Nicholas Maw, Music of Memory

Nicholas Maw (1935-2009)

Music of Memory

Music of Memory is a grand re-imagining of the theme-and-variations genre, inspired by the principle of memory. Born in England, Nicholas Maw spent much of his career teaching in the United States and was Professor of Composition at Peabody Conservatory at the time he wrote Music of Memory. The theme of the piece comes from the Intermezzo of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, which Maw sees as a nostalgic “long-term memory of a golden age.” Instead of presenting the theme followed by a series of variations, as is traditional in the genre, Maw breaks up the theme into its three phrases and intersperses them among the variations.  Maw creates remarkably orchestral sonorities on the guitar, reminiscent of his symphonic work Odyssey, which is also a theme and variations on a gargantuan scale. Thus, the variations are kaleidoscopic, mysterious, jarring, and even un-memorable at times, leading listeners to lose themselves in the succession of diverse worlds evoked by the music. The last variation leads powerfully into an extended coda, which contains abbreviated versions of several of the variations and all three phrases of the theme, like a sort of “flashback” or “highlight reel” of the piece. This reappearance of potentially forgotten material in the coda catalyzes the act of memory after a long stretch of intense but disorienting music, re-orienting the listener like finding a familiar signpost after being lost in the woods for hours.

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