Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: On Her Majesty's service

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who turns 70 this year, has been made Master of the Queen's Music. But, Roderic Dunnett asks the new Grand Old Man of British music, isn't it an odd job for a republican?
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The Independent Culture

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies can take comfort from the fact that Masters of the Queen's Music (or Musick) tend to have the gift of longevity. Bax, Bliss and Elgar all did pretty well. So did the first, Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666), the lutenist and violist son of an Elizabethan sackbut (or trombone) virtuoso, who was not yet even snug in his cradle when Drake and Hawkins scorched Philip II's Spanish Armada off Calais. Based for much of his life in Royal Greenwich, he served the Cecils and two royal heirs - the doomed Prince Henry and the future Charles I - before the latter, now king, invented the title in 1625/6 and gave him charge of the royal band.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies can take comfort from the fact that Masters of the Queen's Music (or Musick) tend to have the gift of longevity. Bax, Bliss and Elgar all did pretty well. So did the first, Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666), the lutenist and violist son of an Elizabethan sackbut (or trombone) virtuoso, who was not yet even snug in his cradle when Drake and Hawkins scorched Philip II's Spanish Armada off Calais. Based for much of his life in Royal Greenwich, he served the Cecils and two royal heirs - the doomed Prince Henry and the future Charles I - before the latter, now king, invented the title in 1625/6 and gave him charge of the royal band.

Max, too, is something of a musical entrepreneur. As he contemplates the portrait of Monteverdi that still inspires him, he may recall that Lanier - also a skilled portraitist (whose picture still hangs in Oxford) - arranged the single biggest coup in English art history: our acquisition of the Duke of Mantua's staggering art collection. Had he helped himself to the music, too, more of those fabulous lost early Mantuan operas might have survived. After the Civil War, when he decamped from Dutch exile to serve Charles II, Lanier penned "An Imperfect Ode, to his Sacred Majesty, for New Year 1665". Imperfect Ode, maybe, but a pretty imperfect year to boot. The next February he too succumbed: better than burning.

So Sir Peter - known as "Max" since the age of five - stands in an august line: true, Purcell played second fiddle to the now forgotten Nicholas Staggins (a name to conjure with); but Greene, Boyce and Stanley all lorded it over the 18th century; Vaughan Williams missed out, but Max's namesake, Sir Henry Walford Davies - a pillar of Lord Reith's BBC - was another.

Is Max fond of his predecessors? "I admire Elgar, obviously, even though I don't especially like his music; and Arthur Bliss - his ballet music for instance. And recently I heard Peter Donohoe play Bliss's Piano Concerto on the BBC - it's a wonderful, full-blooded romantic work. Malcolm Williamson [his Australian-born predecessor], when he started, seemed absolutely the right man for the job. Someone recently dubbed him 'spectacularly unprolific', but that's grossly unfair. He wrote a couple of major operas I hugely admired, ballet music, some first-class children's operas, and loads more: indeed, at one time Malcolm seemed like Britten's natural heir, with knobs on. I remember in 1956, the first time I was at Dartington and very nervous, the one person who was extremely kind about my Alma Redemptoris Mater when some cognoscenti were being very sniffy about it was Malcolm. He was an immensely warm, kind, larger-than-life person - and a valuable composer, too."

Davies has had several incarnations: an earnest student in the heady days of Darmstadt, where Boulez and Stockhausen ruled the roost, he studied with Nono, Maderna and Berio and the Americans John Cage and Earl Browne before moving on to Petrassi in Rome, then Sessions and Babbitt in Princeton. Even then, "while I was finding my musical voice and still struggling technically, I remember being quite constrained and daunted by the dicta coming out of Darmstadt. They could be quite unnerving." Davies was not averse to joining the fray; but he learnt lessons from it, not least, that without musical personality and individuality, a composer is nothing.

Max has oodles of both. Perhaps his supreme qualification is that he has done more than any British musician to campaign publicly to raise classical music's profile. It was not all plain sailing. In the 1960s, after severing links with Cirencester, where he revolutionised children's music education - something he's still deeply involved with today - life could be hard. Despite a modest retainer from publishers, while he worked in Dorset on his hard-hitting first opera Taverner, there was often relatively little to live on. In the mid-Sixties he and his Lancastrian contemporary Harrison Birtwistle founded a new music group and revolutionised London music-making. In the 1970s, came Orkney, a fruitful collaboration with the poet George Mackay Brown, and the St Magnus Festival, more operas, and the transformation of Davies into symphonist and writer of some 15 concertos for every instrument under the sun (even, in effect, a bagpipe concerto).

There were stages along the way. "My First Symphony [1973-6] was something of a turning point; even then, it felt quite something to stick one's neck out and give a piece that name. Technically, Seven in Nomine [1965] was important: I got to terms with transformation processes inside the material that I hadn't achieved before. Ave Maris Stella was a crystallisation of my musical 'magic squares' processese, which offered the possibility of writing pieces on a large, more cathedral-like scale. My Symphony No 4 proved doubly important (structurally, it's one of my most challenging works for the listener, as Sibelius found with his Fourth) once I realised it was the hub of the entire cycle." The seven symphonies have now become eight (with the Antarctic Symphony) - though there are arguably 11, 12 or 13, depending on what you include. "I'd originally thought Worldes Blis [1969] was just an orchestral motet: I now realise that it was a thumping great symphony, too!"

How will Davies cope with composing "occasional music"? "In a sense, it's something I've done before. Recently I composed a Mass for Westminster Cathedral that is, in many senses, an 'occasional' piece - as were the related Motets, which the cathedral choir has just recorded for Hyperion. Writing An Orkney Wedding and Sunrise for the Boston Pops Orchestra was itself something of an occasional - and initially rather daunting - experience. It also coincided with my father's death, and gave me an outlet that took my mind off that and gave me something entirely fresh, which was also fun to do. One could add others: various orchestral tributes to Manchester; the symphony for British Antarctic Survey; A Spell for Green Corn; or the Barns of Brugh (an elegiac tribute to the London Sinfonietta's Michael Vyner) and Tenebrae super Gesualdo [a lovely 1960s piece in memory of a dead Cirencester girl pupil].

"Master of the Queen's Music is strictly an honorary position: the Palace doesn't stipulate that I have to write occasional music for any royal occasion. But there certainly will be opportunities: church and chapel services, the marking of an important birthday of the Queen, or honouring the end of the Second World War." (Max himself, as Sir Thomas Wake attests, hid under the stairs as a small boy while Hitler's unfriendly bombs rained down on Salford.)

Is Davies really a republican, and isn't there some conflict between his views and his new role? "I don't think there will be, and I hope I have the strength of personality to ensure there isn't. Recently I've seen what a mess many so-called 'democratic' countries have got themselves into, and I've come round to the idea that a head of state who's above politics is arguably a good thing. If the Royal Family with its largely ceremonial role can achieve that, it's an asset: hopefully it remains one of those aspects of state that doesn't fragment. I'm sure they know my views on Iraq, but as they're the views of Britain's artistic community from top to bottom, plus the judiciary - and most of the country too - I don't think they pose a problem.

"Above all, I enjoy a fresh challenge - being made to attempt something I haven't done before, just as I did with writing Salome, my first ballet, writing for the Boston Pops, doing two films for Ken Russell, writing music for the Church - all those were unexpected. And there's the chance here to do something I hadn't thought of tackling before: making a big public statement, perhaps as Britten did [who was surely an unofficial Master of the Queen's Music - witness Gloriana, or the War Requiem]. If I write a string quartet or clarinet quintet, as I have recently, I can write what I like; but the idea of coinciding the public's expectations and requirements with the composer's vision - of squaring that circle - certainly appeals to me."

Symphonist, president of the Association of British Orchestras, patron of anything that moves, and now an unlikely-seeming Master of the Queen's Music. How does he feel - with the death of Michael Tippett (always a friend, and a generous influence on Davies when he was younger) - to be British music's Grand Old Man?

"Well, I suppose I'm one of them,' he replies. "Certain things make Harry Birtwistle's and my generation that, just on age grounds. Actually there are a number of us - like Richard Rodney Bennett, who's written a lot of wonderful stuff, and particularly Hugh Wood, whom I've always admired tremendously.

"None of us is geriatric yet, though I think the Palace was wise to amend this role from a life appointment to just 10 years. It gives a chance for other composers to have a go. Anyway, when my time's up, I'll be nearly 80 and, who knows, I may be gaga by then."

Peter Maxwell Davies's 70th birthday will be celebrated at the 2004 BBC Proms, this year's St Magnus Festival in Orkney in June, and at the South Bank early next year

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