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Peter Maxwell Davies (Composer, Arranger)

Born: September 8, 1934 - Salford, Lancashire, England
Died: March 14, 2016 - Sanday, Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (=PMD), CBE is an English composer and conductor and is currently Master of the Queen's Music.


Peter Maxwell Davies was born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of Thomas and Hilda Davies. 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.

In 1962, Peter Maxwell Davies secured a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University, with the help of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten, 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 1965-1966. He then returned to the UK 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).

Peter Maxwell Davies was Artistic Director of the Dartington Summer School from 1979 to 1984 and held a number of posts. From 1992 to 2002 he was associate conductor/composer with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and he conducted a number of other prominent orchestras, including the Philharmonia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. 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. Davies was one of the first classical composers to open a music download website, MaxOpus, (in 1996).

Peter Maxwell Davies was awarded a number of honorary doctorates, at various institutions. He was 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 November 25, 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, and in 2009 became an Honorary Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge.

Peter Maxwell 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, George Frideric Handel's Messiah, and subverting it to suit his own needs.

Peter Maxwell 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.


Peter Maxwell Davies is a prolific composer who wrote 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.

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 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.

Since his move to Orkney, Peter Maxwell Davies often drew on Orcadian or more generally Scottish themes in his music, and sometimes set the words of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. He wrote 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.

Peter Maxwell Davies also became interested in classical forms, completing his first symphony in 1976. He wrote 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".

Davies's lighter orchestral works have included Min 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.

Peter 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.

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, and he 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 December 13, 2008. 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 October 13, 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

1953-1958: studied in Manchester and Rome.
1967: together with Harrison Birtwistle, founded the contemporary music touring ensemble the Pierrot Players (later renamed The Fires of London).
1971: moved to Hoy in the Orkney Islands.
1977: founded the St Magnus Festival.
1987-1996: wrote the ten Strathclyde Concertos for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
2002: embarked on a cycle of ten string quartets, commissioned by Naxos.
2004: appointed Master of the Queen's Music.
2008: became patron of the Manchester University Music Society (MUMS)
2009: became an Honorary Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge

Selected Compositions

Fantasias on an In nomine of John Taverner, for a large orchestra dividing into several chambers ensembles to be performed (1962)
Eight Songs for a Mad King, for singer/narrator/actor and chamber ensemble (1968)
Missa super l'homme armé, for male or female speaker or singer and ensemble (1968; revised 1971)
Ave Maris Stella, for chamber ensemble (1975)
The Door of the Sun, for Viola Solo, J.132 (1975)
Symphony No. 1, for orchestra (1976-1977)
The Martyrdom of St Magnus, chamber opera (1977)
The Lighthouse, chamber opera (1979)
Black Pentecost, quasi-symphony for mezzo-soprano, baritone, & orchestra (1979)
Cinderella, children's opera (1980)
Image, Reflection, Shadow, for ensemble (1982)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1985; dedicated to Isaac Stern who gave the first performance on June 21, 1986 at the St. Magnus Festival in the Orkney Islands)
Caroline Mathilde, ballet (1991)
Strathclyde Concerto No. 5, for Violin, Viola and String Orchestra, J.245 (1991)
A Spell for Green Corn: The MacDonald Dances, for violin & orchestra (1993)
The Doctor of Myddfai, opera (1996)
Job, for singers & orchestra (1977)
Mr Emmet Takes a Walk, chamber opera (2000)
Naxos Quartets, for string quartet (1001-2007)
Midhouse Air, for violin & viola
Homerton, for the choir of Homerton College, Cambridge (2010)
Kommilitonen!, opera (2011)

List of Works

See: Work list (Maxopus)

Source: Wikipedia Website (August 2011); Peter Maxwell Davies Website (Photos 01-05 + 08: John Batten; Photos 06-07: Eamonn McCabe)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (August 2011, April 2016)

Peter Maxwell Davies: Short Biography | Arrangements/Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites, the official website for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
The Profile Page of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Schott Music)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' homepage (Chester & Novello)
Peter Maxwell Davies (Boosey & Hawkes)
A biography of Peter Maxwell Davies (IRCAM)

Peter Maxwell Davies (Wikipedia)
A portrait in words of the composer by Stephen Moss (The Guardian) [2004]
Maxwell Davies and the String Quartet by Paul Driver (Composition Today)
Peter Maxwell Davies interview with Bruce Duffie



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