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Colin Davis (Charlie Bibby)
Colin Davis (©Charlie Bibby)

Conductor Colin Davis died last night (Sunday 14 April 2013) after a short illness. He was 85.

Colin Rex Davis was born in Weybridge, Surrey, on 25 September 1927. His family wasn’t particularly musical – his father was a bank clerk – but as a child he heard the Hans Pfitzner and Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Beethoven Eighth. Davis was captivated. He saved his coins and bought a copy of the score. "Music burst out of the pages. It was intoxicating," he later told an interviewer.

Davis came to the podium by way of the clarinet, a route that hampered his progress to some extent. Conductors were expected to be skilled at the keyboard, so the Royal College of Music refused to admit him to their conducting program. He taught himself by watching Fritz Busch, his conductor at Glyndebourne, and directing choral societies on the side.

Davis got a break in 1957 when (after 3 tries) he was accepted as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. Another break came in 1959, when he replaced an indisposed Otto Klemperer, conducing Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Coincidentally he stepped in for Thomas Beecham not long after, leading The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne.

Davis’s rise as a conductor was also damped by his own personality. The young Davis was, regrettably, known for arrogance and a lack of tact. When he sought the post of principal conductor at the London Symphony in 1964, the musicians voted overwhelmingly to reject him.

Fortunately, Davis was a reader. In the midst of a midlife crisis partly precipitated by the collapse of his marriage to soprano April Cantelo, he embraced the classics, including Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil. There he found the insight to manage his temper and learn the art of diplomacy. Davis also relaxed by knitting, proudly wearing the thick, warm sweaters of his own creation. His second marriage, to a student from Iran, Ashraf Naini (Shamsi), lasted from 1964 until Shamsi’s death in 2010.

Davis came to be known for his thoughtful readings of Mozart and Sibelius. His 1970s recordings of the Sibelius symphonies with Boston (where he was principal guest conductor from 1972 to 1984) are still a benchmark today. Many music lovers remember his 1966 Philips recording of Handel’s Messiah, which won the Grand Prix du Disque. All in all, he made over 300 recordings.

Colin Davis was deeply involved in music education. He held an international chair at the Royal Academy of Music from 1988, and was president of Dresden’s "Carl Maria von Weber" Landesgymnasium fuer Musik.

Davis received many awards. He was named a Companion of the British Empire in 1965, knighted in 1980, welcomed as a Companion of Honor in 2001, and given the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2009. The British Pipesmokers’ Council even named him Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1996.

In 1995, he was awarded the London Symphony gig for which he’d been rejected three decades earlier. He remained in that post until 2006, the longest tenure of any LSO principal conductor. In 2006, he became the LSO’s president.

Davis continued to conduct in retirement. However, after his second wife’s death in 2010, Davis’s health began to decline. He fell from the podium in 2012, and from then drastically curtailed his appearances.

"Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one’s life," Sir Colin Davis once said. He is survived by two children from his first marriage, and five from his second, including conductor Joseph Wolfe.

Further reading:

Colin Davis at Wikipedia

Colin Davis Obituary at The Guardian

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