Sir Peter Maxwell Davies shows how to take inspiration from our surroundings

March 26, 2016

The late composer derived inspiration from the most remote locations

Hearing of the death of the great composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made me think of his chamber opera The Lighthouse with its lean score, and melodies that range from jaunty to sinister.

The story is inspired by a real-life mystery – the disappearance of three keepers in 1900 from the lighthouse on the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides.

But the real creative fuel for this masterful work came from the composer’s own surroundings. Sir Peter composed The Lighthouse while living in a remote Orkneys’ cottage without power or running water. It’s not difficult to imagine the howling winds and the crashing storms which battered his home as they pervade the orchestration.

His isolated home also influences the harmonies of the bass, baritone, and tenor who sing their roles as, alternately, the sailors who discover the abandoned lighthouse and the keepers who will end up the source of a missing persons’ inquiry. Their fear, loneliness and frustration resonate strongly.  It as though Sir Peter has heard their cries for help far over the Scottish landscape and across the century which has elapsed in time.

The Lighthouse was no one-off piece. In the Orkneys, the composer found bountiful inspiration which led to an outpouring of work: 10 symphonies, more than 10 concertos, two more operas, choral and orchestral work, plus quartets and sextets.

Many composers in the 17th and 18th centuries were court animals, who lived in the great European cities such as London, Vienna and Prague. For Mozart, Handel and Haydn, inspiration, perhaps by necessity, came more from within than without.

But later composers are perhaps fortunate to have had the freedom to leave the cities behind, with wonderful effect. Think of Antonin Dvořák, who took inspiration from the prairies of Iowa before writing his most famous work, his Symphony No. 9 in E minor From the New World, in 1893. Or Felix Mendelssohn, inspired by a visit to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland to write the concert overture The Hebrides. Jean Sibelius wrote his Third Symphony with its nods to folk music, in his remote Finnish home near Lake Tuusula some 45km north of Helsinki.

All knew that if they could shut off the chatter of metropolitan life, they could hear more distinctly the harmonies in their hearts. As Albert Einstein said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” It is a guaranteed recipe for finding harmony for even the least musical.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation