English Composer/Conductor Peter Maxwell Davies Dies at 81

One of Britain’s most famous (and occasionally controversial) contemporary composers, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has died at the age of 81 after a long bout with leukemia. He wrote more than 300 works, including ten symphonies, several operas (including two aimed at children), chamber pieces, string quartets and sextets, concertos, sonatas for different instruments, film scores, and more.

In the grand scheme of his career, the classical-guitar was a fairly minor player—his 1984 Guitar Sonata, a moody, modern-sounding solo piece, is his best-known piece written for the instrument. But it is another work, a hauntingly pretty, elegiac ballad originally written for the piano, called “Farewell to Stromness,” that has been most often performed by guitarists, including Matthew McAllister (who arranged it for solo guitar), the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (arranged by Scott Tennant), and many others. Another modern piece, called “Dark Angels,” was written for soprano voice and guitar. But he also managed to incorporate the guitar into a few chamber works and even opera. 

Early in his career, Maxwell was considered something of an enfant terrible because of his often dissonant avant-garde works—one obituary noted, “In 1969, people shouted ‘rubbish’ at the premiere of his opera Eight Songs for a Mad King; while the inaugural performance of [the orchestral work] Worldes Blis caused a mass walk-out. ‘Most of those who stayed booed,’ Sir Peter later observed. ‘It was very upsetting.’”


At any rate, Davies also penned many pieces that were well-received by the public, and over time was accepted by the mainstream classical-music establishment, earning many prestigious positions, including artistic director of the Darlington International Summer School, conductor/composer for both the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and jobs conducting many other international orchestras. He was knighted in 1987, and in 2004 was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music, among many other honors and appointments.

Above, enjoy this video of Matthew McAllister playing “Farewell to Stromness.”