Obituary: Sir Colin Davis (1927–2013)

Helen Petchey

When I went to my first Prom concert aged 12 I did not envisage that I would one day be singing with the man on rostrum. I was fortunate to join the LSC just before Sir Colin took us on his Berlioz Odyssey. Thanks to his almost evangelical zeal for Berlioz's music I became a true convert! His joy and love for the music he was conducting was infectious. His communication with his performers was second to none. Thank you Sir Colin for giving me some of the most memorable moments of my life. Will miss you.


Peter Payne

To Sir Colin I owe musical experiences as great as anyone could hope for in a lifetime from my first hearing as a teenager of Les Troyens in a concert version with the Chelsea Opera Group in the early '60's to the first ever staged performance complete at Covent Garden in the '70's to the Barbican concert versions with the LSO and a very exceptional cast of soloists in 1993. Also unforgettable was the Last Night of the Proms where he directed the audience in singing the 'Carthaginian National Anthem'. My regret is through living abroad not being able to attend more recent concerts, although the millenium Prom Berlioz Requiem was still a treasure even via television. My condolencies to family and the LSO. I much hope a comprehensive tribute to Sir Colin's life and work is broadcast.


Michael Ludvik

My condolences to the family and friends he left behind.


The musical world will be forever in your debt for your performances and recordings of especially Mozart and Berlioz. I could mention Sibelius and Haydn as well.


It is a sad day for lovers of great music all over the world.


John Levison

I was fortunate to live in London and go to the Barbican regularly when Sir Colin was Chief Conductor of the LSO. What was very clear was the extraordinary rapport he had with the orchestra and the results were routinely superb. I have many cherished memories, not only of Berlioz & Sibelius but also Elgar, Brahms, Bruckner and Britten. He will be very greatly missed and my thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.



Most loved, most admired. Thank your, Sir Colin.


Gerrards Cross Community Association (GXCA) Concert Goers

All of us were looking forward very much to the concert on 16 June 2013, when Sir Colin Davis hoped to be back to swing the baton once again. Sadly, it was not to be. Sir Colin will be missed very much, but as he himself once said, "the music must and will go on." Each one of us will remember many truly inspiring performances conducted by Sir Colin Davis over the years. May Sir Colin rest in peace. Our thoughts are with his family, and also with the LSO.


Pawel Kotla

I am deeply sadden to hear about the death of Sir Colin Davis. I have never met a more accomplished musician in my life and one in whom the amazing, almost metaphysical musicality was combined with a deep sense of honest humanity. Such a rarity these days in this PR driven age, where music is supposed to make us only "excited" rather than make us think or feel deeper human emotions and empathy for what other people feel.


He was a legend to me already when I studied conducting in Poland 20 years ago. I would have never expected back then that one day I would have a great privilege of meeting him on regular basis and having him sharing his vaulable experience over the scores of Mendelssohn, Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.


There was this little routine there. I would arrange a meeting through his PA. Then I would visit my friends at the fantastic Theatre of Wine shop in Greenwich, with whom I would carefully select a bottle of wine which might be to Sir Colin's taste (usually red). They would pack that for me beautifully, attach a label with hand written tasting notes, and then I would turn up on his doorstep at his wonderful house in Highbury&Islington. He would greet me at the entrance and then we would go to his study on first floor where he would generously share his secrets about finding his way through an orchestral score: how to balance the harmony, the orchestration, find the best articulation, control the speed and (probably his greatest secret) how to control the musical time. He had an amazing ability of literally controlling how the audience perceives the length of every phrase, whether it lasted a few seconds or minutes. As a listener one always felt breathing and feeling his time.


There was something else that I truly admired about him. In this age of global communication and fast international travel he was probably one of the last conductors of such stature who managed to build his international career while being linked to one city for almost all of his life. Most of the work he has done was done within just few tube stops from his family home (London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Opera, BBC Symphony). That meant that he probably did not have to make such hard choices between his professional and family life as many artists need to do these days.


My involvement in a large project back in Poland meant that we stopped meeting for many months. It also coincided with the death of his wife. But just as I was preparing for my concert with National Orchestra of Ukraine in January this year I sent a message to his wonderful PA Alison asking if maybe there would be a chance to meet Sir Colin again. I was to conduct Symphony no. 2 by Sibelius and for me there wasn't any musician who would understand better not only this composer's music but also his dark, slightly tragic set of mind. I was thrilled when the reply was positive.


This time we met in the living room downstairs, Sir Colin sitting in a chair, with visibly less energy and speaking in a quiet voice. Over an hour later, when we finished talking about Sibelius, I felt this strong urge to ask him this question: "Sir Colin, with your years of experience with great music, with wonderful orchestras, what do you think is really important in good conducting, what is the "secret" that you really think you would like to share of how you accomplished such a high level of artistry and understanding with fellow musicians?". He looked at me, probably a bit surprised, and replied after a moment: "Don't tell them what to do, don't make them do things, and most of all - don't make them do things that they may not understand why they have to do them. As a conductor you should always make them listen, help them listen, and then everything will be natural and clear".


Bernadette Colquhoun

I am very sorry to hear the sad news.I was so lucky to meet him in 1971 during the last week of the Proms. It was an amazing week of music and one of my life ambitions, Last night of the Proms, and an autograph from Colin Davis.


ye jun

i heard this message yesterday.i am so sad.sir Colin used to give me such a lot power of music in my life. I love him forever,and as same as all the music lovers feeling at this time.great Sibelius and Berlioz recordings will keep me memory his great life.i love him! from china.


Robert Randall

Sir Colin's recordings of the Sibelius symphonies were the reason I did my undergraduate dissertation on them and still love them thirty years later. RIP to a truly great conductor and musician.


Tom Brown

The news of Sir Colin's passing fills me with great sadness and I extend my sympathy to his family and the wonderful musicians of the LSO.


For many Londoners of my generation (born 1956) he, more than any other conductor, invited us into classical music and thereby gave us such life-long joy.


My late mother, Rosemary Brown, acquired a certain fame in the late 1960s with her claim to be writing down new musical compositions from various dead composers. Sir Colin's recording company, Phillips, also signed my mother to make a disc of her compositions. As a result I recall vividly going to Covent Garden in 1970 for a special launch event in the auditorium of the studio recording of Les Troyens, and being allowed to attend one of the recording sessions of the Berllioz Te Deum in Westminster Cathedral. The Phillips' classical music manager, Jack Boyce, gave my mother a new 'cassette player' with several of Sir Colin's Berlioz recordings. My mother was actually not terribly interested in listening to recodings (her life long people gave her records which she never played!) but I was instantly mesmerized by the sound world of Sir Colin's LSO recording of the Symphonie Fantastique. I still treasure my 18th Birthday present - the boxed set of all Sir Colin's Berlioz orch

estral recordings.


As I discovered opera, Sir Colin again was there leading unforgettable performances of so many works at Covent Garden: his range was actually astonishingly wide, how fortunate I was to have been introduced to so many diverse masterpieces with his unerring musicianship - Don Giovanni, Elektra, Idomeneo, Ariadne auf Naxos, Meistersinger, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff, Otello, Birthday of the Infanta, Enfant et les Sortileges, Zauberfloete, and above all Ring cycles which in Goetz Friedrich's 1970s production remain indelibly etched, as well as the knock-out performances of Lulu and Peter Grimes (the latter fortunately recorded).


His performances at the Proms were always a highlight. And how proud we were when the invitations poured in to conduct many of the greatest orchestras of the world - and what remarkable performances in Boston, Dresden, Munich and many other cities!


Last summer I was privileged to be at the performance of Berlioz' Requiem in St Paul's Cathedral. Sitting under the great dome, the music making was as beautiful and electric as one could hope. The remarkable thing seemed to be Sir Colin's modesty - he was the greatest of communicators of music, but never put himself between the music and the audience. How sad that this was to be his last performance with the LSO, but how fitting in a way that it was Berlioz' blazing masterpiece in London's great cathedral and with the orchestra with which he will always be most closely associated.


John Nance

I was fortunate enough to hear Sir Colin and the great LSO play Berlioz, Banks (with Barry Tuckwell on horn) and Bliss in Sydney in 1966. Teaching a long way out of Sydney, I made a flying visit home especially for this concert. I was also lucky enough to hear him conduct at Cadogan Hall in 2007 when I was visiting London. His genius with Berlioz, Tippett and Stravinsky on record will forever stay with me. Sad news but his glorious contribution to music will never be forgotten.


Tim Smith

About 15 years ago, Sir Colin came to Rooks Heath High School in Harrow to take a rehearsal with their orchestra. As they had few members, the Roxeth Manor Primary School Orchestra (next door) was invited to join in. We worked hard together to learn some new pieces and then spent two hours with Sir Colin putting us through our paces. He insisted on us playing at his speed (rather than the slower tempi we'd practised!) and really made the children play.

He was relaxed and good humoured, gracious and tolerant of young players, some of whom had only been learning for 18 months.

Thank you, Sir Colin.


Affonso Gouveia

Obrigado maestro,

Obrigado pela sua existência e nos ter emocionado com seu trabalho impecável de extrema sensibilidade e perfeição. Estou muito triste, me sinto órfão.

Minhas condolências a família deste grande Maestro.


John Trayner

Most of my memories of Sir Colin come from attending the Proms. If you were lucky enough to be at the front of the arena you were literally standing at his feet. Of all his concerts I heard the outstanding one was a performance of the Berlioz Te Deum in I think 1970. Unfortunately I decided to miss his performance of the Missa Sloemnis in 2012 thinking there would be another opportunity in the future. Now there never will. Thankfully we have his recording legacy to remind us of his greatness.


Eileen Fox

At this, the saddest time, I'd like to remember some of the great joy Sir Colin brought to his music making. His sometimes vigorous conducting style quite often led to a baton being launched into the woodwinds, and the first desk if cellos always kept a spare, just in case. On this occasion (a Missa Solemnis if I remember it correctly) the baton flew out of his hand during a busy 4/4 section, and in the few moments it took him to get another, the ensemble rocked somewhat and it took a few bars to get everybody back on the rails. Asked later about the moment, he said, "When I picked up the new baton, the b****y thing was in 5!"



Conducting the entire TROJANS with Chelsea Opera Group on a blazing hot summer Sunday in Oxford Town Hall, praising young music makers to the audience when he and Tippett ran the Bath Festival, kindly words of encouragement to young conductors at an LSO Conductors workshop , and all those operas (especially Berlioz and Mozart), and the oddly charming walks to and from the podium at LSO concerts - happy memories, wonderful man, great music maker.


Ángel Ponce de León

Lamento la pérdida de este gran director universal.



So very sad to hear of Sir Colin's death. His wonderful work accompanied my musical life from the time we saw him at the Last Night of the Proms supporting Sir Malcolm Sargent. He had the kind of breadth of knowledge which is now becoming rare. He was unassuming, inspired and inspiring; he was humane, humorous and generous spirited. The world has lost a wonderful human being; the world of music has lost a brilliant exponent and champion. Sympathy and condolence to the LSO and Sir Colin's family and a silent 'Thank you' to him.


douglas gray

Never seen Sir Colin conduct live but have heard many broadcasts and have many cd's conducted by him. Think the first time I seen him was on the television when he came on to conduct a prom when Sir Malcolm Sargeant was ill, and now he has gone. So sad.


Juan Zozaya

Terrible loss, his musicality, know

ledge and sensitivity live on....


Christopher Dodrill

Deeply shocked and saddened on behalf of all of Sir Colin's admirers in New York. We feel a very great loss.


Juliet Snell

What a priviledge it was to work with this great man. I first came across him as a child, watching Mozart opera at Covent Garden. Little did I know then how lucky I was..

I have vivid memories of concerts and rehearsals I played with Sir Colin. They were real highlights, never to be forgotten.


Alberto Barranco

My sincerest condolences to his family and friends. Thanks for your Music, your thoughts. Thanks for everything you have taught us.


Patrick GOUJON

Such a great musician, who gave us such wonderful interpretations of the French composers !

Thank you, Sir Colin Davis,

from Paris


Ibon Santiago

His recordings of Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Requiem were my introduction to classical music. As a little kid I listened to those 1966 revolutionary interpretations and ended up associating the name of Sir Colin Davis with the equivalent of perfection.

He and not others embodied so well a pragmatic mind and a tender heart with his baton.


dr ronnie taylor

Dear Sir Colin,

The personal debt I owe you is immense. Through one of your recordings I began, as a child, my lifelong passionate engagement with classical music. You later became and remained central to my experiences of live music. Among many, I treasure in particular unforgettable performances of Fidelio, Les Troyens, and of the Verdi Requiem; but perhaps inevitably above all of Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, at my very first visit to Covent Garden, and years later, La clemenza di Tito. Your death is news, for the musical world, I have always dreaded to hear. My deepest gratitude, always. RIP.


Alexander Jensen

Sir Colin Davis was one of the few artist who was able to move people with his music. He had the ability to change lives with his inspiring way of conducting , and his way interpret music. He is with no doubt sitting beside some of the worlds biggest musicians like Mozart and Beethoven right now. You will always be remembered. Thank you for all your great music, and for the inspirational figure you was for me. Thanks.

Condolences from a danish fan.


Simon Reed

A fine person of English history of music. I grew up listening to Mozart and Mahler with my parents in the 70's and 80's. His performances shown on TV and now listening through CD's will be a constant reminder of a perfect English gentleman with the ability to 'move' the passion of music.


My thoughts and respect to his family, friends and so many colleagues.


Stephen Popkiss

So sad that surely England's greatest conductor of all time is gone. My memories go back to 1968 when I was but 9 years old. My first 'live' Stravinsky concert - Petrushka in Bath of all places! Around then I bought one of my first LPs - that great Beethoven 7 (never surpassed) with the RPO.

I remember (from radio and TV) Sir Colin's years with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - the Proms (so much more than the last nights - Mahler 8, Les Troyens, countless Tippett performances, Figaro).

Then I finally moved to London in 1986 and was priviliged to experience those golden years of his music making at the Barbican. I remember the unforgettable Sibelius cycle in 1993, Les Troyens in the same year all with the LSO (indeed it was a golden age!), the Berlioz Te Deum, the Beethoven Emperor at the Barbican with Michelangeli, the 1998 Prom in the year of Sir Michael Tippett's death (Beethoven Op 127 orch C Matthews and A Child of our Time - by now (thanks largely to Sir Colin) recognised as a masterpiece).

Brave and courageous in his championing of Berlioz and Tippett in particular - we owe him a vast debt of gratitude, and his recorded legacy will surely never be forgotten.


Javier Hernández

Un director de orquesta excepcional. Siempre consiguió que la música que dirigía se apoderara total y felizmente de mi. Nos quedan sus grabaciones y su recuerdo. Gracias Sir Colin Davis


Rod Stafford

LSO Friend

With the sad, sad news of Sir Colin's passing the world is a lesser place for we have lost not only one of the greatest of all conductors, but also a quite exceptional person. I send my sincere condolences to his immediate family - and to his wider family of countless musicians and music lovers whose lives have been enriched by Sir Colin.


For more than 50 years I have marvelled at the integrity, the humanity and the great sense of love for the music that so characterised his performances. His breadth was enormous: although his Berlioz, Mozart and Sibelius were incomparable, his unique wisdom and authority also gave us magnificent readings of much of the concert and operatic repertoires.


I was fortunate to hear him conduct many orchestras on hundreds of different occasions. He inspired many to play better than they believed possible, and the unique and wondrous collaboration with his beloved LSO gave the world one of the greatest of all conductor / orchestra partnerships. His memory will burn bright forever with his gift to us of an enormous recorded legacy to remind us always of his music making. Farewell, Sir Colin, and thank you...


Geoff Bateman

Very sad to hear of the passing of Sir Colin. Although I live in W Yorks, I attend 12/15 concerts in London each season, and Sir Colin's were always among the season's highlights. I grew up with many of his recordings and we can be grateful he left such a rich legacy of them. RIP.


Catherine Bradshaw

Sincerest condolences to all the family. I shall forever be inspired by Colin as an incredible and honest musician, and by his generosity with his time with his wonderful chamber music coaching from which I benefitted and am honoured to have experienced - I cannot quantify how much I learnt, and how much encouragement he gave, and shall always be grateful. Thank you.


Marc Charles Ricard - AFLSC Board USA

Upon hearing the news of Sir Colin's passing, all of the wonderful memories of past performances came flooding back to me as a wave of gratitude for his kind smile, patient hand, true understanding of what God intended music to be. And then, a single passage of music filled my head and heart. Sir Colin conducting Elgar's " The Dream of Gerontius", December 2005 at the Barbican, and I heard again "Softly and Gently" with Ann Sofie von Otter's beautiful voice, as she carried our ransomed souls into our final resting place. There are no words to describe the feeling of peace and unity with Almighty God in those tender moments. As a performer, you are grateful for the opportunity and blessed to have had the privilege of working with him. I will never forget him and I wish his family that peace that passes human understanding.