Talking to Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Conductor Christopher Austin at the Livorno Music Festival

L to R: Christopher Austin, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Vittorio Ceccanti, at the Livorno Music Festival L to R: Christopher Austin, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Vittorio Ceccanti, at the Livorno Music Festival For the third year running, leading British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has made the long and complicated journey from his home in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, to hold a master class in composition at the Livorno Music Festival (26th August-7th September 2013). Since the outset of the festival in 2011, Sir Peter has been bringing a mark of prestige to the event, and giving a small group of music students the opportunity to benefit from his valuable guidance.

Although it may seem unusual for such a high-calibre figure to choose a relatively small music festival at which to teach, Davies enjoys working on a local level and feels privileged to be able to do so. At his home in the Orkneys he has composed music for the local school, and involved local folk musicians in his work. He also founded the annual St Magnus International Festival that takes place in Orkney.

Christopher Austin, conductor and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, master class teacher Livorno Music Festival 2013 Christopher Austin, conductor and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, master class teacher Livorno Music Festival 2013 This year in Livorno he is assisted by one of Britain’s foremost conductors, Christopher Austin, fellow Royal Academy of Music professor. Together they are following four Italian students in a week-long master class in composition at the Istituto Mascagni here in Livorno.

I had an opportunity to meet them and to witness part of one of their classes.

I quietly took a seat at the back of the large music room as the four young members of the E’ Colpa Tua quartet played the composition of master class student Matteo to Davies and Austin. When they finish playing, the young composer, Matteo, receives constructive criticism from his prestigious teachers.

 “Make the dynamics more extreme,” says Austin, while Davies adds his own perspective in impeccable Italian “E’ una bella composizione, è drammatico, ma non si sente!… è troppo modesto…” ('it's a lovely composition, it's dramatic, but you can't hear it! It's too modest...'). They leave him with food for thought, and the musicians to their own rehearsals, and make plans for the afternoon when they will be talking to the composer students. The course engages students and teachers all day, every day, culminating in a concert of their works to take place on Saturday 31st August at the Istituto Mascagni (5pm, free entrance)

As Christopher Austin puts it, these courses offer students a chance “ to gain a different perspective on their work, to experiment… It’s like learning new words”. Having a young string quartet at their disposal to execute the students’ music makes the teacher’s work something like that of the “plastic arts practitioner”. It’s an extremely valuable part of the course. Both Davies and Austin are acutely aware of the responsibility they have towards their students. 

Orkney, home and source of inspiration for composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (source Orkney, home and source of inspiration for composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (source At nearly 80 years of age, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies comes across as a man whose passion for his work is still his driving force. He recognizes the importance of continuing to work with young music students, of the great stimulation they can provide him. He is quietly critical of the teaching of music in Italy where, he says, students of composition do not get a chance to hear their music played by their fellow students as they would if they were studying in Britain. Another huge difference, and one that must impress Italian students working at such close quarters with Davies and Austin, is the lack of formality between teacher and pupil. Despite their high profiles, both teachers approach their students on an equal level.  As Sir Peter puts it, “the teacher must learn as much as the student.”

How did you come to be involved in the Livorno Music Festival? (Question to Sir Peter)

I have known conductor Mauro Ceccanti [father of Livorno Music Festival artistic director Vittorio] since the 1970s when we worked together on two of my operas for children in Fiesole. We became friends then, and have been in contact ever since, so I was happy to get involved in this Festival. It’s the only summer school I teach at.

What are your favourite pieces of music?

Of my own music, my favourite is always the piece I am working on at the moment. Of other composers, there are many, depending on the moment. I love Haydn’s Quartets, Beethoven’s Quartets, Monteverdi’s operas, Byrd, Britten…

Which of your own compositions would you recommend to someone approaching your music for the first time?

Christopher can answer that one ! 

C.A.: That’s a very difficult question, considering the huge amount of music Peter has composed. But if we narrow it down to what is easily available, I would say his 2nd Violin Concerto – Fiddler on the Shore, his 3rd Symphony, and Cross Lane Fair (the latter two available on the same CD).

How long have you lived in the Orkneys and why did you choose to live there?

I went there on holiday in 1970, and decided there and then to make it my home. I spend most of my time there these days, especially since I stopped conducting when I was 75.

You compose most of your music in the Orkneys, but your recent Oboe Quartet which premiered this year was written in Italy. Did this make a difference to the music?

No, not really. I already had the idea for the music when I arrived in Italy, so what took place in Italy was just the writing. I spent a very pleasant summer at a friend’s house in Lazio.

How long have you been working with Christopher Austin?

We’ve been collaborating for 10 years. We both teach at the Royal Academy of Music [Christopher is a full-time professional staff member, while Davies is a visiting professor]. 

C.A. We are currently also writing a book together, to be published next year to celebrate Peter’s 80th birthday. It’s a series of conversations between us, about his life and music and what he has witnessed during his life. So it’s also a kind of social history of the past 80 years.  It talks about Peter’s music in a way that hasn’t been done before by other publications.

Peter, in the 60s you were referred to as an enfant terrible of music. Do you feel this still applies to you?

I’ve never felt it applied to me really. I’ve always felt that my music was a natural continuation of the music of the past, but clearly not everyone saw it like that.

To close the interview, artistic director Vittorio Ceccanti adds a few words of his own:

“Peter’s work with young people is exceptional. He is a tremendous “stimulator” for these students and his participation here is extremely valuable.”

“The 2014 edition of the Livorno Music Festival will be a particularly special event as it plans to celebrate Peter Maxwell Davies’ 80th birthday with a homage to his music. We hope to involve the British Council. The Festival has grown considerably since it began in 2011. In 2012 80 students took part, while this year there are 120, 15% of them from abroad. Unfortunately only 5 of the students come from Livorno's Mascagni music school, but we would like to see this number rise in the future. The importance of the festival is beginning to be recognised by the local authorities, especially this year when we have organised concerts in many different venues in Livorno.”

I would like to thank Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Christopher Austin for giving up some of their precious time to talk to me, and Vittorio Ceccanti for giving me the opportunity to do so.

Related article: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies present at the Livorno Music Festival

Recommended listening: Interview with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs