The firebrand still burns
By Geoffrey Norris
From The Telegraph - 13/07/2006
Once a rebellious avant-gardist, Peter Maxwell Davies has just written a piece to mark the Queen's 80th birthday. But he remains fearlessly outspoken.
In his younger days, Peter Maxwell Davies was the enfant terrible of modern music, challenging our sensibilities and pushing back the boundaries of what was possible in terms of vocal and instrumental technique.
He wrote the score for Ken Russell's lurid, erotic film The Devils. His notorious theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King established a brave new world of Expressionist shock in music, graphically portraying the insanity of George III, locked in a cage and uttering piercing screams and half-remembered melodies against a savagely dissonant instrumental background. This was ground-breaking stuff. As a composer, Davies has always been fiercely independent.
Davies is now Sir Peter - and Master of the Queen's Music - but he rejects any suggestion that such accolades signal a softening of attitudes or a collapse into conformity.
He has written a new work to open next Wednesday's BBC Prom, which is to be attended by the Queen as part of her 80th birthday celebrations. With a text by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, A Little Birthday Music is designed, in Davies's words, to speak to the public immediately, though it has been composed "without compromises", he says.
"Looking back at someone I admire, like Mozart", he says, "he could write a Coronation Mass and suit the music to the occasion. I don't think that's compromising; I think it's practicality."
Davies has certainly not become reticent in the two years since his appointment to a post bathed in centuries of royal tradition. If anything, his views have become more trenchant.
"People tend to listen a bit more," he says. "If I sound off about music education, it gets reported. Whether anything happens or not, I don't know.
"The government is not interested in education. I think most members of the government don't see the point of classical music at all. They are only aware of pop music."
Davies acknowledges that he might be swimming against an inexorable tide. But, with the fixation on pop, he insists, "the values of civilisation are being drowned out by dross".
He has no rosier picture of the Opposition benches, either. "There was that awful Desert Island Discs that David Cameron did. The piece he would take to a desert island was some idiotic ditty [by comedian Benny Hill] about a milkman. The book he would take was something by a TV personality cook called Heatheringstall-Whittingham-Something.
"It's terribly sad that a leading politician has to portray himself as an utter idiot with no cultural background whatever."
Suggesting that Davies might be regarded as part of the Establishment would have been unthinkable in his radical years. Now, at the age of 71, it draws at least conditional acceptance.
"I don't mind being a member of the Establishment", he claims, "as long as I can write the music I have to write."
His move to Orkney in the 1970s heralded a new stimulus triggered by the islands' history, folk music and landscape. He still lives and writes there, though he has now moved from Hoy to the even remoter island of Sanday.
"Hoy was becoming flooded with tourists," he says. "Not that the tourists got on my nerves. But you'd go for a walk where previously you'd been entirely alone on a beach or a hilltop, and you'd see people. This is not constructive."
Isolation is an essential component of Davies's creative process. With nobody around, he says, "you can project the structure of what you're working on out of your head and on to the landscape. You're walking through a three-dimensional architecture of your music. You hear the whole thing happening in slow motion, and you can shift things around."
Isolation, however, does not mean detachment. The third of his continuing series of string quartets enshrined his reactions to the invasion of Iraq.
"I think my attitude to Blair and the Iraq war would not make me very popular with a great deal of the Establishment. In fact, I was so disillusioned when the whole of Parliament more or less supported Blair on this idiotic enterprise that I thought, 'This is not democracy.' The British armed forces have been hijacked by a foreign power for purely colonial imperialist purposes. And it is an utter disgrace."
The Master of the Queen's Music remains resolutely outspoken. As he says, "One just has to fight one's corner."