Igor Toronyi-Lalic talks to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as he celebrates his 75th birthday
A month ago, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies shuffled on to the Royal Albert Hall stage to a wall of sweet applause after a performance of one of his works. It wasn’t always so. Rewind to the 1960s when etiquette dictated that half the audience would walk out or boo whenever his shock of hair bobbed into view. But the Master of the Queen’s Music has come a long way. He’s now an obedient courtier — a very convincing, plummy one with an aristocratic stoop, and, though one can catch something every now and again in his mad blue eyes, the radical charge has by and large gone both from his demeanour and his musical language. His stage presence and music elicit nothing but warmth and applause of the sort reserved for Her Majesty or a handsome walnut sideboard. He is establishment now. And he’s lapping it up. In Leipzig the night before, his new violin concerto — which, in celebrations marking Davies’s 75th birthday, receives its UK première at the Proms next week — prompted an audience frenzy. ‘It was great; it really was!’ Even Davies was surprised: ‘At the end, the whole audience jumped to its feet and applauded!’
Davies is rare among former enfants terribles in that he actually wants people to like his music, and he remembers being pained by the derision that greeted his early works. ‘That year, 1969, when people shouted “rubbish” at the première of Eight Songs for a Mad King and half the audience walked out of the Worldes Blis Prom, was very upsetting; there’s no way around it,’ he says. ‘But for a lot of composers it always has been a part of the rite of passage.’
Davies’s music is not homogeneous in style or trickiness. Early on, the theatrical expressionism of Eight Songs, an extreme but captivating work, vied for space with the modernist mammoths of Worldes Blis. Today, kitschy little folk-inspired pieces rub shoulders with hulking great neo-Mahlerian symphonies. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘Mozart towards the end of his very short life was writing those very straightforward and very lovely German dances while he was writing his last three symphonies.’
It often seems as if Davies keeps the examples of the greats, the Mozarts as much as the Stravinskys, both their musical structures and their personal travails, erected around him for comfort, like teddy bears circling a small child. His first compositional teddy was Arthur Sullivan and an amateur production of The Gondoliers performed by the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Orchestra in Salford. ‘I’ve never forgotten it,’ he says, his face in a state of bliss. ‘I thought the world on that stage with the scenery and gondoliers was total and absolute magic.’ His musical journey from here was shaped by the Third Programme, the Henry Watson Music Library, Erwin Ratz’s modernist primer Einführung in die musikalische Formenlehre (a birthday present from Auntie Alice) and the late-medieval polyphony of John Dunstable and Guillaume de Machaut.
‘It was an absolute revelation,’ he says. ‘I loved its clarity, its straight in-your-face character.’ He pauses. ‘Also, it was music for very practical use and sometimes you feel that what you do is not for practical use.’ He starts to grip the sides of the armchair as if he’s hit turbulence. ‘I hope that a lot of what I have done is. But,’ pause, grip, ‘it’s a worry.’
Does he think his early work was too complex or arcane? ‘No, not at all.’ The words fly back with steel-tipped self-belief. ‘In recent years, I have been going around doing some of those early works…and the orchestras have no difficulty.’ And the audience? ‘Yes, audiences like it,’ he adds softly.
The folk pieces that have flowed freely since he set up home on the Orkney Islands in 1970 have been the real public draw. A piano piece, Farewell to Stromness, has become a Classic FM hit, as has his Orkney Wedding. ‘With our whole civilisation threatened, orchestras and opera houses could well not survive at all,’ he says; ‘it might be a saving grace if there are one or two very simple tunes that you are remembered by.’ A sigh and a chuckle collide in his voice as if he’s caught the irony of it all. There was a time when Davies wouldn’t have let a simple tune anywhere near his music before he had given it a thorough modernist thrashing, a mocking and dismembering. But today, a strange traditionalism rubs shoulders with his radical 1960s values.
‘I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages,’ he says about his accepting the royal appointment, beginning to wriggle a little in his seat. ‘There was a chance to raise the profile of serious music of all kinds,’ he insists. Associating with a Queen famed for her concert avoidance, this seems unlikely. But she was sympathetic to the idea. ‘She more or less said that “Philip and I would like to be advised and taught, and we will follow”.’ The reality is two short, shrill conversations a year.
For an unapologetic modernist, I imagine the association with the artistically antediluvian meddling of Prince Charles to be the most embarrassing part of the position. ‘No, I’m quite happy to discuss it with him,’ says Davies. ‘Which I have done.’
Anyway, he agrees with the Prince. ‘I hate Brutalist architecture,’ he fumes. ‘It has no humanity whatsoever.’ His blue eyes turn red and misty. ‘You wonder how much it is government policy to inflict this kind of bad architecture on people to keep them in their place. That might sound terribly cynical, but it is a great requirement for our government to treat people with respect, instead of just ignoring their views on things like Afghanistan and Iraq, putting them in dreadful housing and spending their money on killing Arabs.’
For many, the Brutalist architecture of the 1950s is a close companion to the modernism of his early works. ‘Yes, of course. But I hope that the music I wrote is not the equivalent of those horrible buildings,’ he counters. ‘At least you can turn off music, whereas those things you have to live with.’ Does he care about his legacy? ‘No, I don’t. I’d be very lucky if a couple of tunes survive,’ he says. ‘I’ve written as well as I can but I don’t expect people to be terribly interested. There are lots of composers out there.’
And is he happy at how his musical language evolved? ‘That’s how it had to be. I couldn’t have done anything different. I’ve got no regrets about it. I did my best, or am doing my best — it’s still in the present tense, isn’t it? It doesn’t really concern me. I’ve done my best; I am doing my best and if it doesn’t work, tough.’