A composer fit for a queen

The last Master of the Queen's Music bemused Her Majesty with his "I Am Gay" badge and died an alcoholic recluse. Now, his successor is about to be named. Michael Church reports

Any day now, a puff of smoke will emerge from Buckingham Palace, and a name will be announced: the new Master of the Queen's Music. This personage will not be called upon to churn out weekly cantatas, as Bach did, or scores of symphonies, as Haydn did at the Esterhazy court, or hundreds of virtuoso pieces, as Vivaldi did for the young ladies in his convent. As the Royal Encyclopaedia gracefully puts it, the post is an honorary one, carrying "no fixed duties, although the Master may compose pieces for special Royal or State occasions if he or she feels inclined to do so".

Unfortunately, the last incumbent - the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson - took this latitude so literally that the Royal patience was stretched to the limit. Asked to produce a piece for the 1977 Silver Jubilee, his response was silence: indeed, he was musically silent almost from the day he was appointed. And when he did come on stream, the results were far from earth-shattering. Who remembers the Songs for a Royal Baby composed for little Prince Harry in 1985? Could Harry hum them? Williamson became such an embarrassment that the delay in replacing him - he died a year ago - may reflect royal reluctance to risk repeating the experience.

Williamson died an alcoholic recluse, yet the sad thing is that he had once been perfectly suited to the post. His music was tonal and accessible - he first worked as a nightclub pianist - and he was keen for his talent to be employed in the service of good causes. He dedicated a choral symphony to the Australian Aborigines, he wrote an opera with a chorus of embroiderers for the National Federation of Women's Institutes, and composed a tribute to the murdered UN secretary Dag Hammarskjold. He even wrote songs to accompany an English-teaching course, called "Hallo Everybody", for the Swedish government, and he loved writing for children. His forthright manner endeared him to the Queen.

But he became a diplomatic liability. Invited once to give a public pre-Prom interview, he went out of his way to insult his distinguished interlocutor. His serial religious and sexual allegiances led to him turning up to one Palace event wearing a Jewish skullcap, plus a large pectoral cross (denoting his subsequent Catholic conversion), plus a badge proclaiming a parallel conversion - "I Am Gay". Her Majesty found those mixed messages hard to handle.

So what now? The Royal Encyclopaedia defines the job as "the musical equivalent of the Poet Laureate", and that's apparently the way those who make the appointment are now thinking. Since nobody in the present Royal Family gives a damn about music, it makes sense to leave their personal (lack of) requirements out of the equation, and see how the new incumbent might replicate what Andrew Motion has done in the world of words. For we should set aside the quality of Motion's verse - let's politely call it quotidian - and consider his boy-scoutish ubiquity. He's always ready with a poem, a quote, a gesture - ever ready to lambast Blair and Bush - and he's always beating a drum for poetry in general. He may not have the common touch of a Betjeman, but neither is he governed by the private obsessiveness that made Ted Hughes so comically ill-suited to the job. He's a real spokesman.

The first Master of the King's Musick was the composer and lutenist Nicholas Lanier, who ran the royal band under Charles I. His successors routinely wrote royal-birthday and New Year odes, but when the band stopped giving concerts under Edward VII, the Master's role dwindled to what it is today. Edward Elgar and Arthur Bliss both held the post in the early 20th century, but Benjamin Britten - who would have been ideal - is rumoured to have turned it down, as he did a knighthood. But however the role is now to be defined - as a spokesman, an animateur, a churner-out of pièces d'occasion, or a combination of all three - there's no shortage of candidates.

How about Sir John Tavener, regularly described as Britain's "most loved" composer? Aargh!!! In a sense he's already there, with his cosy royal connections. But the honour would simply stoke his vanity: he'd regard the title as just one more jewel in his bulging holy crown. Richard Rodney Bennett can tailor work brilliantly to any purpose, but he's usually in America these days. What about Peter Maxwell Davies, or Oliver Knussen, or even young Thomas Adès? If the latter pair are too locked into the unpredictable rhythm of their creative psyches, Maxwell Davies has what it takes, including community involvement, crusading zeal and major creative stature. But is he too wedded to the Orkneys? George Benjamin would also make a superb crusader, but musically he's too wedded to the Boulez school to be able to fulfil populist duties. The prolific Michael Nyman, meanwhile, is probably too wedded to commerce to be suitable.

Yet one of the five names on the rumoured short list is even more commercial: John Rutter, the most-performed choral composer in the world. In many ways, this one-man industry would be fine for the job - he has the craftsmanship, the sense of social responsibility, the requisite common touch - but his refusal to engage with any form of modernism has left him out on a limb: to put it brutally, he lacks street-cred within the profession.

There are no such problems with Michael Berkeley, said to be a front-runner for the post. As a leading member of music's great-and-good, he positively exudes public spirit, and as the director of the Cheltenham Festival he's put his stamp on musical life; through his Private Passions Radio 3 programme he's sedulously cultivated a distinctive, if somewhat pompous, persona. As the son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley - and the godson of Benjamin Britten - he has an impeccable pedigree, and though his vocal writing often misses its target, his instrumental music is bright and beguiling. If the Palace wants an advocate for music that is both serious and accessible, Berkeley could fit the bill.

But it seems there are three more composers in the frame, each of whom could prove more interesting: the Buck House philistines have clearly been well advised. Colin Matthews's music is imbued with the spirit of Mahler and Strauss - darkly lyrical, volcanically aggressive, fastidiously constructed - and he's recently added a "Pluto" movement to Holst's unfinished Planets suite. But his multifarious backstage activities are what single him out here: as chairman of the Holst Foundation, he's channelled all its profits into living music via NMC, a record label he's created. He's a noted teacher, not afraid to rubbish contemporaries whose work he disapproves of - Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars - and he can turn out brash fanfares for public occasions.

The 50-year-old John Woolrich's musical gifts are too protean for him to be readily identified with a personal style. But he, too, is a tireless campaigner for living composers, and he's an inspirational impresario. If he got the job, Her Majesty would get a steady supply of ravishing stuff in return. But the contender I've left till last - and the least likely to push herself forward - is the most promising of all. Judith Weir, also 50, may have studied composition with Sir John, but her music is the antithesis of Tavener's ingratiatingly soft-centred produce. It's terse, intricately worked and beautiful in a thousand original ways; her operas display a lovely feel for the interplay of voice and instrument. Weir may be a Scot, but her ideas span the globe: her musical collaboration with the storyteller Vayu Naidu recently toured India. She's a born teacher, and a whizz at running festivals; moreover, she's at her happiest when composing short pieces for her friends.

In short, she gets my vote. Let a Mistress mark with music the happier events in the lives of our royal line.

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