Peter Maxwell Davies, who died March 14 at the age of 81, contained multitudes. The composer was an unparalleled provocateur, defining the razor’s edge of the British avant-garde. He was an unlikely adherent of tradition, anchoring his defiance in plainchant and echoes of early church music. He was a community-builder: After moving to the Orkney Islands off the Scottish coast in the 1970s, he made that place a locus of artistic ferment, founding — and, ever after, personifying — the St. Magnus Festival. He was fearsomely prolific, scores emerging on seemingly a near-daily basis.
To summarize such a career in one piece is impossible. But one that comes close is, curiously, among his shortest: “Reliqui Domum Meum,” a two-page organ voluntary written in April 1996. Based on a plainchant fragment, it exemplifies how ancient practice informed Maxwell Davies’s modernist advances: in this case, cross relationships, the old-school friction of pitches a half-step apart clashing in close proximity, here fueling phrases incorporating almost the entire chromatic scale. (The lone evaded pitch, an F-sharp, only emerges in the work’s final minor-to-major cadence.) His dramatic flair is manifested when the tangled, motet-like texture suddenly yields to a soft, distant carol.
“Reliqui Domum Meum” also epitomizes Maxwell Davies’s community-rooted music-making. It was first performed at the memorial service for a friend: Richard Hughes, an Orkney music teacher and performer. Hughes founded and directed the St. Magnus Festival’s volunteer choir; numerous organ solos in Maxwell Davies’s works were written for Hughes — most notably, the Organ Sonata, which Hughes premiered in 1983.
The plainchant source sets forlorn verses from the book of Jeremiah: “I have forsaken my house, I have left my heritage.” In April 1996, Maxwell Davies must have felt such loneliness. Hughes died only days after the passing of another comrade, the great Orkney poet George Mackay Brown. Maxwell Davies played at Brown’s funeral — held, with exquisite timing, on April 16, the feast day of Orkney’s patron, St. Magnus. He then turned to memorializing another colleague.
The Jeremiah chant comes from the Catholic “Graduale Romanum”: the introit for the feast day of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th-century French mendicant. It hinted at previous connections; the Organ Sonata was built around a plainchant section of Jeremiah’s Lamentations. But what closes the circle is the date of Labre’s feast: April 16. The symbolic web formed a sly, ecumenical tribute to a fellow Orkney fixture. It was a salute from one industrious musician to another: every day, happy or sad, an occasion to make music.