Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: I deplore the waste of our soldiers’ lives on a wild goose chase

There are political undertones in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.9, he tells Arts Editor Laura Davis ahead of its London premiere by the Liverpool Philharmonic

IF ONE of your musical works calls the monarch’s great-great-great-great- grandfather a “mad king” then you wouldn’t expect to be her first choice for the role of Master of the Queen’s Music.

So it was with “utter surprise” that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies greeted the job offer back in 2003.

“I never expected anything like that,” he reveals.

“After all I had written Eight Songs for a Mad King and I wasn’t noted for my pro-Royalist views but I gave it some consideration overnight and I thought it would be a good opportunity to do something positive for music. So it has proved to be.”

It was one of the Queen’s much earlier ancestors who first introduced the role – Charles I in 1626 – and it has since been held by eminent composers and musicians including Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Arthur Bliss and, most recently, the Australian Malcolm Williamson.

Sir Peter, the first to be given the title for 10 years rather than for life, took over in 2004 when, in a “rather nervous” meeting with the Queen, was told to make of it “what you like because Philip and I just want to learn. You must do everything that you feel like doing and don’t feel obliged to do anything more that you don’t want to do”.

“I don’t think classical music is their first love,” he supposes.

“As far as I had seen before the Queen and Prince Philip hadn’t taken all that much interest in music for many years but they had been most supportive. They had come along to things.

“I think she’s really risen to it if I dare say such a thing, if that doesn’t sound absolutely awful. She’s absolutely game for it. She’s game for a lot of things!”

In his efforts to raise the profile of “serious” music, as he puts it, Sir Peter, 77, introduced the Queen’s Medal for Music to reward individuals who have made a major influence on the musical life of the UK.

The first, in 2005, was awarded to the world-renowned conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who had a long association with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was named its conductor emeritus in 2009.

The accolade is not limited to classical musicians – Northumbrian piper and fiddle-player Kathryn Tickell was given the medal in 2008.

His other duties include writing works for the Queen and royal occasions, such as an annual Christmas carol that is performed during a private service in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace.

Sir Peter, who is widely recognised as one of the foremost composers of all time, dedicated his single movement ninth symphony to the monarch for her diamond jubilee year. The piece is being given its London premiere by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms on August 23 after its world premiere at the Philharmonic Hall last June.

As with the majority of his later works, he wrote Symphony No. 9 in his home of the remote isle of Sanday in the Orkneys, where he wanders the deserted beaches working out melodies in his head before committing them to paper.

“It’s a bit like writing down, in a funny way, music that you already know although you’re discovering what it is at that time,” he explains.

“It’s a matter of just concentrating, thinking through the music before you sit down at a desk so you really know what you’re doing.

“The walking is very much a part of the process. The sea and the sheer wonder of the nature in Orkney have influenced me a great deal in the music I’ve written over the last years.”

Landscape and the natural world also resonates in the work of Finnish composer Sibelius, whose Seventh Symphony in turn influenced Sir Peter’s Symphony No.9, although he didn’t realise that when writing it.

“When I first came to Liverpool and heard the rehearsals I thought ‘My goodness, that Sibelius has really got to you hasn’t it’,” he laughs.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing because Sibelius is often given credit for being a dyed in the wool conservative but his treatment of musical motifs and his architecture and his deriving the whole material for a big symphony from a few notes was very, very innovative at the time.” Despite a certain celebratory feel, there are political undertones to the work, which reflect Sir Peter’s strongly felt opposition to the so-called “wars against terrorism” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An additional sextet of brass players sit apart from the orchestra playing “some rather banal marches which just sum up the ridiculous nature of that whole military exercise, its emptiness”.

“I’m not against the military at all,” insists the composer.

“I’m not a pacifist and I love the military bands. What I’m objecting to is not the military per se but the uses to which our politicians put them.

“I still don’t see the point of those wars and I deplore the waste of, not only our soldiers’ lives on a wild goose chase, but all the Muslims who are dying in the whole stupid operation in Afghanistan to absolutely no result whatever.”

The Liverpool Philharmonic’s Prom will also feature Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor and Delius’s Violin Concerto with solo violinist Tasmin Little, and will be broadcast live on Radio 3. “They are such a good orchestra and they have the loveliest conductor. He is so damn good,” says Sir Peter.

“I listened to Vasily (Petrenko) rehearse the Beethoven choral symphony and he was just so on the score. Everything I was thinking ‘that wasn’t perfect’ about he picked up – everything, without fuss, without any side to him.

“He was not at all pompous and was without stupid conductorly mannerisms, he was just interested in getting the music right.

“The orchestra is playing so beautifully for him.

“I was overwhelmed by the devotion that they put into my work, which was not easy. I was absolutely thrilled with it and I can’t compliment them enough.

“They are just very special. I don’t think there’s anything like them in the whole world.”

SIR Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.9 will be performed as part of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall on August 23. It will be broadcast live on Radio 3 at 7.30pm.

Liverpool Post, August 16, 2012