Peter Maxwell Davies (born September 8, 1934) is an English composer of such well-known works as Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (1985) for orchestra or chamber orchestra and Highland pipes, and Symphony No.5 (1994) for orchestra, and conductor who in 2004 he was made Master of the Queen’s Music. Davies was born at Salford in Lancashire, England, the son of Thomas and Hilda Davies. 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. He took piano lessons and composed from an early age and as a 14-year-old submitted a composition called “Blue Ice” to BBC Children’s Hour in Manchester. Davies’ rise to fame began under the careful mentorship of BBC producer Trevor Hill. After attending Leigh Boys Grammar School, Davies studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music, later 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.
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. In 1959, Davies became Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School. He left in 1962 after securing a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University with the help of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten, wthere 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 to 1966. Davies was known as an ‘enfant terrible’ of the 1960s, whose music frequently shocked audiences and critics. 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 piece Vesalii Icones, and the opera Taverner. One of his overtly theatrical and shocking pieces was Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), a music-theatre work for male singer and ensemble. The orchestral piece St Thomas Wake (1969) also shows this interest, and is a particularly obvious example of Davies’s polystylism.
Davies returned to the United Kingdom and moved to the Orkney Islands, initially to Hoy in 1971, and later to Sanday. In his work Ave Maris Stella (1975) he used a 9×9 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. 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). Davies also became interested in classical forms, completing his first symphony in 1976. He has written ten numbered symphonies. Davies was Artistic Director of the Dartington International Summer School from 1979 to 1984.
Davies was made a CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1987. The ambitious, nihilistic parable Resurrection (1987), which includes parts for a rock band, was nearly twenty years in gestation. The series of ten Strathclyde Concertos for various instruments were pieces born out of his association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, 1987–1996. 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. He has been President of Making Music (The National Federation of Music Societies) since 1989. 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. In 2002, he began work on a series of string quartets for the Maggini String Quartet to record on Naxos Records. The whole series was completed in 2007. His short piano piece Farewell to Stromness entered the Classic FM Hall of Fame in 2003, his first ever entry. Also, he has been awarded a number of honorary doctorates, including Honorary Doctor of Music from Oxford University in July 2005. 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 in August 2004.
On November 25, 2006, Davies was appointed an Honorary Fellow of Canterbury Christ Church University at a service in Canterbury Cathedral. 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 December 13. A Visiting Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, in 2009 became an Honorary Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. His Violin Concerto No. 2 received its U.K. premiere on September 8, 2009, the composer’s 75th birthday, in the Royal Albert Hall, London, as part of the 2009 season of the BBC Proms. On October 13, 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 February 2, 2014. Throstle’s Nest Junction, opus 181, 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 June 19, 2014, in celebration of his 80th birthday with music played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and presented by Petroc Trelawny.
The following works by Peter Maxwell Davies are contained in my collection:
Sinfonia for chamber orchestra (1962)
Sinfonia Concertante for five solo wind instruments, tympany, and strings (1982)
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources