British Composer Nicholas Maw Dies at 73

Nicholas Maw is shown at the Kennedy Center's Opera House in 2006. Behind him is part of the set of the opera he wrote from the novel
Nicholas Maw is shown at the Kennedy Center's Opera House in 2006. Behind him is part of the set of the opera he wrote from the novel "Sophie's Choice." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nicholas Maw, 73, a British composer who bucked the fads of modern classical music to return to more traditional melody and who brought William Styron's wrenching novel "Sophie's Choice" to the opera stage, died May 19 at his home in Takoma Park of complications from dementia and diabetes.

A "maverick among English composers of his generation," Mr. Maw "forged a musical language which is truly vibrant and sensuous, and which borrows both from the old and the new," wrote music scholar David Cooper in the "International Dictionary of Opera." His compositions ranged from solo instrumental works to sprawling symphonies and from comic to tragic operas.

In 2001, violinist Joshua Bell's interpretation of Mr. Maw's "Violin Concerto" won the Grammy Award for instrumental soloist accompanied by orchestra. The composer had written the piece for Bell.

Mr. Maw lived near Washington for more than two decades -- long enough for the Englishman to acquire what he called a "mid-Atlantic accent." In a rare compliment to a city from which it is fashionable to escape, Mr. Maw said that Washington offered him the calm and solitude he needed to work. From 1998 to 2008, he was on the faculty of the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught music composition.

It was in his white clapboard house in Takoma Park that Mr. Maw finished "Odyssey," the symphony that premiered in London in 1987 and became his best-known work. It had taken him 14 years to write. The title had nothing to do with Homer's epic of the same name but seemed an apt description nonetheless: Lasting 96 minutes, the piece is believed to be the longest continuous orchestral work ever written.

"What I want to do is sing the great song of our existence on this planet," he told The Washington Post in 1992. "It's a ludicrous ambition, but it's one of the few that are worth trying."

In his final major work, an opera based on Styron's 1979 novel "Sophie's Choice," Mr. Maw said he tried to reckon with "some of the biggest horrors we've ever seen on the face of the earth."

He hadn't written an opera in more than 20 years when, in the early 1990s, he happened to rent Alan Pakula's film adaptation of Styron's book starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Mr. Maw was riveted by the story of Sophie, a Polish-Catholic woman tortured by the memory of her suffering at Auschwitz.

Mr. Maw invited Styron to write the libretto, or lyrics, but Styron reportedly declined, saying he couldn't reengage with "that painful subject matter." So Mr. Maw wrote it himself.

The 2002 London premiere of "Sophie's Choice" received mixed reviews. Some critics complained the four-hour performance was too long and that Mr. Maw relied excessively on flashbacks, but the wider judgment was one of respect.

"To quibble overly about a lack of spiky originality in Mr. Maw's music is to fault the opera for what it's not rather than to acknowledge it for what it is," wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini.

Four years later, a shortened "Sophie's Choice" had its U.S. premiere at the Washington National Opera.

John Nicholas Maw was born Nov. 5, 1935, in Grantham, a town in central England. His father, a pianist and self-taught church organist, owned a music shop. Mr. Maw's sister once recalled their father, whose family couldn't afford to send him to music school, listening from upstairs as his son practiced the piano and shouting when he made mistakes. In response, Nicholas took up the clarinet.

As a boy, he attended a progressive Quaker boarding school, where a young teacher introduced him to the works of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel. After studying at London's Royal Academy of Music, Mr. Maw won a scholarship in 1958 to study in Paris with the composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. She thought enough of his compositions to submit them in a competition judged by composers including Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.

Mr. Maw won the $800 award, enough to keep him afloat in Paris for several more months. During that time, Mr. Maw dabbled in the atonal composition in vogue among his contemporaries, the sort that detractors criticize as sterile and overly intellectual. He quickly determined his musical voice would be different.

In 1962, his first major work premiered in London: "Scenes and Arias" for orchestra and female voices. Mr. Maw later recalled that it got only one "one slightly snobbish notice in the Daily Telegraph," but other composers took note. British composer Anthony Payne said the piece "showed us how you could be reasonably modern and recapture that sense of progression" from beginning to end, something he found lacking in avant-garde music.

Mr. Maw's marriage to the former Karen Graham ended in divorce. Survivors include his companion of 24 years, Maija Hay of Takoma Park; two children from his marriage, Natasha Maw of London and Louis Maw of Glastonbury, England; two sisters; and two grandchildren.

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