thu 25/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Britain's greatest living composer defends his controversial career

There is no more extraordinary musical journey than that of Britain's leading living composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (b.1934). In the 1960s, he was Britain's Stravinsky, at the heart and head of the modernist musical rebellion, provoking audience walkouts, outraging the musical powers that be and occasionally even hitting the news headlines. Today, as a Knight of the realm and a Master of the Queen’s Music, he finds himself in the very bosom of the British establishment.

In his 75th anniversary year, on the eve of a celebration of his career at the South Bank, where a complete cycle of his Naxos string quartets will be performed next weekend, Davies talks about his music and his politics, his admiration for the Queen, his hatred of the Roman Catholic Church and his love of Gilbert and Sullivan.

It is late August 2009, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has just stepped off the plane from Leipzig, where, the night before, he conducted the premiere of his Second Violin Concerto with Daniel Hope and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

IGOR TORONYI-LALIC: How did the concert go?

SIR PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: It was great. It really was. The whole audience jumped to their feet. I was conducting Fingal’s Cave, my new Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony and my Orkney Wedding to finish. It felt a bit strange going to the Leipzig Gewandhaus to do Mendelssohn. They’re celebrating his 200th anniversary, of course. I thought you might as well do it and try it. And it went fine. The orchestra loved it.

Have you conducted much Mendelssohn?

When I was composer-in-residence with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I conducted so much. I conducted most of the repertory. I certainly had done the Scottish Symphony before, Fingal’s Cave quite a lot, and also a hell of a lot of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky. You name it. As composer-in-residency at the Proms, I was doing the Max Bruch Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little, up to about 20 years ago. I’m sure it’s very good for you.

Do you enjoy conducting this repertoire?

Of course. I really do. Or I did. I’m doing very little conducting now. I’m going to be 75 in a few days and you don’t know how long you have left. So I prefer to spend it writing music. Anyway, the 10th time you conduct a Beethoven symphony is going to be rather like the ninth time. You don’t learn all that much.

What’s your interpretative gloss on Mendelssohn?

Absolutely none. Except I try to get it absolutely right according to the composer’s wishes. With the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, however, you start out from a point of perfection with regard to Mendelssohn’s music, which after 10 rehearsals most other orchestras in that repertory would never be able to achieve. He was after all the conductor of that orchestra for quite a long time. It was a wonderful opportunity. They jumped on suggestions and they themselves made many suggestions. It was a very nice dialogue. Fortunately, I do speak German.

This is your Second Violin Concerto. You wrote your first for Isaac Stern, right?

I did. A long time ago. He did OK. He was naughty in some respects. He couldn’t be bothered with bits where he wasn’t playing and suggested certain bits should be cut out, which I didn’t do. And there is one section towards the end of the concerto where he is playing at quite awkward times and the orchestra is playing in four-four; Andre Previn was conducting. Old Isaac Stern insisted that this be re-barred so that the conductor was beating his part. Of course the orchestra just couldn’t play it, so on the recording we turned the orchestra down so you could hardly hear them because it was just inaccurate. That’s the kind of thing that I suppose you have to put up with when you’re relatively young and inexperienced and working with a great virtuoso like Stern who has been established over many years.

How old were you when you wrote this concerto?

That was 23 years ago.

I guess it was the same thing that Tchaikovsky had to go through?

Exactly. A lot of composers have been through that one. Anyway, I didn’t change it for Isaac in the published score. Now others play the piece and have no problem with it.

Could you describe the sound world of this piece?

Yes. Its subtitle is Fiddler on the Shore. The idea came from a discussion I had walking along the shore with one of the traditional Orkney fiddle players on Sanday about what I should write next for the Sanday Fiddle Club. There are about 500 people on the island and 100 of them must play folk fiddle, so it is a very big folk club. I have written things for them. A lot of them can read music.

This fellow said, “How about a tune something like this?” And he started playing lots of the repertoire to me. This mixed up with the different sounds of the sea. Whether that was the sound of the rocks, the sandy bits or shingle, it is always changing. It’s a kind of dialogue between the traditional Orkney music and the natural sounds of the sea, but behind it too was the fact that the house is very close to the shore. It is three metres up. Sanday is an island that, with climate change, is very threatened. So that house won’t survive. But I hope it will survive my lifetime and certainly [my partner] Colin’s lifetime. That sort of folk music is doing well in Orkney and Shetland but in the main cities in Scotland obviously commercial music with young people is very much a threat to its survival. So there are two threats to this music. I wanted to make a jolly ending. But I just couldn’t.

And you’ve woven folk melodies into the fabric of the piece?

No, there are no folk melodies in it at all. But I have written some tunes that have a relationship to the Orkney folk tunes.

And do  you use the old technique of the magic square [a complex mathematical scrambler that Davies has used to generate motifs among other things since his early days] to transpose these?

I used them but I don’t think anybody would notice them unless I pointed them out. Despite this, the tunes sound very traditional. That is perfectly possible.

Even when transposed?

Yes. You can make them do what you want.

Is the work’s structure complex?

It is just about the most complex structure I have ever made. The reason I have tried to do that is because in Orkney the weather changes. If you don’t like the weather, wait two minuets and it will change. The sea changes, too, all the time. It’s always different when walking by it. So, I made a form that transforms itself the whole time. Also the speed is always changing. I don’t know of another piece with so many ritardandos and accelerandos.

I was going through the score of your First Symphony and found your tempi changes mindboggling. How do you marshal these tempi changes? Are they arranged using another magic square?

That has something to do with it. But it is also very physical. In the new concerto there is one section where in bars of regular beats - four or five regular crotchets - one of them will be dotted, so that there is one beat in each bar - be it a five or a four - which is a dotted crotchet. That goes through the bars to the beginning and back again. It makes a nice bit of symmetry because you feel that little jolt going through the bars and it changes the bars. Daniel [Hope, the violinist who premiered the work] enjoys this. I enjoyed it too and I haven’t seen that rhythm before.

For the lay listener, these jolts come along too often for them to notice anything but one big jolt. Especially in the early works. Do you think that’s fair?

I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. That’s certainly a part of the works. But you can say the same of a lot of pieces, certainly for some Stravinsky. You stop counting the beats, certainly, but I hope that they will enjoy it even so.

Do you always hope that people will enjoy your music?

Of course, yes.

So when there was such uproar when you started out did that depress you?

It was very upsetting, that year 1969, when people shouted rubbish at the first performance of the Eight Songs for a Mad King. Some of them cheered, some of them howled abuse. And then there was Worldes Bliss at the Proms. A great number of the audience walked out. And it made the BBC News that there was a scandal at the Albert Hall. The orchestra didn’t like it either; they, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, made that perfectly clear. That kind of thing is very upsetting; there’s no way round it. But for a lot of composers it has always been a rite of passage. Certainly people like Schoenberg and Stravinsky went through it.

Some of your works in that period are devilishly complex, especially those that use the device of the magic square. Do you think any were too arcane?

No, not at all. I’m very encouraged because, though I’m not doing it so much now, in recent years I had been going round doing those works, Worldes Bliss and the Second Taverner Fantasia, and the orchestras were having no difficulty doing them. I was very surprised. I did a tour in Germany and Switzerland with the Basel Orchestra with the Second Taverner Fantasia and they liked it tremendously. Whereas that was so controversial when I first wrote it.

And did the audience like it too?

Yes, the audience liked it and the orchestra liked it; they had no difficulty.

There are at least two strands to your early work, two main themes. There are the highly expressionistic theatrical works, like the Eight Songs for a Mad King, and the very rigorous, complex ones which relied on strict musical arguments. They are very divergent strands and yet you seemed to flit between them?

Yes, well, look at the past. Mozart towards the end of his very short life wrote those very, very straightforward and very lovely German dances, while he was writing his last three symphonies, simply because he loved dancing. People say he should have done more serious work and not done all that.  But I think it helped him to get through his life.

I’ve done quite a lot of light pieces, usually when I’ve finished a big one. I finish a symphony and I do something like the Orkney Wedding or Mavis in Las Vegas or that little cycle, The Yellow Cake Review, which has Farewell to Stromness in it. I find it is very good for you. I hear them as part of the same world. Perhaps as I get older this will become more obvious to other people. They might get used to the contrasts and realise that they can coexist within the same world.

I think of Beethoven and his late quartets and then think of someone playing on a very splendid marimba off the main street, which is a pedestrian precinct in Leipzig, Beethoven’s Für Elise. They’re the same composer, but perhaps you wouldn’t know it unless it was pointed out.

You have been hard on popular idioms in the past. But you seem to be turning to them yourself. Do you think that’s a contradiction?

No. When I have used something, I’ve used it for a very specific purpose. In the opera The Resurrection, for example, it illustrates TV commercials. In St Thomas Wake those Charlestons and foxtrots are very much to do with my wartime experience where I used to sit under the staircase in the pantry during the bombing playing my parents' collection of dance music from 1920s and early 1930s on a wind-up gramophone. It was associated with the bombs that were falling. It has a very special flavour. Perhaps in a piece like St Thomas Wake and Eight Songs for a Mad King something dangerous comes through.

Would you ever bridge the divide and consider becoming a pop composer like your medieval heroes, Guillaume de Machaut, who wrote high-art music in the form of masses and troubadour songs, essentially medieval pop?

I’ve never really thought about it. And I don’t see any reason why not if the idea was genuine. At the moment, however, I don’t see the point because I don’t think I would do it very well.

What about Farewell to Stromness?

Yes, that’s become very popular. I enjoyed that.

And can you see a difference between this work and your more complex ones?

Oh yes, just as I can see and hear the difference between Für Elise and the last quartets.

But do you think that they are both equal in merit?

I would be very hard put to give them brownie points. I think that particularly when our whole civilisation is threatened – opera, orchestras, whatever might well not survive at all - it might be a saving grace that there are a few very simple tunes by which I am remembered. And if that is all I am going to be remembered by, I would be very happy.

By which you mean Farewell to Stromness?

Yes, a couple of things like that. Not that the other things aren’t worth remembering. It’s not for me to say anyway, but those other big pieces - the symphonies or whatever - they bear witness to my experience to the times they were written in and they do so as honestly as possible within terms of the orchestra or whatever it is I have written for. But if orchestra [as a medium] doesn’t exist any more and the possibility of playing doesn’t exist any more then  - if you’re going to be remembered by anything – you’re going to be remembered by a few tunes.

I read somewhere that you were contemplating writing a work based on the MPs expenses scandal. That’s surely something that you might be remember for?

[Laughter] That’s just a big wind-up.

I see. But it’s not implausible.

No, it’s not; that’s why it was such a good wind-up.

Let’s go back to the beginning of your life. You say somewhere that Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers was one of your earliest musical memories and formative influences?

That’s right.

How old were you when you heard it?

I was, I think, five. I was taken along to this amateur performance in Salford. And I’ve never forgotten it. I’d never seen or heard anything like it. I thought that world on stage, with the scenery and the gondolas (I didn’t know that there wasn’t water up there on stage because I was sitting in the audience and you just saw prows and ships and people getting in and out), was total and absolute magic. What’s more there was an orchestra. And I’d never heard an orchestra before. It was called the PSA Orchestra conducted by a Mr Lane, I remember that. PSA stood for Pleasant Sunday Afternoons. [Laughter]

What was your musical journey as a child, in terms of learning instruments etc?

I got my grandmother's piano when I was eight and I was sent to piano lessons, which I loved. But at about 10 it was considered that I should go to a teacher who put you into exams. So I was sent to another teacher. I wanted to do O-level music - School Certificate, it was called then - at the school, Leeds Grammar School, but the headmaster said, “This is not a girls’ school. Certainly not.” And so when it came to the A-level, I just didn’t tell him and went in for it and got myself a Lancashire County music scholarship.

I read somewhere that you got the scholarship by memorising the Beethoven symphonies on the piano?

Well, it said on the syllabus that these were the set works and you would be expected to quote from them. So I learned by heart the Beethoven Violin Concerto from the full score, so I could play it on the piano, and the Façade Suite No 2 and other things.

Did you learn the Beethoven symphonies in the Liszt transcriptions?

No, just from the score.

So you must have been a formidable pianist?

I was a decent pianist, yes. I could sight-read and all that. I remember going in for this exam, an interview with this lady, and she said, “Can you play me an extract from the Beethoven Violin Concerto?” And I said, “Yes, which bit do you want?” Nobody had told me – because I did all this without any teachers or guidance - that they would be quite happy if you could more or less play a tune with one finger, and I’d learnt to play the whole lot. She said, “What else can you play of Beethoven?” “I think I can remember most of the symphonies,” I said, “And some of the sonatas, but I’m only just beginning on the quartets.” And I got a scholarship.

To Manchester University?


You encountered some difficulty with the composition professor there?

Oh yes, we had a wonderful professor of composition called Humphrey Procter-Gregg, a pupil of Charles Villiers Stanford - he was one of his gods, another one was Delius, another was Donizetti. He referred to Bach as “trundling music, me boy, trundling stuff!” And Beethoven as “that horrid German bow-wow!” He was a lost cause. And I wasn’t at all sorry when he threw me out of the composition class. For my honours degree I had to do a piano recital and write a thesis instead of doing a folio of compositions, because he expected all his pupils to turn into a pocket Delius or a pocket Stamford.

What was your musical progression? How did you get into Second Viennese School?

From when I started to do my homework, from 1946 on, I listened to the Third Programme. It didn’t do all that much [modernism] but I remember hearing for the first time in my life the Bartók String Quartet and the Concerto for Orchestra and some Stravinsky and so on. I remember being absolutely fascinated. In Manchester there was the Henry Watson Music Library. I could borrow seven scores or books a week. And every Saturday I went to Manchester and borrowed seven scores or books from when I was 14 on, or possibly 13. So I amassed a vast amount of knowledge. And because I had to return the scores, the only thing was to learn them.

How did you get into composing using these such dry arithmetical conceits, especially as you have in the past admitted to not being that into maths?

No, I’m not, but then I did read Erwin Ratz’s analyses of Bach in relationship to Beethoven, his Einfuehrung in die musikalische Formenlehre. That was a 21st birthday present; I asked my Auntie Alice to get it for me and she ordered it up, which was wonderful. I remember reading Berg’s analysis of the early Schoenberg chamber symphonies - you had to read German to get access to these. And I remember being absolutely fascinated by Messiaen’s La technique de mon langage musical. I had a lovely 1944 first edition but somebody stole it.

Was there a rebellious fascination in this stuff?

Yes, because it was quite rebellious. When I was at college, anything like that was frowned upon. Sandy [Alexander] Goehr was the real leader of that little group. And through his father Walter Goehr he had access to a marvellous library of scores, things by Schoenberg and Berg, before they even had them in the library. That was marvellous. He even had some recordings that we could listen to, which was very exciting.

You did dabble with many different styles early on?

Oh yes, all sorts of things. I was very curious.

But you honed in on the Boulezian serialist method.

In 1955 or 1956 there was a book called La musique russe, two volumes published I think by Gallimard. In it was an analysis by Boulez of Le Sacre du printemps, a very pernickety one. In 1956 I remember going to Paris, where Alexander Goehr was studying with Messiaen, and sitting in on a few classes. It was about getting to know ways of thinking about music: Boulez’s way, Messiaen’s way and meeting and going to lectures at the Darmstadt summer school of Gigi [Luigi] None, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur and so on.

It was a very useful way of thinking about music. What Elizabeth Lutyens used to call the “cowpat” British school of music, which she so hated, was a question of just wait for inspiration and it will do. I realised that if you are going to have a technique like Mozart or Haydn or Bach, not to mention Schoenberg, there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. A composer has to practise as much as anybody who plays in an orchestra.  So I spent 10 hours a day on technique.

What do you mean by technique?

Learning how to work on counterpoint, how to work harmony, how to understand forms, how to know the difference between variations, transformations and development, and how to make examples of these styles.

And were these examples based on tonal or traditional melodies?

They were based on traditional things but I was applying them to a language that I thought I could use, which was beginning to derive from plainsong and from medieval music and from serialism and from various other sources, all mixing together. It was a big melting pot. I thought I’d better get on making this work, making some kind of amalgam out of it, otherwise you’re going to be pulled this way and that. So it was a few years' hard work. In fact all of the years have been hard work. I realised at that stage that I had to forge a technique - if I were going to be fortunate enough to live for a good number of years - that would last a lifetime and be capable of developing and changing as one got older.

But a good technique is different for your generation than it was for previous generations? By which I mean what is a good harmonic progression to Mendelssohn’s ears is not necessarily a good harmonic progression to your ears?

I don’t know. The more that I have been thinking and working with people like Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky the more you realise that they worked very, very hard. Mendelssohn in particular. Doing the Third Symphony and the Hebrides Overture with that very critical Leipzig audience and an orchestra that is second to none on that stuff, you realise just what a well-honed composer he was. His own letters and writings to his various friends explain his attitude. He talks about work and that everything has to be professionally honed. There’s a very nice letter - actually rather abusive in a way - that he wrote to [the composer Ferdinand] Hiller that says, “You just don’t present it well enough, you’ve got to do better.” That’s what we all feel if we are really deeply down serious about it. It is in fact no different. They had their problems and they had to work very hard. Mendelssohn’s style is as individual and well honed as anybody’s. I know you can sometimes argue with what he said and what he was about, but technically he is extraordinary. Another who interests me in that particular respect is Liszt, who must be the model for how to write ideas down on the page. They’re beautifully presented, so clear; his notation is absolutely crystal-clear.

What do you mean by notation?

The way that he really gets it done. The lines are clear; the voicing is clear; the note leading is clear. He has notes in those piano pieces cascading all over the place yet even in the fantasia it is absolutely clear, and that is quite an achievement because what he was doing must have felt a very complex thing.

Was it a coincidence that you started to get interested in medieval music just at a time that a lot of it was being uncovered, played and recorded for the first time as part of what we now call the “period movement”?

I don’t know whether it was coincidence or not but I was very pleased about it. That one could get to hear some of it that was wonderful.

But even so, how easy was it to get hold of this stuff? It’s difficult enough trying to get hold of a Guillaume de Machaut CD today.

There were recordings of Machaut. I remember hearing them. I can’t remember much about them, except that I felt that they were all wrong.


They were huge inflated performances, very slow, very ponderous. I’m quite sure that it must have gone quite fast. Those are real rhythms in there.

I guess they were projecting their own idea of the medieval age.

I’m sure. In fact it’s quite fascinating how interpretations on, say, Monteverdi have changed in my lifetime. Slightly before I was musically mature, there are recordings of Bach by [conductor Willem] Mengelberg with 200 performers. It’s just extraordinary. You’d be laughed out of court these days. Of course they do have a period interest.

So you were reading the scores and discovering what? What so struck you about these works?

I think it was in 1946 that I bought that Musica Britannica volume on Dunstable. It was an absolute revelation. The medieval choral volume must have come out at the same time and the one on the complete works of John Bull. They didn’t cost much, around 32 shillings and sixpence, which I had to save for.

What was it about the music that so fascinated?

I absolutely loved its clarity. It was an absolutely straight in-your-face character. And also it was music which was for use. Very practical use. And today you feel sometimes that what you do is not for practical use. I hope that a lot of what I have done is, but it is a worry.

Some of that late medieval movements, the ars nova and the ars subtilior, are very deliberately arcane. Did that appeal?

Yes, I liked that quality too. “Oh yeah,” I thought,  “I recognise that; it’s like Darmstadt!”

Was it a necessity to go back to a period before the Baroque to find something new to play with?

No, I think I was just very fascinated by it. I used to go to two churches in Manchester. One was the Cathedral where Allan Wicks was in charge before he went to Canterbury. He used to do all sorts of strange things with the Manchester Choir, things like King John IV of Portugal and Dunstable, which nobody else was doing, as well as the obvious things by Byrd and Palestrina, which I also loved. The Church of the Holy Name, a Roman Catholic church, did some good stuff too, in a very different, rather gutsy Continental way. Then when I began to visit people in London, I would go to the Brompton Oratory or Westminster Cathedral because I loved the sound that they made. And when I was a student in Rome I used to go up to the Aventine and follow the plain sing that the Benedictine monks of Sant’Anselmo used to do.

Did you enjoy the irony of using music that was very formal and that had been created for an institution, the Roman Catholic Church, that was very strictly hierarchical, in order to shatter musical preconceptions?

I hope I wasn’t shattering anything. I hope I was building things up. But certain things I suppose I did go for, particularly certain aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, which I still don’t like obviously.

But you seem to have a hot-cold relationship with the Roman Catholic Church?

It is a relationship that is hot in so far so as I think that it has produced wonderful art and architecture. It is cold in that I think it is very exclusive. Excluding women from the priesthood, excluding half of humanity, they should be had by law! It is discrimination of a very stupid sort and I just don’t understand it. In the early 1950s in the time of Pope Pius XII you were required to believe in the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. It wasn’t just recommended that you should be interested in it and that you should give it some kind of approval, you were required to believe it. On one level I thought this was absolutely ridiculous but on another level I thought that it was possibly moving towards not just a Holy Trinity, which is basically a male club, but towards a Holy Quaternary, where the Virgin Mary is at least going to be a part of this pantheon. I thought that this was perhaps the first move towards recognising woman. No. No. A lot of people who are practising Catholics ware very disappointed with many aspects of the last two popes in particular.

Those who are of that opinion usually also take it out on another rather outmoded institution: the monarchy. Yet you have become the Master of the Queen’s Music. Do you not see a slight contradiction in that?

I see a huge contradiction. But I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, of course the monarchy is a very old institution and it is desperately trying to adapt. I hope it does not try to adapt too much because a lot of people rather like it the way it is. This was a chance to raise the profile of serious music of all kinds. I thought about it a lot, discussed it with a few people before I said yes and actually went to see Her Majesty. She was very sympathetic. She more or less said, “Philip and I would like to be advised and taught and we will follow.” And I thought that was very reasonable.

Taught about what?

About music. The first thing I did was to establish The Queen’s Medal for Music. She was a great sport when she not only came to her 80th birthday concert at the Proms, which I thought she should, maybe, as it was all being fixed up. And she actually came on stage to present that medal to Bryn Terfel. That was very sporting of her. And even Philip came up onto the stage in front of all the TV cameras and everything.

She also came to the Royal Academy of Music. I pointed out to her that she hadn’t been there ever and she said, “Yes, I have. I was there when I was little girl; my father took me to a concert.” They looked at the archives and yes, indeed, she had actually been there when she was a little girl. But she came along and she met the students and staff, and everybody had a nice day and there was a concert for her and she presented a medal to [the composer] Judith Weir. That kind of thing does help. She has been absolutely sportsmanlike. And she is in most things. Of course, her great passions are things like horses. But she will do her duty and I must say that she has been absolutely brilliant.

But, to be blunt, she is famous for being very ignorant about music and for never bothering to turn up to concerts.

She is beginning to. There have been things in Buckingham Palace.

How often do you talk to her?

Oh, not very often, once or twice a year.

Is it The Queen’s Medal that you discuss or is it new works or…?

Things that one might do, yes.  After all she has a jubilee coming up in 2012. It takes time abut certain things are being done.

What’s being done for 2012?

I’m not telling you yet because it has all got to be made concrete.

How many works have you written for her?

I’ve written a few carols for Christmas, I think four or five, I can’t remember now. I did the one-off piece to mark the end of World War Two, which was very strange because I used a vast array of players and singers which you can’t get very often, perhaps once in a lifetime, but I thought, “Do it once.” I did two birthday pieces. And I suppose I count that piece that I did on Harry Patch, The Five Acts of Harry Patch, based on Andrew Motion’s poem. Of course, it’s an anti-war piece for a start. Andrew Motion very carefully pointed out the futility of war and I think both he and Patch wanted to underline that aspect of Patch’s life: the utter folly of things like the trenches in the First World War.

You marched against the Iraq War.

Oh yes, you bet, I was right at the front of the march holding a banner but I was brushed out of the photographs.



Brushed out by whom?

I have no idea! But I was in no press photographs despite being right at the front with a banner. It was funny. I remember a lady came up to me from Radio France and she did an interview with me thinking that I was just another member of the public. I told her who I was and she was quite intrigued, and I think my furious reaction was broadcast to the French but not the British.

Is it not awkward and embarrassing for you to be associated with a figure like Prince Charles, who, especially in the architectural field, seems to hate the sort of uncompromising modernism that you stand for?

No, I’m quite happy to discuss it with him.

On the architectural debate, what line of the argument do you fall on?

I am on both sides because I hate that Brutalist architecture that he hates. It has no humanity whatsoever. It demeans people’s lives terribly. If you force people to live in dreadful boxes piled up on top of each other they behave likes rats in a maze. Whereas if you give them decent houses, and those estates could be decent, very easily… In fact, you wonder how much it is government policy to inflict people with this kind of bad architecture to keep them in their place. That might sound terribly, 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, treating them with contempt, putting them into dreadful housing and spending their money on killing Arabs in foreign countries.

I find your position on Brutalism architecture strange. For many, the Brutalism architecture of the 1950s is a close companion to the modernism of your early works. Do you not see a correlation between the two?

Oh yes. But I do hope that the music that I wrote is not the equivalent of those horrible buildings that just make people’s lives a misery. At least music you can turn off, whereas those things you have to live with!

You moved to the Orkneys in 1970?

Yes, that was after 1969, which was a strange year, in many ways a depressing year, because of the bad reactions to my work. I had worked so hard.

Did you not also fall out with Birtwistle and a few other contemporaries at around the same time?

Not then, that was later. And it was rather a certain standoffishness rather than a falling out. But I’m not going to go into that.

Did the Orkneys become a home very quickly?

Yes. I think it was very constructive to go to a place where there was silence. Before then I was living in Dorset and I had a small place in London and it was all very noisy. Dorset has military aircraft, and anywhere you go in that part of Britain you can hear a motorway, and I hate that.

So I went to the Orkneys for a holiday as a tourist, to see the Cathedral, the stone circles and the prehistoric monuments. I met some very nice people including George Mackay Brown, and was very attracted to the place. I was offered a house to borrow in the winter. It belonged to the doctor in Stromness; it was a summer holiday home for him. Despite having no electricity, no running water or anything like that I thought it was absolutely wonderful, right by the sea, in this beautiful place. The house was on top of a cliff. Before it was finished in 1973 it had no roof, no door, no windows, but there I lived for 28 years.

I was reading your introduction to the Strathclyde Concertos that you wrote while in the Orkneys. Haydn and his hermetic life seems to have been an attractive model. Is there a monk within you?

I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. There are certain things about the contemplative life that I’m sure I would have been attracted to in earlier centuries but I do like working with people. Even in the Orkneys I established the St Magnus Festival that meant working with locals and incoming orchestras and God knows who. It was no ivory tower. Living in Orkney people often said that that’s an ivory tower I had retired to. I didn’t retire at all; I wrote my music there and I was coming out all the time, working with the Fires of London [an ensemble that Davies set up in the 1960s to perform contemporary music], touring the Americas, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Europe with them. I spent a lot of time working with people, so it was no ivory tower.

With your move to the Orkneys came a softening of your stance on popular idioms?

I don’t think I ever had a “stance” on it.

Let me quote to you something you said in an interview early on in your career: “All popular music is exploitation for commercial purposes.”

Yes, most of it is. I was being a bit general there. There are some good pieces by some people. I don’t know whether you include people like Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin in that. They’re very, very good composers. And I suppose one can extend that; Bob Dylan is, Paul McCartney is, Lennon was. They wrote some stuff that will never be forgotten. But that’s almost folk, isn’t it? It transcends just being there purely for commercial purposes. And a lot of this stuff is there purely for commercial purposes.

Do you think about legacy or how you will be seen by succeeding generations?

No, I don’t. I think I’d be very lucky if a couple of tunes survive. I’ve written as well as I can but I don’t expect people to be terribly interested. Why should they be? There are lots of composers out there.

Are you then happy at how your musical language has evolved, or would you have done things differently?

I don’t think I could have done anything differently. 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.

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