The British composer who was one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians has passed away aged 81.
British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died aged 81 following a prolonged battle with leukaemia. One of the UK’s most distinguished musicians, Maxwell Davies passed away at his home on the remote Scottish island of Orkney on Monday, March 14.
Affectionately known as “Max”, Maxwell Davies paired his devotion to the avant-garde experimentalism of postwar England, with a warm, unpretentious manner. His enthusiasm for music that could connect with a broad spectrum of people is reflected in his vast oeuvre. This included music for children and amateurs as well as cutting-edge music theatre works, major operas, concertos, ground-breaking ensemble pieces, a cycle of ten string quartets (known as the Naxos Quartets after the record label which commissioned them) and orchestral works including ten symphonies.
Born in the Salford area of Greater Manchester, his life as a composer began in his teenage years, followed by undergraduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music alongside Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Together the five composers would form New Music Manchester, a group committed to performing contemporary music. Each would go on to be recognised as highly influential in the music of mid-20th Century Britain.
Maxwell Davies then established one of the UK’s most important contemporary music groups, The Fires of London, which from 1965 until 1987 explored the bold theatre driven music that would launch his international career in earnest.
His radically inventive ideas, most notably within the area of music theatre, brought Maxwell Davies to international attention in the 1960s with the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King, a monodrama for baritone and ensemble based on the life of King Richard III, which interweaved theatrical elements directly into the music.
In 1971, he relocated to the remote Orkney Islands, north of the Scottish mainland. The rugged landscape and humble culture of the area would prove to be Maxwell Davies’ greatest muse. He also established the annual St Magnus Festival on the island in 1971 and reinvented the area as an important cultural destination.
His inestimable contribution to the vibrancy of British music was most significantly recognised in 1987 when he was knighted. He held the position of Master of the Queen’s Music for a decade, between 2004 and 2014, and was most recently awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Philharmonic Society – the organisation’s highest honour.
Maxwell Davies used his public profile to challenge social injustice and often used his music to provoke debate and highlight issues close to his heart. His third string quartet, premiered in 2003, confronted the issue of the British and American invasion of Iraq, for example.
He was also an accomplished conductor who held the position of associate conductor/composer with both the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He used his various conducting appointments to champion the music of many young British composers and was active throughout his life as a mentor and teacher, using his sprightly charm and sharp, affable wit to excite and inspire countless young musicians.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: essential listening