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Maw, (John) Nicholas (1935–2009), composer, was born on 5 November 1935 at 40A Watergate, Grantham, Lincolnshire, the only son and eldest of the four children of Clarence Frederick Maw (1913–1968), a music shop owner and amateur pianist, and his wife, Hilda Ellen, née Chambers (1905–1949). Despite being born into a musical family, he only began composing at fifteen, encouraged by a music teacher at Wennington School, Wetherby, Yorkshire. It was there that he first became acquainted with some of the major composers of the first half of the twentieth century. He subsequently studied composition with Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music (1955–8). The shock of discovering the music of the second Viennese school and more contemporary styles led him to describe himself as ‘the archetypal provincial boy coming up to the big city’ (Griffiths, 168).

On the advice of Berkeley, and supported by a French government scholarship, Maw went in 1958 to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Despite his refusal to study solfège with her, Boulanger helped Maw to secure the prestigious Lili Boulanger prize, enabling him to remain for a further six months. While there, he attended classes with Schoenberg's pupil, Max Deutsch; the works of this period reveal Deutsch's influence in their use of twelve-note techniques. On returning to England, Maw supplemented compositional work with freelance journalism and teaching. On 21 October 1960 he married Karen Graham (b. 1935), a state registered nurse, daughter of John James Graham, physician; they had a daughter, Natasha, and a son, Adrian (Lou), but the marriage was dissolved in 1976.

Maw's music from the 1960s demonstrated an idiosyncratic synthesis of twelve-note sensibilities with tonal and lyrical impulses. In this, he was nurtured by the example of the past. Unmoved by what he perceived to be the abandonment of tradition in contemporary developments in mainland Europe, he noted that ‘I put my roots in the place where I felt that they needed to be put down: in the music of before the First World War’ (Griffiths, 170). With Scenes and Arias for three female voices and large orchestra (1962; rev. 1966), along with an earlier Essay for organ (1961), Maw resolved a creative impasse that had resulted from the challenges posed by the ‘attempt to reconnect with the Romantic tradition that was broken with the onset of Modernism’ (New Grove). The work's ecstatic portrayal of love was informed by his earlier experiments with serial technique but reinvigorated with a melodic drive, an ear for harmonic motion, and a preference for working on large canvases derived from late Romanticism. Such musical concerns set the tone for subsequent works, including a string quartet (1965), Sinfonia (1966), a sonata for strings and two horns (1967), and above all the two operas One Man Show (1964) and The Rising of the Moon (1967–70). The latter was composed during Maw's tenure as fellow commoner in creative arts at Trinity College, Cambridge (1966–70); later he was tutor in composition at the University of Exeter (1972–4).

A series of major scores in the 1970s and 1980s—including the virtuosic combinations of texture and density in Life Studies for fifteen strings (1973–6), the character pieces of Personae (for piano, 1973, 1985–6), the song set La Vita Nuova (1979), and the Sonata Notturna, a cello concerto in all but name (1985)—were composed against the background of work on Maw's magnum opus, Odyssey for orchestra (1972–87). Swiftly outgrowing the requirements of the original London Symphony Orchestra commission, Odyssey came to embody Maw's late-Romantic, post-expressionist musical concerns writ large, eventually finding shape as a 90-minute work, believed to be the longest single span of orchestral music.

An invitation to work at Yale University (1984–5, 1989) was to prove pivotal in both Maw's professional and his personal life; it was in the USA that he met the ceramic artist Maija Hay, who became his partner until his death. A string of posts followed: visiting professor of composition at Boston University (1986); professor of music, Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Bard College (1990–99); and professor of composition at the Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (1999–2008).

Post-Odyssey works as varied as Ghost Dances (1988), Roman Canticle (1989, rev. 1991), the piano trio (1990–91), the violin concerto (1993), and the sonata for solo violin (1996–7) demonstrated frequently Maw's commitment to lyricism as well as an increasing tendency towards tonal clarity. Though Maw's music often proved divisive for critics, it remained popular with audiences, particularly in the United States. He received the 1980 Midsummer prize of the City of London, the 1990 Koussevitsky Foundation award, the 1991 Sudler International Wind Band prize, and the 1993 Stoeger prize for chamber music, and a recording made in 2000 of his expansive violin concerto won a Grammy award.

It was upon viewing the film Sophie's Choice in 1991, and reading William Styron's novel on which it was based, that Maw planned his final large-scale work, an opera on the subject, for which he devised his own libretto. As with Odyssey, the resulting work, premiered in 2002, can be considered a culmination of long-standing musical preoccupations. The opera garnered effusive praise but also considerable criticism, the latter focusing in particular on the libretto. Subsequent compositions frequently revolved around material from the opera; a string sextet of 2007, subtitled ‘Melodies from the drama’, proved to be his last work as Alzheimer's took hold. He died on 19 May 2009 in Takoma Park, Maryland, from heart failure, with complications from diabetes. He was survived by Maija Hay and his two children.

Edward Venn

Sources  

S. Bradshaw, ‘Nicholas Maw’, MT, 103/1435 (Sept 1962), 608–610 · A. Payne, ‘The music of Nicholas Maw’, Tempo, 68 (spring 1964), 2–13 · P. Griffiths, New sounds, new personalities: British composers of the 1980s in conversation with Paul Griffiths (1985) · B. Northcott, ‘Nicholas Maw: the second phase’, MT, 128/1734 (Aug 1987), 431–4 · A. Whittall, ‘A voyage beyond romance’, MT, 136/1833 (Nov 1955), 575–80 · The Times (20 May 2009) · Daily Telegraph (20 May 2009) · New York Times (20 May 2009) · Grantham Journal (20 May 2009) · Opera News, 20 May 2009, www.operanews.com, accessed on 11 May 2012 · The Guardian (21 May 2009); (27 May 2009) · Birmingham Post (21 May 2009) · The Independent (23 May 2009) · MT, 150/1908 (autumn 2009), 3–4 · Tempo, 63/250 (2009), 2–6 · A. Burn, ‘Nicholas Maw’, New Grove, online edn · WW (2009) · b. cert. · m. cert.

Archives  

BL, setting of Counting the Beats · Britten-Pears Library, The Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, music MSS · U. Southampton L., chamber music MS  

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, ‘Odyssey: a journey with Nicholas Maw’, J. Berrow (producer), Channel 4, 31 May 1992 · BFI NFTVA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview recordings · BL NSA, performance recordings


Likenesses  

G. Newson, bromide fibre print, 1985, NPG, London · J. Player, photographs, 2002, Rex Features, London

Wealth at death  

£215,970: administration, 20 Aug 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales