Updated August 2015
The final part of this Entry covers the successors to Sir Edward Elgar up until the present day.
Sir (Henry) Walford Davies
16th Master 1934-41
Monarchs: George V, Edward VIII, George VI
Born in Oswestry, Shropshire in 1869 to a musical family, Walford Davies applied successfully for a choristership at St George's Chapel, Windsor, where from 1881-5 he studied under, and was assistant organist to, Walter Parratt.
Between 1890 and 1894 he took a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music, studying composition (under Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford), counterpoint, piano and violin. He gained his MusB1 at Cambridge (at the second attempt) in 1891.
Davies took up the post of teacher of counterpoint at the Royal College of Music in 1895. Embarrassingly, he failed the counterpoint paper for the Cambridge MusD (Musicae Doctor) degree the following year, only passing it the year after. An oratorio, The Days of Man, written as a compulsory exercise for the MusD was also rejected, but accepted after correction, in 1898.
During the Great War, Davies organised troop concerts in France. In 1918 he was invited to become the first Organising Director of Music for the Royal Air Force, for which he was awarded the OBE in 1919. He quickly established the RAF School of Music to train band instructors and trumpet majors. In 1921 he composed the RAF March Past, which ever since has been the official march of the Royal Air Force. He was knighted in 1922.
After the war, he became Professor of Music at University College, Aberystwyth. Having resigned from the Temple church in 1923, the following year he succeeded Frank Bridge as Professor of Music at Gresham College, London – a unique establishment, which has, since Elizabethan times, been dedicated to giving free public lectures. He recorded some of these lectures, which brought him to the attention of the BBC.
In 1926 Davies was asked to give some radio broadcasts on the subject of classical music, which he titled Music and the Ordinary Listener. In due course he became musical advisor to the BBC, and one of the first popular broadcasters on music, a role he continued until the outbreak of World War II.
On the death of Walter Parratt, the Dean and Canons of Windsor offered the post of Organist and Choirmaster at St George's Chapel to Davies but he reluctantly declined, preferring to stay in Wales. In 1927, he reconsidered and accepted the post. Soon after, illness forced Davies to resign his post at Aberystwyth. Differences between Davies and the Dean and Canons of St George's led eventually to his resignation in 1931. On leaving Windsor he was awarded the CVO, and in 1937 the KCVO. Davies succeeded Elgar as Master of the King's Music in 1934.
In 1939 Davies moved to Bristol, to the BBC's religious programmes unit. He died near Bristol in March 1941, and his ashes are buried in the cathedral grounds.
Sir Arnold Bax
17th Master 1941-53
Monarchs: George VI, Elizabeth II
Born in Streatham, south London in 1883, Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was a student at the Royal Academy of Music from 1900-5 where he studied composition with Frederick Corder, and was a piano pupil of the celebrated teacher Tobias Matthay. Like his father before him, Bax was of independent means, enabling him to pursue his passions unfettered by the need to earn a living. In 1902, he became captivated by the poetry of WB Yeats. This was to be just the beginning of a lifelong passion for the west coast of Ireland and for the Celtic language, its history and legends.
A self-confessed hopeless 'brazen Romantic', with no interest in any modernist 'isms or factions', Bax was inspired by the free-flowing music of Debussy, Ravel and early Stravinsky. The orchestral tone-poem, of which he wrote a number over the years, was his natural forte, the best-known being The Garden of Fand, November Woods and Tintagel.
In 1910 Bax set off, first to the Ukraine and then to St Petersburg, in the romantic pursuit of a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Skarginska. Returning unsuccessful, the following year, somewhat on the rebound, he married a girl of Spanish/German parents, Elsita Sobrino, and went to live in Dublin, where his literary output of articles, short stories and poetry was published under the pen-name Dermot O'Byrne. The marriage soon faltered and Bax returned to England in 1914 – a heart condition prevented him from fighting in the First World War. His love of Ireland meant that he was profoundly affected by the aftermath of the Easter Uprising in Dublin of 1916. The poem A Dublin Ballad is a polemic on the English treatment of the Independence cause.
On his return to England he became part of a group of current and former students of the Royal Academy of Music. Here he met the pianist Harriett Cohen, with whom he began a passionate affair. Between 1914 and 1916 Bax lived in Beaconsfield, not far from London, and would cycle over the Chiltern Hills to the Crown Hotel, Amersham, where he would meet Harriett – she travelling up on the Metropolitan railway from Baker Street in London. These trips through the wooded Chiltern Hills are almost certainly the inspiration for the tone-poem November Woods. In the summer of 1917, he spent six weeks on holiday with Harriett in north Cornwall, during which he composed the tone-poem Tintagel. In 1918, Bax left his wife Elsita and their two children, although he and Harriett never married or lived together. Many of Bax's piano compositions, including the concerto-like Symphonic Variations and Winter Legends, were written for Harriett.
Bax moved to London where he lived until World War II, moving then to Sussex. Between 1921 and 1939 he composed seven symphonies. In 1926, he began another relationship, this time with a much younger woman named Mary Gleaves. From 1928 they would spend the winter months at a hotel at Morar on the west coast of Scotland, near Mallaig. Here Bax would work on the score of whatever was his latest symphony. Amazingly, Harriett Cohen had no knowledge of Mary Gleaves until 1948.
During and after the war he wrote music for two films, including David Lean's 1948 film of Oliver Twist.
Elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1927 and recipient of the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1931, he was knighted in 1937, appointed Master of the King's Music in 1942, and awarded the KCVO in 1953. He composed the Coronation March for HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Continuing the pattern of a fairly nomadic life, for his final years Bax lived in a hotel room in Storrington in Sussex, not far from a house which Mary Gleaves occupied.
Bax died on 3 October, 1953, at Cork in Ireland while there as a visiting examiner, and was buried there. Unlike that of his contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams, his music was largely neglected after his death, but recently there has been a major revival of interest in his work.
Sir Arthur Bliss
18th Master 1953-75
Monarch: Elizabeth II
Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss was born in August 1891 in Barnes, Surrey. His mother died when he was only four years old, and he was brought up by his American father, Francis. After prep school he was a pupil at Rugby School then went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating BA and MusB in 1913. Coming down from Cambridge, he went to the Royal College of Music, studying under Charles Villiers Stanford, until World War I interrupted his studies.
Bliss enlisted as a private soldier in the 13th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers before receiving a commission. During a distinguished military service he was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, gassed at Cambrai and was hospitalised until the end of the war. The death of Bliss's slightly younger brother, killed on active service in 1916, eventually inspired the composition of the choral symphony Morning Heroes in 1930.
After the war, influenced by the ideas of the new French school, he began to earn a name as something of a modernist. In 1921 Bliss accepted a professorship of composition at the Royal College of Music, but resigned the following year, disliking full-time teaching. In 1922, his first major orchestral work, the Colour Symphony, was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival at the suggestion of Edward Elgar.
Bliss spent a couple of years in America with his father, working as a conductor. While there he met an American girl, Gertrude Hoffmann. The newly-married couple returned to England in 1925. Bliss wrote a series of chamber works for virtuoso performers such as the Oboe Quintet (1927), the Clarinet Quintet (1932) and the Viola Sonata (1933). In 1934-5 he wrote the music for Alexander Korda's film of HG Wells' Things to Come.
At the outbreak of World War II, Bliss was on holiday in America and decided to remain there, taking a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. He returned to Britain in 1941, naturally leaving his wife and two daughters behind. Bliss joined the BBC and served as its Director of Music from 1942 to 1944. The music policy he instigated led to the introduction in 1946 of the Third Programme – now BBC Radio3 – the BBC radio service dedicated to classical music and drama.
Bliss was knighted in 1950 and appointed Master of the Queen's Music in 1953, in which role he composed a Processional, with organ, for the coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II, and composed the music played at the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1963, the KCVO in 1969 and made a Companion of Honour3 (CH) in 1971.
An excellent administrator, Sir Arthur advised the Queen on musical appointments, kept her informed of changes in the constitution of the Royal Philharmonic Society and oversaw the choirs of the Chapel Royal. He also advised her on the Royal Charter that merged the Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells ballet companies as the Royal Ballet in 1956.
He continued to compose major works throughout the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. He died from cancer on 27 March, 1975.
Bliss is an indefatigable experimentalist – and every experiment he has made, whether successful or not, has added to his craftsmanship.
– HE Wortham
19th Master 1975-2003
Monarch: Elizabeth II
Malcolm Williamson was undoubtedly the most controversial of the Masters to date. Born in November 1931 in Sydney, Australia, he showed an early interest in music, especially the piano. At 12 years old he got a scholarship to study piano on Saturdays at the Sydney Conservatorium. Three years later he secured another scholarship to study full-time with Eugene Goosens, the new conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. At the age of 18, the first of what would be a series of self-destructive urges resulted in him leaving the Conservatorium without completing his diploma.
Williamson arrived in London in 1952 and worked briefly at Harrods before joining music publishers Boosey and Hawkes. He had lessons with the modernist composer Elizabeth Lutyens, whose serial-technique works would soon influence his own compositions. Enamoured with the works of the French avante-garde composer Oliver Messiaen, he tried unsuccessfully to win a scholarship to study for a year with him in Paris. Williamson started drinking heavily; for the rest of his life he would suffer recurrent bouts of alcoholism, often when depressed. In addition to his relationships with women, he was also a promiscuous homosexual.
The years 1956-8 were a rich compositional period. The London première performance at the 1959 Proms of the First Piano Concerto which dates from this period was nearly a disaster. Arriving at the Royal Albert Hall, Williamson found that the pianist was indisposed and that he would have to replace him, despite having had no rehearsal and being somewhat the worse for drink. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the conductor John Hollingsworth were understandably nervous, but the composer finished the performance to wild applause from both the audience and the musicians. It was very good fortune that Malcolm Sargent was only scheduled to conduct the first half of the concert!
In January 1960 Williamson married an American-born girl called Dolly, whom he had first met in 1954. The stabilising influence of a strong female – which Williamson needed all his life – got him off drink and on to another rich compositional period, including his first mature opera Our Man in Havana5. As Malcolm and Dolly started to raise a family, plenty of commissions were forthcoming, which he fulfilled on schedule, an ability that would elude him before long.
In 1967 he wrote The Moonrakers, the first of what would become a Williamson trademark, which he called a 'cassation'6. These were intended as a means of introducing children to music and in particular the idea of opera, by singing, acting or otherwise participating, irrespective of musical ability. There were often very short, sometimes only minutes in length, with mandatory audience participation. In due course he would compose ten of these children's operas.
A new cassation The Stone Wall featured in the programme for the 1971 Last Night of the Proms. The Prom audience was divided into three sections representing the English, the Scots and the Vikings, the English and Scots jointly building either side of Hadrian's Wall and the Vikings invading them. The rehearsal (during the concert) was directed by the conductor Colin Davis, with the composer at the piano. As always, the 'performance' followed immediately after the 'rehearsal'.
The first half of the 1970s was not a happy time, the composer suffering a series of mental exhaustions (if not actual breakdowns) brought on by overwork, increasing financial difficulties and problems with his marriage to Dolly, due at least in part to the re-emergence of his homosexuality. More and more work was being completed late and he was gaining a reputation for being unreliable. His next new Proms work, in 1974, a cantata for soprano and string orchestra7 entitled Hammarskjöld Portrait, was no exception. Its final section was received by the BBC only days before the scheduled rehearsal. A year later he completed the music for a huge BBC television 26-part series Churchill's People.
Williamson and his wife separated in September 1975. The same month he was invited to become the new Master of the Queen's Music, an appointment that fanned the flames of his already blazing ego. A CBE followed in the New Year Honours List.
An opportunity soon presented itself for the new Master to fulfil an official duty: the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. A number of options were proposed, including a new symphony and a setting to music of a poem written for the Jubilee by the poet laureate, John Betjeman. The Betjeman piece was performed by a large choir and orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of Her Majesty early in 1977, but was poorly received. More successful was a typically grandiose project – The Valley and The Hill – involving thousands of Liverpool schoolchildren performing eight pageant scenes at stopping points along the route as the Queen and Prince Philip were driven in a open-topped car from Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral to the Anglican Cathedral. The symphony was scheduled for a special Jubilee concert at the Royal Festival Hall in November, but Williamson delivered only three of the four expected movements, and these very late in the day. Two days before the concert the work was removed from the programme, doing irreparable damage to the composer's reputation.
Despite frequent tart jibes in the press, Williamson remained on friendly personal terms with the Royal Family, in particular with Her Majesty the Queen Mother and with Princess Margaret. However, when the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer took place in 1981, the Master of the Queen's Music was firmly shut out; the lesson of the Jubilee had not been forgotten. For a composer, one of Williamson's most damaging faults was his inability to focus on seeing a project through to completion; something new would come along and distract him.
Williamson left for Australia to do academic study on musical therapy for severe mental disorders. He was commissioned to write a new symphony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This symphony, a somewhat ambitious venture, would involve every musician in ABC's seven orchestras8, each orchestra filming its contribution to the work in its home city. The filmed performances, together with scenic footage of each state, were to be edited together and shown on television, but the July 1982 date of ABC's 50th anniversary also passed without a completed film being ready and the project, after some disagreements between ABC and the composer, was shelved9. Williamson's medical research thesis also remained unwritten.
He returned to England and tried to settle into country living in rural Hertfordshire but spent several periods undergoing psychiatric help at a nearby hospital. A commission from the Sydney Opera House Trust for a major work in celebration of his country's bicentenary due in 1988, to be performed before Prince Charles and Princess Diana, should have been a dream for an Australian-born Master of the Queen's Music, but true to form, the delivery deadline passed. The work, The True Endeavour, was finally delivered for a performance in October of that year, but the composer's all too common disagreements with the organisers led to it being dropped from the concert; it has never been performed.
Among Williamson's final (completed) works are Requiem for a Tribe Brother (1992), written in memory of the son of the aboriginal poet and rights campaigner, Kath Walker, who had died of AIDS; the Piano Concerto No.4 (1994), unperformed; and a BBC Proms commission, A Year of Birds (1995), a cantata for soprano and orchestra, setting 12 poems by Iris Murdoch to music.
In 1996 Williamson was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and the following year suffered two strokes, the second of which severely affected his speech. After yet another stroke late in 2002, Malcolm Williamson died on 2 March, 2003. He was buried at Fulbourn, near Cambridge.
An invaluable source for this section has been Malcolm Williamson A Mischievous Muse, by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, Omnibus Press, London, 2007.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
20th Master 2004-14
Monarch: Elizabeth II
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies ('Max') was born in September 1934 at Salford, near Manchester. From 1952 he studied concurrently at the Royal Manchester College of Music and at Manchester University, where he wrote a dissertation on Indian music. He then won an Italian government scholarship and studied for a further two years in Rome.
In 1959 he became director of the Cirencester Grammar School, where he was a pioneering innovator; he was to work with children again later. In 1962 he was awarded a two-year fellowship to study with American composer Roger Sessions at Princeton University in New Jersey.
After a brief period as composer-in-residence at the University of Adelaide, Australia, he returned to the UK, and in 1967 co-founded, with fellow composer Harrison Birtwistle, the Pierrot Players10 (reorganised and renamed the Fires of London in 1970 and disbanded in 1987), a highly-skilled chamber ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary music, for which Davies composed a great deal.
In 1971, Davies moved to the Orkney Islands11 off the north coast of Scotland, when he now lives and works. Much of his music since then has been strongly influenced by the landscape and isolation he so much enjoys there. In 1977 he founded the St Magnus Festival, which takes place each June in the Orkneys12, and attracts world-class artists to appear. His work includes a large number of music-theatre pieces composed specifically for performance by the children of the Orkney Islands. He was artistic director of the festival until 1986. Between 1979 and 1984, he was musical director of the Dartington Hall summer school in Devon.
An interest in early music, and in particular the early 16th-Century composer John Tavener, is often combined with distinctly modern devices such as serial composition techniques. The Alma Redemptoris Mater (1957) is based on a motet by John Dunstable; other works derive from Monteverdi's Vespers.
His musical output has been prodigious, including seven operas, two ballets, eight symphonies, a set of ten concertos commissioned by Strathclyde local authority for soloists from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and many pieces for solo and accompanied voice, chamber ensembles and pieces for brass band.
As a conductor he has been associate conductor and composer with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1992-2000) and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester (1991-2000), as well as conducting major orchestras from overseas.
Peter Maxwell Davies was made an OBE in 1981, was knighted in 1987 and appointed Master of the Queen's Music in 2004. He is the Patron of the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain.
21st Master 2014 onwards
Monarch: Elizabeth II
After 20 male holders, in 2014 the title Master of the Queen's Music passed to a female composer and librettist, Judith Weir. Like her predecessor, she has a great interest in folklore and folk music, especially from Scotland, Iceland and the Far East, and is a passionate advocate of music education. Also like her predecessor, she will hold the title for a 10 year period.
Her academic record speaks for itself: Visiting Professor in Opera Studies at Oxford University,1999; Honorary Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford, 2000; Visiting Professor at Princeton, 2001 and at Harvard, 2004; Professor of Composition at Cardiff University since 2006. She was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2007 - so far the only composer to be so - and in 2010 was awarded the Distinguished Musician Award of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
Judith Weir was born in Cambridge in 1954 to Scottish parents; her father, a psychiatrist, and her mother, a teacher, were both keen amateur musicians, he a dance band trumpeter and she an orchestral viola player. Judith was given an oboe as a school instrument but didn't really gel with it until she was introduced to Robin Miller, oboist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta, who despite his busy schedule gave her lessons. Her playing improved and by 1971 she had progressed sufficiently to play oboe in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain for two years (one of her colleagues in that orchestra was then percussionist, now conductor, Simon Rattle).
She had a few private composition lessons with John Tavener while at North London Collegiate School, before starting in 1973 at Kings College, Cambridge, where she studied with Robin Holloway. At this time she was drawn to composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and in particular Luciano Berio. While still at Kings College, she was awarded a Koussevitzky Fellowship to study with Gunther Schuller at the 1975 Tanglewood Summer School in Massachusetts.
Graduating from Cambridge in 1976 with a BA degree, she got a job as associate composer with the Southern Arts Association. This meant going around southern England assisting people to develop their own community arts events, visiting schools, writing music for the pupils, and for adult groups such as brass bands, employing whatever instruments were to hand. This grounding has benefited her later work in writing for ensembles comprising various combinations of instruments.
After this Judith taught for a few years in Scotland: 1979-82 on the staff of University of Glasgow (Cramb Fellowship in Composition); 1988-91 Guinness composer-in-residence at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. In 1995 she became Judith Weir CBE and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen.
Between 1995 and 1998 she was able to renew her association with Simon Rattle when she became associate composer to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a period that included the commissioned work for large orchestra, Forest. From 1995-2000 she was Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival held in the East End of London, where the skills learned during her time with the Southern Arts Association were put to good use. The aim of this annual festival is to bring musical involvement to audiences, particularly to young people, by presenting and discussing music, sometimes in unconventional ways, in venues around the Spitalfields area. Today she continues as a member of the Board of the Spitalfields Music charity.
In January 2008 a major weekend of concerts and special events dedicated to Judith Weir's work, entitled Telling the Tale, was held at the Barbican concert hall in London. It included a performance of her first 'opera' King Harald's Saga, in which an unaccompanied soprano portrays eight roles in a work that lasts a mere 10 minutes. It also included the world première of a BBC commission, CONCRETE for narrator, mixed chorus and orchestra, which in four movements tells aspects of the story of London through the centuries around the Barbican Centre, which is located in the east of the City of London.
Judith Weir's 100+ published works includes: five operas, the most recent Miss Fortune, premièred at Bregenz in 2011 and performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in March 2012; eight works for large orchestra, together with numerous solo, small ensemble and choral works. Much of her small ensemble compositions are written for specific groups/players.
Her works have been performed a number of times at the BBC Promenade Concerts, both in the main Royal Albert Hall and in various external venues, beginning in 1988 with The Consolations of Scholarship, for soprano voice and chamber ensemble. Her Sanctus was given at the Last Night of the Proms in 1997. Also given at a Last Night in 2002 was Bright Cecilia: Variations on a Theme by Purcell. Her Proms bookends were completed in 2012 when a performance of a BBC commission, Stars, Night, Music and Light, opened the First Night of the Proms.
In 2015 she become Associate Composer to the BBC Singers.
A keen cyclist, she lives in south London, close enough to Buckingham Palace that she was able to bicycle there to meet HM the Queen when she took over as Master of the Queen's Music from 'Max' Davies.
Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.