NEXT year, Sir Peter
Maxwell Davies, at the age of 80, will have completed ten years as
Master of the Queen's Music. This is quite something for someone
who, in the 1960s, was considered the enfant terrible of
music - known for radical, sometimes shocking, performances, which
The choice of an openly
gay, republican atheist for such an august position - which goes
back to Nicholas Lanier, the first Master of the King's Musick,
under Charles I - also caused a stir.
The position a duty to
supply music for special royal occasions. Maxwell Davies has
revolutionised the post, however, generating royal patronage not
just for his own efforts, but for those of others - notably with
the Queen's Medal for Music, which honours creative endeavours by
old and young alike.
"I see Her Majesty the
Queen on a number of occasions, usually at the Palace, and I have
been lucky enough to be asked to dine there from time to time.
She's always immensely gracious, as you'd expect, but she is also
genuinely interested in . . . the music itself, and shows a keen
insight into the role that music plays in society. . . My dealings
with her have given me the utmost respect for everything she
It seems a long way since
his childhood in a salubrious, but not well-off, suburb of west
Manchester, where he was born on 8 September 1934.
By the age of four, the
young Maxwell Davies declared that he would be called not Peter,
but "Max" - a sobriquet universally used of him now - and, by the
age of eight, was inspired to become a composer by seeing a local
production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers.
Anything further from Maxwell Davies's subsequent music could
scarcely be imagined.
He had to sit his A-level
music exam in the local girls' high school, since his headmaster
maintained that music was "for girls". He was thrown out of his
composition class at Manchester University by a professor who
"liked nothing later than Delius", and ended up at the forerunner
of the Royal Northern College, in kinder hands. He was soon
studying in Rome with the more modernist minded Goffredo
BUT what of religion?
"I've never been drawn to any traditional religious belief, though
I suppose on documents I'm C of E," he says. "But in my teens and
early 20s, I was drawn to Manchester Cath- edral, where an
extraordinary range of Tudor church music - in Latin as well as
English: Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons - was sung by the choir there under
Allan Wicks, later organist of Canterbury Cathedral and surely one
of the best choirmasters this country has ever had.
"It really opened my eyes
- not just to the sheer beauty of English Renaissance church music,
but to the refinement and intricacy of the musical techniques."
This planted an
allegiance to sacred music that has never left him. And it was
embedded even deeper during the time he spent in Trastevere, near
the Vatican, in Rome. "While there," he says, "I used to make
pilgrimages, my treasured copy of the Liber Usualis [a
book of Gregorian chants] in hand, up to the Benedictine monastery
on the Aventine Hill. There I heard the full gamut of Gregorian
chant, sung with a wonderful intentness and commitment.
"It was a transformative
experience. One couldn't get enough of it, and, inevitably, it came
to play a very considerable and . . . essential part in my
IN THE late 1960s, he
quickly established a formidable reputation, at home and abroad.
His annus mirabilis was 1969, and religious symbolism
underlay each of the four works that cemented his career that
Another significant piece
- on an even bigger scale - that was to be the start of Maxwell
Davies's music-theatre and operatic works, was lurking behind the
scenes. This was his opera Taverner, which explores the
machinations of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. His operas
would later include The Martyrdom of St Magnus, The
Lighthouse and, only three years ago,
(first performed at the Royal Opera House in 1973), with its
uncompromising medieval- and serial-inspired music, and religious
preoccupations, set the pace for all of these. "I'd recently
composed a large two-section choral work - the biggest, or
certainly the most complex I'd done - called Ecce Manus
Tradentis," he says.
"That and a music-theatre
work called Missa sur l'Homme Armé, are obviously riddled
with religious allusion. The former is absolutely about betrayal,
the betrayal of Christ by Judas, an image that had fixed itself
very much in my mind at that time.
[contrapuntal] techniques I'd acquired from Anglican church music -
and indeed even earlier manifestations in medieval music - showed
me ways forward for expressing in my music, quite brutally, the
shame and contradictions of Judas's role."
Maxwell Davies makes use,
even in his music-theatre work Eight Songs for a Mad King,
of such techniques to explore sanity and mental dissolution -
weaving in passages from Handel's choral works (notably "Comfort
Ye" from The Messiah, gobbets of which the distracted king
was prone to sing), of these intense and variegated techniques.
They feature yet more
obviously in the last of the four, Vesalii Icones. This
work is ostensibly about illegal anatomical drawings of the early
16th century, which strip away the layers of flesh, but is actually
a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross. This sequence emerges
not with the resurrection of the Saviour, however, but with the
horrifying triumph of his very opposite, the Antichrist.
All, it seems to say, is
not as it might be. It is as if, somewhere deep-rooted, he cannot
bear to believe in hope or redemption.
If I make some of Maxwell
Davies's music sound like a sermon, it is because there is a lot of
truth in that. He has, it is true, written some music either partly
or purely to amuse: "My Ojai Festival Overture, written
for an orchestra in California, is just that: a bit of fun."
An Orkney Wedding,
With Sunrise - including an either resplendent or comic entry
in full regalia - is probably the composer's most performed piece.
"But writing an amusing work", he emphasises, "doesn't mean that
one relinquishes technique."
IF SAINTS had permeated
his musical life since the 1950s, it was in the early '70s, with
his move to Orkney, that they, and the seasons and rituals of the
Roman Catholic Church and secular year alike, started impinging in
a big way.
He first visited Orkney
in 1970. He was in a turbulent state of mind, and suffering from
creative exhaustion, after the intensity of producing four
significant works the previous year. Also, his cottage in Dorset
had burned down, forcing him to rewrite part of his opera
Taverner from scratch. He moved to Hoy soon after, and
eventually to a house on Sanday, in the Orkney Islands - where, for
ten years, he lived with his then partner Colin Parkinson - and
where he continues to live and work today.
"Arriving into Orkney on
the St Ola, the ferry from the northern tip of Scotland,
sailing past the massive 1100-ft cliffs of St John's Head, and the
Old Man of Hoy, which I'd seen only from pictures, then Ward Hill
on Hoy, and low-lying Graemsay island, and landing on the quay at
Orkney's second town, Stromness, was like a salve.
"The next day, I was
taken over to Hoy by ferry, and driven down the narrow pass through
the hills to Rackwick, a scattering of abandoned, tumbledown
cottages that looked out over the Pentland Firth. There I met
George Mackay Brown, the painter Ian MacInnes, and my friend Archie
Bevan - these became my mentors, on all things Orcadian.
spiritually intense paperback An Orkney Tapestry on the
boat coming over, I sensed immediately that this was a place I
could live in - a community I could embrace." He moved into
Bunertoon, a tiny bothy that acted as a kind of clifftop eyrie.
"That view, the sight and sounds of the sea, and the sound of the
seabirds - puffins, skuas, guillemots - became my main solace,
until I moved to Sanday in the 1990s."
THE Roman Catholic poet
George Mackay Brown (who died in 1996), became one of Maxwell
Davies's closest friends, and astonished him with the instinctive
purity of his writings, notably his 1974 poetry collection
Fishermen with Ploughs.
"[His work] focused on
precisely the island I had chosen . . . to live on, and evoked an
imaginary past, through the centuries, really, of folk who had
farmed and fished in Rackwick.
"There's something so
profound, so beautifully observed, so perfectly turned, and so
deeply wise about George's writings, one almost hesitated to set
them to music at all. But he was only too keen to lend me support.
In fact, I think he was tickled pink when I first set his verse -
once again, a Stations of the Cross sequence, entitled From
Stone to Thorn - as a song cycle.
"I had been aware of the
passage of the seasons, and of course, using and following the
Liber Usualis closely makes one very aware of the Catholic
calendar, and the passage of the Christian year. But George Mackay
Brown's influence on me was paramount.
"He wrote extensively, in
poems, in his novels . . . of the way in which religious ritual
shaped and paralleled the secular ritual of life in the fields, the
farms and villages, and on the seashore. George took deep-buried
ritual and gave it new life and meaning. . .
"He takes a historical
story -above all, that of St Magnus - and gives it almost a mythic
status, and a biblical power, by reimagining it for our day. The
ritualistic processes by which he guides Earl Magnus to his
martyrdom, like a lamb to its slaughter, meshing it with the story
of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer under the Nazis, come very
close to the kind of thing I was trying to do with Vesalii
Icones, and Eight Songs for a Mad King."
HEALTH has been one of
Maxwell Davies's greatest assets: he walks, he cooks Italian food
(an art he learned while studying with Petrassi in Rome), "and,
thanks to a good income from royalties over the years, I can afford
to drink good wines."
Just a few months ago,
however, he had a shock, when tiredness, initially diagnosed as
anaemia, was upgraded to acute myeloid leukaemia. But he is
remarkably optimistic: "I'm very lucky that I have insurance which
takes care of most things, and I can afford to have my own hospital
room in Central London. . .
"Luckily, I finished a
large piece for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra just before all this
blew up. Since falling ill, I've been working on my Tenth
Symphony, not just in Orkney, but even, when I'm not too worn
out, writing in the hospital. I have manuscript paper laid out
there, and a desk to work on.
His most recent première,
in June this year, was Capstone, an 11- minute organ piece
marking the 300th anniversary of St Paul's Cathedral. Demanding of
not just performer, but listener, the piece opens up the full tonal
range of the St Paul's organ, and explores the unique, spacious
properties of the cathedral's soaring acoustic.
Cluttered religious imagery seems unwilling to leave
the "atheist" Maxwell Davies's vocabulary. "One is amazingly
conscious," he says, "that, whether one subscribes to a traditional
denomination or not, the symbols religion deals with, the patterns
of life those symbols reflect, are just too important, too vital
and essential to everything we hold dear, and important, to be
ignored. Pagan or Christian - and many are both - they are too
precious not to allow into our lives, to be admiring of, and to be
"I find it so rewarding,
writing church music - settings of the mass or the morning and
evening canticles, or even composing a small carol for the Queen,
which I do every Christmas. And knowing one is contributing, in
just a very small way, to a tradition that goes back to Pérotin,
and Dunstable, and Josquin, and those many other great composers
then and since - it's humbling, frankly. But very rewarding."
For more information
on Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's life and work, visit www.maxopus.com.