Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: 'We owe the Queen an awful lot'

As Sir Peter Maxwell Davies turns 75, the firebrand composer and Master of the Queen's Music talks about his mellowing attitudes towards the monarchy...

When composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies turns 75 on Tuesday, his thoughts won't just be on his birthday celebrations, or the two Proms being held that evening in his honour. At the back of his mind, he'll be thinking about what to give Her Majesty the Queen for Christmas.

"I write her a carol every year, for the Chapel Royal. But I haven't done this year's yet. I'll have to do that," says Sir Peter, making a mental note and chiding himself with a quick curse. "That's on the to-do list."

As Britain's most revered living composer, Sir Peter, who cut his musical teeth at the forefront of the classical avant garde in the 1950s and was knighted for his efforts in 1987, has been penning pieces for state occasions since becoming Master of the Queen's Music in 2004. He was, he says, "terribly surprised" to be asked to take up the royal post dating from the 17th century, the musical equivalent of Poet Laureate. "After all, I was the author of Eight Songs For a Mad King, and that king [George III] was a relation."

Like the Laureateship, the role lasts for ten years. Unlike the Laureateship, it has no fixed duties, but comes with a salary – an annual stipend of £15,000. So how did the musical firebrand, whose resolutely atonal works rarely bother the schedulers at Classic FM, ever come to be welcomed into the heart of the establishment? "I saw it as an opportunity to raise the profile of serious music. As she herself, the Queen, has said to me – now there's a bit of name dropping… – 'This is what you want to make of it, and it's up to you. Of course I'm not going to tell you what it should be.' And I thought that was very reasonable."

Armed with his musical mandate, Sir Peter – 'Max' to his friends – has set about gently stirring things up by being characteristically single-minded ever since. "I don't think I would write a piece about a royal occasion unless I thought it was really something which was worth celebrating," he says.

"The big event coming up, of course, is the diamond jubilee in 2012, so I think that I'll certainly do something for that." However, there'll be no such fanfare to announce, say, any Royal offspring graduating from university. Treading carefully, he says: "I don't think I will do anything to mark such occasions. I would much rather do something which, if you like, marks the permanence of the institution, rather than its transitory events."

Does Sir Peter, a musical and political radical who sees the Queen "once, twice or three times a year", even consider himself a big fan of the monarchy? "Not particularly," he says. "The monarchy, as such, doesn't really concern me this way or the other. But I do think that the Queen and various others do a very, very good job."

Nonplussed by the monarchy, he has nothing but admiration for the Queen herself. "I think we owe her an awful lot. She is no fool, and absolutely on the ball.

"I remember when I went to see her the first time after I accepted the position, I took her as a little present, a Hyperion recording of music I had written for Westminster Cathedral. There was nobody else there when we listened to it, just the Queen and myself, and she said: 'Why is it that the choir of the cathedral sounds so different? It's not at all like our choirs at St Paul's or the Abbey.' So I told her about the continental way of voice production for boys. And she said: 'Oh, that's very interesting, I had no idea. I'm very pleased to know that.' There was nobody there to prompt her, and she observed that herself. So you're dealing with someone whose first interest, plainly, is not music, but who is really aware. As she says, she and Philip are 'willing to learn'."

Sir Peter will conduct the Royal Philharmonic at the Proms on Tuesday, on a bill which – appropriately enough for the musician who has called the Orkneys his home for almost 40 years – includes Fingal's Cave, Mendelssohn's Scottish overture. Late-night Prommers will then get to hear the latest Maxwell Davies composition when his second "fiddle concerto" receives its UK premiere. A spray-soaked affair, it was conceived after Sir Peter started taking walks along the shore near his house on the remote, wind-whipped Orkney island of Sanday with a local folk violinist: "He would play me tunes as we walked to the sound of the sea."

From such austere beginnings, the concerto grew into a piece that speaks about the threat posed to Sanday's very existence. "We are told that it will disappear under the sea, probably within the next 300 years, because it's a very low-lying sandy island. My house is right on the shore, so we do feel a little bit exposed. I do hope I can survive my lifetime there. I don't think I would find anywhere, or any house, or any position, more beautiful. I've no intention of ever living anywhere else."

Sir Peter has lived on Sanday – population: 550 – for the best part of a decade with his partner, Colin, and their eight-year-old rescue dog, Judy. "It's absolutely quiet. You can be alone on the beaches and not see anybody, and I think it's a great pleasure and privilege just to take a dog for a walk and not see anybody for a couple of hours in the most beautiful scenery you can imagine."


No comments: