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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
For more information on Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's life and
work, visit www.maxopus.com.