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On Wings of Song: Peter Maxwell Davies talks to Jeremy Siepmann

July 1, 2012

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

One-time enfant terrible (in the eyes of some), later Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has long been a national treasure in Britain and a musical figure of worldwide renown. Born, in his own words, to a very working class family, with a library of four books, he spent much of his childhood as a private prodigy, having been lost to music just out of infancy.

‘I can actually date it. I was four years old and I was taken to see The Gondoliers. It was an amateur production, I’d never been to a theatre, and I thought this was simply the most magical thing ever. Not only was it the scenery, I thought there was a real canal on the stage, because I was very little and couldn’t see that it was a mock canal, with mock boats going up and down. And there was an orchestra. I’d never heard an orchestra live before, and it completely knocked me out. It changed my life. Although I was only four, and had no idea how to do it, I wanted to do, to make, something like that. And I immediately began going around the house making up operas! I also made up lots of songs. When I was eight, we got grandmother’s piano, and I was sent for piano lessons. And I just took to it immediately. I remember I was supposed to do C major with my piano teacher, Miss Jones, but though I also worked out for myself all the major and minor chords, I didn’t dare tell her because I thought she might think I was very cheeky. So I pretended to do G and D slowly, one a week. And in two or three weeks I was writing down little tunes.’

What (and who), I wondered, were the formative influences on Sir Peter’s development as a composer? ‘When I was still very young, I was given by my second piano teacher all of the Beethoven and Mozart piano sonatas. And of course I thought these were absolutely wonderful. I played them all as well as I could, and they were undoubtedly the first really big, lasting influences on me. Then at the age of 13 I found out that you could go to the Henry Watson music library in Manchester and borrow seven books or scores a week. And this turned everything around. As well as the Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, I borrowed Ravel and Bartók, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg, Messiaen…all the great modern composers, really—which nobody I knew had ever heard of.’

All this suggests that he was extremely precocious as a score reader—not exactly the sort of skill one would imagine you could just pick up. How did this come about? ‘I honestly can’t account for it. I was just absolutely fascinated. I realised that if you wanted to understand music, you had to be able to read a score, and somehow the rest followed naturally. As I say, I can’t explain it.’

As well as being an exceptionally well-rounded musician, Sir Peter has always been a dedicated teacher. Yet in recent years he has increasingly found that the sheer craft of composition is underdeveloped by many young composers. ‘Some of them really are rather unaware. I think it’s because they haven’t had basic training in counterpoint and harmony—and, dare I say it, fugue—which I think is a wonderful thing! Like learning Latin when you’re studying French or Italian. Doing things like counterpoint and fugue sharpens your mind, and you can compose without having all that difficulty. But sometimes when I’ve visited colleges or whatever, where I’ve done so-called composition master-classes, it does show that a lot of very basic craft is missing. I put some of this down to the ease with which it’s now possible to compose with a computer, which will not only double instruments and transpose for you so that you don’t have to think, but will easily and immediately play back what you’ve written, without your having to score-read it at the piano and without your having actually to imagine how the instruments sound together. I think computer composition is something which has been used by a lot of young people, writing music in a very facile, unproductive and infertile way as far as musical imagination goes.’

Given the volume, craft and controlled spontaneity of Davies’ own music, I was unsurprised to find that he is a highly disciplined and methodical composer who adheres, whenever possible, to a strict daily routine. ‘Absolutely. Normally I’m at my desk by 10 o’clock (having taken the dog for a good long walk and had a good breakfast), and I stay there until one o’clock, when I’ll probably have a very light lunch and then work till about six, sometimes later. After dinner, I’ll sometimes work some more, if the pressure is on, but usually I relax with a score or listen to the radio or whatever, and then read a book. I’ve always been an avid reader.’

He has also been an avid listener, whose enthusiasms, while not perhaps quite all-embracing, range far and wide, encompassing medieval and Renaissance music pretty well wholesale, and finding a special place for Monteverdi, Mozart, Lennon and McCartney, Elliott Carter (still composing at 104!), Bartók, Stravinsky, Britten and Tippett. And that’s only scratching the surface.

No composer has drawn more fruitfully or more intriguingly on medieval and Renaissance models than Sir Peter. What has been the main attraction for him here? ‘I think, when I was very young, it was the sheer sound of that late mediaeval and Renaissance music. I used to go most weekdays when I lived in Manchester to services in Manchester Cathedral, where I heard wonderful Renaissance music. And sometimes they’d do modern music, by Tippett or Britten or even Stravinsky. Also, at University I sang in the university madrigal choir—lots and lots of madrigals, English and Italian ones, Palestrina masses, and the masses by William Byrd, which remain a great influence on me. Then when I went to study in Rome in the 60s I immersed myself in plainsong, which has permeated my work. I think using those plainsongs is something like an icon, that many people have had contact with, and these things have gone through the imaginations of many many composers, and have fertilised imaginations in all kinds of ways. In many ways this music seems to me as contemporary as the composers of our own time.’

Few in the 60s would have tagged Sir Peter as a future symphonist. As such, has he, as in childhood, been significantly inspired by Classical models? ‘I’ve been influenced by so many things—very notably the new music that interested me when I was young. At the Darmstadt Summer School I met people like Messiaen, Boulez, Lutosławski. Even Stockhausen. I had my reservations about some of his works, but I felt quite liberated by his ideas. But yes, I’ve always, always, always kept my sights on Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn. I could never, for instance, have written my recent opera had I not conducted 20-odd performances of The Marriage of Figaro for Glyndebourne Opera. The learning simply never stops.’

Nowhere in his output has the influence of Haydn borne more wide-ranging fruit than in the celebrated ‘Naxos Quartets’, which he has described as a novel in ten chapters. How did this take shape? ‘I wrote those, as you know, to a commission that specified ten quartets, and I thought “Well what an opportunity! Let’s write a work in 10 chapters.” And so it is. You can start with No 1, and when you get to the end of No 10 you could actually go straight back into No 1. Because it’s literally a cycle: it can go round and round. So in No 10, I didn’t actually put a real ending on it. It stops, but it doesn’t actually finish. Partly because I wanted to remind myself that I want eventually to write more string quartets. And though I planned them out from the beginning, they changed, of course, as I went along. I didn’t know I was going to do the Borromini one, No 7, when I started, and of course I didn’t know that the war in Iraq would erupt—and in No 3 the music erupts: there’s some quasi-military music in the first movement, which permeates the sheer anger and frustration of that. Now you might say (I’ve said this before), why demonstrate your anger at a thing like the Iraq war in a string quartet? Well, first of all, I think one of the duties of the composer is to bear witness, in every way possible. And I felt that despite the fact that Blair and Bush would never listen to a Haydn quartet, let alone one of mine, it just had to be done. You have to express your horror at something so destructive and ridiculous as the invasion of Iraq, and of course, as has now been proved over and over again, the invasion of Afghanistan. So this dominates the third quartet. In short, for all that you may plan, you can also change your plans. It is a novel, there are 10 chapters, but they’re not quite in the order, and not quite worked out in the way that I thought they would be. Things intervened, like inspiration, which goes off at a tangent sometimes, taking you to places you’d never thought you’d go.’

And is there a similar narrative unity in the symphonies? Are they, perhaps, a novel in nine chapters? ‘Not quite. But from Nos 1 to 7, yes. I only realised this, though, when I was about in the middle of the fourth. I realised then that I was in the middle of a cycle of seven symphonies, and I duly closed it off, if you like, with No 7. I didn’t really intend to write any more, but then the opportunity came to write an Antarctic Symphony, and I was invited by the Antarctic survey people and the Philharmonia Orchestra to go to Antarctica. Well who was going to pass that one up?! So of course I wrote another symphony. And now, as you know, I’m writing No 9.’

Composers, like performers, are doomed to the attention of critics. Does Sir Peter read them? And has it ever been instructive? ‘I don’t read them any more. I used to. But I was put off by Ben Britten, who got very upset by bad reviews and it put him off composing. And I thought I don’t want to have any of that. I mean you know yourself whether you’ve done a good job or not, and you don’t need somebody like that to tell you. Nor have they influenced me one bit. When I used to read them, I just used to dismiss them, especially the ones that were very bad—including the favourable ones where they obviously hadn’t got the point. But sometimes, rarely, you do read something that warrants attention. I think, for instance, of Hans Keller. He wrote an article about my first Symphony which I didn’t agree with one bit, but it was a genuinely interesting article, and you can learn something from that sort of thing. I remember also reading very critical accounts of some of my music by Bayan Northcott, but you pay attention when someone like that says something, because he was also a composer. Those men knew what they were talking about.’

Now within hailing distance of his 80th year, Sir Peter shows no sign of slowing down. Music sustains him as it has throughout his life. What, if pressed, would he say are its most unique and precious attributes? ‘Well, I’ve got two answers to that. One—with my concert-going, conducting hat on—is that music can say things which words cannot. I think the prime example is the first performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, in Leningrad 1938, when nobody dared discuss the purges and the clampdown on liberties, and the Gulags. The slow movement of that symphony, however, expressed it all. And the audience was weeping. They didn’t dare say why, but they understood perfectly what the music was saying—something which in those circumstances could never have been said in any other way. I think music does that. And now wearing my educational hat, here again, I think for a lot of young people music gets to the core of their experience more than anything else. I think particularly of children I’ve worked with who’ve had difficulties with number and difficulty with reading and they’ve taken to music. I remember when I was teaching all those years ago in Cirencester, in 1959 through to 1963, and some of those children not only took to music, they could even compose music very ably, although they were considered not bright because perhaps they were a bit dyslexic, which nobody seemed to understand then. But they couldn’t add up, they had very bad marks in most subjects, and they were people who caused behavioural difficulties, disrupting the class. They wouldn’t shut up or they were disrespectful or whatever. And I found that for those people—well for anybody, really, but very much for those people—music was very, very important. It was something they could do well. They enjoyed it, and they got respect—from me, obviously, but also from their peers. So I think education in music is very, very important, in that it takes people into places that no other subject, no other experience, possibly can.’

And on those grounds alone, its future at the centre of our lives would seem to be assured.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Peter Maxwell Davies Biography & Discography

More works composed by Peter Maxwell Davies


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