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Davis, Sir Colin Rexfree

  • David Cairns

Sir Colin Rex Davis (1927–2013)

by Norman Parkinson, 1976

© Norman Parkinson Archive; National Portrait Gallery, London

Davis, Sir Colin Rex (1927–2013), conductor, was born at 45 High Street, Weybridge, Surrey, on 25 September 1927, the youngest of three sons of Reginald George Davis (d. 1944), then a clerk for an oil company, later a bank clerk, and his wife, Lilian Constance (Lily, or Tobe), née Colbran (1890–1965). With four daughters as well, life was not easy for a family of seven, living in a flat above a shop, with no electricity on the top floor—even if Davis may have been exaggerating when, during the rehearsal of an amateur orchestra, he likened the playing of the double basses in a difficult passage to the sound of 'rats scuttling under our beds when we were children' (personal knowledge).

Learning his craft

Davis's father was fond of music, and had gramophone records of Wagner. By the time Davis—thanks to a wealthy uncle who paid the fees—went, in 1938, to Christ's Hospital school (where Bernard Levin and Bryan Magee were his contemporaries), music was beginning to become a passion. A defining moment was hearing a record of Beethoven's eighth symphony. 'I remember saving up five shillings to buy myself my first yellow copy of the score. I took it home, eagerly opened it, and music burst out of the pages. It was intoxicating', he later said (Daily Telegraph, 16 April 2013). Christ's Hospital had a flourishing musical life. Davis was encouraged to take up the clarinet. He progressed so well that he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Frederick Thurston (a four-year period interrupted by national service as a clarinettist in the band of the Household Cavalry). Davis's fellow student John Warrack remembered 'a performance of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet by Colin that completely bowled me over for its musicality, its revelation of how much there was to be found in Mozart's deceptive simplicity' (Berlioz Society Bulletin, 17). Another fellow student, the pianist Peggy Gray, recalled playing Mozart violin sonatas with him (adapted for clarinet), and being struck by the intensity of his feeling for Mozart. It was she who recommended Davis to her brother Stephen Gray when he and David Cairns were planning the concert performance of Don Giovanni which, in 1950, inaugurated the Chelsea Opera Group.

By then Davis was determined on a career as a conductor. At the Royal College of Music he had been barred from taking the conductor's course because, to be eligible for it, a student had to be able to play the piano, and he did not. As a clarinettist he had the chance to sit at the feet of Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne (offstage in Don Giovanni, in the pit in Così fan tutte) and study his methods. He also, from time to time, conducted the Kalmar Orchestra, a group of young professionals who met in the hall of the Ethical Church in Bayswater for their own amusement and to get to know the repertoire. But, for most of the next seven years—until he got his first professional job in 1957, as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra—he worked in the rich but financially unrewarding world of amateur music, and it was his wife, the soprano April Rosemary Cantelo (b. 1928), daughter of Herbert Reginald Cantelo, radio engineer, whom he married on 7 April 1949, who bore the burden of supporting the family, by now augmented by two small children. Davis conducted an amateur orchestra in Ipswich and an orchestra and choir made up from London hospitals, and coached wind players at Cambridge (for £2 an hour). Above all, three times a year, he gave concert performances of opera at Oxford, Cambridge, and Reading universities, with the Chelsea Opera Group.

This was a period in British musical life when there were few opportunities for young conductors. Yet the enforced exclusion from the professional world, frustrating though it was and a strain on family relationships, was a blessing in disguise—just as not being a pianist was arguably a benefit: 'Conducting', he said, 'has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing' (The Guardian, 16 April 2013). With the Chelsea Opera Group, his native musical gifts were free to blossom, he could learn his craft away from the limelight, with musicians who were devoted to him and responded eagerly and uncritically to his vivid personality. Tape recordings testify to the quality not only of the Mozart performances he conducted but also of an exceptional Falstaff (a work that would play an important part in his later career) and, in the early 1960s, a series of Berlioz performances which paved the way for Les Troyens at Covent Garden in 1969 and for what became the Berlioz Cycle of Philips recordings.

A tempestuous career

The easy rapport Davis had developed with his amateur players (and that he continued to enjoy with amateur choruses) made the transition to professional orchestras problematic, and it was some time before he could feel at ease with them and they could accept his abrasive intelligence and often disconcertingly quick tongue. But the direct, uncomplicated love of music of those early amateur days undoubtedly contributed to the combined harmoniousness and intensity that characterized his music-making with the London Symphony Orchestra in the final period of his career, when there were no more battles to be fought, with the musicians or with himself, and he could give himself unequivocally to what he loved best. Patrick Harrild, the London Symphony Orchestra's tuba player and one-time chairman of its board, recalled how, when he was

having a drink with [Davis] during one of his early projects and telling him how much people were enjoying working with him, he turned to me, fixed me with his enigmatic gaze and said, Thank you, Patrick, I've finally grown up.

Berlioz Society Bulletin, 28

No one knew better than Davis how long that had taken. Twenty years earlier, learning to feel at ease not only with orchestras but with himself had been a struggle. In the light of his later fame, in the USA and Germany but also in Britain, the criticism he first encountered, from the profession and the press, and the reputation he had for rebelliousness, fiery temper, and bad manners, seem difficult to credit. Partly it was the reluctance of English musicians to accept that someone they had known as an instrumentalist might have a talent that took him out of their orbit. Partly it was the neurotic anxiety of critics who feared they had overpraised him when, in 1959, he made a sudden stir, first with a brilliant Mozart concert at the Edinburgh festival—'Best since Beecham', proclaimed a headline in The Observer (6 Sept 1959)—and then by deputizing for Klemperer at the Philharmonia's starry concert performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall. But it was also his own nature, the deep, self-doubting heart-searching that was natural to him.

Davis's first years in the profession were a fraught time, further darkened by the collapse of his first marriage. Those who knew only the outward Colin Davis, with his humour, his lack of inhibition, the captivating quickness and subtlety of his mind, the vividness of his imagery—the sheer magnetism of the man—would never have guessed at the other side, the complexity of what was going on within him. (When, years later, the Orchestre de Paris asked some leading conductors their views on Sibelius, most of them enthused about his originality and power as a composer. Davis wrote:

Conducting Sibelius is like looking at oneself in a mirror. I look in the mirror and see the pitilessness of life, yet I find the strength to go on. Sibelius was happy when he was in company, depressed when he was alone. I am the same.

Berlioz Society Bulletin, 64

His ambivalence about the role of the conductor as public figure cannot have helped his image. In the early days, his demeanour as he came onto the platform gave the impression of one almost perversely at odds with it. At the end of the Don Giovanni of 1959 he refused to come on and take a bow. The writer and publisher Victor Gollancz, on his feet near the front of the stalls, kept bellowing 'Davis!', but in vain.

The succession of posts Davis held, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—as music director at Sadler's Wells (1961–4, years notable for his Idomeneo, Oedipus Rex, Mahagonny, and Fidelio), guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1967–71, at the behest of William Glock), music director at the Royal Opera House (1971–86)—hardly suggest a lack of success. Nor did his honours, which included being appointed CBE in 1965 and knighted in 1980. (He was later made a Companion of Honour, in 2001.) Yet he was, at times, subjected to a hostility, from critics and, at Covent Garden, first-night audiences, that would have astonished his many admirers in Boston, New York, Munich, and Dresden, where he was increasingly in demand. At a low point in his fortunes at Covent Garden he was quoted as exclaiming: 'Are they out to destroy me? They won't' (Evening Standard, 13 July 1973). By contrast, the Boston Symphony Orchestra were so delighted with him that they tried to persuade him to be their chief conductor, in succession to William Steinberg, but had to be content with him as principal guest (they appointed Seiji Ozawa instead); Davis, who had married on 28 November 1964 the Iranian Ashraf Ali Naini, known as Shamsi (1937/8–2010), had a growing second family and did not want to settle abroad—or indeed to embrace the life of a modern jet-setting maestro. (The daughter of Abdul Vahob, factory owner, and formerly the Davis family's au pair, she and Davis married in Tehran on 28 November 1964, with a further ceremony in Islington on 17 December that year. She later worked as a teacher of the Alexander technique.) Home life was vitally important to him and, as his five string-playing children grew older, he enjoyed making music with them, for which he learned to play the viola.

The list of operas Davis conducted at Covent Garden includes outstanding performances of works as diverse as Otello, Tristan, Pelléas et Mélisande, Falstaff, The Rake's Progress, Così fan tutte, Les Troyens, Samson et Dalila, The Midsummer Marriage, The Knot Garden, and Peter Grimes. His Ring (1973–6) was criticized, but many were struck by the rhythmic vitality and beauty of orchestral sound he brought to it. He enhanced the stature of the house by making it a policy to invite world-renowned conductors as guests (something his predecessors had not always been so keen to do), and by persuading the Midland Bank to sponsor Promenade concert performances in the stalls. He also showed a special gift for working with singers, fostering new talents, influencing the stars without imposing on them, and, in Mozart, achieving with them a dynamic legato that was exceptional. Nevertheless, he was arguably too humane, and too private a person, to show the attributes required of a dominating director: ruthlessness, a gift for diplomacy and humouring the powers that be, and an appetite for the political manoeuvring and the smart socializing that went with the job.

Davis was happier in Germany, where he spent more and more time in the 1980s and 1990s, as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and of the Dresden Staatskapelle (who in 1990 made him their first conductor laureate). He had become fluent in German, as speaker and as reader (steeping himself in the German classics; he was always a voracious reader), and his relationship with both orchestras flowered. He took them on tours of North and South America and Japan, as well as Europe, introduced them to the music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett, and of Berlioz and Sibelius, learned and conducted works by Reger, Hindemith, and Hartmann, but also recorded complete cycles of Beethoven and Schubert symphonies. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of his career. Meanwhile he had been enjoying good relations with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, with whom he recorded a set of Haydn's ‘London’ symphonies that was widely praised. But it was his appointment as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra that marked the culmination of his long journey towards final acceptance by the press, the public, and himself.

Demons assuaged

Davis had been disappointed when, in 1965, though he was backed by the general manager Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra's board chose István Kertész to succeed Pierre Monteux as music director. But the London Symphony Orchestra he returned to in 1987, first as guest and then, from 1995 to 2007, as principal conductor and music director, was not the same orchestra—still brilliant but with a different culture, due partly to the influx of women players—and they struck up a richly fruitful relationship. David Alberman (leader of the second violins) wrote:

For those of us lucky enough to play for him, Sir Colin Davis […] never really existed: ‘Sir Colin’ as an address was a formality and a pomposity which Colin never allowed his musicians. And this contradiction—between the urbane, softly spoken, increasingly if implausibly avuncular figure and the frighteningly direct, volcanic, uncompromising artist—is for me the key to his genius and explains his extraordinary affinity for so many composers.

Berlioz Society Bulletin, 29

His affection for the London Symphony Orchestra was reflected in his gift, in 2009, of a substantial six-figure sum to the orchestra's endowment fund, challenging other donors to match his generosity; this resulted in donations totalling over £1 million.

Davis's repertoire had never been narrow (confined to a few favourites, as had sometimes been said), and he continued to widen it, adding a cycle of Nielsen symphonies, Janáček's Glagolitic Mass (and some joyous Dvořák), and championing the young Scottish composer James MacMillan. His London Symphony Orchestra concerts also became renowned for his sensitivity as an accompanist of soloists—notably the Mozart piano concertos he conducted with Mitsuko Uchida and the Elgar violin concerto with Nikolaj Znaider.

The other central thread of Davis's last years was his dedicated work with students. He conducted, and toured with, the National Youth Orchestra and the European Union and Gustav Mahler youth orchestras, and spent long hours at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School, consciously giving back to the profession something of what he had received from it, with a sense of public responsibility not common in a figure of such eminence. His new-found mellowness did not stop him raising hackles, by—like Pierre Boulez—pontificating against, and misrepresenting, the period-instrument movement. But in Davis's philosophy any kind of orthodoxy, any dogma or system, any theory, was alien. He belonged to the old tradition of the musician as free interpreter and the musical work as historically evolving organism. When rehearsing a student orchestra he would say: 'I won't be using the words “fast” or “slow”—I shall talk about giving the music more space' (Alston, 48). This was what his best, most deeply felt and considered performances and recordings did, whether of Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Elgar, or a host of others.

Late in life Davis reforged an old link with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducting Haydn in Esterházy; and it was on a visit to Milan with them that in 2012 he suffered the heart attack that precipitated a series of health problems leading, on 14 April 2013, to his death, at the National Hospital in Camden. He was survived by the two children from his first marriage and the five from his second.


  • A. Blyth, Colin Davis (1973)
  • R. Alston, Colin Davis: for the record (1997)
  • R. Morrison, Orchestra: the LSO, a century of triumph and turbulence (2004)
  • The Independent (16 April 2013)
  • Financial Times (16 April 2013)
  • Berlioz Society Bulletin, 190 (June 2013)
  • ‘Conductors: Sir Colin Davis’, Hector Berlioz website,, 6 Sept 2016
  • WW (2013)
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.



  • BFI NFTVA, performance, interview and documentary footage
  • film footage,


  • BL NSA, interview and documentary recordings


  • P. Keen, bromide print, 1965, NPG
  • G. Argent, bromide print, 1968, NPG
  • N. Parkinson, bromide print, 1976, NPG [see illus.]
  • B. L. Schwartz, dye transfer print, 1977, NPG
  • E. McCabe, photograph, 2002, Redferns
  • U. Bild, photograph, 2008, Getty Images
  • H. Ito, photograph, 2010, Hulton Archive
  • obituary photographs
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)