Sir Peter and St George

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Pic by Alan Franks

This sculpture-like object at Maxwell Davies’s Orkney home was made by his then partner Colin. Its function was to portray in visual form the natures of the different characters of the sections in one of the composer’s pieces. Pic by Alan Franks

What a dreadful year for musical loss.

Still not three months old and some serious bereavements, whether you love or loathe the legacies, or lives, of David Bowie, George Martin, Keith Emerson and now Peter Maxwell Davies.

The last of these, although the only one to have nothing to do with pop music, was arguably the most controversial.

I never met Emerson, but of the other three, single-minded men all, I would say he was the least compromising, the least likely to factor the question of reception into his approach to composition.

As he heard, and wrote, so he lived, opting for one of the most extreme isolations feasible in this country by living on a spit of land on the tiny Orkney island of Sanday. Two ferries from the far north Scottish port of Scrabster; one to Stromness, another from Kirkwall to Spur Ness and the quay next to Kettletoft, and the little hotel bar where “Max” was sometimes to be found.

I can remember being anxious about meeting him. That’s bound to happen whenever you come face to face with the famous bearer of a sharp reputation. I can also remember being disarmed not so much by courtesy – that wasn’t what he did – but rather by a certain camp hilarity. Kenneth Williams goes classical.

Not that he was exactly waspish, just plain direct, saying what he hated.

This included some fairly standard old-left targets like war and commercialisation, but also pop-and-rock. He banded them into a single word and spat them out like an expletive. One of his very few friends in that region of the musical world was Sir Elton John, who did of course share not only his sexuality but also, to a certain degree, his grounding in classical music. “He’s actually rather good,” he conceded.

In the meeting ground between politics and the arts, his situation then was rather dramatic. This was ten years ago and, as Master of the Queen’s Music, he was just about to travel south and conduct the premiere of his work, Commemoration Sixty at the Central Hall in Westminster.

Among the audience would be The Queen and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Six decades on from the end of the Second War it may have been, but there was another war, the one in Iraq, preoccupying the nation. Max was outspoken on the subject, saying that this was the first time in history that the British military had been hijacked on behalf of a foreign power.

A staunch republican, he did soften his views on the monarchy towards the end of his life; or more specifically his views on the Queen, with whom he had a private audience, and whose presence he regarded as a force for stable continuity. He remained an anachronism, almost as if this was a parallel vocation.

Not that he was the only pre-war working class boy (born in Salford in 1934) to gain a knighthood.

But as Master of the Queen’s Music he had become an even more rarified creature, occupying a post that was inaugurated nearly four hundred years ago by, of all monarchs, Charles I. Was this not clear evidence of him having been seduced, rather than press-ganged, into the Establishment? You could see it that way, he replied. But then he added: “I’m damned sure they knew I wouldn’t shut up.”
And he didn’t. And since his 300-odd compositions live on in all their wild divergences of style and tone, you could say he still hasn’t.

I was lucky on Sanday. I must have caught him on a good, sociable day, when the incessant demands of his music were giving him a little respite. He invited me back to the truly remote stone farmhouse which he shared with his partner Colin Parkinson, a Lancashire builder twenty years his junior. Colin had built the studio where Max would put in his long working days. He had also made models, like the one pictured here. They were sculptural representations of the movements of the symphony which the composer was currently working on.

Maxwell Davies – or Mavis to the irreverent – heard music in the waves and the weather. He really did, and he always had, declaring that his mission was in part a transcriptive one, embodying the elemental forces around him into his compositions. Like the weather and the water on his long, listening walks, these pieces were often full of turbulent dissonance. To the unconvinced, the experience of listening to them could be like getting caught in a clifftop squall without adequate protection. At the same time there was lucid evidence of space and reflection in works like From Stone to Thorn, the first of many compositions in response to the writing of the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.

He had always taken his own path, as had his peers in the so-called Manchester School of the 1950s, his fellow composers Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, the trumpeter and conductor Elgar Howarth and the pianist John Ogden. Their passion was for music far removed from the conventional curriculum, their influences Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen.

He said of Orkney that to live there was like being in a cathedral, “with music standing out there in three dimensions.” He would become sharply aware of the similarities between the ratios in natural matter, such as shells, and in music. Nature thinks not in numbers but in forms, he maintained. Schubert may not have been thinking in numbers when he wrote his late piano works, but you could go through them and find that they worked, mathematically, down to the last detail.

He could remember being a small boy, going up the Cumbrian mountain of Helvellyn with his parents, the mist coming down and “the music forming up in the distance.”

Whatever sounds were demanding his attention, the life seemed Arcadian as well as Orcadian. It was not always so. He got into trouble for cooking and eating a swan that had died after a collision with the telegraph wires. He and Colin were denied a civil ceremony on Sanday as registrars on the outlying islands were not allowed to conduct same-sex partnership ceremonies. His manager’s husband embezzled £500,000 of his earnings and was jailed for the offence. Three years ago Max and Colin parted, and this was surely the hardest rift in a life filled with fallings-out.

On the day I met them, that looked an unlikely outcome. Theirs seemed to be a blissful domesticity. Colin accompanied him all over the world, and made some teasing remarks about the condition of his shirt after a hard evening’s conducting in Australia. “I tell you, it was wringing wet.” There was Max’s workspace and piles of manuscript paper in the area between the two instruments on which he worked, the piano and the clavichord. He never drove, fearing that he was bound to hit someone. He had never had a TV before he was with Colin. He wouldn’t have the news on it, partly because it was intrusive but more importantly because it had a signature tune in E major and therefore debased masterpieces such as Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

Later that day we took the boat over to Kirkwall where Sir Peter had a new work being performed at the cathedral. He and George Mackay Brown had been one of the founders of the St. Magnus Festival, back in 1977. Year upon year it attracted such internally renowned musicians as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andre Previn and Julian Bream. During the brief crossing, Colin urged him to tell the story of what happened when the young Max had his opera Taverner premiered at Covent Garden. His father, a foreman in an optical instruments factory was there and, spotting Lord Harewood, the Queen’s cousin and director of the Royal Opera House, bearded him to talk about his only son’s future. “Now look ‘ere, Mr. ‘Airwood, this stooff what our Max writes, d’yer think it’ll go?”

Looking back at that day, I think of a man who somehow thrived in the difficulty of his own contradictions. Yes, he had this grand and archaic title, but most of his output would not be music to the royal ear. Yes, he was a republican, but no, he would not wilfully offend his patron. Yes, he would write a seriously occasional piece such as Commemoration Sixty, but no, he would not forswear peace marches. A kind of subversion was his way through the, well, minefield of British hierarchy and sensibility. Hence the twenty-minute composition had not one but three national anthems, but they were mutually discordant. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was joined by a military band, but subsequently by a children’s choir singing a thirteenth century Latin poem in celebration of spring’s return. It seemed and sounded to some as though martial music had been cleverly conscripted for pacifist ends.

There were precedents for such an approach, and one of them was right here in Orkney. Nearly thirty years earlier he had been savaged by the local press for his Cinderella, which had the Ugly Sisters getting their just desserts by marrying members of the Armed Forces. For musicians, concerns of timing can outweigh those of tact. It was the time of the Falklands War.

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Sir George Martin was of course a different and rather more biddable creature. It was a life in which not a note seemed to have been played out of place. Maxwell Davies might have thought that in having had thirty number one singles in the UK, the so-called Fifth Beatle had traded no fewer than thirty times with the devil. Yet his social pedigree was similarly humble and his musical one similarly exalted – Guildhall School of Music and drama, followed by BBC’s classical music department, followed by EMI.

I only had a brief conversation with him when I was writing something about a Beatles anniversary event. He said that the Fab Four had educated him quite as much as vice versa. He also said that Paul McCartney’s great flare was for slogans and jingles. If that sounds disparaging, it might have been so if it were coming from Max’s mouth. But from Martin it was the very opposite . Much of the best popular music consisted of just that, he said – slogans and jingles – and to do both brilliantly was a skill worthy of great praise. None, he said, did it better than Paul McCartney.