No sooner is the Antarctic Symphony premiered then there is another important first performance, on 6 July. Philippe Augin conducts Canticum Canticorum a big piece written for the 50th Nuremberg Organ Week. Soloists, chorus, orchestra and organ, that was specified. Its got a lot to do, although it's not quite the Glagolitic Mass.
Let's look back a moment. Maxs defining musical experience was going to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera when I was four; I thought it was wonderful. I wanted to have to do with that world, the whole theatre of it, the orchestra; it was just gorgeous! I didnt know how I would achieve it, but when I was eight we got my grandmothers piano and I was sent to lessons; I started to write music instantly.
A process followed of Max selecting and mulling-over influences and realising that a lot of those people at Darmstadt in the fifties would acknowledge Anton Webern as a master but probably nobody else; everything had to be ditched. I thought no, I really am interested in early music and Sibelius and Tchaikovsky; I dont want to betray that, its part of my heritage. There was huge pressure. I was called a traitor to the cause of modern music. Nono, Berio, Stockhausen and Boulez had a very clear idea of what modern music ought to be; I think I didnt quite fulfil this.
Forty years and two hundred works later, how does Max regard his achievement? Im amazed that things have gone relatively well. Hows it all happened? Ive no idea! On the other hand, I dont have any great satisfaction because you know full well, if youre lucky, youll be remembered for two tunes and the rest will be consigned to the rubbish dump Id been thinking about in relation to the Antarctic Symphony.
The two tunes are Farewell to Stromness and Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, the latter I still enjoy and it brings in income: for that Im very grateful. With performances as far-flung as Izmir and Uzbekistan, I wondered about finding the required bagpiper in these places it's best not to enquire too closely!
The rubbish dump is a section in Maxs new symphony one akin to debris strewn across Antarctica from previous expeditions - in which Max freezes selected earlier works through self-quotations, which will be quiet hard to find. Like Heldenleben? No, its actually quite funny, they turn into something you dont expect.
The seven symphonies preceding Antarctic are now perceived by their composer as a cycle. Pre-meditated? Not until Four, which I saw as the pivotal one, some kind of fulcrum, then I saw the possibility of returning to the start. At the end of Seven you can go straight back to the beginning of that or straight back to the beginning of One and (Max laughs) start the whole thing again. Would he recommend listening to all seven in a single sitting? Yes, I would - if you can take it!
I wondered how the 25-minute, single movement Fifth Symphony fits between the chamber orchestra Fourth and its two larger-scale successors. The Fifth has processes in common with Four, itself very concentrated, so Five is an intensification of that. In its material I think it looks forward to Six and Seven, although the treatment is on a less big scale." No.7 owes something to Haydn, a composer Max adores. I used some of the processes which he generates in his own pieces; theres even a quote from a Quartet, very briefly. You can never take anything for granted with Haydn. He keeps you on your toes the whole time, even when you know a piece. Suddenly you realise why a phrase has got five bars and not four, that its a preparation for something that is going to happen - theres always a learning process ... and the sheer loveliness of his textures.
Antarctic Symphony is cast in a single movement lasting around 40 minutes using a symphonic design new to Max the opening music returns at the close; in between, fast and slow sections alternate, each one being a development of their expositions. Max acknowledges that his new symphony has programmatic aspects Ive not tried to describe particular incidents but there are certain things that filtered through. One is the sound of ice breaking, which it starts with and which comes back in different forms.
The South Pole: immense, frightening, white and cold, but Max is well-versed in roughing-it. If I hadnt lived on Hoy in a small house on the cliff-top, with no electricity, water out of a spring and an outside loo for all those years, it would have been tough. Theres the British base I stayed in, which is very big and overwhelming when youre in it because its a noisy place. When you take the aeroplane out of Rothera theyve got rid of the dogs you realise just how tiny the base is in comparison with the wilderness around it ... nobody but nobody and youre so aware of the silence." Not a place to set to music then? Perhaps I havent! Some of the symphony does breathe very slowly underneath a surface which is very transparent, suggesting, I hope, not just big time-spans but big space; it seems in music that one suggests the other, that time becomes space.
Writing a symphony around this desolate region isnt a first of course. Ralph Vaughan Williams fashioned Sinfonia Antartica (the misspelling of Antarctica is the composers!) from his music for the 1948 John Mills film "Scott of the Antarctic". Manchester-born Max was in the Free Trade Hall for the first performance of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No.7 in 1953. It was a great occasion, Barbirolli was in ecstasy, and Vaughan Williams was fiddling with his ear-trumpet! Although Max remained conscious of the VW, I dont think theres much in common because Ive not tried to evoke it scenically in a film style. Vaughan Williams, with those big parallel chords at the opening, does evoke something." Any penguins? Because VW did, I didnt Im not in competition!
Chamber music, soon to be Maxs priority theres a project to write a series of string quartets not thought about yet means guest-conducting will be less and less. I dont think its morbid to say that Im 66 and I dont know how many years Ive got left; I want to use them to full advantage.
Does Max enjoy conducting Haydn, Beethoven, Berwald, Sibelius, Debussy, Shostakovich, even the 1812 Overture? Yes. I dont think Im a particularly good conductor but people seem to understand what I want and do it willingly.
Alongside the premiere of Antarctic Symphony are Waltons Crown Imperial and Elgars Violin Concerto, both under under David Atherton. I associate neither composer with Max. I dont really get their music. A blindspot? Yes, its the right term. I Iike some of Elgars shorter pieces and the Introduction and Allegro. I suppose its not interesting what I like and dont like hes a great composer. I just cant take those big pieces; Im allergic to them. Waltons a brilliant composer. I met him and have a tremendous amount of respect for him, but I just dont feel it.
Vaughan Williams is a different matter. His music doesnt have that blatantly patriotic seam. I also find his processes, and his rhythmic structures, very original. Hes not given enough credit.
I wondered if Max the conductor influences Max the composer. You have to make things practical. I think one works it out in the course of the composition; I was always conscious that the conductor had to be clear. Some of the early pieces are difficult St Thomas Wake, where you have to spend time talking to an orchestra explaining what you have to do as a conductor. Ideally, you should go straight into a rehearsal and not say a word.
Thats exactly what happened at 10 oclock one Monday morning when, as I vividly remember, the Philharmonia Orchestra breezed through its first encounter with Maxs Fifth Symphony giving a complete performance without a single comment from Max. On the verge of giving its third Maxwell Davies symphony premiere (the other was No.1 under Simon Rattle), has Max been influenced by the character of the Philharmonia Orchestra (co-commissioners with the British Antarctic Survey of Max's Symphony No.8)? Im very conscious of their silky, mahogany string sound some of the players will have changed since No.5, but thats OK." Whatever Max gives the strings, he hasnt short-changed on percussion, which includes nipple gong, tam-tam (with plastic soapdish), tuned brandy glasses (with water), 2 small pebbles, biscuit tin (filled with broken glass) and 3 lengths of builders scaffolding (small, medium, large).
As the premiere of Antarctic Symphony looms, Max reflects that if VW could do it, Id have a go and do something quite different. I didnt think about it until I was there; that brought it home to me this was a one-off experience. Youre going to come out of this a changed person, I thought. I dont think anybody could go to a place like that and not be changed. The field-assistants, looking after you in the wilderness, think it changes them tremendously. It clarifies the mind and puts things in perspective. To be in a place where humanity has never been its a lovely experience, it teaches you, and you come out with a more philosophical attitude.
- Maxwell Davies's Antarctic Symphony is premiered on Sunday 6 May, Royal Festival Hall, 8.00
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201
- Book Online:www.rfh.org.uk
- Further performances on 8 May at De Montford Hall, Leicester (0116 233 3111) and on 12 May at Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 709709)
- Maxs website is www.MaxOpus.com
- BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the RFH concert on 7 May at 7.30