Nicholas Maw 1935-2009

Written by: Martin Anderson

Although the death of Nicholas Maw – on May 19th, at his home in Takoma Park, Maryland – occurred at the relatively early age of 73, a combination of heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s had been threatening his health for some time. He leaves a body of work conspicuous for a masterpiece and a glorious failure. His most successful piece by far was the massive, 95-minute Odyssey for orchestra (recorded by Simon Rattle and the CBSO for EMI in 1990), a towering, monumental achievement. The failure was his last opera, Sophie’s Choice, which Rattle premièred at Covent Garden in 2002: Maw fashioned his own libretto too respectfully of William Styron’s novel of the same title, with the inevitable result that the score sprawled, and the critical drubbing it received was not unfair. Yet Maw had received and weathered adverse critical comment before: his music luxuriated in rich tonal harmonies long before it became fashionable to ‘return to tonality’, and he ploughed his own furrow undaunted.

Nicholas Maw – ‘Nick’ to everyone who knew him – was born in Grantham on November 5th, 1935 into a musical background: his father, who was a pianist and ran a music shop, hoped that he might also play the piano; Nick instead favoured the clarinet and it was that instrument, and composition, that he studied at the Royal Academy of Music; his composition teacher there was Lennox Berkeley and he took theory with Paul Steinitz. In 1958 a scholarship from the French government took him to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and, later, Max Deutsch.

Although he had tried his hand at serialism at the RAM and in Paris, atonality was not to his liking and he braved strong headwinds to find his own style. Its first public airing came in Scenes and Arias, settings of Medieval love-letters for three sopranos and orchestra, premièred at the 1962 Proms to critical indifference; its bold individuality was recognized only in retrospect. Maw stuck to his stylistic guns and, by the time the stranglehold of modernism had weakened, he was able to point to a respectable corpus of compositions. There were two early operas: the lyrical operatic comedy One Man Show (1964) and The Rising of the Moon (1967-70), this time a romantic comedy. He refined his orchestral technique in the Sinfonia of 1966 and the Sonata for two horns and strings (1967), leading to what was to be one of his finest works, the eight Life Studies (1973-76) for strings.

Odyssey, which took 15 years to write, from 1972 to 1987, is a symphony in all but name, in five linked sections based on a 44-bar Ur-melody. Rattle’s support went as far as refusing to renew his contract with EMI unless he was allowed to record the work. His live performances – I heard it in the Royal Festival Hall and at the Proms – fully confirmed that opinion: it leaves its audience drained and elated.

Maw became a Washington resident in 1984; he also maintained a home in France, and it was there that he wrote most of the ill-fated Sophie’s Choice. A warmer welcome awaited his Violin Concerto (1993), recorded for Sony by Joshua Bell, for whom Maw had written it: it won a Grammy in 2001. A Hyperion disc of his choral works, recorded in 2000 by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and Mark Shepherd, was released in 2006 (and, indeed, enthusiastically received in these [IRR] pages, as were his Third String Quartet and Three Divertimenti on Somm).

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the June 2009 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

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