Why it’s time that the Queen had a Mistress

For 400 years the appointed Royal composer has been male. As the present incumbent prepares to bow out, Claudia Pritchard proposes an all-female shortlist 

As the last chords of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 10th (and, he says, final) symphony died away at the Barbican in London earlier this month, with them went, in effect, the composer’s 10-year tenure as Master of the Queen’s Music.

The first composer to fill this ancient post for a fixed term, rather than until death, “Max”, now 79, has done so with distinction, admitting a few years ago that it had turned him into a monarchist. He dedicated his ninth symphony, in 2012, to the Queen’s diamond jubilee. It received its first London performance at the Proms. Her Majesty did not attend. 

So, in an era of little deference, much scepticism, and under a monarch who is clearly indifferent to the joys and pains of music, just what does this job represent? Is there any place for it in the 21st century?

The first Master of the monarch’s music was the painter, composer and lutenist Nicholas Lanier, who was appointed to the newly-created role by Charles I in 1626. He introduced to Britain some exotic foreign musical practices, such as the form of sung drama that Claudio Monteverdi had been experimenting with in Italy. At that time, the Master, rather than being solely a composer, was also tasked with whipping the monarch’s resident musicians into shape. Lanier’s successors included John Eccles, who served four monarchs from 1700 until his death in 1735, William Boyce, and, in the 20th century, Edward Elgar and Malcolm Williamson.

The Master’s main brief is to come up with something for the big state occasions: Birthday Odes were once all the rage, though poor Eccles was upstaged by Handel, who landed the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne in 1713. But can any of us hum a note of a master’s work knowing for sure that it was chiefly written with his royal composer’s hat on? Probably not. And even the staunchest republican music-lover is hard put to disparage a role that acknowledges that classical music matters.

Now the hunt is on for a successor to Peter Maxwell Davies. James MacMillan is an obvious contender, with his gravitas and religious credentials, as are Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jonathan Dove, Thomas Ades and Julian Anderson. But sharp-eyed observers of that list will have also spotted that ubiquitous character, The Invisible Woman. A female composer has never held the post, but if ever there was a moment to redress that injustice, this is it – a chance to make musical history, like Marin Alsop’s being the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms last year, that it would be shameful to let pass.

Since the autumn, a whole bunch of people from the industry have been meeting regularly to discuss the position of women in classical music, partly galvanised by last summer’s claim by Liverpool Phil conductor Vasily Petrenko, in reference to his female colleagues, that orchestras are distracted by “a cute girl on the podium”. Many, but not all, in this working party are women, and they are concerned that brilliant female musicians are often passed over (with the exception of some, often physically attractive, soloists), and that audiences are being short-changed, confronted with largely male interpretations of a universal repertoire.

If the Queen attended these meetings, she would be impressed by the passion and range of experience of women who write music for a living, or sing or play, or conduct, teach, or write about it, or promote the work of others who do. Given her indifference to music, we can assume Her Majesty doesn’t choose the Master herself, but if her advisers don’t put some of the following names on the list, I want my contribution to the Civil List back.

Judith Weir, at 59, has a stack of operas behind her, and is relatively conservative. Sally Beamish, 58, is currently collaborating with former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion on a work for the London Symphony Orchestra marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. (Motion, who also had a 10-year tenure in that parallel literary role, was succeeded by Carol Ann Duffy, amid a similar groundswell of public opinion that Britain was already all right for white, middle-aged, middle-class men, thank you.) Nicola LeFanu, the daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy, who would have been a worthy Master in her time, writes a good song. So does Judith Bingham, 61, who turned to composing while working as a mezzo-soprano with the BBC Singers. Very much the musicians’ musician, her piece The Red Hot Nail has been performed more than 100 times, a rare distinction for a contemporary composer.

Does this archaic position matter in the 21st century? Dr Anastasia Belina Johnson, a senior lecturer at leading conservatoire Leeds College of Music, which favours a cross-curricular approach to music of all genres, thinks so. “It has the capacity to do good because it is such a prominent post,” she says. “It has the power to change things ... to make classical music more acceptable. Whoever takes it on has to work really hard to show that [it] is not elitist. There are a lot of women composers who are wonderfully creative.” And of the up-coming generation, she has her eyes on Kerry Andrew, 35, Tansy Davies, 40, and Rosanna Panufnik, 45.

Another future contender is Lucy Pankhurst, a 32-year-old composer attached to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, whose cross-cultural profile might work in her favour. Coming from the brass band tradition, she has been an advocate for that threatened and distinctively British sound, and won a young composer award for her brass composition Pitch Black.

“There are so many types of music,” she says. “The post should probably try to involve as many idioms as possible, such as electronic music.”

Her pick this time around? Bingham. “She has done an awful lot and she writes for all sorts of ensembles and doesn’t restrict herself, and her music is very cogent and always accessible. She has a gift of song, which is important.”

No shortage of female candidates for 2014, 2024 or even 2034, then. The men will quickly grasp the rota: 400 years on, 400 years off.

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