Nicholas Maw: Composer whose modernism was underpinned by his lyricism and Romantic leanings

Nicholas Maw was a Romantic composer of a decidedly modern sort, one who found that there still existed, within long continuity, possibilities of extraordinary range and freshness.

At a time when aesthetic battlelines often came to be drawn between progressives and conservatives, he was both. He knew, and admired, the music of Boulez, and there was the tang of the new in much that he wrote. But his roots went strongly back more than a century, and, like Richard Strauss before him, he was able to maintain all the richness and sway of Romanticism long after the parade had passed by.

He was not a post-modernist. There was no irony in his extension of the Romantic voice, and nothing makeshift. One might imagine, rather, that a weighty composer had gone to sleep in 1910, then woken up half a century later, looked around, and continued to set down notes as before. This was a difficult, challenging position for a creative artist, and Maw, no old fogey, was aware of the contradictions he had to overcome. The surprise, and the puzzlement, were written into the commanding satisfaction and confidence his music conveyed.

Something of his apartness in time was an apartness in place. He spent the last third of his life in the United States, and much earlier, as a student, had arrived at the Royal Academy of Music from a provincial background, in Grantham. His father, who ran the local music shop, was an enthusiastic amateur pianist, and he also gained a lot from the music teacher at his Quaker boarding school, Wennington. There was nothing, however, to prepare him for the revolutionary atmosphere he discovered at the RAM in 1955. Among his contemporaries, Richard Rodney Bennett was soon to go to Paris to study with Boulez, Cornelius Cardew to Cologne as assistant to Stockhausen. The young Maw, revolving around Britten and Berg, Bartók and Strauss, seemed to belong in the distant past. But, while observing his colleagues' enthusiasms, he stuck in that past and made it his present.

In 1958 he went to Paris to study not with Boulez but, like his teacher Lennox Berkeley before him, with Nadia Boulanger, who seems to have provided him less with instruction than encouragement, which he may have needed more. He also profitted from lessons with Max Deutsch, a Schoenberg pupil living in Paris.

Having returned to London, he made his breakthrough with Scenes and Arias, a half-hour piece for orchestra with three female soloists singing medieval French poems, introduced at the 1962 Proms. The work's rapturous lyricism won him several commissions; he also went on to write a comic opera, One Man Show, to a libretto by the critic Arthur Jacobs.

He composed his second opera, The Rising of the Moon, also a comedy, for Glyndebourne, collaborating this time with Beverley Cross. With its Irish military setting, the piece may have suffered from resonating with current events in Northern Ireland at the time it was first produced, in 1970. In revival, however, it has been more than vindicated, showing wit and adroitness in its sketching of a wide variety of characters and situations. Maw recognised comic opera as one of a composer's greatest challenges, to which he responded brilliantly.

Still greater challenges, however, lay ahead. Always thoughtful in his creative moves, and inclined to ditch things or subject them to revision, Maw set about refining his style in two sets of pieces he began in 1973: Personae, for piano, and Life Studies, for string ensemble. Around the same time he started work on an orchestral score, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra. This was to occupy him for a decade and a half, and far outgrow the conditions of the original request. Meanwhile, other magnificent pieces would occasionally emerge, including La vita nuova, a lustrous setting of Italian Renaissance poetry for soprano and ensemble in 1979, and The Ruin, after the Anglo-Saxon relic, set for chorus and horn in 1980. This latter piece seemed to speak directly for a composer sensing himself as living in a ruined age.

He nevertheless went on, and in 1987 at last finished his orchestral piece, Odyssey, which now extended through more than an hour and a half without interruption. The first complete performance, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Richard Bernas in 1989, revealed a work that, taking the listener deep within the folds of itself, offered a musical experience unlike any other. Simon Rattle soon took up the work, and recorded it.

By now Maw was living in the United States, where he had gone in 1984 to teach at Yale. The new environment, a new home life – with the Finnish potter Maija Hay – and the ending of his Odyssey all conspired to unleash his creativity, and in the 1990s he was more productive than at any other time. He wrote a big, generous violin concerto for Joshua Bell, as well as several other orchestral works, chamber pieces and vocal items. From the middle of the decade he was also at work on a large-scale opera—a serious drama this time, after William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, to his own libretto. First performed at Covent Garden in 2002, the opera had Rattle again conducting, Trevor Nunn directing and Angelika Kirchschlager singing the central role. Performances soon followed in Berlin, Vienna and Washington, D.C.

Perhaps exhausted after achieving so much so quickly, Maw lapsed again into comparative quietude, his only subsequent works being a cor anglais concerto, a fourth string quartet and a string sextet, Melodies from Drama, drawing material from his last opera.

Maw sought neither the approval of critics nor the applause of audiences. He no doubt wanted his music to be lusciously playable and singable, as it is, but there was something more that kept him going, and that will keep his music going, in our concert halls, in our theatres, and in our heads.

John Nicholas Maw, composer: born 5 November 1935; married 1960 Karen Graham (one son, one daughter); died 19 May 2009,

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established managed services IT...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003