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Music Pages

Conductor Sir Colin Davis dies aged 85

18 April 2013, London, UK

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)
Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

Sir Colin Davis, who died on 14 April aged 85, was one of the leading lights of the British music scene in the latter half of the 20th century. Opera formed a significant part of his career, especially during the 15 years, from 1971 to 1986, which he spent as music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The son of a bank clerk, his family background was not especially musical, though his own talents emerged relatively early. He trained as a clarinettist and was barred from studying conducting at the Royal College of Music, since he had not learnt the piano – a requisite for would-be conductors at the time. Later, when he had established a successful career, he commented that ‘conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing.’

The frustrations of his early career did not deter him: in 1959, he stepped in to conduct a concert performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall for an indisposed Otto Klemperer and from then on his career seemed to be on an exponential path to greatness. He was invited to become music director of Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1961, championing the operas of Stravinsky and continuing to develop his tremendous affinity for Mozart, whose music, he said, expressed ‘something that is more than human’.  

It was around this time that his 15-year marriage to the soprano April Cantelo broke down and that Sir Colin began to gain a reputation in the industry as being ‘unbalanced’ and ‘difficult’. Sir Colin himself admitted that he was apt to be ‘a bit hard and tactless’. He found himself blocked from key posts, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera House

His second marriage to Ashraf Naini marked a new beginning for Sir Colin, underlined by a new philosophy of life which perhaps made him less driven, but more congenial as a musical collaborator.

When the Royal Opera House eventually offered him the job of musical director in 1971, he accepted in the face of backstage whispers that some on the Opera House board considered him to be an unworthy successor to Sir Georg Solti. This was in spite of the credentials that he had already set down at Covent Garden following his conducting of Berlioz’s epic Les troyens and the world premiere of Tippett’s The Knot Garden. Sir John Tooley, the ROH’s chief executive at the time, recalls ‘Colin’s early days as music director at the Royal Opera House were not easy for him, as they had not been for his predecessor. There were some doubts that he could deliver and that he could begin to match some of the world’s greatest conductors. In all of this, the doubters were proved to be wrong.’ During this period, he famously booed back and stuck out his tongue at ROH audiences who were vocal in their disenchantment.

As Sir Colin expanded his repertoire at the ROH, his combination of wide-ranging erudition and passionate musicality came to be recongised and admired. One of his biggest challenges was a controversial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle which unfolded between 1973 to 1976. Götz Friedrich’s  conceptual production was problematic for British audiences, but Sir Colin became one of its fiercest advocates once he was convinced of its artistic and intellectual integrity.

The conductor once said ‘the road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same. After his early difficulties, his time at the ROH marked a period where his reputation was finally established and his own equilibrium as a musician was restored after a period of instability. He was knighted in 1980, appointed Companion of Honour in 2002 and awarded the Queen's Medal for music in 2009

Following his departure from the ROH in 1986, Sir Colin’s career continued to expand internationally, entering its final and perhaps most illustrious phase when he was appointed music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. His operatic work with the LSO showed off his experience and grasp of different styles, championing contemporary work and continuing to bring new resonance to the classics: especially memorable during his time with the LSO were his Peter Grimes and Verdi’s Falstaff, both available on disc.

  • Sir Colin Davis, conductor: born 25 September 1927, died 14 April 2013


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