Peter Maxwell Davies

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Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies CH CBE (born 8 September 1934) is an English composer and conductor. In 2004 he was made Master of the Queen's Music.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Davies was born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of Thomas and Hilda Davies.[2] At age four, after being taken to a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers, he told his parents that he was going to be a composer.[3] He took piano lessons and composed from an early age. As a 14-year-old, he submitted a composition called Blue Ice to the radio programme Children's Hour in Manchester. BBC producer Trevor Hill showed it to resident singer and entertainer Violet Carson, who said, "He's either quite brilliant or mad". Conductor Charles Groves nodded his approval and said, "I'd get him in". Davies's rise to fame began under the careful mentorship of Hill, who made him the programme's resident composer and introduced him to various professional musicians both in the UK and Germany.[4] After attending Leigh Boys Grammar School, Davies studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music (amalgamated into the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973), where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group committed to contemporary music. After graduating in 1956, he studied on an Italian government scholarship for a year with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome.

In 1959, Davies became Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School.[5] He left in 1962 after securing a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University (with the help of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten);[6] there he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. He then moved to Australia, where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 1965–66.


He then returned to the United Kingdom and moved to the Orkney Islands, initially to Hoy in 1971, and later to Sanday. Orkney (particularly its capital, Kirkwall) hosts the St Magnus Festival, an arts festival founded by Davies in 1977. He frequently uses it to premiere new works (often played by the local school orchestra).

Davies was Artistic Director of the Dartington International Summer School from 1979 to 1984. In 1988, he was Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival in California, alongside Nicholas McGegan and Diane Wittry, and returned in 1991 (with John Harbison). From 1992 to 2002 he was associate conductor/composer with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and he has conducted a number of other prominent orchestras, including the Philharmonia, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 2000 Davies was Artist in Residence at the Barossa Music Festival when he presented some of his music theatre works and worked with students from the Barossa Spring Academy. Davies is also Composer Laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for whom he wrote a series of ten Strathclyde Concertos.[7][not in citation given]

He has been awarded a number of honorary doctorates, including Honorary Doctor of Music from Oxford University in July 2005. He has been President of Making Music (The National Federation of Music Societies) since 1989. Davies was made a CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1987. He was appointed Master of the Queen's Music for a ten-year period from March 2004. He was made a Freeman of the City of Salford August 2004. On 25 November 2006, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of Canterbury Christ Church University at a service in Canterbury Cathedral. He is Visiting Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music,[8] and in 2009 became an Honorary Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge.[9]

Davies was one of the first classical composers to open a music download website, MaxOpus, (in 1996). The site became temporarily unavailable after the arrest in June 2007 of Michael Arnold (one of MaxOpus's directors) on fraud charges arising from money missing from Davies's business accounts.[10][11] In October 2008 Arnold and his wife Judith (Davies's former agent) were charged with the theft of almost £450,000.[12] In November 2009, Michael Arnold was sentenced to 18 months in jail.[13] was relaunched earlier in 2009.

Davies was known as an enfant terrible of the 1960s, whose music frequently shocked audiences and critics. One of his overtly theatrical and shocking pieces was Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), in which he utilised "musical parody" by taking a canonical piece of music – Handel's Messiah – and subverting it.

Personal life[edit]

Davies was cautioned in 2005 for possession of a swan corpse.[14]

Davies is openly gay. In 2007, a controversy arose regarding his intended civil partnership when he was told that the ceremony could not take place on the Sanday Light Railway.[15] He later abandoned his plans.[16]

Davies is known informally as "Max", after his middle name "Maxwell". A reporter for The Independent humorously recalled the confusion this brought about when Davies was staying in Las Vegas. No one seemed able to locate him at any hotel, despite trying "Maxwell Davies", "Davies", "Max", "Sir Peter" and every other imaginable permutation. It was finally discovered that the hotel had registered him as "Mavis", which inspired the composer to produce the orchestral piece Mavis in Las Vegas.[17]

Davies was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in the 2014 New Year Honours for "services to music".[18][19]

Political views[edit]

Davies has a keen interest in environmentalism. He wrote The Yellow Cake Revue, a collection of cabaret-style pieces that he performed with actress Eleanor Bron, in protest at plans to mine uranium ore in Orkney. It is from this suite of pieces that his famous instrumental chanson triste interlude Farewell to Stromness is taken. The slow, walking bass line that pervades the Farewell portrays the residents of the village of Stromness having to leave their homes as a result of uranium contamination. The Revue was first performed at the St Magnus Festival, in Orkney, by Bron, with the composer at the piano, in June 1980. Stromness, the second largest town in Orkney, would have been two miles from the uranium mine's core, and the centre most threatened by pollution, had the proposed development been approved.

In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 he marched in protest, and was an outspoken critic of the Governments of both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.[20]

Davies's appointment to the post of Master of the Queen's Music was initially controversial, as he was a republican. However he confirmed in 2010 that close contact with the Queen had converted him to monarchism. He told the Daily Telegraph "I have come to realise that there is a lot to be said for the monarchy. It represents continuity, tradition and stability."[20]

He is a member of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA),[21] and the Incorporated Society of Musicians.[22]


Davies is a prolific composer who has written music in a variety of styles and idioms over his career, often combining disparate styles in one piece.

Early works include the Trumpet Sonata (1955), written while he was at college, and his first orchestral work, Prolation (1958), written while under the tutelage of Petrassi. Early works often use serial techniques (for example Sinfonia for chamber orchestra, 1962), sometimes combined with Mediaeval and Renaissance compositional methods. Fragments of plainsong are often used as basic source material to be adapted and developed in various ways.

Pieces from the late 1960s take up these techniques and tend towards experimental and a violent character – these include Revelation and Fall (based on a poem by Georg Trakl), the music theatre pieces Eight Songs for a Mad King and Vesalii Icones, and the opera Taverner. Taverner again shows an interest in Renaissance music, taking as its subject the composer John Taverner, and consisting of parts resembling Renaissance forms. The orchestral piece St Thomas Wake (1969) also shows this interest, and is a particularly obvious example of Davies's polystylism, combining, as it does, a suite of foxtrots (played by a twenties-style dance band), a pavane by John Bull and Davies's "own" music (the work is described by Davies as a "Foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull"). Many works from this period were performed by the Pierrot Players which Davies founded with Harrison Birtwistle in 1967 (they were reformed as the Fires of London in 1970, disbanded in 1987).

Davies is known for his use of magic squares as a source of musical materials and as a structural determinant. In his work Ave Maris Stella (1975) he used a 9x9 square numerologically associated with the moon, reduced modulo 9 to produce a Latin square, to permute the notes of a plainsong melody with the same name as the piece and to govern the durations of the notes.[citation needed]

Worldes Blis (1969) indicated a move towards a more integrated and somewhat more restrained style, anticipating the calm which Davies would soon find at his new home in Orkney. Some have drawn a comparison[weasel words] between this later style and the music of Jean Sibelius. His present style is regarded as much more accessible, to the point where Alexander Goehr no longer regarded him as a modernist.[23][not in citation given]

Since his move to Orkney, Davies has often drawn on Orcadian or more generally Scottish themes in his music, and has sometimes set the words of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. He has written a number of other operas, including The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1976), The Lighthouse (1980, his most popular opera), and The Doctor of Myddfai (1996). The ambitious, nihilistic parable Resurrection (1987), which includes parts for a rock band, was nearly twenty years in gestation.

Davies also became interested in classical forms, completing his first symphony in 1976. He has written ten numbered symphonies – a symphonic cycle of the Symphonies Nos.1–7 (1976–2000), a Symphony No. 8 titled the Antarctic (2000), a Ninth Symphony (premiered on 9 June 2012 by the Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra), a Tenth Symphony (see below), a Sinfonia Concertante (1982), as well as the series of ten Strathclyde Concertos for various instruments (pieces born out of his association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, 1987–1996). In 2002, he began work on a series of string quartets for the Maggini String Quartet to record on Naxos Records (the so-called Naxos Quartets). The whole series was completed in 2007, and is viewed by the composer as a novel in ten chapters".[24]

Davies's lighter orchestral works have included Mavis in Las Vegas and Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise (which features the bagpipes), as well as a number of theatre pieces for children and a good deal of music with educational purposes. Additionally he wrote the scores for Ken Russell's films The Devils and The Boy Friend.

His short piano piece Farewell to Stromness entered the Classic FM Hall of Fame in 2003, his first ever entry, and was at that time the fastest-rising new entry in the chart's history.[citation needed]

He also writes with particular affinity for young and non-professional performers; for example, his Fanfare: A salute to Dennis Brain is targeted at players of grade 6 standard or above,[25] and he has composed several children's operas including A Selkie Tale, The Great Bank Robbery and The Spider's Revenge. Other children's works include Chat Moss and A Hoy Calendar both written for first performance by the children of St Edward's College Liverpool.

A Hymn to the Spirit of Fire was commissioned by the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Concerts Society as the culmination of the city's Capital of Culture year 2008 and was given its world premiere at the Cathedral on Saturday 13 December.[citation needed]

His Violin Concerto No. 2 received its UK premiere on 8 September 2009 (the composer's 75th birthday) in the Royal Albert Hall, London, as part of the 2009 season of the BBC Proms.

On 13 October 2009, his string sextet The Last Island was first performed by the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall in a 75th birthday concert for the composer.

His Symphony No. 10 had its world premiere at the Barbican Hall, London on 2 February 2014.[26]

Throstle's Nest Junction, opus 181 (1996), and A Spell for Green Corn - The MacDonald Dances both had their London premiere at the BBC's Maida Vale studios, broadcast live on Radio 3 with the composer's participation on 19 June 2014, in celebration of his 80th birthday. The music was played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and presented by Petroc Trelawny.[27]

Insignia of C.H.

Career highlights[edit]

Selected compositions[edit]


  • Naxos Quartets – Maggini Quartet – Naxos 5-CD set 8.505225[29]
  • Missa parvula; two organ pieces; two motets – Hyperion CDA67454[30]
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis and O Sacrum Convivium – Delphian DCD34037
  • Symphonies 1–6 – BBC Philharmonic, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic / composer – Collins Classics
  • Ave Maris Stella; Image, Reflection, Shadow; Runes from a Holy Island – Fires of London / composer – Unicorn-Kanchana

Notable students[edit]


  1. ^ Life & Career – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. (10 May 2002). Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  2. ^ "Sir Peter Maxwell Davies CBE", Manchester's Theatrical & Musical Celebrities: Papillon Graphics Virtual Encyclopedia of Greater Manchester (Accessed 9 April 2010).
  3. ^ "BBC Radio 3 Live in Concert". BBC. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  4. ^ The story is detailed in Trevor Hill's autobiography, Over the Airwaves, published by Book Guild in 2005.
  5. ^ John Warnaby, "Davies, Peter Maxwell", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  6. ^ profile. The Guardian. Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  7. ^ "Peter Maxwell Davies Biography". Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Retrieved 14 August 2008. 
  8. ^ "Staff list". Royal Academy of Music. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  9. ^ "College Notices – Cambridge University Reporter 6160". 7 October 2009. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  10. ^ "Husband of Peter Maxwell Davies's Manager Arrested in Connection with Disappearance of £500,000". Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  11. ^ Coren, Victoria (2009). For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker. Canongate.  page 336 in Kindle edition
  12. ^ Brown, David (29 October 2008). "Former managers stole 450000 from Master of the Queens Music". The Times (London). Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  13. ^ Paul Cheston, "Agent Faces Jail for Stealing £1/2m from Queen's Composer", The Evening Standard (Wednesday, 21 October 2009); Derek Watson, "Jail for Manager Who Stole from Royal Composer", The Express (Tuesday 3 November 2009); Mike Wade. 2009. "Accountant Made Me Feel Worthless, Says Sir Peter; 'He Is Beneath Contempt. That Man Tortured Me'", The Times (Monday 9 November 2009).
  14. ^ "Police swan find hits wrong note". BBC News. March 18, 2005. 
  15. ^ Grew, Tony. (8 January 2007) Orkney Council moves to quell civil partnerships row- from Pink News. Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  16. ^ Grew, Tony. (11 January 2007) Orkney composer cancels ceremony plans- from Pink News. Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  17. ^ Mavis in Las Vegas (CD liner notes), Collins Classics
  18. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 60728. p. 5. 31 December 2013.
  19. ^ "New Year's Honours: Lansbury and Keith become dames". BBC News. 31 December 2013. 
  20. ^ a b "Peter Maxwell Davies says Queen has converted him to a monarchist". 19 May 2010. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  21. ^ Founder of UBR (18 May 2009). "British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors". The Unsigned band review. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 4 February 2012. 
  22. ^ Cog Design. "ISM Incorporated Society of Musicians - Incorporated Society of Musicians". ISM. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  23. ^ Stephen Moss, "Sounds and Silence", The Guardian (Friday 18 June 2004).
  24. ^ Information on the Naxos Quartets from Canterbury Christ Church University, including detailed information on Nos. 1 and 8. Retrieved on 23 July 2010.
  25. ^ The Horn Player, magazine of the British Horn Society, April 2007
  26. ^ "Sir Peter Maxwell Davies World Premiere". London Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  27. ^ "BBC SO - Peter Maxwell Davies Studio Concert". 
  28. ^ The Homertonian, Newsletter of Homerton College No 13, May 2009, p.2
  29. ^ "Naxos Quartets". Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  30. ^ "Missa parvula; two organ pieces; two motets". Retrieved 22 September 2014. 

External links[edit]

Court offices
Preceded by
Malcolm Williamson
Master of the Queen's Music
Succeeded by
Judith Weir