Written by: Colin Anderson
Peter Maxwell Davies, knight, Master of the Queen’s Music, known to all as Max and recently turned 70, is looking forward: “it’s always the latest pieces, and the ones you’re writing, that are the most interesting, but I do welcome the opportunity to hear old friends.” Cue the fortnight of concerts entitled Max – at the South Bank, Royal Academy of Music and Westminster Cathedral, which starts on 17 April. “It’s quite amazing how much is in there, and I’m very pleased that it covers the whole period.” Also Included is his keenly anticipated Royal Philharmonic Society Annual Lecture (April 24, 5.30): “Is there a future for serious music? I hope I’ll go into this with a certain amount of humour.”
Talking with Max is to be reminded of his geniality, his wide terms of reference, and his candour. His latest Naxos String Quartet, No.6, has its premiere on April 26 in the company of Mozart and Haydn. “If you think you’ve done something new, you’d better be careful because Haydn has probably already done it!” Max suggests that this latest quartet as “a taking up a big argument and is tonally more coherent than anything I’ve done before.” Max describes these quartets, commissioned by Naxos, as “one novel in 10 chapters; I feel I’m taking characters who might have a walk-on part in one quartet and be developed in another. It stretches you and I’m very happy with that; it keeps you on your intellectual toes.” Just issued on Naxos are Quartets 3 & 4 (8.557397), and the expansive No.2, a masterpiece, is on 8.557396.
Also new is A Dance on the Hill, a “modest and I hope a lyric piece.” It’s played on 24 April alongside Britten, Vaughan Williams and Tippett. It was the latter who advised Max to “be yourself. You can’t be worrying about too many other things; you have to be yourself, but you also want to be practical. It’s about writing music that stretches me and then stretches the musical and spiritual perceptions of others.”
Like many musicians, Max “regrets the falling off of interest in music education among the authorities. We’ve really lost a couple of generations: they’ve not been touched by serious music in their education and are unaware of music as something without words. Music is beyond that and much more interesting.” How, then, does Max perceive younger colleagues, several of whom are represented during the Max fortnight? “There are some who are very aware of European music and some who are aware of other traditions. I’ve been working with younger composers and I’m very impressed. Some people don’t have a classical grounding and you wonder what’s taking its place in terms of musical architecture, which is the great glory of western music as a complete statement, akin to the great cathedrals.”
Max’s own composing has been significantly influenced by his Orkney surroundings. “It’s different every time you go out; maybe the next morning the sun can’t be seen and it’s a steely grey light.” Plainsong is another active ingredient, which is “music very beautiful in itself, with very specific connotations and spiritual dimensions, like marvellous lumen from an icon in a church that has collected some of the intensity of the regard that it has been held in.” Very different is Max’s Antarctic Symphony, played on April 30, and with film of the region. Might that make the symphony seem like incidental music? “I hope not. It should be complementary. The film will be relatively very still.” We all agree (including Max’s longstanding manager, Judy Arnold) that the current vogue for editing that allows no image more than three seconds is very irritating. Equally, the soulless disco-type beat that permeates so much of today’s broadcasting is intolerable. As Max says: “very often an interesting and informative documentary is blunted by a crass musical score which blots out further thinking or reflection; I suspect that that’s its function, so one doesn’t think at all.”
Back to more gratifying matters, Max has his own website that allows downloading his music, and the royal appointment is “the chance to write something for a big occasion, which has to work in the context without compromises and the most rigorous architecture. It just has to be done in a slightly different way, which I shall find quite challenging.” On April 28, Max’s music resounds in Westminster Cathedral, including his superb Mass (wonderfully recorded on Hyperion CDA67454). Max on Max: “I’m thrilled about it – it’s all about getting out there to the people.”