BOOK REVIEW / A portrait of the composer, con amore: Max - Mike Seabrook: Victor Gollancz pounds 20

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT'S always a pleasure to have a generous, well-intentioned book to review, and this account of the life and work of one of our more distinguished living composers must be one of the kindest in recent years. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was asked on the radio the other day what he thought of it. Not bad on the whole, he said: 'He's enthusiastic. He seems to like me.'

He does indeed. Mike Seabrook has hardly a bad word to say about Sir Peter and his 'iridescent personality, his whirlwind-like energy, his enormous, and in the best sense, childlike enthusiasm, the unfeigned youthfulness of his . . . outlook and approach'. If ever any minor unworthiness heaves into view an excuse leaps to the author's pen: 'Max's ego is large, undoubtedly,' Seabrook is forced at one point to admit. But then, 'creative people need large egos, for obvious reasons'.

Max is what its publishers call a 'deliberately populist' book, and its author is a man with a mission. Seabrook wants to attract people to Maxwell Davies' music and to bridge the 'ever-widening gulf between creative artists and the public'. It's a high, noble aim and, given the difficulties, the execution is on the whole impressive. This is the Lancashire lad who left his A-level examiner 'thunderstruck' by his ability to play excerpts from each of the Beethoven symphonies on the piano; whose first professor told him that Bach was 'awful stuff' and Beethoven was a 'dreadful German bow-wow'; who won a scholarship to Princeton with Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten as his referees: the material's all there for an entertaining portrait. Max is nothing if not a racy read and if a bit of 'argy-bargy' and a 'cock-up' or two are the price we have to pay, it's worth it.

The trouble arises with the music. Some of Maxwell Davies' compositions - as Mike Seabrook rightly says - are popular: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, for example, a jovial affair which has a bagpiper marching in at the end; or a few short character pieces for the piano that can be slipped in easily on the radio. But what do you do, in your mission to attract listeners, when the composer enters his expressionist phase and starts writing music of 'alarming range and vocal savagery . . . poised on a razor edge between barely maintained control and total abandon'? Or when the soprano 'appears in a scarlet nun's habit and . . . delivers her most violent outburst by shrieking into a megaphone'?

The people who will happily listen to this will listen regardless of pleading from Mike Seabrook or anybody else, after all. As for the others: won't they always prefer the bagpipes? The endeavour of writing a populist book about a not remarkably populist composer looks to have been doomed from the start. Tough music is tough to listen to and that's an end to it. Ultimately all Seabrook can do is assert that if we walk out we miss out, which begs the problem.

And which also leads him into a final dereliction of his populist duty. Four hundred or so people walked out of a Prom of Maxwell Davies' Second Symphony in 1993, Seabrook tells us. Those who left 'were probably only there for the Beethoven and Schubert in the first half and stayed on to see what Max's piece was like'.

Why the dismissive tone all of a sudden? At least they got as far as staying and giving it a go. It's those 400 well-intentioned but flummoxed people who need Mike Seabrook's help. But in the end our populist author deserts them, abandoning the very people he sets out to serve.