mon 17/06/2024

Sir Colin Davis: 'He simply knew how Mozart should go' | reviews, news & interviews

Sir Colin Davis: 'He simply knew how Mozart should go'

Sir Colin Davis: 'He simply knew how Mozart should go'

The distinguished broadcaster and biographer Humphrey Burton pays tribute to the conductor who became his brother-in-law

Sir Colin Davis conducting at the 2011 BBC Proms© Chris Christodoulou

Colin was an enormous influence in my youth and I’d like to share some memories of those days. It was over 60 years ago, on a Sunday afternoon in May 1952, that  I attended a concert performance of The Marriage of Figaro given by Chelsea Opera Group in a school hall in Hills Road, Cambridge. The singers were all young, gifted and sparky. The orchestra purred.

The narration (written by David Cairns) was genuinely funny, indeed it seemed bliss to be alive that afternoon and to be young (I was 21) seventh heaven. On the podium was Colin Davis, a slim, shock-headed dynamo who lived and breathed every bar with his singers, bouncing with delight at the countless felicities in the score (which he obviously knew inside out), eloquent of gesture, quicksilver in response, a born conductor if ever I saw one.

And yet despite the support of such luminaries as the publisher Victor Gollancz, whose daughter Livia played the horn for COG, Colin had no conducting post until 1957, when he was already thirty. Instead he made music with his ex-college musician friends who had formed the Kalmar Orchestra, and also worked with amateur choirs – I recall a fantastically powerful interpretation of  Verdi’s Te Deum and Stabat Mater with the London Hospitals Choir; his total immersion in the music inspired me to a life-long love of Verdi. He also played freelance gigs on the clarinet (he was very good) and coached chamber music groups in the university music club for a ludicrous £2 an hour! Anybody could apply: he was very helpful on the piano duets a friend and I were preparing; the point is that he was a musician to the core and ready to share his love and understanding of music with all comers.

You have to be of a certain age to remember the excitement of those Berlioz years

But it was his first wife the soprano April Cantelo, a tremendously gifted artist, and mother of their two children Susanna and Christopher, who was the main breadwinner. Colin’s enforced inactivity at least gave him time to study opera scores in depth and the 1950s performances he led with Chelsea Opera Group were revelatory high-points three times a year as he worked his way through all the big Mozart operas, occasionally diverting to later masterpieces such as Verdi’s Falstaff and Beethoven’s Fidelio (in which I sang the second prisoner, arguably the climax of my singing career).

Colin was not interested in period style, then or later in his career: he simply knew how Mozart should go and he already had a delightfully relaxed and easy way of handling singers. Being married to one himself he knew how to persuade the orchestra to breathe with their music, encourage a musical line to blossom or an ensemble to glow.

In 1957 came his break into the fully professional music world when the BBC appointed him to be number two at the BBC Scottish Orchestra under veteran conductor Ian Whyte. (This was also a lucky break for me: my first marriage was to his youngest sister Gretel and we were able to rent the Davis house while they were up in Glasgow.) There he developed a new passion, for the music of Stravinsky – no doubt encouraged by his mentor William Glock: I remember - because I had the hair-raising task of turning the pages for her - a vivid performance of the Capriccio with Margaret Kitchin. There was more Stravinsky during Colin’s first spell in what I thought of as his natural habitat, the opera house; Sadler’s Wells signed him up in 1960 and who could forget his blistering “take” on Oedipus Rex? But Colin remained faithful to Chelsea Opera Group in the 1960s, taking time out for them every year to explore Berlioz’s dramatic repertoire, climaxing in 1964 with The Trojans at Carthage – a breathtaking performance led by Josephine Veasey as Dido. There were further riches in store when he did Benvenuto Cellini and later in the decade he incorporated the chorus of COG in memorable complete performances of The Trojans at the Festival Hall and the Proms.

You have to be of a certain age to remember the excitement of those Berlioz years: it was a genuine voyage of discovery for everybody who participated and remains, I would submit, Colin Davis’s most significant contribution to the way we think about the music of the 19th century. He later made wonderful Berlioz LPs for Philips and at the end of the 20th century revisited the entire Berlioz repertoire for new performances and digital recordings while serving, belatedly, as the LSO’s chief conductor. My happiest Berlioz memory is of playing the bass drum in The Damnation of Faust, with David Cairns clashing away on the cymbals next to me. What a time we had in the Hungarian March, with Colin holding us back and then urging us on exultantly from the rostrum!

Later in the 1960s Colin moved to a good job at the BBC – his appointment as chief conductor of the Symphony Orchestra reminded everybody that he was equally at home in concert halls as opera houses. But the Sixties was mid-life crisis time for him. I had witnessed from close quarters the agonies Colin went through when he fell in love with the Persian girl who was looking after the children in the busy Davis household. He moved out of the family home and as soon as he could he travelled to Iran in search of the girl who had captured his imagination and his dreams. He read widely at this time among the esoteric mystics Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, also the writings of the Greek philopher Nikos Kazantzakis. He drew strength and inward calm from what he learnt; eventually he found his beloved Shamsi and persuaded her to return to England; they married and had five children; with his blessing she became an influential exponent of the Alexander relaxation technique as it applied to musicians. Her sudden death three years ago was a terrible blow for him.

Others will remind you of Colin’s subsequent career at the Royal Opera in the 1970s, in Munich and in Dresden, not to mention the glorious years at the Barbican when he finally became the LSO’s chief conductor in the 1990s. I just wanted to say farewell to the man who opened my ears to music when I was growing up. For hundreds of young performers at Music Camp, Bryanston summer school and Chelsea Opera Group, for thousands of music-lovers attending concert halls and the Proms and listening to radio and recordings, for opera students at the colleges, for the members of dozens of the world’s most famous orchestras - for all this huge constituency - Colin was a force of nature, an inspiration who will never be forgotten.

He was a musician to the core and ready to share his love and understanding of music with all comers

Share this article


Thank you for a very heartfelt, personal and spontaneous recollection of a unique individual.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters