Maxwell Davies was born in Salford. He took piano lessons and composed from an early age. After education at Leigh Grammar School, he 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 briefly studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome before working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School from 1959 to 1962.
After a further period of study on a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim, Davies moved to Australia, where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 1965-66. He then returned to the United Kingdom, and moved to Sanday, one of the Orkney Islands, in 1971. Orkney (particularly its capital, Kirkwall) hosts the St. Magnus Festival, an arts festival founded by Davies in 1977. He frequently uses it to premier new works (often played by the local school orchestra).
Davies was Artistic Director of the Dartington Summer School from 1979 to 1984 and has held a number of posts and been awarded a number of honorary doctorates at various institutions since then. 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. 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.
Davies is gay and has a keen interest in environmentalism.
Note on name: 'Maxwell' is a middle name, not part of a surname. To his friends, Davies is known as 'Max'.
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. Early works often use serial techniques, 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 expressionism and a violent character - these include Revelation and Fall, 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' polystylism, combining, as it does, foxtrots, a pavan by John Bull and Davies' 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 the use of Magic squares as to devise composition rules. 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 tones of a plainsong 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 calmer style, reflecting the calm which Davies found at his new home, Orkney. Some have drawn a comparison between this later style and the music of Jean Sibelius.
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, 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 a number of other symphonies since, as well as the series of ten Strathclyde Concertos for various instruments (pieces born out of his association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) and, in the early 21st century, has begun work on a series of string quartets for the Maggini String Quartet to record on the Naxos record label (the so-called Naxos Quartets).
Davies has also written a number of lighter orchestral works such as Mavis in Las Vegas and An 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.
Maxwell Davies' Farewell to Stromness entered the Classic FM Hall of Fame in 2003, his first ever entry.
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