Hannah Nepil interviews Sir Peter Maxwell Davies about his upcoming concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring his Symphony No.6, Violin Concerto No.1 – with soloist Jack Liebeck – and An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 12th March, 7.30pm.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is being mysterious. I have just asked the Master of the Queen’s Music if he is planning to compose anything to mark the upcoming Royal Birth, and his reply is suitably neutral: ‘We’ll see’. Anything he does write, however, is unlikely to hurt the Queen’s ears. ‘I think her life is difficult enough. And I’m not going to make it any more unpleasant than it needs to be by subjecting her to music that she won’t enjoy,’ says the legendary British composer. ‘That is human consideration.’
But then, Sir Peter – ‘Max’ to his friends – is as comfortable writing light music as he is dissonant, avant-garde works. In the Sixties he was known as an enfant terrible of the British classical music scene – famed for radical outpourings such as his 1969 work, Eight Songs for a Mad King. But having taught at Cirencester Grammar School for three years, he also dedicated much of his time to writing works for schoolchildren. That’s one way in which he takes after the composer Benjamin Britten, whose influence Sir Peter vividly recalls, particularly now, in Britten’s centenary year. ‘When I had a première of something I had written for the children at Cirencester Grammar School, Britten would send me a telegram saying: “Good Stuff”.’
Sir Peter moved to Orkney in 1970, where he still lives to this day. The change of scene, he says, had a calming influence on his work, ‘and made the next fifty-plus years of composition possible because I think I would have probably burnt myself out the way I was going.’ But his compositional personality remained as varied as ever, as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming tribute concert for the composer will highlight. Alongside Sir Peter’s virtuosic Violin Concerto – written for the violinist Isaac Stern and the RPO in 1985 – the programme features the complex, turbulent Symphony No.6 and the joyous An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise. Although these two works are in many ways worlds apart, both were written in a similarly furious burst of inspiration. Sir Peter describes the Symphony as one of those pieces he just had to write ‘in order to be able to live at all. If you didn’t do it, I think you would choke or something. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, on the other hand, was written in the few days after Sir Peter’s father died, as a way of cheering himself up. ‘I was going to the hospital every day. And suddenly there was this piece in my head that was joyous and life-enhancing and seemed to say: “just get on with life.” I thought “I’ve got to get this down”.’
Sir Peter is looking forward to revisiting these works at the concert, with the added benefit of hindsight. ‘I think I’m going to hear things in it that I didn’t realise were there and that I might not like at all.’ Over the years, however, he has learnt to be dispassionate about past works. ‘Writing my 1969 pieces for example, I had a very young man’s head on my shoulders, and you can’t criticise them for that. You have to take that music at face value,’ he says, ‘and respect it for what it is.’