Peter Maxwell Davies, composer with royal ties, dies at 81

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Posted: Mar 14, 2016 1:47 PM
Peter Maxwell Davies, composer with royal ties, dies at 81

LONDON (AP) — Peter Maxwell Davies, an experimental, socially radical composer who served as Queen Elizabeth II's official master of music, has died. He was 81.

Davies' management company, Intermusica, said he died Monday of leukemia at his home in Scotland's Orkney islands.

One of Britain's best-known modern composers, Davies — Max to his friends — created around 300 works including concertos, 10 symphonies, the operas "Taverner" and "The Lighthouse," and music-theater piece "Eight Songs for a Mad King," about the current queen's troubled ancestor, George III.

His work could be bold and challenging or quietly lyrical. A strong environmentalist, Davies drew inspiration from the rugged, wind-swept Orkneys, where he lived for four decades — including several years in a cottage without electricity.

The composition "An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise" became one of his most popular works, and in 1977 he founded Orkney's St. Magnus Festival, an annual arts event where many of his works were given their premieres.

He wove social and political themes into compositions including his 9th Symphony, which Davies said contained a military-style section reflecting his opposition to the "disastrous" invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. His 2011 opera "Kommilitonen!" was about student activism around the world.

Among his final works is children's opera "The Hogboon," which is due to have its world premiere in June under Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Manchester, northwest England, in 1934, Davies trained at Royal Manchester College of Music before further study in Italy and at Princeton University.

In addition to composing he conducted, for orchestras including the BBC Philharmonic, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic.

With his anti-establishment views and avant-garde musical leanings, Davies was a surprise choice in 2004 as Master of the Queen's Music. The honorary position, founded in 1626, is traditionally conferred by the monarch on a musician of distinction.

The position has no fixed duties, although the Master may compose pieces for royal or state occasions. Davies held the post for a decade, and told the Daily Telegraph in 2010 that the role had made him moderate his anti-monarchist views.

"I have come to realize that there is a lot to be said for the monarchy," he said. "It represents continuity, tradition and stability."

In 2005, Davies received a police warning after officers found the body of a swan — a protected species — at his home. The composer said the bird had died after flying into a power line and he had used it for food; when police officers arrived, he offered them swan terrine.

"I think they were rather horrified," he told the BBC. But, he said, "I was brought up in the war and you don't waste food."

His friend Sally Groves, former creative director at Schott Music, said Davies had been "a remarkable composer who created music theatre works of searing power, great symphonies, intense chamber music; works of truly universal popularity."

Funeral details were not immediately available.