Nicholas Maw (1935-2009)

British composer, championed by Simon Rattle and Joshua Bell, has died


The British composer Nicholas Maw has died early this morning in Washington.


Born in 1935 in Grantham, Maw first came to attention in 1962 with Scenes and Arias, a lush setting of an early 14th-century love poem he composed in 1962 for two sopranos and mezzo-soprano. First performed at the BBC Proms that year by Heather Harper, Josephine Veasey and Janet Baker with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar (who subsequently recorded it), its heady mix of influences including Richard Strauss, Britten and Berg was firmly against the modernist tide of that era which then favoured the Darmstadt school of Stockhausen and Boulez.

Even more public was the brouhaha which surrounded Maw’s highly ambitious Odyssey, a work for full orchestra in one continuous movement lasting over 90 minutes. Completed in 1987, it had taken Maw 15 years to complete; nonetheless it so impressed conductor Simon Rattle that he made it a condition of his re-signing to EMI that he should record the work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (of which he was then principal conductor).

Maw had studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music under Lennox Berkeley (1955-8), and then in Paris under the legendary Nadia Boulanger (1958-9). Although, like many of his contemporaries, he initially embraced post-Webern serialism he soon suffered a creative block which he only overcame when he acknowledged his greater affinity with music belonging to the late-Romantic period of 1860-1914.

This is exemplified in all his mature works, which include a Violin Concerto (1993, recorded by Joshua Bell with Roger Norrington conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and his final opera, Sophie’s Choice, which was premiered in 2002 at London’s Covent Garden and then staged by various opera houses around the world.


Image: Maurice Foxall