Obituary: Nicholas Maw

Obituary: Composer who contributed work to most genres and loved Romanticism, found expression in the opera Sophie's Choice

Composer whose love of Romanticism found expression in the opera Sophie's Choice

The composer Nicholas Maw, who has died aged 73, strove in his music to reconnect with the Romantic tradition which he believed had been broken with the onset of modernism. Melody, above everything else, was the driving force – "music has to be able to sing" was his view – and he combined this with harmony that exploited serial and tonal tensions in a distinctly personal manner. "There must be harmony, not just chords." He contributed fine, distinctive works to most genres, and in two works in particular, Scenes and Arias, and Odyssey, which at 90 minutes duration holds the distinction of being the longest continuous piece of orchestral music yet written, he created two inspired masterpieces of rich imagination and technical brilliance.

Maw was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Lennox Berkeley (1955-58). There, he found himself confronted head-on by the legacy of the Second Viennese school and postwar modernism. He went on to study in Paris for two years with Nadia Boulanger for composition and analysis with Max Deutsch.

His earliest published works, such as the Flute Sonatina (1957), saw him embrace post-Webernian techniques, but Maw was not at ease with such avant-garde methods and a compositional block ensued. He felt increasingly that his roots belonged to the period from 1860 to 1914, and by the time he was offered a BBC commission for the 1962 Proms, he felt confident enough to follow his instincts.

The result was Scenes and Arias (1962, revised 1966), scored for three female voices and a large orchestra, a remarkable synthesis between Romantic and post-Expressionist sensibilities where the influences of Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Benjamin Britten ferment in a heady, creative brew. His natural melodic gifts give rise to arching, soaring lines; the vocal and orchestral writing is sensuous and dramatic with a bravura sense of energy and technical skill. Its success established him as a major figure among his generation of British composers.

Maw described the work as a study for opera. Two more followed – the second, a three-act romantic comedy, The Rising of the Moon (1967-70), was staged at Glyndebourne in 1970. Other notable works of this period include the Sonata for Strings and Two Horns (1967). By this time he had decided that the orchestra was his natural vehicle for expression. In Life Studies (1973-76), he turned to the strings, writing music of intense lyricism. It also revealed a form that he used on other occasions, as in Personae for solo piano (1973, 1985-86), which comprises a group of character pieces as in the studies of the Romantic tradition.

In the 1970s Maw settled in the US, where he held various teaching posts, including visiting professor of composition at Yale (1984-85, 1989), professor of music at Milton Avery graduate school of the arts, Bard College, New York (1990-99) and finally, from 1999, professor of composition at the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore.

The huge orchestral canvas of Odyssey (1972-87) dominated two decades. Its title is significant, denoting both Maw's own journey as a creative artist and the scale of the work itself, which is cast in a single, massive Brucknerian span. The impression Odyssey made when three sections were performed in 1987 and the complete work two years later arguably brought Maw's reputation to its zenith. It was evangelised by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who also recorded it for EMI. Rattle insisted on this as a condition of renewing his contract with the company.

Later notable orchestral works were The World in the Evening (1988), imbued with rich, twilight hues, and the Violin Concerto, premiered by Joshua Bell. Maw's various prizes included the 1990 Koussevitzky Foundation award and the 1993 Stoeger prize for chamber music. Among his contributions to this field are four string quartets, a Piano Trio (1990-91) and the splendid Sonata for Solo Violin (1996-97). His choral works include the virtuosic, brooding The Ruin, for double chorus and horn (1980), and a miniature gem, One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand (1990).

From 1990 Maw worked on the opera Sophie's Choice, drawn from William Styron's 1979 novel, about a Catholic Polish woman who survived the Holocaust. He lavished care and attention on the score, regarding it as the culmination of his works. It was premiered at the Royal Opera in 2002, conducted by Rattle and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, with Angelika Kirchschlager outstanding in the title role.

The critical reception was mixed, although much of the criticism was directed at Maw's libretto rather than the music, but the detractors were balanced by enthusiastic responses too. Rattle considered it "an instant classic, a piece that will immediately touch and move people". This proved true. The performances were sold out and audiences manifestly moved by the opera, as they were in subsequent performances in a new production in Berlin, Vienna and Washington. However, some of the reaction to the work wounded Maw, and a tendency throughout his career to feel disappointment at being neglected, particularly in the UK, led to depression which merged into the dementia that blighted his final years.

After the perceived failure of Sophie's Choice, Maw's reputation in the UK suffered and performances of his music became rarer, although his profile in Britain had in any case gradually diminished after he settled in the US, apart from major premieres and occasional features at festivals such as the 1999 Chester Summer Music.

It was here that a splendid moment of serendipity occurred. Maw noticed that Georgie Fame, an old friend and former neighbour whom he had not met for more than 20 years, was also performing. After hearing his own Variations on an Old Theme (1995) played by the BBC Philharmonic in Chester cathedral, Maw repaired to the open spaces of Grosvenor Park, where Fame was performing with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings. Settling into a deck chair, he was tickled pink to hear Fame announce the next number dedicated to "my old friend, the composer Nicholas Maw".

In 1960 Maw married Karen Graham, with whom he had a daughter, Natasha, and a son, Lou. The marriage was dissolved in 1976. In 1984, while in the US, he met Maija Hay, a distinguished Finnish potter, with whom he lived in Washington and later in France. Although they did not marry, Maija was in reality his dearly loved wife for the rest of his life. Likewise, she was devoted to him. She survives him, along with his children.

John Nicholas Maw, composer, born 5 November 1935; died 19 May 2009

Andrew Burn

The GuardianTramp

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