Tuesday, July 04, 2006

FESTIVAL://Maxwell Davies' A Little Birthday Music at the Proms

Master of ceremonies

Fiona Maddocks
From TheScotsman.com - Sat 1 Jul 2006

The Queen has attended the Proms only once during her reign. Reportedly, it was not a success. So the significance of an entire concert being devoted to her on 19 July, to mark her 80th birthday and in her willing presence, cannot be overstated.

How has this come about? Whatever the persuasive powers of Proms director Nicholas Kenyon, the real influence seems to have been Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the composer who has breathed new life into the role of Master of the Queen's Music.

We need not review the startling unlikelihood of a firebrand like Max, as he is known, signing up to this quintessential establishment role. "Yes, I would have scorned - or even laughed aloud at - the idea when I was younger," he admits. His early reputation as a bad boy of the avant garde, producing abrasive and febrile scores on subjects as perverse as the madness of George III, Ken Russell's The Devils and the sexy dancing Salome, still lingers.

Now an agile 71, he has mellowed, but he could never be accused of going soft. Those of us who grew up, musically, to the ear-scouring precision and white heat of Ave Maris Stella or Worldes Blis still find the idea of this elfish figure chinking a tea cup with Her Majesty wilder than fantasy.

Is his willingness to take the job so seriously an almost nostalgic reflection on his own working-class Manchester childhood and upbringing? Max and the Queen's histories, however different, run in parallel.

A gifted only child, old enough to remember the Second World War, Max set himself free intellectually through libraries, grammar school, scholarships and the support of imaginative parents. Tradition and its subversion are central to his art.

"I couldn't have handled this before. Now I feel I'm old enough. I never tire of musical challenges. And I make no secret of wanting to use the chance to raise the profile of classical music. This is music as communal activity, which I believe is vital."

The new piece, A Little Birthday Music, is the setting of a short text by poet laureate Andrew Motion called The Golden Rule. It explores ideas of constancy and has already been used by Max for an anthem at St George's Chapel, Windsor. The new version employs 250 schoolchildren, the choirs of the Chapels Royal, the fanfare trumpeters of the Scots Guards, the Royal Albert Hall organ and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The composer admits it "ends slightly on the loud side".

Davies's great battle cry, hardly new but no less vital for that, is for all children to have the chance to learn instruments, write music, sing in choirs and play in bands. "The crucial point is to find a way of expressing yourself through music, however simple, in whatever form. Otherwise, we're shutting off part of our brains." All very well if, like Max, you hear music in every daily endeavour, whether in the harmonies of the wind across the cliffs in his adopted Orkney, or in the low E-flat (I'm guessing) rumble of the buses passing on the road outside his Marylebone flat where we meet.

For others less aurally aware, music is a passive pleasure and no more. "Yes, but even the simple effort of trying to put into words what listening to music does to you is a valuable exercise. It means you focus more, stop being a complacent consumer. The very process sharpens ears, heart, mind."

His own early listening was hardly sophisticated: Victorian salon tunes, from sheet-music kept in a piano stool. "And, of course, Gilbert and Sullivan. Then, when I was about 12, and learning the piano, I was given the complete sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart. I didn't look back."

His output now consists of several operas, six symphonies, 11 concertos, choral works, community pieces for Orkney such as The Yellow Cake Revue, a protest against uranium mining which includes a movement called "Tourist Song: Have You Heard of the Terrorist Suicide Squad?".

An anarchic liberal, Max never fights shy of independent political involvement. His ten string quartets commissioned for the award-winning Maggini Quartet and released - with visionary heroism - by Naxos, chart many pivotal events of the past decade. He is now completing the ninth.

"I was writing the Third Quartet at the time of the invasion of Iraq. It's all there in the score, if anyone cares to listen. Not that I expect Bush or Blair to." Maybe Condoleezza Rice, a talented musician?

"Hmm," says Max. "Music can transform people. But it doesn't always work. Hitler and Stalin went to concerts. Schubert military marches were played to lead Jews to the gas chambers..."

Quietly spoken though he is, Max is not averse to a rant: "The rape of Iraq will go down in history as a mistake as disastrous in its consequences as the crusades. It's quite clear, watching Blair and Bush, that it was as if they were reciting lines they'd learned. And the House of Commons followed like sheep. Or, rather, Gadarene swine - if they get the [Biblical] reference. It was a blow for democracy. How can one vote for such wilfully blind and ignorant people?"

We talk about Desert Island Discs. He's been on twice, his choices ranging from Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, to a piece by the Scottish composer Sally Beamish and The Beatles' Yesterday, a version of which Max has arranged. But conversation turns, inevitably, to Conservative leader David Cameron. "I do think our political leaders could set an example. There was a time when it was automatic to use this programme [Desert Island Discs] to try to give a normal and respectable sense of yourself to the public. But now it seems the leader of the Opposition has felt no compunction to prove himself other than a vacant idiot with nothing in his brain whatsoever.

"I don't think anyone in the past would have made such an utterly stupid and uneducated selection and expected people to vote for him."

A third person has been in the room as we speak: Max's partner of the past five years, Colin, a 50-year-old builder. They met 20 years ago when Colin was still married and bringing up his two young children, now grown up. They smile at the recollection. "I used to do the babysitting to give them time to sort their marriage out," Max remembers.

The presence of Colin in his life has led to changes for the once monkish composer. Now there's a television and a domestic life. What does Colin think of Max's music? "I've always been the kind of builder who gets in a house and asks first for a teapot, second for Radio 3, so it's never been a problem," he says.

"I remember when I first heard Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, I thought, what the hell's going on here? But, you know, with a little encouragement, anyone can concentrate and follow a musical argument."

He smiles across at Max. Before her next Proms outing, the Queen might welcome some advice from this eloquent advocate of her Master's music.

The Proms run from 14 July to 9 September. The Queen's birthday concert, including A Little Birthday Music, is on 19 July. For more information, visit www.bbc.co.uk/proms

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