Queen’s composer writes symphony in cancer ward

Composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is regarded as a giant figure in the classical music world. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is regarded as a giant figure in the classical music world. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The Queen’s composer is writing his latest symphony in hospital while battling an aggressive form of cancer.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, rated as the world’s greatest living classical composer, is undergoing radical chemotherapy after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia.

The 78-year-old is official Master of the Queen’s Music, and his work was played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April 2011.

However, since doctors told him he was suffering from blood cancer, he has been forced to cancel all professional engagements and leave his home on Orkney.

Now, as he prepares to undergo a second round of chemotherapy, he has spoken of his shock at the sudden diagnosis, his gratitude to the doctors treating him, and his decision to carry on composing. Sir Peter – known to his friends as Max – explained that he had been feeling unwell and rundown for some time prior to his diagnosis, and had suffered dizzy spells.

Tests confirmed in March that he was suffering from leukaemia, a cancer of the blood that affects the white blood cells and weakens the immune system that fights infection.

He was immediately admitted to a London hospital and began chemotherapy.

Doctors warned him there were no guarantees the treatment would prove effective.

Last month, after completing a first course of chemotherapy, he was allowed to leave hospital accompanied by a friend and he returned to his home on Sanday in the Orkney Islands.

Early last week, Sir Peter was told that his body had responded to chemotherapy – meaning he has been able to return to hospital for a second course of treatment.

Sir Peter said: ”I can’t say the treatment has been pleasant – as anybody who has had chemotherapy knows.

“But I want to thank and praise all the wonderful staff and doctors who have helped me reach this stage.

“Their care has been magnificent. I have also been overwhelmed and buoyed by the support of friends and well-wishers – especially on Orkney. It is at times like these you really appreciate your friends even more than normal.

“The treatment has been a battle, and I admit I have found it tough at times. But I am determined to keep on working – in fact I’ve been busy on my tenth symphony in hospital and when I went back home to Sanday. I don’t want to make too much of things, because cancer affects so many people and it is a great leveller in that sense, but I just want to say a big thank you to all who have cared for me and helped me get this far down the road.

“Like anybody who has gone through this there is uncertainty – there are no guarantees – but I am positive about the future, and if it helps give encouragement to others, then that is a positive thing, too.

“I know now what is ahead – the treatment won’t be too much of a shock, like it was the first time.”

As Master of the Queen’s Music, a role which he is due to hold until next year, Sir Peter writes a carol for the monarch each Christmas.

He has now informed the royal household of his diagnosis and has already cancelled planned a series of engagements in the UK, continental Europe and China.

He was born in Salford, Lancashire. His mother, Hilda, was of Scottish descent.

He is composer/conductor laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – for whom he wrote ten Strathclyde Concertos – and is also among the most honoured musicians in the world, holding more than 40 doctorates from universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt as well as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.