Peter Maxwell Davies

The British composer has been celebrating his 75th birthday with a production of his ambitious opera, Taverner. It's a work that had a far from auspicious start, as he explains

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How did you come to write this large-scale opera?

I was a postgraduate and started really serious work on it in 1962 when I was studying with the composer Roger Sessions at Princeton University. But I never thought it would be put on, and it was an unpractical work in that it had stage bands and a lot of people in the cast. Quite apart from being inexperienced, I made no compromise whatever about the difficulty with the instrumental music, or difficulty with the singing – it was just exactly as I wanted it to be done and heard in my head.

So how did it come to be staged by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1972?

Edward Downes, bless his heart, had the idea that Covent Garden might like to do this; he wasn’t the music director but he had a certain amount of clout. So I went to Sir Georg Solti’s house – he was then in charge of the Opera House – and played it as a piano duet in this very posh house somewhere in London. And he said no he didn’t like it – Covent Garden wouldn’t do it. But then the direction changed with Colin Davis, who thought it was a good idea. Ken Russell, with whom I was working with at the time on [the films] The Boyfriend and The Devils, said he would direct the production. But then he actually heard some of the music and said ‘No I won’t!’. It was a bit unfair because it was played on the piano, and a piano reduction of a big score like this doesn’t sound that wonderful, so you get a very jaundiced earful. Anyway Michael Geliot was brought in and he did it.

How successful was that production?

It was very well received; it had a very famous set by Ralph Koltai that was the prima donna of the whole thing. The audiences were good, but I don’t think the music made much of an impression. Ted Downes conducted, but there was a lot to fight with. First of all I didn’t have any clout – nobody took any notice of anything I had to say. So for instance the instruments playing the early music, David Munrow’s group, were off-stage and the sound that piped through into the Opera House was just dismal – it was a distant squeaking and you couldn’t hear it at all. The chorus was hopeless – they thought the music rubbish and they weren’t prepared to work at it. The orchestra were a little bit better but it didn’t really ‘sound’, and the result was a total flop from that point of view.

But now you have this recording.

I’m absolutely delighted that this wonderful recording with Oliver Knussen is out, and I’m absolutely delighted by the quality of the sound, the editing, the singing and the playing – it’s fabulous. It wasn’t a performance: it’s a studio recording that was all put together in 1996 for a broadcast bit by bit. But then lo and behold, for my 75th birthday, in Glasgow it [was done in November] by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a wonderful cast and a children’s choir; and the choir of the Glasgow University and the Royal Academy of Music and Drama are doing a far better job than ever the Royal Opera House chorus did all those years ago – they can actually sing the notes and do it without grumbling!

Interview by Daniel Jaffé

Peter Maxwell Davies's Taverner is reviewed in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine

Audio clip: Taverner: Act Two, Scene 3: The Chapel
Martyn Hill (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
NMC D157

Image: John Batten