Carl Davis

(1936 - )


A consummate all-round musician, Carl Davis is widely known internationally in many spheres of music-making.  Born in New York in 1936, he studied composition with Paul Nordoff and Hugo Kauder, and subsequently with Per Nørgård in Copenhagen.  His early work in the USA provided valuable conducting experience with organizations such as New York City Opera and the Robert Shaw Chorale.  In 1959 the revue Diversions, of which he was co-author, won an off-Broadway Emmy and subsequently travelled to the 1961 Edinburgh Festival.  As a direct result of its success there, Davis was commissioned by Ned Sherrin to write music for “That Was The Week That Was”.  Other radio and TV commissions followed and Davis’s UK career was launched.

Since then he has been enormously successful in the world of theatre, composing scores for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and working closely with artists of the calibre of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Joan Littlewood, Jonathan Miller, John Wells, Barry Humphries and Billy Connolly.

Davis is equally well-known in the field of dance, working with the major choreographers of the day.  His work began with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, for whom he produced music for David and Goliath (1975) and Dances of Love and Death (1981). Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet commissioned A Picture of Dorian Gray in 1987, and this was followed by commissions from Northern Ballet Theatre - the award-winning A Simple Man (1988) and Lippizaner (1989) both with Gillian Lynne, Liaisons Amoureuses (1989); A Christmas Carol  (1992).  Aladdin (2000), with Robert Cohen, was written for Scottish Ballet, and later taken up by David Bintley for Tokyo’s New National Ballet in 2008.  His association with Derek Deane has led to a full-length ballet, Alice in Wonderland (1995) based on themes by Tchaikovsky and commissioned by the English National Ballet, and later The Lady of the Camellias (2008), which was commissioned by the National Ballet of Croatia.  A full-length ballet commissioned by David Bintley for Birmingham’s Royal Ballet resulted in Cyrano (2007).

Davis’s output for film and television is vast, including The World At War, The Snow Goose, Hotel du Lac, Hollywood, The Naked Civil Servant, Silas Marner, Champions, Scandal, The Commanding Sea, Oppenheimer, The Rainbow, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (winner of both the BAFTA and Ivor Novello awards).  Pride and Prejudice (nominated for a BASCA Ivor Novello award for Best Music for a Television Production in 1996) has been one of his best-loved scores, and this was followed by Cranford in 2007, also for BBC. 

Music for silent films has been an enduring strand to Davis’s activities.  His 1980 score for Abel Gance’s silent film Napoléon triggered an extraordinary revival of interest in the silent film, and Davis’s oeuvre of more than fifty scores for this medium, including Flesh and the Devil, Ben-Hur, The Thief of Bagdad, Greed, Intolerance, I’m King Kong and The Godless Girl, has brought him international acclaim.  The Phantom of the Opera was the first silent film to be performed at the Royal Opera House (2006) conducted by the composer, while a project to revive the Chaplin films has focussed on ‘The Mutuals’ - a cycle of 12 short films including the classic The Immigrant.

Throughout his career Carl Davis has composed concert works, among which a Clarinet Concerto, Fantasy for Flute, Strings and Harpsichord and a Symphony are particularly notable.  His symphonic work, A Circle of Stones, consists of four symphonic pictures for orchestra and was written for Mike Mansfield Publications for broadcast on S4C in 1997.  There are also many concert suites derived from film scores, vocal music, choral works, instrumental and chamber music, and opera. In 1991 his collaboration with Paul McCartney produced Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio, which has been performed in many countries throughout the world.  The EMI recording of the work has achieved record sales worldwide, whilst the BBC documentary and EMI’s commercial video have done much to publicize this new departure for both composers.

Recent commissions include a Ballade for cello and orchestra commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (2011), and a large-scale choral work for children’s choir and the Hallé Orchestra entitled Last Train to Tomorrow on the subject of the ‘Kindertransport’.

Carl Davis has become a much-loved and sought-after conductor of silent films and concerts throughout the world.  In 2005 he was awarded a CBE (Hon). The Carl Davis Collection was formed in 2009 to record and promote his works.

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