string quartet at its most exalted. Both are meant to be unconducted - ‘true chamber music,’ as he suggests – and Ave Maris Stella has a palpable connection with Beethoven’s C sharp-minor quartet, Op 131.

In between these ambitious works he returned to the medium proper with Little Quartet No 1 (1980) and Little Quartet No 2 (1987), which he describes as ‘relatively minor occasional pieces’, the first a memorial to the late Sir William Glock’s daughter, Oriel. The second was originally meant to be enjoyed by the townspeople of Montepulciano, where Hans Werner Henze had created a festival, but this 1977 version was lost in the post and, like Quartet Movement, the work was subsequently recreated from sketches.

Both pieces, in spite of their titles, are distinctive achievements, each following a slow-fast-slow plan, the first in three movements, the second in three continuous sections.

Davies’s big work of 1980 was his Symphony No 2, and throughout the next two decades he was preoccupied with what, by the time he had reached the fourth such work in 1989, he realised was his symphonic cycle.

In parallel, a cycle of ten specially commissioned Strathclyde Concertos for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was running. Quartet writing was not on the agenda, though it increasingly began to loom at its far extremity in his mind.

And at moments of both these grand undertakings - Strathclyde Concertos No 5 (for violin and viola) and Strathclyde Concertos No 9 (for woodwind sextet) are in any case scored for string orchestra – quartet-like texture comes to the fore as though a wistful prevision of a world to be entered when the hurly-burly is done. (Or to put it more more matter-of-factly, as Davies does, he is dipping ‘a toe into the rather dangerous waters’ of quartet-writing.)

The opening of the third and last movement (Adagio) of Symphony No 6 (1996) is a sustained passage for the five-part string section during which solo lines intermittently ‘crystallise out’ an actual quartet texture. It is in this stretch that the work’s elegiac quality as a memorial to the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown is most explicit, which suggests that Davies sees the medium as an inherently emotional one.

The opening of the slow third movement of Symphony No 7 (2000) similarly exhibits intense, contrapuntal writing for strings, often in four parts, and though there is a smack of Shostakovich here, the intended reference, as throughout the work, is to Haydn, which is a pointer to the future in itself.

It was in a talk during the Orkney Festival at which the symphony was premiered that Davies announced that this would be his last symphony (apart from the Antarctic Symphony due the same year and considered as lying outside the cycle of seven), and that he would be abandoning orchestral composition to devote himself to chamber music in general, string quartets in particular.

The father of the string quartet, Haydn, is the composer whom Davies had been making a point of studying and conducting throughout the previous decade. The plan was facilitated by the enthusiastic involvement of the Naxos record label with its request for a set of ten quartets - two a year for five years, each to appear promptly on disc - that parallels the one from Strathclyde Regional Council for concertos: Davies has been the beneficiary of remarkable commissioning arrangements, hardly seen since baroque times.

The difference between the ventures is that while he only considered the concertos as an integrated cycle ‘right at the end when No 10 quotes all the others’ (and, being ‘always very conscious that so much new music tends to sound the same’, he had been keen to ‘work with the individuality of the material’ in each case), he conceives the quartets as a unity from the outset.

He hopes he has ‘enough experience to plan out ahead so that the architecture will go through the lot’; and it will be a highly self-conscious architecture taking him back to some of his earliest, deepest artistic influences: Joyce’s novel Ulysses, with its minutely detailed but vastly overarching schemata; Dante’s infinitely elaborate Divina Commedia, each of whose terza rima stanzas Davies has always liked to imagine as a microcosm of the trilogy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) as a whole. It is a verse technique that he plans to adapt musically at some point in the quartets.

The first of them is necessarily the foundation-stone of the edifice. That the first movement – a sonata structure influenced, as the composer acknowledges, by Haydn – should have a double exposition seems only proper given the load it will have to bear and that it is to recur in later quartets.

So, too, the fleeting finale, that evocation of ‘a strong breeze through dry heather’, abruptly terminated, will be found blowing through a subsequent quartet (No 3). Though the movement is modelled on the finale of Chopin’s B flat-minor piano sonata (just as the work’s Adagio opening echoes that of Beethoven’s F sharp piano sonata), one may well also recall the flip coda of Davies’s 1961 Quartet.

In a sense, the first Naxos quartet, and by implication the whole series, is a re-examination of the premises of that early essay: a transposition of them by experienced hands into a more classical (mainstream Austro-German) context.

At the same time, Davies remains ‘very conscious of an English string tradition, going right back to Purcell’s Fantazias’, and is an admirer of those bitingly indigenous works, the string quartets of Britten and Tippett.

‘I did enjoy doing the orchestral pieces – it was a big experience,’ he says, but ‘now I feel absolutely bursting with ideas that are rather different. I don’t know whether the [chamber works] will sound different on the surface, but the actual articulations and architectural relationships are new.’

In his post-orchestral, post-conducting phase, he relishes being able to take more time over a piece, to think through compositional problems to the core, to try to penetrate, as it were, to what Debussy, speaking of his late series of chamber works (alas, incomplete), called the ‘bare flesh of emotion’.

By their very nature, the quartets will represent a distilling of the contrapuntal art that has been a Davies constant. He remembers feeling ‘very pleased in the [1964 orchestral] Second Taverner Fantasia that I could write nine-part counterpoint’. But now he finds that ‘writing two-part counterpoint can be a damn sight harder’. For a composer of lurid music-theatre pieces and expressionistic ‘foxtrots for orchestra’, who once protested that he had no use of any kind for purity, it is pleasantly ironic that he should embark on a period consecrated to one of the purest of musical media.

His only regret is that the ‘comparatively relaxing’ experience of copying out large orchestral scores is no longer available. No relief now at all from ‘mental gymnastics – which is what composition is’.

October 2002

SheetMusic by Berio