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Soundings of season and spirit

09 August 2013

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's enthusiasm for writing church music, despite his frail health, is undiminished. He talks to Roderic Dunnett

salford university

Making music: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies oversees a recording at Salford University's Digital Performance Lab in 2012

Making music: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies oversees a recording at Salford University's Digital Performance Lab in 2012

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 divided critics.

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 does."

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 Petrassi.

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 music."

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 year.

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, Kommilitonen!

But Taverner (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.

"Those linear [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.

"[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 ad- miring of, and to be influenced by.

"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.

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