Born in Britain in Grantham in 1935, Nicholas Maw grew up in rural Lincolnshire. His father was a pianist and church organist, who went into business to support his family. His mother was also musical, but had little formal education and ran a small dress shop.
At the age of eight, Nicholas went to a boarding school in the Yorkshire Dales. “The school was run by a bunch of leftwing idealists, if not communists,” Maw says, “and was closed down in 1945 at the end of the war when all the evacuee children went home.” He went on to another boarding school called Wennington in a big country house situated between Leeds and York. “This was a very advanced place where all the teachers were addressed by their first names,” he recalls. “Here I received real encouragement from a very fine young music teacher who was very adventurous and would play Stravinsky and Bartok for us. I began composing at the age of fifteen.”
The young Nicholas studied piano, took up the clarinet, and went to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Upon graduation, he was awarded a French government scholarship to go to Paris for six months to study with the preeminent teacher of composers Nadia Boulanger, then nearing the end of her legendary career. Initially Maw did not hit it off very well with the autocratic Boulanger, so he began attending classes given by Arnold Schoenberg’s pupil Max Deutsch, but secretly, so as not to offend her. It was Max Deutsch who had the greatest influence on Maw’s early compositional style. Boulanger, however, was sufficiently impressed by Maw’s compositions to secure for him the Lili Boulanger Prize awarded by a panel of judges that included Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. The prize was the princely sum of $800, which enabled the impoverished young British composer to go on living in Paris for a whole year.
Nicholas Maw first burst onto the musical scene in 1962 with Scenes and Arias, a work for female voices and large orchestra commissioned by the BBC and premiered at the London Promenade Concerts. Scenes and Arias, as its title implies, was highly operatic in character. Its passion and luxuriance made critics sit up and take notice that a post-modernist romantic had arrived.
The 1950s had been the era of the modernist avant-garde in music, when an arid academic intellectualism held sway. Maw deliberately turned his back on these trends and decided to remain true to his own feeling for music with structured harmony, rich with melody. In fact, British critics credit Maw with showing the way out of the modernist cul-de-sac and making it respectable for composers to write tuneful music again.
In his early years, Nicholas Maw wrote two operas, One Man Show and The Rising of the Moon. The latter, a romantic comedy set in 19th-century Ireland, enjoyed a considerable success. Commissioned by Glyndebourne, and premiered there in 1970, the opera was also produced in Germany and Austria, at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and at the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland. Although Maw then turned away from writing opera until commencing work on Sophie’s Choice in 1995, the intervening years saw him producing critically acclaimed vocal music, including La vita nuova (1979), The Ruin (1980), Roman Canticle (1989), and Hymnus for chorus and orchestra (1996).
Maw’s most famous orchestral work to date is undoubtedly Odyssey. It took him fourteen years to write and has been billed as the longest continuous orchestral work ever written. It was finally commissioned by the BBC, completed in 1987, and premiered that year at the London Promenade Concerts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder. At first it seemed wildly improbable that a 96-minute, large-scale orchestral work would ever be performed again, let alone become a very good selling classical CD on both sides of the Atlantic. However, in 1991 Odyssey was performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony, and they also gave several further performances in England, and in Vienna and Madrid in 1999. After the 1991 performances, Sir Simon believed so strongly in the work that he famously refused to renew his recording contract with EMI until EMI agreed to record it.
Odyssey was given its US premiere by Leonard Slatkin in 1994 with the St. Louis Symphony, and received its German premiere by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, conducted by Andrew Litton, on October 2, 2005. Andrew Litton also conducted the work in London in December 2005, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Shortly after Odyssey, Maw composed The World in the Evening, given its premiere by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden in 1988.
Other compositions by Maw include symphonic works, chamber music, vocal and choral music, solo instrumental works, opera, film scores, and music for children. His works have been performed all over the world by the world’s leading artists and ensembles in prestigious venues. Most recently, in April 2005, an English horn concerto received its world premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Maw’s works have been recorded on the EMI Classics, Sony, ASV, Chandos, Koch, Klavier, and Avie labels.
In addition to the Lili Boulanger Prize, Nicholas Maw has received the Midsummer Prize of the City of London for an outstanding contribution to the cultural life of the country, the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition Prize, and the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
In 1993, Maw’s Violin Concerto was premiered in New York with Joshua Bell as soloist with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of Sir Roger Norrington. In 2000, Sony Classical released a recording recreating the 1996 London BBC Promenade Concerts performance with Joshua Bell and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also conducted by Norrington. Reviews were excellent: “It’s Paganini after a night in the pleasure dome,” enthused Britain’s Independent newspaper. The recording won a Grammy for Bell’s performance.
In December 2002, Nicholas Maw again made a big impact on the British musical scene when his opera Sophie’s Choice was given its world premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. It was directed by Sir Trevor Nunn and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, with Angelika Kirchschlager in the title role. Based on the novel by William Styron, with a libretto by the composer, the opera was co-commissioned by Covent Garden and the BBC. The opera was broadcast live from Covent Garden over BBC Radio and filmed for a later television broadcast. There were productions subsequently in Berlin, Vienna and Washington DC.
In an interview he gave to the Financial Times of London towards the end of 1999, Maw had described composing his opera as “My way of coming to terms with this damnable century we’re just getting out of, full of achievements, but matched by some of the biggest horrors we’ve seen on the face of the earth.”
Sophie’s Choice is set in Brooklyn in 1947, where Sophie and her lover Nathan, and the Narrator of the story, a young writer called Stingo, are rooming in Yetta Zimmerman’s boarding house. As Stingo becomes emotionally close to Sophie, he starts learning of her life in Poland prior to the Second World War, and her experiences in the Holocaust. These are told in a series of flashbacks, culminating in the terrible choice Sophie has to make on her arrival at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Paul Driver of London’s Sunday Times hailed the opera as “grand opera in every sense—in the ambition of its theme, in the lushness of its post-romantic idiom and in its sheer dimensions.”
Richard Morrison, writing in The Times (of London), said: “Maw’s opera has a bigness of sonority, passion, ambition and spirituality that sends it soaring above the work of his contemporaries.”
In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote: “Mr. Maw’s opera is an utterly admirable, affectingly conceived and beautifully realized work. The Covent Garden audience awarded him and the cast with a prolonged standing ovation….”
An Orchestral Suite from “Sophie’s Choice” was given its world premiere by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Hajime Teri Murai in spring 2004 at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where Nicholas Maw is a member of the composition faculty.
Sophie’s Choice received its Berlin premiere in September 2005 and its Vienna premiere in October the same year in a co-production of Volksoper Wien and Deutsche Oper Berlin.
When asked about his compositional “style,” Nicholas Maw has commented:
I never think of my work in terms like romantic or post-romantic. I do not categorize like that. I was just recently talking to some of my students and telling them that I really don’t like the word “style.” I think that word has been overused and used dangerously in the 20th century. It’s only in the 20th century where this huge amount of commentary has gone on that the concept of “style” has, in my view, become destructive.
I like to think in terms of vocabulary. My own vocabulary is one that contains characteristics related to many previous elements in music that are meaningful to me. This thing about conservatism and avant-gardism is completely misconceived. There are figures who use an avant-garde vocabulary who are, in fact, often very conservative. Often people who don’t categorize themselves as avant-garde are more open…. I see my own music as having plenty of advanced elements, many of which nobody has yet commented on! I’ve always been interested in this flexibility of language.
He was a composition faculty member at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, U.S.A, Nicholas Maw has previously held faculty positions in Britain at The Royal Academy of Music, Trinity College, Cambridge, and Exeter University in Britain; and in the U.S.A., at Yale University, Boston University; and Bard College, New York.
The composer’s primary home was a white clapboard house in Washington D.C., where he lived with his wife Maija, a ceramic artist, since 1984. Nicholas Maw spent summers in an old village house in the Lot region of France, where much of Sophie’s Choice was written over a period of six years.
Faber Music, 2009