NICHOLAS (NICKY) MAW
(1935-2009)

 

Photograph from Gill Brighton/Nicholson

Back row:
Jean Hartley, Derek Mills, Peter Frank, Monica Blackburn & on wall: Karen Graham.

Standing below:
Donald Edwards and sitting: Eleanor Spray, Anna Gillett, Wendy Bayes.

Below them:
Johnny Edwards, Nicky Maw and standing: Gilbert Findlay.

 
John M. Belcher 
21st May 2009

The column inches and content devoted to the obituary notices in the broadsheets have been generous to Nicholas Maw, who died in the USA on 19th May age 73. Most notices mention Wennington either by name or as a ‘progressive boarding school in Yorkshire’. There is also a common reference to ‘the young music mistress who introduced him to new music and encouraged him to compose.’ That mistress was Sybil Bensusan , later Pentith, who was on the staff from 1949-1953. My credentials for contributing this piece arise from her becoming my partner from 1972 until her death in 2004. I came to know Nicky by proxy through her recollections of her time at the school and his music. Nicky’s own words, written when he learned of her death, speak eloquently of her inspirational role:
‘I shall never forget how encouraging she was at that early stage in my life, how she made me feel I had the possibility of composing music, and how greatly she increased my knowledge and appreciation of music that I had not heard before. I have always regarded Sybil as the person who started my subsequent musical life, and will be ever grateful for her doing so.’
At Wennington the seeds of an international career were sown.
After Wennington he studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1955-58, then won a six month scholarship from the French Government to study in Paris where he studied with, among others, the doyenne of music teachers Nadia Boulanger. He carried off the prestigious Lili Boulanger Prize, which had among its distinguished judges Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. Whilst receiving this token of success and having the privilege of rubbing shoulders with some eminent musicians he was unsettled, rudderless even depressed, being unable to discover the essentials of a distinctive voice and style. He felt that his expressive roots drew their nourishment from the romantic language of the latter end of the nineteenth century and the earliest years of the twentieth. This ran counter to the avant-garde techniques adopted by his contemporaries, with which he experimented and then abandoned.
It was a 1962 Proms commission, Scenes and Arias, with which he made his ‘here I stand’ statement. This displayed lyricism, rich textures, a sensuous harmonic palette and command of the orchestra, which might be styled Modern Romanticism. This formed the foundation upon which he was to build. The overnight success of this commission marked him out as a major and distinct figure among his generation of British composers.
In 1973 Nicky embarked upon a magnum opus which was to engage him for the next fourteen years. Odyssey is both autobiographical and a musical journey, an account of the continuing development of his musical language. It is remembered for its length of ninety six unbroken minutes in performance, making it the longest orchestral work on record. Its time-span tends to overshadow the content of the compositional tour de force which it is. It benefitted from having Sir Simon Rattle as its enthusiastic advocate. However, its complexity, the rehearsal time it requires and large orchestral forces it employs mean that orchestral managers rarely have the courage to programme it. Fortunately the work did receive a commercial recording. Furthermore it spawned an excellent and revealing Channel 4 TV documentary, Odyssey; a journey with Nicholas Maw, a copy of which should be acquired and lodged in the Wennington Archive.
Scenes and Arias is distinctive for its passion and drama, so it was not surprising that opera was to become a chosen medium. There are three, the last of which was Nicky’s response to a joint Royal Opera House and BBC commission. The chance viewing of Sophie’s Choice’, based on William Styron’s Holocaust novel, starring Meryl Streep, on a rented video so moved him that he was convinced that this would be a suitable subject for an opera. The première was staged at Covent Garden in December 2002 and received a drubbing by the critics, mainly on account of the libretto which the composer himself had constructed from the novel. Nicky was wounded by this and it exacerbated a tendency throughout his career to feel disappointed and neglected. There were manifestations of this as early as the years immediately after leaving Wennington. In the letter already cited he wrote of ‘the many visits made at that time to her [Sybil] and her family at their various residences.’ I learned from Sybil that these visits were escapes from an alien and insecure existence to, receive her mentoring, wise counsel and revitalization.
Andrew Burn in his Guardian obituary expresses the opinion that his neglect, ‘particularly in the UK, led to depression which merged into the dementia that blighted his final years.’ His profile was diminished in the UK bit by bit in the years following his settlement in the USA in 1984.
In a telephone conversation I relayed our response to the TV transmission of Sophie.
Whilst acknowledging that some emendations were necessary he showed no hint of disappointment or bitterness. He was positive and enthused by the preparations then in hand for forthcoming performances in Washington, Berlin and Vienna. To be performed in European opera houses, especially in conservative Vienna, was a mark of his international standing. This is further confirmation of his stature as a modern romantic.
His personal odyssey extends along a continuum which starts with the fourteen year old youth at Wennington, endeavouring to write down the music in his head in the silence of the after lights out dispensation gained for him by the ‘young music mistress’, to him standing on the stage of Covent Garden to receive the adulation of the audience at the conclusion of Sophie’s Choice. That’s the kind of journey which few have the gifts and resources to make. It was attended by travail which was tempered by the conviction that he had something of worth to say, and having found his inimitable own voice with which to communicate it did so with courage and conviction.
 
Memories of Nick Maw
Wennington School 1945 –55
by Gillian Brighton/ Gill Nicholson

Nicky came to Wennington from a small co-ed school called Kidstones, which was in Bishopdale, at the beginning of the Summer Term 1945. He joined the rest of the Juniors, now housed in the new Junior School; stables converted into a kitchen, classroom and cloakrooms downstairs and dormitories, staff bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. Maggie Las (Margaret Burgess) was in charge of us for all basic subjects. She was a wonderfully friendly, lively teacher.
We lived a quite separate existence from the rest of the school, having our own garden where eventually, the theatre was built. Frank (Burgess) helped us to build a den in the shrubbery. We went into the main school for meals. We were a group of maybe ten nine-year-olds who did everything together. Meg Day/Riley was there too, right up to the sixth form.
Boys and girls shared baths and Nick and I were in hot competition to show off which of us had the most scratches and bruises.
Frank and later, Martin (Eden) arranged occasional Sunday breakfasts down in the school wood, where we made fires and cooked sausages on sticks. We would march back with burning torches singing The Song of the Plains. Through Nicky we called Frank by the nickname he had at Kidstones: Bugaboo.
Quite soon Nicky was moved into a higher class than me. Janet (Maw) arrived and was in our class. In their class Nick and Johnny (Edwards) took turns wearing the hat Nick has on in the photo. Gilbert (Finlay) set the trend, I think.
Nicky learned the clarinet, as I did, along with Julian (Hall) and Grace (Hindle) Mr Lester travelled in from Leeds to give us wind lessons. Andrew (Locket) played the bassoon, Angus (Watson) the French horn. Musically, Nick was more interested in composition than anything else. Sybil (Bensusan) our music teacher expected us to play chamber music involving all the instrumentalists available. Karen (Graham) played flute, violin and piano, Ann (Whitehouse) piano, Andrew (Locket) bassoon and piano. Freda (Jolly) was brilliant on recorder. Nick wrote a set of pieces for us, according to our ability, which we performed on a Parent’s Day. He also set some of Water de la Mare’s poems from Pumpkin Pie to music, which we sang in choir.
Ann (Whitehouse/Wynblatt) writes to me that her funniest memory of Nicky is listening to him in Sybil's music room going into 'raptures' over a certain chord, which he played repeatedly while telling us that this was 'THE' chord. 

She goes on: Nicky also spent a long time composing various items and was allowed to be up late to use the piano to work out his ideas.  We, Andrew, Karen, Nicky, Frieda Jolly, you and I, all made a lot of music together and had a wonderful time in which Wennington and Sybil provided the perfect atmosphere of non-interference and encouragement.
Nicky had a wicked sense of humour. One Merry Evening he acted the music prof with us as his pupils, singing rounds about Bach and Haydn, taught him, I think, by Brenda (Hargreaves) who took over music teaching when Sybil left.
Because Janet and I were close friends I continued to see Nick when we’d left Wennington. We met up at the first performance of Nick’s Mass performed in St Bartholomew’s Spittalfields by Paul Steinitz. Later I lived in Harlow when the Alberni was established as the town’s resident string quartet. They commissioned Nick to write a work for them. It was extremely complex and at first they found it a huge challenge. As their familiarity with the work grew they became its champion.
Janet and I lost touch for thirty years, until she retired and came to live in Bainbridge, near to her old school Kidstones, in Bishopdale. Here Nick and I met up again, spending a weekend catching up and hearing about his plans for the performance of Sophie’s Choice at Convent Garden.
I attended a performance of the opera, meeting an exhilarated if somewhat exhausted Nick and his partner Maija, during the interval. Typically, Nick was uncompromising in his libretto, written from William Styron’s book of the same name, and in his expectation of the audience to cope with the four-hour setting. The opera was the most dramatic and stirring theatre I have ever seen.
6th June 2009

I’d be pleased to correspond with anyone of our Wennington generation who has memories to share. Contact me on email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

 
A few things I remember about Nicholas Maw
by Irene Hill (Salkeld)
 
As a new teacher straight out of music college I was very aware if Nicholas Maw’s ability as a musician, but I later discovered it was not a good idea to try to give him piano lessons!  He was a good clarinettist, but in common with many other instrumentalists, he had little natural feeling for the piano except as an instrument to aid him in his work as a composer.  We both acknowledged this early on, but struggled on amicably and with humour because the Royal Academy insisted he gain a little skill on the instrument before admitting him – and a little skill he gained!!
  I remember him singing and acting (I think with enjoyment) in a trio, along with Chris Young and Michael Birkett, in my production of Gilbert And Sullivan’s Patience, but what I remember most vividly about Nicholas is a non-musical incident for which, at the time, I owed him quite a debt.
  I took a weekly singing class for the combined 4th, 5th, and 6th forms.  This was a large class by Wennington standards and it contained one boy, who I’ll refer to as A, who obviously felt he had better things to do than sing.  He tried every subtle way to disrupt the class and all my efforts to control him failed, but Nicholas, and I think Chris Young, solved my problem.  One day as soon as the disruption started Nick and Chris moved quickly from their back row seats to where A was sitting; one took him by the arms and one by the legs and they carried him out of the music room and dumped him bodily in the common room next door with a warning to “stay there”.  Throughout all this activity the lesson went on regardless.  Everyone continued singing and at the end of the lesson I thanked Nick and Chris.  The casual reply came back – “That’s all right – Anytime”.  Problem solved forever more.
  The last time I saw Nicholas was many years later at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival where he was Composer in Residence.  He was again very much in charge as he addressed a large and receptive audience in a lecture hall at the University.
  Unfortunately I arrived late when his lecture had already begun, but he was still the same Nicholas who came to my aid at Wennington.  He stopped in mid-sentence, as I crept in, and from his podium in front of his large attentive audience welcomed me by name in a LOUD voice – “Hello Irene.  Do come in”.



 
Nicholas Maw
Chris Young
Nick's instrument was the Clarinet; so far as I can remember, the piano came later in conjunction with serious composition.  He was excellent on his B-flat clarinet in matters serious and less so from time to time when a jazz session would develop [strictly verboten you know] shades of Carnegey Hall from the top practising room.  I do remember a birthday when he really felt he had made the grade; his father, a keen and very sharp judge of musicianship and an excellent pianist, when Nick produced an ear to ear smile and a box containing not one but two clarinets; one in B flat and the other in......A...... a parental gift bearing parental praise.  A few win the Croix de Guerre and fewer are given by their father, the clarinet in A. What joy.
 About fourth and fifth forms, we were in the Pirates of Penzance, Patience [in which Brian (Hill) made a very apt and excellent Bunthorn] and in both of which Irene (Hill) produced a masterstroke of musical production, foot on the very loud pedal when someone went off-key; also especially one non-musical production - Shakespeare's Henry V in which Nick played Pistol and with much hilarity, made the most of his line "and Pistol's cock is up, and flashing fire will follow".  We also had great heads-together fun in analysing Katherine and Alice’s scene of the English lesson; the Bard was a trifle naughty from time to time and Nick relished it.  . Nick’s sister Janet played Salisbury in the same Henry V; also Karen Graham, his future wife.  I still have my copy of the script and inside the front cover are their signatures.  Heavy nostalgiaof 1950-1.
 At this point, I very much wonder about their sister Anne who came to Wennington, I think, briefly; of her I have heard nothing since.
 Nicky was a fine school friend and I remember being very proud of him when, later on of course, many of the old school assembled at the church in the Strand to hear his 'Themes and Arias' performed.  He was at this time, one of the BBC's Young Composers and whereas I loved Themes and Arias I found much of his work beyond my simple mind.
 Nick told a story of relevance which has stuck in my mind. He went to a music workshop of a week or two at the Yehudi Menhuin School where his progress was apparently good and appreciated by his tutor who summed up what this amounted to at the end of the course, saying....'Nicky, we are delighted to have had you here and the school will not be the same without the resounding sounds of your clarinet; I congratulate you on your progress but I have to say one thing.........in class, I do not mind your picking your nose..... but I have a real dislike of your examining the contents'.
 I'm sad that Nicky has gone but wherever he is there will be a buzz and a sense of fun and humour no doubt, in gentle ways.
 

 
 


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