THE Queen’s composer is to court controversy by using the symphony he has written for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations to make a political point about “disastrous” military interventions.
The work by Orkney-based Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is the musical centrepiece of what is being described as “a landmark event in the history of British music”.
But Maxwell Davies has turned a large part of the symphony dedicated to the Queen into a protest against the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a written accompaniment to the music, to be performed for first time next month, he said it would be “morally indefensible to give this work a triumphant tonal ending” to reflect the Queen’s 60 years on the throne.
Maxwell Davies, 77, said that he would not be “honest” as a composer if he did not reflect the horrors of the wars that have proved so controversial during the Queen’s long reign.
However, he added, the work does finish with “a full-throated imploration for peace, reconciliation and a true democracy, even in quite difficult circumstances”.
Maxwell Davies, the Master of the Queen’s Music despite his previous anti-monarchist views, completed his ninth symphony at his home on the island of Sanday. It will be premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, in Liverpool on 9 June. It will be performed at a sold-out concert which also features Benjamin Britten’s National Anthem and Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, and at this year’s televised BBC Proms on 23 August.
But Maxwell Davies, who marched in protest against the Iraq War in 2003 and has been an outspoken critic of the role of former Labour prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair for their part in the two conflicts, insists the piece will reflect the “ups and downs” of the Queen’s reign and will not be “sweet mood music”.
He said he had been horrified to witness the effects of the wars on civilian populations and so had deliberately made the military music sections of the symphony discordant to reflect the conflicts.
In the notes, Sir Peter said: “I was in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, and realised the potential of the musical equivalent of a central nave with side chapels, where the nave is of one consistent style, and the chapels have other styles, often of a clashing later period, yet still maintaining, because of symmetrical relationships, some kind of strained unity.
“The work is in one continuous, quite concise movement, divided into two parts. The first part starts with a slow introduction, which presents the basic thematic material of the whole symphony, and where the extra brass players, placed to one side of the orchestra, have fanfare flourishes, which I hope are appropriate in a work dedicated to the Queen.”
However, the brass players “interrupt ... with strident military-style marches (in my mind the equivalent of the church side chapels) with scant respect for its style.
“It presented an opportunity to bear witness, in purely musical terms, to what I can only consider, at the deepest and most heartfelt level, our disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
These were “comparable only to the folly of the medieval Crusades and the Crimean War. Having been bombed in the 1941 Blitz, and witnessed people on fire running up the street, and having seen bodies dug out of the rubble, I feel that such treatment should not be unleashed on any population without the most compelling reasons, nor on our own military forces.
“It must be at least a part of a composer’s task to bear witness, as honestly as possible.”
He adds that in the second half of the composition the brass sextet integrates more closely with the rest of the orchestra and its “interruptions... are ever more reconciliatory.
“While I feel it would be somehow morally indefensible to give this work a triumphant tonal ending, what happens is as positive as I could make it. All the diverse elements come together in a full-throated imploration for peace, reconciliation and a true democracy.”
The political message of the symphony is already dividing politicians. The SNP’s Westminster culture, media and sport spokesman, Pete Wishart said he was “surprised” at Sir Peter’s timing over his protest.
“Art is about politics and it is quite legitimate for artists to use their work to protest and comment,” Wishart said. “But the Diamond Jubilee is about bringing people together and celebrating what’s good about our country and our affection for the head of state.
“I think Sir Peter has perhaps gone too far and could have chosen a different time or work to make his point. The Diamond Jubilee is about what brings us together and not what divides us.”
But MSP Rob Gibson said the celebrations should not ignore the realities in which we live.
“Sir Peter has every right to reflect the world and events in his work,” he added. “Artists are sensitive to the world around them and their viewpoint should be respected in that context.”
Graham Smith, chief executive officer of the anti-monachist group Republic, agreed. “I don’t buy the idea that this is being disrespectful,” he said. “Why should he [Maxwell] not make a wider point? If he wants to make these comments it is up to him and how he does it.”
The appointment of Maxwell Davies, who is also composer “in residence” to the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, to the post of Master of the Queen’s Music in 2004 was itself controversial, as he was a republican. But he has previously revealed that the Queen, had “won him over” and he had “come to realise that there is a lot to be said for the monarchy. It represents continuity, tradition and stability.”
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