Obituary: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016)


The LSO is deeply saddened to hear of the death of the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on Monday 14 March 2016.

The LSO is deeply saddened to hear of the death of the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on Monday 14 March 2016. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. Sir Peter had been working closely with the LSO in recent years, latterly on his new children’s opera The Hogboon, which receives its premiere on 26 June 2016.

From Enfant Terrible to leading cultural figure, Max was always at the forefront of British musical life. In the 1960s in Manchester, he formed the chamber ensemble the Pierrot Players (later The Fires of London) with Harrison Birtwistle, which premiered a number of his works and those of other up-and-coming composers and established him on the avant garde scene. During the 1970s Max first visited what was to become a huge influence on his later music: Orkney. He was to live on the islands for the rest of his life, there meeting artists and poets who contributed to his works, and founding the St Magnus International Festival, which has grown into one of the most highly regarded and adventurous arts festivals in the UK. 

In 2004 Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was made Master of the Queen’s Music, a title that cemented him firmly in the British establishment and allowed him a platform from which to champion the causes he was most passionate about, particularly the teaching and development of the next generation of composers. Yet he remained outspoken, especially about politics and social matters, and unafraid to challenge the status quo in both speech and his music.

(Sir Peter Maxwell Davies with Her Majesty the Queen)

Max’s work with the LSO included world premiere performances of The Three Kings in 1995 and the fanfare Her Majesty’s Welcome in 2012 (performed by the LSO brass and young brass players from east London in the presence of HM The Queen). His works have featured prominently in schools and family concerts throughout the years, including a performance of The Turn of the Tide, written for children’s choir, for the National Education Project in 1993. 

But it was the premiere of Tenth Symphony in 2014, his 80th birthday year, that garnered the most attention. Written while Max was recovering in hospital from his first treatment for leukaemia, the work was seen as his reply to serious illness, beating 'the curse of the Ninth Symphony' that plagued so many symphonists before him. ‘It felt as if Maxwell Davies was simultaneously bowing his head to mortality, and shaking his fist at it’ said Ivan Hewett in The Daily Telegraph. The work was recorded for LSO Live, and won a Sky South Bank Award for Classical Music in 2015.

 (Sir Peter Maxwell Davies taking a bow after the premiere of his Tenth Symphony with Sir Antonio Pappano and the LSO)

Kathryn McDowell, LSO Managing Director, said: ‘We are grateful for the opportunity to have worked with this extraordinary composer in his later years - with the Tenth Symphony in 2014 and the children’s opera, The Hogboon, which he worked on during his illness and which we will premiere in June this year. His vision for music education and the wealth of wonderful pieces he has left for young people is unparalleled in recent times. He will be sorely missed.’

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ enormous compositional output meant that he was able to appeal to so many; from the hugely popular Orkney Wedding with Sunrise and his numerous stage works for children, through to the serious and dark opera Tavener and terrifying ballet Salome. He will be remembered as a giant of classical music, and especially of British music, and will be greatly missed by his many colleagues all over the world.

 (Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in rehearsal for the Tenth Symphony with Sir Antonio Pappano, Simon Halsey and Markus Butter)

Tribute written by Jo Johnson.
Lead photo Igor Emmerich


Performances with the LSO

15 Nov 1973, Royal Festival Hall
St Thomas Wake (Fox-Trot for Orchestra)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor

6 Dec 1973, Queen Elizabeth Hall
Veni Sanctus Spiritus
Norman Del Mar conductor

12 July 1978, Royal Festival Hall
Worldes Blis
David Atherton conductor

16 March 1979, Royal Festival Hall
Dances from Salome
David Atherton conductor

26 May 1988, Barbican
Symphony No 2
Kent Nagano conductor

3 March 1993, Barbican
Turn of the Tide
Richard McNicol conductor

15 Oct 1995, Barbican
The Three Kings (world premiere) 
Richard Hickox conductor
Ingrid Attrot soprano
Pamela Helen Stephen mezzo-soprano
Nigel Robson tenor
Stephen Roberts baritone
Introduced from the stage by the composer

3 Nov 2000, Barbican
Orkney Wedding with Sunrise
Richard McNicol conductor

24 Oct 2010, Barbican
Orkney Wedding with Sunrise
Stephen Bell conductor

5 Dec 2012, Barbican
Fanfare: Her Majesty's Welcome: World Premiere
For LSO On Track and LSO Brass
Robin Ticciati conductor
Her Majesty the Queen in attendance

30 Jan 2014, Barbican
Fanfare: Her Majesty's Welcome
Sir Antonio Pappano conductor
LSO On Track and LSO Brass

2 Feb 2014, Barbican
Symphony No 10 (world premiere)
Sir Antonio Pappano conductor
Markus Butter baritone