Charismatic conductor who fought demons

Colin Davis: September 1927-April 2013

No one in classical music questioned the conductor's right to rule more purposefully than Sir Colin Davis, and few exercised that right more humanely.

Davis, who has died at the age of 85, struggled up the musical ladder only to discover on reaching the top that the ego necessary to propelling a conductor's career was, in his case, destructive.

From the early 1980s, coinciding with the latter part of his reign as music director of Britain's Royal Opera, he devoted his considerable energy to taming the demons that had haunted his progress: demons of ambition, rage, lust, insecurity; demons that wrecked his first marriage, caused a midlife crisis at 35 and continued to flicker and flare even as he struggled to control them. No sooner had he renounced ambition and adopted the philosopher's mantle – Davis was extraordinarily well-read, with an ability to quote Shakespeare, Shelley, Schiller and George Meredith at random – than the London Symphony Orchestra knocked on his door and pleaded with him to be its principal conductor.

Tempestuous relationship
The two had had a long and sometimes tempestuous relationship.

Davis accepted on condition that he would serve only as a figurehead. The relationship, now based on mutual respect, blossomed as the venerable Davis presided over a period (1995-2006) of unprecedented stability for the LSO, latterly as its president.


By this stage, the firebrand had turned into a student of life, as he himself admitted. Using a musical analogy and pointing to parts of his anatomy, he said the path to maturity lay in bringing into harmony the tonic [heart], the dominant [head] and the subdominant [crotch].

“Here’s the controlling influence [head] and these [crotch] are the things you're controlling – you have to put Mephisto to work! – but you also need an unending warmth of feeling [heart].”

It was Davis's belief that, by achieving the most perfect balance of the three, Mozart was able to express the deepest emotions. Other composers he identified with were Beethoven, Berlioz, Dvorak, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Tippett; latterly also Brahms, Bruckner and Elgar, whose Second Symphony drew from him performances of exceptional profundity and incandescence.

Born in 1927, Davis studied clarinet at the Royal College of Music and was a bandsman in the Household Cavalry. Unable to play the piano, he was barred from the RCM conducting class, but when a group of players formed the Kalmar Orchestra, Davis often conducted it.

From that came the Chelsea Opera Group, whose Mozart performances under Davis in the early 1950s became renowned for their spirit and sensitivity. He was appointed assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra in 1957, and finally stepped into the limelight in 1959, replacing the ill Otto Klemperer at a legendary performance of Don Giovanni at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

There followed four years as music director of Sadler's Wells (now English National) Opera, four as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a stormy 15 at Covent Garden (where his achievements included the UK premiere of the three-act Lulu ) and nine with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.

Many admirers
He was knighted in 1980. Davis had many admirers in North America – especially Boston, where long-cherished hopes that he would become music director remained unfulfilled - but his loyalties remained in Europe. In 1977 he became the first British musician to conduct at Bayreuth. He was appointed honorary conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle and devoted an increasing amount of time to young musicians, notably at the London colleges.

The bedrock of his world was his family. In a soul-baring interview for BBC radio's In the Psychiatrist's Chair , he said he had never been unfaithful to his Persian-born second wife (Ashraf Naini, whom he married in 1964 and by whom he had five children) – an unusual admission for a charismatic conductor. He was devastated by her unexpected death in 2010.

He relaxed by knitting, chopping wood and playing with his pet iguana.

Rehearsal for life
A few years ago he told the Financial Times that music was a rehearsal for life: "The meaning is in the passing: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Then it's gone. You must be loved and preserved, then go as other things go. And don't complain about it.

“Would you rather not have visited this peculiar planet? I mean, what a failure human beings are! But however grisly it may be, having passed through it, it was worth seeing, wasn't it?”