Rhinegold Photo credit: Martin Lengemann

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (8 September 1934 – 14 March 2016)

1:06, 14th March 2016

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (8 September 1934 – 14 March 2016) has died from leukaemia at his home in Orkney aged 81.

Sir Peter was born in Salford, Lancashire and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he was part of the ‘Manchester School’ with fellow students Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon, Elgar Howarth and Alexander Goehr.

It was at this time that he positioned himself as an important voice on the contemporary music scene, with pieces like Eight Songs for a Mad King helping to establish him as an enfant terrible.

In 1970 he took over the directorship of the Pierrot Players, renaming it The Fires of London. The ensemble gave the premieres of many of Sir Peter’s works, including Eight Songs for a Mad King, The Martyrdom of St Magnus and Revelation and Fall, but also gave the first performances of notable works by Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman and Hans Werner Henze.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies - britischer Komponist aufgenommen im Gewandhaus zu Leipzig Foto: Martin Lengemann Heegermühler Weg 50, 13158 Berlin Tel 0171 74 74 588 7% Mwst FA Berlin Friedrichshain/Prenzl. brg Kasseler Bank eG BLZ 52090000 Konto 101048500
Photo: Martin Lengemann

In 1971 he moved to the Orkney Islands, where he would live for the rest of his life. He founded the St Magnus Festival in 1977, a week-long event which involves many Orkney residents.

His move to Orkney was accompanied by a shift in his compositional voice. Sir Peter completed his first symphony in 1976 and wrote his ten Strathclyde Concertos between 1987 and 1996.

From 1992-2002 he was associate conductor/composer with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He conducted a number of other high-profile ensembles including the Philharmonia, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Many considered Sir Peter’s appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music (a position he held 2004-14) as proof of his transition to establishment figure. However, he remained vocal on political or social matters, using his work to confront environmental issues (Black Pentecost, The Yellow Cake Revue and The Turn of the Tide) and the Second Iraq war (the third Naxos Quartet).

Sir Peter also championed community outreach and education, and wrote a great deal of music for young people.

‘The roots of a thriving classical music scene need three nutrients,” he said in his 2005 Royal Philharmonic Society lecture. ‘The first is music education, and the second, resources […] The third nutrient is new music. Classical music cannot become a museum culture.’

His children’s opera The Hogboon will receive its premiere with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican in June.

Sir Peter was given six weeks to live in 2013 after he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia. His tenth symphony, which he wrote in hospital, received its world premiere at the Barbican Hall on 2 February 2014.

However, he revealed in an interview in October 2015 that the cancer had returned.

Sir Peter was knighted in 1987 and made an MBE in the New Year 2014 Honours List. In February 2016, he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal.

‘Few musicians of the past 50 years or more have made such a substantial impact on Britain’s cultural life across so many areas,’ said Stephen Lumsden, managing director of Intermusica. ‘He never stopped sharing his vision that music was not only vital but life-enhancing.

‘He was right to the end a pioneer whose non-conformity marked him out as an unimpeachable free spirit and creative thinker.’

Sally Groves, former creative director of Schott Music Ltd. and a close friend, said that Sir Peter was ‘a truly unique musician’.

She described him as ‘a remarkable composer who created music theatre works of searing power, great symphonies, intense chamber music, works of truly universal popularity; a fierce fighter for music in the community and in education, and on environmental issues; and a man of invincible integrity, a true friend and a teller of truth to power.’

LSO managing director Kathryn McDowell said: ‘We are grateful for the opportunity to have worked with this extraordinary composer in his later years. His vision for music education and the wealth of wonderful pieces he has left for young people is unparalleled in recent times. He will be sorely missed.’


Click here to read more tributes, or read Toby Deller’s interview with Sir Peter from the January 2014 issue of CM here.

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