Gains and a Loss
Life is full of little coincidences, such as times when you haven't seen or heard from a friend for ages, and then the day after you thought of them the phone rings and guess who it is. My two topics for this issue of The Post have just such a coincidental connection, but first things first.
Recently I have been trawling our mutual friend the Internet looking for musical freebies, specifically mp3 downloads. I'm not talking here about snippets or extracts from musical works, some of which are of probably of dubious copyright; I'm referring to recordings of complete works, placed in the public domain by their respective copyright holders, partly of course for the purposes of self-promotion. I have been surprised in some instances by the quality of the performances and the recordings, and in others by the availability of musical works I would probably not otherwise have heard. My main reason for looking for these mp3 downloads was to have something different to listen to on my mp3 player to while away those nocturnal hours when sleep is evading me and sheep-counting has got boring—i.e. not very long.
A fine example of a work I would not otherwise have heard is by a composer previously unknown to me, Frederik Magle. This young Dane—born 1977—is a professional organist and pianist, as well as being a composer. The work that caught my eye (and subsequently my ear) is entitled The Hope, a 14-minute, two-part work written in 2001 for brass band, chorus, pipe organ and percussion. Magle himself plays the organ part. I heartily recommend you give it a listen. His website is of fine quality and includes other free downloads of his compositions
I have also found several orchestras that provide a rich source of downloadable music. The first is the Orchestra Musikkollegium from the town of Winterthur in Switzerland. This orchestra has made available (for private use) some excellent recordings of its subscription concerts given at the Stadthaus. As well as familiar works, the archive includes some lesser-known gems.
Two orchestras I'd also like to mention are the Peabody Concert and Peabody Symphony Orchestras. These are the concert orchestras of The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, founded in 1857 by philanthropist George Peabody. A considerable number of full works are available, recorded live at concerts given by both these fine orchestras. No second-rate stuff here, all top class performances from a specialist music teaching conservatory.
These are only a few examples of what is out there; I would encourage you to explore the world of free, reputable mp3 downloads, and you'll be amazed at what you can find.
Nicholas Maw (1935-2009)
The loss to which I referred in the title of this column is that of British composer Nicholas Maw, who died this month at the age of 73. Arguably, it is the second time that Britain has lost Maw, and for this very reason, our right to still describe him as a British composer could be challenged.
Maw was born at Grantham, Lincolnshire and studied at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Lennox Berkeley, followed by studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and (more significantly) with Max Deutsch, a former pupil of Schönberg.
On his return to Britain from France, the 1950s and 1960s musical scene was a cold, ascetic place, in which melody and harmony were rarely seen in public. 'Compositions' by the strict serialist and the avant-garde composers of musique concrète were de rigeur. Maw experimented with 12-note composition but found it not to his liking, preferring instead the older principles of melody and harmony. For this he was often criticised as appearing to look backward to the late 19th- /early 20th-Century romantic school. In truth, Maw was keeping a flame alight in difficult times, and should not have been seen as looking backward, but rather forward, over the heads of the modernists, forward perhaps to the present-day modern romantics.
A hugely successful performance at the 1962 Proms of his work for soprano, mezzo, contralto and large orchestra, Scenes and Arias, brought Maw his first major acclaim.
One of two works for which Maw will most likely to be remembered is Odyssey, a huge work for symphony orchestra. Lasting over 90 uninterrupted minutes, the work which took Maw 14 years to complete was premièred at the 1987 Proms, but in a performance marred by a lack of adequate rehearsal time for the orchestra, and as a result ended up as only a partial performance.
Still struggling for critical acceptance in Britain, in the mid-1980s Maw had had enough, and left his native country to live in Washington DC; he was to remain in the USA until his death.
After two early operatic works, the second of which, The Rising of the Moon, commissioned by and first performed at Glyndebourne, was well received, Maw was commissioned by the BBC and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to write a third opera as part of the BBC Millennium project. The result, which was already a work-in-progress, was Sophie's Choice, the other of the two best-remembered works by the composer. The opera, based on the same William Styron novel as the Oscar-winning film starring Meryl Streep and Calvin Klein, premièred in late 2002, directed by Trevor Nunn and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It has received subsequent performances in both Berlin and Vienna.
Maw's work covers a range of performance genres: opera, orchestral, solo concerto, vocal and instrumental ensemble, choral and chamber music. In his later years, he suffered first from depression and subsequently from dementia and diabetes; he died of heart failure. He is survived by his partner since his move to America, Maija Hay, a Finnish-born ceramic artist.
Ironically, perhaps now there will be a proper re-evaluation of Maw's work which deserves better critical recognition in this country than it has received previously.
And the coincidental connection? From 1999 to 2008, Nicholas Maw was Professor of Composition at the Peabody Institute, the same place that sources those mp3 downloads I pointed out to you above. Sadly none of them are of a work by Maw.
I like to think in terms of vocabulary. My own vocabulary is one that contains characteristics related to many previous elements in music that are meaningful to me...I see my own music as having plenty of advanced elements, many of which nobody has yet commented on! I've always been interested in this flexibility of language.
Till next time, happy listening.