Sir Colin Davis
25 September 1927 ‒ 14 April 2013
In the early days of his career, Sir Colin Davis was a man whose professional encounters were often as tempestuous as his private life.
In the early sixties, as his marriage to soprano April Cantelo foundered when he fell in love with the Iranian au pair, his career was taking off with his appointment as music director at Sadler’s Wells Opera (now English National Opera).
In 1967 he became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in 1970 succeeded Sir Georg Solti as music director at Covent Garden, then spent ten years at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra before returning to the UK to become principal conductor of the LSO.
Players in any of those orchestras could talk about his sometimes irascible temperament, and audiences too gave him a rough ride ‒ he was often booed at the Royal Opera House, where Solti was a tough act to follow. (He famously booed back and stuck his tongue out.) It was a harsh learning curve for a sensitive man, the fifth of seven children in a family that was not affluent.
Starting musical life as a clarinet student, he won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music where he was barred from the conducting class because he could not play the piano. So it was a largely self-taught conductor who was appointed as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra in 1957, and he came to public attention when he stood in for an ailing Otto Klemperer to conduct Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland in Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall in 1959 and took over from Sir Thomas Beecham to make his Glyndebourne debut the following year.
His first concert with the LSO came in 1959, and despite early, mutual rancour between conductor and players, it was the beginning of a relationship that blossomed into one of music’s most enduring and fruitful partnerships. He became renowned for his interpretations of Mozart, Sibelius, Berlioz, Bruckner, Mahler and Tippett. Aged 80, he conducted the premiere of James MacMillan’s St John Passion.
Sir Colin would speak openly and philosophically about his transition from fiery and naïve youth to mellow elder statesman, and the sheer volume of tributes that have been paid bear witness to his place in the genuine affections of so many people.
SIR COLIN REMEMBERED
LSO: ‘Sir Colin’s role in British musical life was immense. He will be remembered with huge affection and admiration by the LSO.’
Antonio Pappano: ‘His passing represents an end of an era, where grit, toil, vision and energy were the defining elements of a leading international opera house. The warmth and excitement of his music-making will be terribly missed. He was a giant. A very sad moment for British music.’
Roger Wright: ‘Sir Colin Davis will be hugely missed by all in the classical music world. His last performance at the BBC Proms two years ago, a towering interpretation of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, was a reminder of the special qualities of his conducting and his big hearted and deep musicianship. He was also keen to share his knowledge and spent time working with young musicians. His death is an enormous loss to music.’
Sir Nicholas Kenyon: ‘Sir Colin was one of the great musicians of our time, and for over half a century and more he played a central part in our musical lives. He will be sadly missed here at the Barbican for his wonderful relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra, for his total professionalism at the service of great music, and for his encouragement of young people’s music-making.’
David Temple: ‘It was after watching him conduct Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the early nineties that I decided to ask if I could spend some time with him on this score. He agreed to meet with me at his house in Highbury at 8am one Sunday morning. For the next four hours we looked at every detail. I will never forget that session with him (for which he did not want a fee) and the principles he passed on in that one session have remained with me ever since.’
Imogen Cooper: ‘A wonderful musician, whose humanity and ever fresh love of and wonder at music made collaboration with him unique. What a contribution he has made to the musical world.’