Peter Maxwell Davies: “Making music is a social contract”

Alexandra Coghlan meets the Queen’s composer.

Peter Maxwell Davies at the Cafe Boulevard in London, 9 April 1965. Photo: Getty.

“I’ve often thought that democracy would be a good idea in the UK but one sees no evidence yet of it being implemented,” says Peter Maxwell Davies, smiling. “As a composer, what can you do about it? You have to bear witness.”

A provocateur of contemporary classical music, Davies flared into the headlines in 1969 with the howl of Eight Songs for a Mad King – inspired by the story of George III, the piece demanded a small anvil, a football rattle and a scrubbing board, along with an orchestra. Forty-five years later, on the eve of his 80th birthday and awaiting the world premiere of his Symphony No 10, he is part of the establishment – knighted, master of the Queen’s music and member of the Order of the Companions of Honour. Though the former republican admits that he’s been won over by the Queen, he still made the news in 2005 when the body of a swan was found in his Orkney home. When police called to investigate, he explained that the bird had hit a local power line – and offered them swan terrine.

Alongside his emotionally extreme work – his symphonies have evolved from abstraction to dense, quasi-dramatic beauty, while his string quartets still refuse to give up their secrets without a fight – Davies has sustained another musical identity. The folk simplicity of Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise or the brash, bluesy joy of Mavis in Las Vegas represents a complementary side to a composer who sees little distinction between “light” and “serious”. “Farewell to Stromness”, the best-known work from his cabaret suite The Yellow Cake Revue (1980), took as its inspiration the ecological threat posed by uranium mining in the Orkneys; other songs in the sequence include “The Tourist Song: Have You Heard of the Terrorist Suicide Squad?” and “Nuclear Job Interview 3: the Mental Healthworker”.

Funny titles aside, how – in so abstract a medium as classical music – does a composer express a political opinion? “The greatest example is Beethoven cancelling his dedication of the Third Symphony to Napoleon when he became a tyrant,” he tells me. We meet in rooms near Regent’s Park owned by the Royal Academy of Music, where he teaches once a term.

“Then there were Shostakovich’s hidden musical protests against Soviet rule. For me, it was the invasion of Iraq. I thought it was so immoral, so stupid, and that anger spilled into one of my Naxos Quartets. You might say, ‘What . . . difference does that anger make in a quartet?’ I knew that Blair and Bush were never going to listen to a Haydn quartet, let alone one by me. But I knew I had at least testified to what they had done.

“I took it further in the Ninth Symphony,” he continues. “In the despair of that piece, particularly in the use of brass, there’s a musical reaction to the utter stupidity of the neocolonialism that took us into Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Brought up a socialist in a family he describes as “very left wing”, Davies was perhaps an unlikely candidate for master of the Queen’s music, the classical equivalent of poet laureate. “I’ve come to admire the Queen very much,” he says. “I always realised she was a very canny lady and no fool but I didn’t anticipate how devoted she was to her work. When I first got the job, I asked her what she expected of me and she said, ‘Philip and I would like to learn.’ I thought that was such a good answer. She also told me that she found a lot of very dissonant music difficult and didn’t like it. Of course, she’s perfectly entitled to say that and not be judged for it and you do take it on board.

“Despite being fascinated by the avant-garde during the Fifties and Sixties, I’ve always been aware that anyone making music has a social duty and a contract,” Davies continues. “There’s never a good enough excuse for writing music that audiences don’t like. When I was teaching, I saw how music can bind a community together, that children who are interested in music find it sparks off all sorts of other things in their imaginations, makes them better scholars, better human beings.”

A mention of Michael Gove provokes visible anger from this long-time advocate for music education (“He’s unspeakable”). Davies has written more music for school groups and community ensembles than almost any other composer of his stature. “Classical music is being pushed aside by the present government,” he says. “Children still have access to popular music and that’s important, too, but I worry that, because it has become so commercial, it only exposes them to ready-made musical thoughts, to ready-made texts for songs that never really get to the heart of the matter. Two bars of Schubert just say so much more – and at a deeper level – that I’m sad that people don’t have access to it.”

He credits his Symphony No 10, which will premiere at the Barbican in London on 2 February, with sustaining him through his recent leukaemia treatments. The work was written partly in hospital and partly at his home on the remote island of Sanday. He has twice sworn he’d never write another symphony, convinced that he had said all he wanted within classical music’s largest and most rigorous form. “But I think if you’ve done something big like build a church, or write a symphony, then the bug will always bite you again,” he explains, “because it’s the only way to create something of that scope and weight.”

In many ways, Symphony No 10 is a progression rather than a return – it is Davies’s first choral symphony. “My starting point was the 17th-century Roman architect Borromini. The illusion of enormous grandeur, the great intricacy and arithmetic, just the wonder of his shapes, have always inspired me. He committed suicide but he survived for two days after falling on his sword and dictated a testament that I find terribly moving [he requested that no name appear on his tomb]. The final section of the piece actually sets it for baritone solo.”

Back in 1978, when Davies wrote his First Symphony, it was the last thing anyone expected of the musical iconoclast. While he may now be part of the establishment that he once challenged, however, his choice of the form remains provocative. Beethoven’s choral Symphony No 9 still dwarfs all that came after it and every composer writes in its shadow. “My Tenth is not at all like Beethoven’s choral symphony,” he maintains, “and I’m sure that some people will say that what I’ve written isn’t a symphony at all but an operatic narrative. But I think it’s important if you write something with that kind of architecture to have the courage to call it a symphony. Throughout history, composers have changed what the symphony is, what it means,” he says. “I’m just continuing that tradition.”

The London Symphony Orchestra will perform “Symphony No 10” at the Barbican, London EC2, on 2 February