Peter Maxwell Davies

Peter Maxwell Davies

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CBE (born 8 September 1934) is an English composer and conductor and is currently Master of the Queen's Music.[1]



Davies was born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of Thomas and Hilda Davies.[2] He took piano lessons and composed from an early age. After education at 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 before working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School from 1959 to 1962.[3]

In 1962, he secured a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University, with the help of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten,[4] where 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, where he lives with his partner Colin Parkinson. 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 Summer School from 1979 to 1984 and has held a number of posts. 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.[5]

He has been awarded a number of honorary doctorates, at various institutions. 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. Oxford awarded him an honorary Doctor of Music degree in July 2005. On 25 November 2006, Sir Peter was appointed an Honorary Fellow of Canterbury Christ Church University at a service in Canterbury Cathedral. He is also a visiting professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music,[6] and in 2009 became an Honorary Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge.[7]

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.[8][9] In October 2008 Arnold and his wife Judith (Davies' former agent) were charged with the theft of almost £450,000.[10] In November 2009, Michael Arnold was sentenced to 18 months in jail.[11] 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 to suit his own needs.

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.[12] He later abandoned his plans.[13]

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.[14]

Political views

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 center 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 has been an outspoken critic of the Ministries of both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.[15]

Davies' 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."[15]


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 Harrison Birtwistle no longer regarded him as a modernist.[16][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 eight numbered symphonies since—a symphonic cycle of the Symphonies Nos.1–7 (1976–2000), a Symphony No. 8 titled the 'Antarctic' (2000), 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".[17]

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.

Maxwell Davies's 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,[18] 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 performed for the first time by the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall in a 75th birthday concert for the composer.

Career highlights

Selected compositions

  • Fantasias on an In nomine of John Taverner (1962; For a large orchestra dividing into several chambers ensembles to be performed)
  • Eight Songs for a Mad King (1968; for singer/narrator/actor and chamber ensemble)
  • Missa super l'homme armé (1968, rev. 1971; for male or female speaker or singer and ensemble)
  • Ave Maris Stella (1975; chamber ensemble)
  • The Door of the Sun for Viola Solo, J.132 (1975)
  • Symphony No. 1 (1976–77; orchestra)
  • The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1977; chamber opera)
  • The Lighthouse (1979; chamber opera)
  • Black Pentecost (1979; quasi-symphony: mezzo-soprano, baritone, & orchestra)
  • Cinderella (1980; children's opera)
  • Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982; ensemble)
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1985; dedicated to Isaac Stern who gave the first performance on 21 June 1986 at the St. Magnus Festival in the Orkney Islands)
  • Caroline Mathilde (1991; ballet)
  • Strathclyde Concerto No. 5 for Violin, Viola and String Orchestra, J.245 (1991)
  • A Spell for Green Corn: The MacDonald Dances (1993; violin, orchestra)
  • The Doctor of Myddfai (1996; opera)
  • Job (1997; singers, orchestra)
  • Mr Emmet Takes a Walk (2000; chamber opera)
  • Naxos Quartets (2001–2007; string quartet)
  • Midhouse Air for Violin and Viola
  • Homerton (2010; for the choir of Homerton College, Cambridge)
  • Kommilitonen! (2011; opera)


  • Naxos Quartets – Naxos 8.505225[20]
  • Missa parvula; two organ pieces; two motets – Hyperion CDA67454[21]
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis and O Sacrum Convivium – Delphian DCD34037
  • Symphonies 1 – 6 – BBC Philharmonic/composer – Collins Classics
  • Ave Maris Stella; Image, Reflection, Shadow; Runes from a Holy Island – Fires of London/composer – Unicorn-Kanchana

Notable students


  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. ^ 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).
  4. ^ profile. The Guardian. Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  5. ^ "Peter Maxwell Davies Biography". Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.. Retrieved 14 August 2008. 
  6. ^ "Staff list". Royal Academy of Music. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  7. ^ College Notices – Cambridge University Reporter 6160. (7 October 2009). Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  8. ^ Husband of Peter Maxwell Davies's Manager Arrested in Connection with Disappearance of £500,000, Playbill Arts, May 2007
  9. ^ Coren, Victoria (2009). For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker. Canongate.  page 336 in Kindle edition
  10. ^ Brown, David (29 October 2008). "Former managers stole 450000 from Master of the Queens Music". The Times (London). Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  11. ^ [1][dead link]
  12. ^ Grew, Tony. (8 January 2007) Orkney Council moves to quell civil partnerships row- from Pink News. Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  13. ^ Grew, Tony. (11 January 2007) Orkney composer cancels ceremony plans- from Pink News. Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  14. ^ Mavis in Las Vegas (CD liner notes), Collins Classics
  15. ^ a b Peter Maxwell Davies says Queen has converted him to a monarchist. Daily Telegraph (19 May 2010). Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  16. ^ Mr. Unstoppable, The Guardian, 2004.
  17. ^ Information on the Naxos Quartets from Canterbury Christ Church University, including detailed information on Nos. 1 and 8. Retrieved on 23 July 2010.
  18. ^ The Horn Player, magazine of the British Horn Society, April 2007
  19. ^ The Homertonian, Newsletter of Homerton College No 13, May 2009, p.2
  20. ^ Naxos Quartets, Naxos
  21. ^ Missa parvula; two organ pieces; two motets, Chester Novello

External links

Court offices
Preceded by
Malcolm Williamson
Master of the Queen's Music
Succeeded by
Current Incumbent

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