Peter Maxwell Davies was born in Salford, UK, in 1934. From a very early age he took piano lessons and became interested in composition. He was acquainted with the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert no less than of Berg, Bartok, Webern, Schönberg and was imbued with the sacred choral music of the English Renaissance (Gibbons, Tallis and Byrd). He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music from 1952 to 1956, where he followed notably the composition classes of Richard Hall. He continued his apprenticeship at Manchester University, preparing a thesis on the complexities of Indian music and then, thanks to a grant from the Italian government, took advanced classes for a year in Rome with Goffredo Petrassi. On his return he was appointed music director at Cirencester Grammar School (1959-1962), where his pedagogical methods for young children became well-known. He subsequently benefited from a grant to complete his training in the USA, in Princeton (1962-1964), with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. From the mid-fifties he forged a creative personality that brought together the latest subtleties of the serial music of post-war Europe and a profound interest in early music. His first pieces were born of emblematic fragments of plainchant, a quasi-serial system of permutation and isorhythmic patterns (Five motets, 1959), yet they also revealed a more luminous lyricism (the cantata Leopardi Fragments, 1962). In his compositions, he frequently uses quotations for dramatic effect.
In 1966 he left for Australia as composer in residence at Adelaide University.
The following year he founded, with Harrison Birtwistle, the ensemble The Pierrot Players that in 1970 became The Fires of London and of which he is sole director. For this group he wrote a series of dramatic works that reveal great violence associated with a desire for provocation. His highly intense music is based on a form of radical expression hitherto unknown in Great Britain. One of his best known pieces from this time is Eight Songs for a Mad King for baritone and instrumental ensemble (1969), in which the process of thematic transformation explodes into brutal parody at moments of tension; plainchant erupts within a foxtrot, and the acid of treachery flows through the score as it burns its mark into the very subject itself.
In the early 1970s Maxwell Davies settled in Scotland, in the Orkney Islands. His music then took a more lyrical turn, broader and more serene. His compositions found inspiration in the poems and stories of George Mackay Brown, whose reinterpretation of the history and mythology of the Orkneys enabled the composer to identify himself with his adopted land. The landscapes and the culture of northern Scotland became a recurrent source of inspiration for major works such as Black Pentecost for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra (1979), Into the Labyrinth, a cantata for tenor and chamber orchestra (1983), Image, Reflection, Shadow for ensemble (1982) and The Lighthouse, an opera inspired by the mysterious disappearance of some lighthouse keepers in 1900, just off the Hebrides, a work performed more than 300 times since its premiere in 1979.
Black Pentecost is a work composed as part of a campaign against the mining of uranium in the Orkneys. This song cycle heightens the representation by George Mackay Brown of an island community threatened by the economic imperatives of a multinational company. Maxwell Davies has often been committed to political and social questions, as can be seen in the third of the ten Naxos Quartets (2003), a violent, satirical protest against the second war in Iraq.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s output is both prolific (more than 300 works) and proteiform. It includes all genres: oratorio (Job, 1997), cantata (The Three Kings, 1995), opera (Taverner, 1970; The Doctor of Myddfai, 1995; Kommilitonen!, 2010), ballet (Salome, 1978;Caroline Mathilde, 1991), choral music (Lullabye for Lucy, 1981), orchestral music (Symphony n° 10, 2013), chamber music, music for solo instrument and film music. In 1971 he composed the music for two films of Ken Russell: The Devils and The Boyfriend. In 1977 he founded the Festival of Saint Magnus in the Orkneys and composed for the occasion a chamber opera, The Martyrdom of St Magnus. Continually participating in the teaching of music, he directed notably the Dartington Summer School of Music (1979-1984). He has written compositions for the pupils of the schools in Orkney (Seven Songs Home, 1981 and Songs of Hoy, 1982) as well as many pieces for young instrumentalists, including the operas The Two Fiddlers (1978) and Cinderella (1979). His scores for professional musicians embrace a broad palette of styles, revealing a growing tendency to combine different facets within a single piece. The permanent vitality of Maxwell Davies’s music stems from his ability to invent new ideas.
Military marches, pacifist quartets, satires of institutions, liturgical hymns, film music and pedagogical works: these are so many complementary genres for a composer whose music reflects preoccupations that are universal.
Maxwell Davies is also a conductor. In 1985 he became associate conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – an ensemble for which he wrote a cycle entitled Strathclyde Concertos, and from 1992 to 2002 was associate conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester. He has also conducted many orchestras in Europe and North America, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Russian National Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
For his services to music Peter Maxwell Davies was knighted by the Queen in 1987, before being appointed for ten years Master of the Queen’s Music, from 2004 to 2014.