The Final Frontier (Max’s Ultimate Symphony)

Written by: Colin Anderson

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Max) is finished with writing symphonies; his Antarctic Symphony is “a postscript to the other seven and I won’t do any more. It’s not because I’m superstitious about the number nine. I want to write chamber music. I’ve not had the chance for years and years. I’d love to write some sonatas, for piano with another instrument.”

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. It’s got a lot to do, although it’s not quite the Glagolitic Mass.”

Let’s look back a moment. Max’s 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 didn’t know how I would achieve it, but when I was eight we got my grandmother’s 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 don’t want to betray that, it’s 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 didn’t quite fulfil this.”

Forty years and two hundred works later, how does Max regard his achievement? “I’m amazed that things have gone relatively well. How’s it all happened? I’ve no idea! On the other hand, I don’t have any great satisfaction because you know full well, if you’re lucky, you’ll be remembered for two tunes and the rest will be consigned to the rubbish dump I’d 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 I’m 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 Max’s 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, it’s actually quite funny, they turn into something you don’t 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; there’s 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 it’s a preparation for something that is going to happen – there’s 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 – “I’ve 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 hadn’t 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. There’s the British base I stayed in, which is very big and overwhelming when you’re in it because it’s a noisy place. When you take the aeroplane out of Rothera – they’ve got rid of the dogs – you realise just how tiny the base is in comparison with the wilderness around it … nobody but nobody and you’re so aware of the silence.” Not a place to set to music then? “Perhaps I haven’t! 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 isn’t a first of course. Ralph Vaughan Williams fashioned Sinfonia Antartica (the misspelling of Antarctica is the composer’s!) 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 don’t think there’s much in common because I’ve 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 didn’t … I’m not in competition!”

Chamber music, soon to be Max’s priority – there’s a project to write a series of string quartets “not thought about yet” – means guest-conducting will be “less and less. I don’t think it’s morbid to say that I’m 66 and I don’t know how many years I’ve 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 don’t think I’m a particularly good conductor but people seem to understand what I want and do it willingly.”

Alongside the premiere of Antarctic Symphony are Walton’s Crown Imperial and Elgar’s Violin Concerto, both under under David Atherton. I associate neither composer with Max. “I don’t really get their music”. A blindspot? “Yes, it’s the right term. I Iike some of Elgar’s shorter pieces and the Introduction and Allegro. I suppose it’s not interesting what I like and don’t like – he’s a great composer. I just can’t take those big pieces; I’m allergic to them. Walton’s a brilliant composer. I met him and have a tremendous amount of respect for him, but I just don’t feel it.”

Vaughan Williams is a different matter. “His music doesn’t have that blatantly patriotic seam. I also find his processes, and his rhythmic structures, very original. He’s 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.”

That’s exactly what happened at 10 o’clock one Monday morning when, as I vividly remember, the Philharmonia Orchestra breezed through its first encounter with Max’s 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)? “I’m very conscious of their silky, mahogany string sound … some of the players will have changed since No.5, but that’s OK.” Whatever Max gives the strings, he hasn’t 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, I’d have a go and do something quite different. I didn’t think about it until I was there; that brought it home to me – this was a one-off experience. ’You’re going to come out of this a changed person,’ I thought. I don’t 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 – it’s 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
  • Further performances on 8 May at De Montford Hall, Leicester (0116 233 3111) and on 12 May at Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 709709)
  • Max’s website is
  • BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the RFH concert on 7 May at 7.30

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content