This is effectively a work in three movements - Allegro, Andante cantabile and Presto - which Davies likens to 'three obstacle courses, bristling with technical difficulties'. However, as he goes on to say, 'young people are naturally gifted with extraordinary rhythmic skills which normally remain untapped'. Given the opportunity, older children have here the material for a highly arresting piece of music-making.
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It was in the summer of 1975 that I first suggested to Peter Maxwell Davies that he might like to write a substantial work for percussion ensemble, to be performed by young people, who, in some cases while being musically very literate, did not have any technical ability on any other instrument. Percussion instruments have always formed a central core for classroom teaching and by the time young people have experienced say five years of such work, they are ready to tackle something outside the classroom.
In my discussions with the composer before he began work on the Three Studies for Percussion, we talked about basics such as instruments available. A list was supplied which included some luxurious extras to the normal classroom instruments - tam-tam, small tuned gongs, tuned metal plates, flexatone etc., all of which Maxwell Davies had previously used in orchestral and chamber works. However, the eleven instruments he chose are, with one exception (a concert xylophone), all normal classroom instruments of the Orff type. We also briefly discussed the nature of the work, and although it was obviously in retrospect totally unnecessary for me to say so, I suggested that he should in no way 'water-down' the technical demands of his music.
At the time of my initial approach I was aware that Maxwell Davies was working on what proved to be Symphony No. 1, and by the time of that work's first performance and publication in 1978, the relationship between the Three Studies and its very much 'big brother' were evident and fascinating. A work of relatively small proportions is linked by thematic, harmonic, rhythmic and gestural similarities to another work of huge dimensions - one for young performers, the other for a large complex modern symphony orchestra.
The complexities of the Three Studies for Percussion, rhythmic and manipulative in particular, have never presented any major problems to the young musicians I have worked with, and the performances have had an intense excitement brought about by the sheer demands of concentration required.
The music once again illustrates the fact that no composer needs to write 'down' for school children. Indeed these miniature 'obstacle courses' could provide some interesting work for seasoned professionals.
c. Peter Swann