Sir Peter Maxwell Davies established the Queen’s Medal for Music twelve years ago, when he noted that there had been a Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in existence since the 1930s, but no similar distinction for musicians. It’s now become my job to convene a committee who decide the winner of the yearly music award. With a huge number of musical disciplines to cover (with no disrespect to the poets) it’s always a very complicated discussion. For the 2015 award, just to narrow it down a little, I asked the panel to nominate someone from the world of new music; although that in itself covers a vast area of possibilities. Nevertheless, once we got to the meeting, it was soon clear that the front runner would be composer-conductor Oliver Knussen; and it was a pleasure finally to accompany him to an audience with the Queen, where the medal was presented.
Knussen is well-known for his early exposure to new British music, thanks to accompanying his bass-playing dad to rehearsals with the LSO; and this is how, while still in his early teens, he got to know Benjamin Britten, for instance. But on this occasion he was up against tough competition with the Queen, who can remember meeting Elgar in 1931 (when she was five). There followed a fascinating conversation between these two people with long experience of meeting composers; it’s interesting how Britten always jumps out of such discussions with particular clarity. Knussen calculated that there have been five generations of British composers from Elgar to his own – via those of Vaughan Williams, Britten and Maxwell Davies - at work during the Queen's lifetime. And, as new music aficianados know, two later generations hard at work at the moment.