Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Musica benevolens (World Première)

by 5:4

The 2011 Proms season began with a première, and the last night began with one too, a concert-raiser from Master of the Queen’s Music Peter Maxwell Davies titled Musica benevolens, the title of which tips the hat at the work’s commissioners, the Musicians Benevolent Fund. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the BBC Symphony Chorus, joined by the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Household Division, all conducted by Edward Gardner. The concert programme indicated Max’s piece would last 4 minutes; one can only wish that had been the case.

Despite Max’s assertion that the piece constitutes “a very small symphony”, it comports itself with all the grace and cohesion of a “cut-and-shut”: a cliché opening unison passing to an incongruous (but admittedly more interesting) lengthy episode, modern but not modernistic, and thence to a shudderingly cringeworthy epicentre in which a flat litany of vacuous platitudes is chanted, with all the solemnity of psalms recited by mental patients. The piece then briskly moves on with a counterpart to the earlier episode, culminating in a fanfare and the return of the opening words, set to slightly different music. Quite what Max thought he was doing is anyone’s guess, but a meaningful “tribute to soldiers fallen or wounded in present overseas engagement” it certainly ain’t. Last year it fell to Jonathan Dove to bring the season’s premières to a damp conclusion; this year Max has quite frankly pissed all over the proceedings. It’s as ghastly to behold as it is surprising; Max is capable of such telling subtlety, so one’s left wondering what on earth came over him.

And there, i’m afraid, we have it, another season over and done with. Overall, i’m minded to think that this year’s collection of Proms premières hasn’t had the variety or the imagination of last year’s; too few of the composers brought anything really demonstrative to the occasion, seeming to prefer their established compositional comfort zone, opting not to inflict anything too—gasp—thought-provoking on the audience. Some might say that’s hardly the point of the Proms, but what better opportunity or context is there in the UK to present such a diversity of listeners with music that transforms how they think or feel? For me, the most striking highlights this year came from Harrison Birtwistle: both Angel Fighter and the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra are profoundly effective, wildly imaginative works. In addition, Joby Talbot‘s splendid little Purcell arrangement still delights every time i hear it, while Elliott Carter‘s Flute Concerto is perhaps the most beautiful and thought-provoking piece of all to be premièred in this year’s season. Thanks to everyone who’s written comments in response to these articles, it’s always interesting to hear your thoughts and perspectives on the pieces, and it’s certainly good to have company when navigating through so much new music.

Programme Note

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

"Il Rozzo Martello" — indeed, a fine piece, well performed and for me a welcome new work to hear, and an excellent opener to the afternoon concert; but outshone by the simply superb Birtwistle.

On the Last Night: It still seems to be simply perverse to write something so self-evidently ghastly for an audience of 17 billion zillion people from Beijing to Lima.

Paul Pellay

Yes, it was pretty grim – then again, it was "occasional music", with all the pejorative connotations that such a denomination implies, and it's probably best to let it go at that. At least we had "Il Rozzo Martello" earlier in the season to remind us of what Max can be when he's at his best.


Indeed, it was ghastly in every way – from the awful cliches "about" music to the dead weight of their uninspired and tenth-rate setting.

Click here to respond and leave a commentx