Obituary: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer and conductor

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer and conductor who was a former Master of the Queen's Music. Picture: Graham Jepson
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer and conductor who was a former Master of the Queen's Music. Picture: Graham Jepson
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Born 8 September, 1934 in Salford. Died 14 March, 2016 in Stromness, Orkney, aged 81.

Peter Maxwell Davies (universally and affectionately known as Max) was one of the outstanding musicians of the second half of the 20th century. His music was original in style and construction and he brought to all his works a robust individuality. Davies instinctively formed a strong connection with audiences, musicians and fellow composers. His range was extraordinary – operas, symphonies, string quartets to music for children and for his beloved Orkney community. There was Orkney Wedding with Sunrise the wonderful (and unique) work he wrote for the Boston Pops Orchestra. It depicts a riotous Orkney wedding and ceilidh and was given a riotous performance at the Last Night of the Proms.

Perhaps the music with which Davies is most associated is the lyrical piano work Farewell to Stromness. It is accessible and charming with an enchanting melody that lingers in the mind. In fact the piece was written as a protest against a proposed uranium mine near his home on Orkney. It was played at the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2005.

In 1971 Davies moved to the Orkney Islands. He responded to its wild and rugged landscape and culture with an enthusiastic energy. In 1977 he founded the St Magnus Festival which has grown in reputation and reflected his desire to involve the community – including the local school orchestras.

Peter Maxwell Davies attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers aged four and announced he was going to be a composer. A decade later he sent in a composition to BBC Manchester’s Children’s Hour and promptly became the programme’s resident composer. He then attended the Royal Manchester College of Music, where together with Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr and John Ogdon he formed the New Music Manchester Group. He studied in Rome and held academic positions (1962-66) in America and Australia.

He returned to Britain and settled in Orkney – initially at Hoy and later Sanday. But he commuted to important events – notably as artistic director of Dartington Summer School 1979-84.

But it was his increasing renown as a composer that gained him much attention and His Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) was often played. Indeed it was given a memorable production at the 1971 Edinburgh Festival in the Haymarket Ice Rink.

The Lighthouse, an opera about events on a creepy lighthouse, was given its world premiere at the Festival in 1979. Davies brought a mysterious and ominous air to the score. The Scotsman critic wrote: “It is a virtuoso piece, very direct in its impact but stimulatingly intricate in the demands it makes on its performers.” It was hailed as the hit of the Festival.

The inspiration Davies gained from Orkney was enhanced through its people. His friendship with the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown resulted in the elegiac song cycle From Stone to Thorn and Hymn to St Magnus. Another friend on the island was the painter and school master Ian McInnes, to whom Davies dedicated the instrumental septet Seven Skies of Winter. Significantly, and appropriately, Davies’ last work, A Torrent of Gold, a setting of words by George Mackay Brown was premiered three months ago.

Davies, despite being honoured and serving as Master of the Queen’s Music, delighted in being openly gay and an outsider. In 1993, the Arts Council proposed to reduce the grants of two London orchestras. Davies promptly threatened to return his knighthood to the Palace. He was a devoted environmentalist, a republican, and railed against large organisations: religious, social and political. He hated mobiles going off in concerts (“its musical terrorism”) but he was always a most courteous and charming man. He made himself available to the media with a joyous smile and at social functions Davies was wonderful company.

He had established close relationships with many musicians in Scotland – notably the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The latter he conducted often especially a series in 1990 and the orchestra performed the Orkney Wedding on a tour of China in 2012 with the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland and solo piper Iain Crawford. “The Chinese audiences went wild,” one observer recalls.

His collaboration with the SCO dates from 1983 and included the premiere of Ebb of Winter at the wonderful Max at 80 Prom last year. He was the SCO’s Composer Laureate and central to his association was the 10 Strathclyde concerti that Davies composed specially for members of the SCO. “Max was a man of great personal warmth and compassion” SCO’s chief executive Roy McEwan said yesterday. “He was a fearless campaigner and will always be an important part of the SCO’s life and indeed the musical life of Scotland.”