Classical Models in a Modernist World

When Peter Maxwell Davies wrote ‘Symphony’ (1976) later retitled as his  Symphony no.1, and only the first of ten written to date, it seemed to signify a new period in the composer’s oeuvre where he would explicitly tackle the late evolutions of form of the classical period, in a way that historically all progressive composers had abandoned. The ultimate extensions of tonality, bordering on atonality, and the compression of multi movement forms into one organic processes and the re-emergence of modal and textural sensibilities, (coupled with the growing influence of the orient on European tastes); had already forced musical development into new paths over a period of a century. A work titled as ‘Symphony’ might have led some to suspect a neoclassical cop-out.

Having listened to many of his works, I already Knew PMD uses such evolutionary ‘dead-ends’ as creative opportunities. Instead of ignoring or simplifying contradicting ideas he sets them in opposition or ironic commentary, including presenting such incongruity simultaneously in a layered fashion. These dramatic parodies and ironies that worked so dramatically in the clash of modernism with early music and also with popular forms (eg. St Thomas Wake, 8 Songs for a Mad King etc.), now led to the deconstruction of classical forms within multiple layers. In the Piano Sonata, Stephen Pruslin had indicated PMD had pitted sonata development against the baroque suite to set up a duplex form. This creativity is not from an aesthetic that believes in and presents easy answers, but the same brave and uncompromised compositional technique that reveals a harder truth of ever present contradiction. The unreconcilable ideas are as welcome within this music as sublime moments of resolution.

Charles Senior’s poem that prefaces the sonata, also seems to accept a creativity resulting from the opposition of life and death, in the imagery and symbolism of the ‘cries of gulls’ (are muted by) ‘croak of Raven’.

Music that contains such profound ideas in juxtaposition is not only achieved through the composer’s highly structured orchestration in his Symphony(s), but is also attempted here in the separation of lines of material accomplished between two hands at the piano. The challenge of clearly playing all necessary counterpoint can be considerable, but in doing this the whole textural wholeness of the music mustn’t be lost.

PMD wrote the sonata for piano with as sensuous an approach as any of his symphonies. All uncommon harmonies, clashing modal lines and highly referential melodic line, is set within the naturalistic textures that create the hyper-impressionistic sounds that are always recognisable in his music. Without the earlier pianistic developments of Messiaen, Berio, Boulez and other notable avant-garde colourists, (to say nothing of Debussy, Ravel and Bartok!) the Piano Sonata could not be described with any thoroughness. Having the notes under the fingers and separating the thematic ideas, would not in itself bring the music the changing colour, emotion and richness it has. This impressionistic textural subtlety is the glue that can hold the formal detail together, in the same way diatonic familiarity did in earlier times.
For the pianist this presents a challenge of virtuosity, for direct communication with the listener.

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