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

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The Independent Online

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,