Sir Colin Davis (born 1927) is considered by critics as one of Britain's greatest conductors. His illustrious career has been marked by extended relationships with the Symphony Orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He is well known for his interpretations of Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky.
Obsession with Music
Sir Colin Davis was born on September 25, 1927, in Weybridge, Surrey, England. He was the fifth of seven children born to Reginald George, a bank clerk, and Lillian Constance (Colbran) Davis. The large family lived in a flat above a shop. Although his mother played the piano occasionally and his father was known to have a soothing tenor voice, neither of his parents were musicians, but rather simply music lovers. From a very early age, Davis showed a tremendous interest in music. His father had a large collection of classical music, and Davis spent hours listening to composers such as Elgar, Delius, Debussy, Sibelius, and Wagner. By the age of nine, Davis had become something of a loner, spending a great deal of time reading and listening to music. Davis applied for a scholarship to attend King's School in Wimbledon, where the family had since moved. After he failed the scholarship exam, his mother convinced the authorities at the boarding school to allow Davis to take it again. He did and, much to his mother's delight, passed. However, by that time, one of his brothers had graduated from Christ's Hospital Boys School, thereby leaving a space for Davis to enroll, which he did in 1938.
Upon entering the boarding school, Davis began studying the clarinet. He had already set his sights on becoming a musician, a career path generally discouraged by his instructors who wanted rather to push him toward the fields of biology or chemistry, subjects at which Davis also excelled. At the age of 13, music turned from a deep love to a strong obsession after listening to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony on a record his brothers had given him. His family did not exactly understand Davis's musical obsession, but nonetheless remained supportive. One of his two older sisters, Yvonne, told Davis's biographer Alan Blyth about Davis's visits to the family over school holidays. "He thought we were half-baked, probably because we didn't appreciate his music enough. We tried to tell him that there were other things besides music. Not that we were against his interest in it; in fact we always gave him miniature scores for his birthday." By the age of fourteen, Davis had still not been dissuaded from pursuing music. He also had a new, as yet undisclosed, desire: He wanted to become a conductor.
The Road to Conducting
Despite the lack of enthusiasm expressed by his instructors at Christ's Hospital, Davis won a clarinet scholarship to the Royal College of Music. There he expressed his wish to be a conductor. The school, however, found him lacking in piano, an instrument not to his liking, and music theory, prerequisites for conducting classes. Davis told The Economist in 1991: "I was given a clarinet at the age of 11. You can never make up for the earliest years that a child spends practicing the piano. I don't like the sound of a piano. Conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing. I studied singing, and breathing has lots to do with the length of a musical phrase. The difference between something alive and something dead is that the living thing breathes." Forbidden to study conducting, Davis began to doubt his ability to fulfill his dream, yet he also believed that musicians were confronted by challenges that tested their resolve. With no formal training, Davis learned his conducting skills by independent study, memorizing musical scores and developing his baton technique by "conducting" classical records.
In 1946 Davis was called into military service. He joined the Household Calvary and played clarinet in His Majesty's Life Guards Band. A rather easy assignment, the band played at parades and events for George VI. Stationed in Windsor, Davis was conveniently close to London and often found time to attend concerts. During his two years of military duty, he was able to experience the talents of important conductors such as Beecham, Bruno Walter, and Eduard van Beinum. After his discharge in 1948 Davis began his apprenticeship as a conductor.
In 1949 when a group of musicians from the Royal College who regularly played together to hone their skills and learn new music decided to delve into orchestral arrangements, they needed a conductor, and Davis was asked to fill the job. Forming themselves as the Kalmar Orchestra, the group practiced every Wednesday in the basement of the Ethical Church in Bayswater. The following year he was tapped to conduct the semi-professional Chelsea Opera Group, a small orchestra that attracted attention for its performances of Mozart operas in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. He made his professional debut in 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, where he conducted ballet performances. He also gained experience working with the Ballet Russe and the Ipswich Orchestral Society.
Although Davis was gaining recognition for his conducting, he still had to supplement his income as a concert clarinetist. During this time of transition, steady work was difficult to come by for Davis. Those looking for a conductor still considered him primarily a clarinetist; those looking for a clarinetist had already relabeled him a conductor. The result was several financially lean years during which Davis conducted as often as he could, but also took odd jobs, such as conducting at music camps and summer schools and giving lessons at Cambridge. Davis felt the added pressure of supporting his growing family. He had married soprano April Rosemary Cantelo in 1949; the couple had two children, a daughter and a son, before divorcing in 1964.
Davis's first significant break came in 1957. After applying twice previously for a post as an assistant conductor for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow, Davis's third application was accepted. Over the next two years with the BBC, Davis honed his skills, expanded his repertoire, and gained much needed experience. He also continued his relationship with the Chelsea Opera Group and served as a guest conductor for the Scottish National Orchestra. During this time, Davis's varied works included Falstaff, Fidelio, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Seraglio, and a highly touted Don Giovanni at the 1959 Edinburgh Festival.
In 1959 Davis was invited to become the music director of Sadler's Wells, an opera company based in London. Just a few months after accepting the job, Davis received his second, and most important, break of his career. On October 18, 1959, famed conductor Otto Klemperer fell ill before a performance of the London Philharmonic that he was scheduled to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall. Davis was asked to step in. The performance was Mozart's Don Giovanni, an opera with which Davis was extremely familiar. With a highly talented cast on stage and in the orchestra, Davis's performance over the next two nights was received with spectacular reviews. He had, at the age of thirty two, been "discovered" as the next great British conductor.
Davis's career had struggled to get off the ground, but after October 18, 1959, he became an instant celebrity. "I wasn't ready," he told Blyth, "to be the kind of success that I was supposed to be." Despite his misgivings about his sudden fame, Davis set off on several extended tours, including a series of guest appearances with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra. The following year, in 1960, he once again stepped into the limelight when he filled in for another famed conductor. This time, Sir Thomas Beecham had fallen ill, and Davis was called on to lead a performance of The Magic Flute at the Glyndebourne Festival. Again, Davis's conducting was lauded by the public and critics alike.
Life in the Spotlight
In 1960 Davis was named principal conductor at Sadler's Wells, a position he maintained until 1965. In 1964, he married Ashraf Nani, a student of Persian descent. Also during this time he made his debut in the United States. In 1961 he appeared with the Minneapolis Symphony, and in 1964, he performed at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of a worldwide tour of the London Symphony Orchestra. These appearances greatly increased Davis's international fame. In 1965 he was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire; he was knighted in 1980. At the end of 1965 Davis was rumored to be in line to become the next chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra; however, the position was given to Istvan Kertesz. Instead, Davis accepted an offer to become the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a position that became effective in 1967. During the interim, Davis most often affiliated himself with the London Symphony Orchestra and traveled to the United States for several extended engagements. He also produced recordings under the Philips label, including the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus's performance of Handel's Messiah, which won France's Grand Prix du Disque Mondiale. A 1966 performance of Berlioz's' opera Les Troyens in London established Davis as the preeminent interpreter of Berlioz's' works.
During the late 1960s rumors spread again, this time that Davis would be asked to take the place of the revered Leonard Bernstein at the podium of the New York Philharmonic. As it happened, Davis was invited to become chief conductor of the Boston Symphony; however, he chose rather to accept an offer in 1971 to become the musical director of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, a prestigious post he held with distinction for fifteen years. During his tenure at Covent Garden, Davis produced over 30 operas. Most notable were his performances of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and contemporary composer Sir Michael Tippett. Davis served as the principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1972 to 1983. In that year he was named the principal conductor and music director of the renowned Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, Germany. In 1985 he resigned from his duties with the Royal Opera to devote himself to his work in Munich and a heavily booked schedule of performances worldwide. In 1988 he was named to an international chair at the Royal Academy of Music. Davis returned to England in 1992 to become the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Having retained his ties to the London Symphony Orchestra, he became the company's chief conductor in 1995. In the same year he was awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society. He also served as the principal guest conductor for the Dresden Staatskapelle from 1990 and for the New York Philharmonic from 1998.
Along with his nearly unmatched career as one of the world's most important maestros to step behind the podium, Davis has also had a productive career in recorded music. His discography is long and impressive. Of particular note are his recordings of the music of Sibelius and Berlioz, which have spanned the entirety of the composers' works. In a review Berlioz's' Les Troyens, released in 2001 on the album LSO Live, Opera News reviewer Joshua Rosenblum commented on Davis's skill on both this album and his original release of Les Troyens in 1969: "The real hero of both recordings is Davis, whose lifelong devotion and impressive discography have probably done more for Berlioz appreciation than anyone or anything else." Rosenblum called Davis's 2001 version "splendid by any standard, with superb sonics and an exceptional supporting cast."
Davis continues his work with the London Symphony Orchestra. He maintains his position void of any administrative duties, but actively leads from the podium and retains his passion for music. In an interview in 2001 with Opera News Davis explained, "[Music] isn't in the notes. It's in the human heart. And you can theorize too much. We use our brains too much. These pieces are so emotional. Mozart is expressing something that is more than human."
Blyth, Alan, Colin Davis, Drake Publishers, 1973.
Kuhn, Laura, Baker's Dictionary of Opera, Schirmer Books, 2000.
Larue, C. Steven, ed., International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed., Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer Books, 2001.
Economist, September 28, 1991.
Opera News, October 21, 2001; November 2001.