first lady

My prediction for 2014? There will be a new Master of the Queen’s Music. Granted, that’s not such a hard prediction to make, given that the tenure of the incumbent, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, comes to an end in the spring. Or had you forgotten that his appointment was the first since the post was established in 1625, to be made for a fixed, ten-year, term, rather than for life?

But I will predict that the next Master of the Queen’s Music will, for the first time, be a woman. I’ll stick my neck on the block (gulp!) and tell you who in a moment.

Like its sister post, the Poet Laureate, the job comes without a specific job description. It is not even specifically intended for a composer, although there is an expectation that the MQM will produce music for royal occasions and national events, as he or she sees fit, and advise the monarch when required. I daresay there’s also an assumption that he or she will be an advocate for music in the wider public sphere and not merely its representative at the courts of the aristocracy.

You would expect, then, that the post is for composers of a certain standing, combining experience and achievement (Elgar, Bax and Bliss are among the 20th century MQMs, although the 19th century was, faute de mieux, a bit of a washout). You would expect that the post would, nowadays, go to someone with an ability to communicate with Her Majesty’s subjects, just as you would expect with the Poet Laureate. And of course, provided it is not done cynically, an eye-catching appointment that gets people talking can be a good thing.

Should the Queen decide to name a woman as her next composer-in-residence, it would certainly be eye-catching. Dare I say, even rather progressive. Needless to say, there hasn’t been one before. And there does still appear to be a reluctance to give them due prominence – or at least, a tendency to slip back into old habits – as the British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors found to their chagrin at a key awards ceremony in 2013.

But it’s not like there would be a shortage of possible appointees. The postwar years (the period I’d argue is most likely to supply the next MQM) produced something of a golden generation of women composers, among them Nicola LeFanu, Diana Burrell, Cecilia McDowall, Judith Bingham and Errolyn Wallen.

Of course there are some very strong candidates among the  men: Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Michael Berkeley, the two Matthews (no not Stanley and Bernard – brothers David and Colin) all come into the frame. Alternatively, of course, there’s Howard Goodall, Bob Chilcott and Karl Jenkins (oh god can you imagine!?) 

But for me, two names stand out as being enticing choices, composers I can easily imagine responding to the appointment with relish. My own preference, probably because she’s a viola player, is Sally Beamish. Her compellingly direct music, which seems to flow effortlessly from her imagination, often takes non-musical elements as a starting point, be it a landscape or poem and frequently incorporates traditional, folk or old styles and instruments.

The other is Judith Weir, about whom you could say much the same kind of thing: highly prolific in the amount she has written (her publisher’s catalogue shows her approaching her ton), open to music and stories from all over the place and a taste for enchanting sounds. More to the point, she was the third recipient, in 2007, of the annual Queen’s Medal for Music, a prize recognising the recipient’s influence in musical life that Maxwell Davies helped establish and which the MQM plays a part in awarding. 2013’s medallist hasn’t yet been announced, but for now she’s the only composer among the laureates to date.

When I contacted the press office of the Royal Household to ask about the new appointment, I was told that the process is not yet under way and as yet there was no information they could give me. But if I had any, my money would go on Weir. Whether or not I’m right, you read it here first.

In the meantime, that just gives me a ten years to write why the Master of the Queen’s Music in 2024 should be… Courtney Pine.

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