On 7 June, 2010 I went to the Royal Academy of Music to interview Peter Maxwell Davies about his involvement at the WCSSs.
Was there some need that the WCSSs filled?
The following comment about optimism goes to the atmosphere of the events:
In a recent post Caroline Mustill mentioned her surprise at hearing and reading on this blog that the WCSSs ended with damage to the property. I asked Davies why there were only two WCSSs:
This tallies with Northcott’s recollection, and also with a letter that Hugh Wood showed me, written by ‘Biddy’ Mackintosh and indicating that there was some damage to the property of Cranborne Chase.
One of the reasons I wanted to interview Davies was to clarify how the event came about in the first instance. Birtwistle’s version has it that he put an ad in the Musical Times and that people simply came. When I saw Bayan Northcott on 25 January at Wigmore Hall for a BCMG concert of Leopardi Fragments, The World is Discovered and The Deluge, he said ‘don’t believe a word of what Harry tells you, things don’t just happen’. Davies asked me if I had spoken to Birtwistle, so I told him Birtwistle’s had told me, hoping that Davies would fill out the picture:
Davies had nothing more to add to the explanation. Although Davies is considered one of the driving forces behind the event, he had returned from Princeton only shortly before the start of the 1964 event, and it is likely that he had little to do with the school’s planning.
What of the legacy of the WCSSs:
Davies’s reference to Bayan Northcott reflects the centrality of Northcott’s contribution to my understanding of these events; many of the questions that I was asking were quoting or paraphrasing him.
And how did this event compare to Darmstadt?
That idea quickly dismissed, Davies tells me about meeting Stockhausen:
I’m reminded of Cavell:
‘I believe it is true to say that modernist art – roughly, the art of one’s own generation – has not become a problem for the philosophy contemporary with it (in England and America anyway) […]’ Cavell 1976, in Contemplating Music: Community of discourse By Ruth Katz, Carl Dahlhaus.
What then was Davies’s role there?
His teaching was of Mahler, and Bach, canons and rhythm. I will return to Mahler later, but first, here is Davies’s recollection of his teaching about rhythm:
What, then, did he think his students expected of his teaching?
I asked Davies about his canonic teaching, quoting Northcott’s who had recorded that Davies said that he was writing ‘a canon a day’:
As to his teaching of Bach Inventions:
That his teaching drew on Ratz’s Einfuhrung in die musikalische Formenlehre (actually published in 1951) places Davies firmly within the Schoenbergian tradition that was one of the School’s hallmarks. (See Trackings: composers speak with Richard Dufallo, OUP, 1989). I asked him about Die Reihe:
Given that Davies was teaching Mahler’s Third Symphony at the WCSS, I wanted to know more about what it meant to write a ‘Symphony’ the mid-1960 (it’s not until the mid-1970s that Davies first uses the term in the title of one of his works):
I then quoted Northcott, who quoted Davies saying that the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony: ‘should have ended [after the development], that the entire recapitulation is a caving in to convention and therefore a lie’ (see here):
I asked a more specific question about the difficulty of analysing his First Symphony in the light of the problem of recapitulation in Mahler’s Third Symphony:
I asked for his memory of various performances and discussions. Firstly, the Opera Today discussion to which Gilbert’s response was so strong:
His memory of the outdoor concert was no better:
Throughout the interview Davies was quick to tell me if he didn’t remember the events or conversations about which I was asking. He did remember Beardslee’s performance of Pierrot Lunaire:
What happened between Ecce Manus, composed for the WCSS, and Revelation and Fall, composed soon after?
What of Tragoedia and the significance of this performance for Birtwistle?
Finally, throughout this research the Melos Ensemble had been discussed as the new music ensemble in Britain at that time. The following makes clear how avant-garde Davies and his contemporaries were and how difficult their demands on the players:
Increasingly my knowledge of the facts of these events – who was there, what was discussed, what was performed – exceeds that of my interviewees. It is interesting that Birtwistle and Davies, as two of the organizers, have little memory of many of the events. For others, such as Gilbert, the WCSSs were significant points in their development as composers, which reinforces the importance of speaking with as diverse a range of composers and performers as possible.