The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982


Peter Maxwell Davies has died aged 81

British composer Peter Maxwell Davies has died, three years after he was diagnosed with leukaemia

Composer Peter Maxwell Davies has died at the age of 81. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2013. Along with Harrison Birtwhistle and Alexander Goehr, Davies belonged to the Manchester School of Composers, which came together when he was studying at Royal Manchester College of Music in the 1950s. Inspired by both the tonal music of Arnold Schoenberg and the electronic and tape approaches of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Manchester school created a new strain of musical theatre in UK contemporary music. Works like Davies’s Revelation And Fall (1966) and Birtwhistle’s Punch And Judy (1968) were deemed subversive, brutal and frequently controversial. At a 1970 US staging of Davies’s Eight Songs For A Mad King, for example, the US minimalist composer Julius Eastman in the title role was directed to tear a violin from the grip of a performing musician and then destroy it. The piece, which was heckled at its UK premier a year earlier, went on to become one of Davies's most performed works.

Together with Birtwhistle, Davies co-founded the chamber music ensemble The Pierrot Players principally to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The group later morphed into The Fires Of London, the ensemble that went on to give premier performances of many of Davies’s future compositions.

In 1971 Davies moved to the Orkney Islands, some 16 kilometres north of Scotland, a life change that significantly affected his music. On occasion, the local school orchestra were called on to premier a new Davies composition in the Orkneys. “They have got huge potential as people who improvise and create marvellous music,” the composer told Brian Morton in The Wire 75 in 1990. “When I used to be in a classroom situation I didn't care what they did so long as they were directing all their person, all their being, towards making music.”

Life on the islands wasn’t always easy. Davies reputedly lived there for long spells without electricity or running water. In 2005 he had a bizarre run-in with the law, when the police cautioned him for cooking a dead swan that had flown into power lines. “I had to give a statement. I offered them coffee and asked them if they would like to try some swan terrine, but I think they were rather horrified,” he told the BBC. His tenth and last symphony, partly composed from his hospital bed after he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2013, was inspired by the Roman architect Borromini, who stabbed himself to death with his own sword in 1667.

Brian Morton interviewed Peter Maxwell Davies for The Wire 75, read it via our online archive here.