HE HAS republican leanings and has been a vocal critic of the Iraq war. He loves taking snipes at the establishment and national institutions. But the outspoken composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who lives with his gay lover in the Orkney islands, is to be given one of the most prestigious posts in the Royal Household.
Maxwell Davies, who describes himself as an "adopted Scotsman", is to become the surprise choice as Master of the Queen’s Music, in a move likely to send shockwaves through royal, political and musical circles.
Maxwell Davies describes himself as an old-fashioned socialist who passionately opposed the war on Iraq, and has previously been labelled "a scourge of the establishment". He has criticised institutions including the Royal Opera House, loathes Tony Blair and has never made any secret of his homosexuality.
But, while his music is an acquired taste, Maxwell Davies, 69, is also regarded as Britain’s greatest living composer and is thus believed to have been earmarked by Buckingham Palace for a vacant position described as the "musical equivalent of the Poet Laureate".
Scottish composer James MacMillan, said: "He’s a very good choice, particularly as he’s a man of enormous stature with a worldwide reputation."
The post has been vacant since last year, following the death of Malcolm Williamson, whose time in the job was seen to have been a disappointment. But now palace officials have ‘reinvented’ the post, and intend to transform it from court composer to a high-profile ambassador for classical music.
The template for Maxwell Davies’s tenure will be Andrew Motion, who has worked furiously to use his position as Poet Laureate to raise the profile of poetry throughout the country. The promise of using the position to lure more people into an appreciation of classical music is believed to have been a key factor in persuading the composer - known as ‘Max’ - to consider the position.
"Max has always been totally committed to music for young people and I’m sure he’ll use the post to reassert the extraordinary importance of music-making in people’s lives, especially for children," said Nicholas Kenyon, director of the BBC proms.
But the appointment would court controversy, as Maxwell Davies has proved unafraid to speak his mind. He reportedly made it clear this weekend that he would not have accepted if the post had been offered by the government, with which he disagrees vehemently over the war in Iraq.
"It was the worst foreign policy decision since the Crusades," said the composer, who attended the huge anti-war march in London on the eve of the conflict. "I voted for Blair twice, but never again. He has betrayed the principles of the Labour party, not just on Iraq but on tuition fees and foundation hospitals.
"Yes, I am an old-fashioned socialist and I feel utterly let down."
But Maxwell Davies, who does not deny the claim in his biography that he is "at heart a republican", believes he can align his republicanism with working for the monarch.
"Yes, but I am also ambivalent. I look at other countries around the world, like America now, and see what can go wrong with a republic." Maxwell Davies said he accepted a knighthood from the Queen in 1987 because "it was an honour for music". He did, however, threaten to ditch the title and leave Britain in 1994 if the Arts Council went ahead with plans to merge London orchestras. The plan was dropped.
"I will compose some music for special occasions, but that’s not the primary function of this post," said Maxwell Davies, who has signed up for 10 years, rather than accepting the job for life it has been in the past.
Born to working-class parents in Salford, Greater Manchester, he is best known for works such as ‘An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise’, his opera The Lighthouse and several symphonies. He has also composed for the Ken Russell films The Boyfriend and The Devils.
He fell in love with the Orkney islands on a midsummer trip. He set up home in the remote village of Rackwick on the island of Hoy, overlooking the Pentland Firth, before relocating to the Isle of Sanday.
The environment is another of his concerns. He lives with his partner in the Orkneys, where they moved 30 years ago to escape London.