Sir Colin Davis: a conductor without compare

The London Symphony Orchestra's longest-serving conductor has died at the age of 85.

 

Browsing through the obituaries and tributes published today marking the death of the conductor Sir Colin Davis, I came across something I didn’t know about him – despite having wanted to be a conductor from an early age, when he arrived at the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, he was barred from taking conducting classes. Why? Because he didn’t play the piano. The idea that you can be disqualified from learning to be a conductor because you aren’t an accomplished pianist (a not necessarily relevant musical skill) really jarred with me – not least because, having shown a bit of musical promise in other areas, from my early teens I was pushed into regular and gruelling piano lessons to avoid being held back in any potential future musical study, and I hated it. Looking back in 1991, Davis said: “conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing". He was, of course, quite correct.

As Andrew Clark has pointed out in this excellent piece for the FT (£), Davis was a conductor who questioned the maestro’s right to absolute autonomy over the music and musicians. Kept out of the conducting class, he came at the craft from the side – conducting first the Kalmar Orchestra, formed by a group of fellow players, and then the Chelsea Opera Group – and got his big break in 1959 when Otto Klemperer fell ill and Davis conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall in his place. Although he was felt to have mellowed in his later years, the Davis of the Fifties and Sixties was supposedly “a bit hard and tactless”, as he put it later on. Perhaps his advancement was slowed by the perception that he was less-than-fun to work with, but as he grew older, he gained a solid reputation for a collaborative style of conducting.

Davis was well-known for his championing of particular composers – Mozart, Berlioz and Britten spring particularly to mind – but it was his recordings of Tippett where I first encountered his lucid, passionate approach to music. During his 15-year stint as musical director at Covent Garden, he put on Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage and ushered through the world premiere of The Knot Garden. Perhaps obsession with Tippett is a peculiarly adolescent habit (I spotted the pianist Stephen Hough admitting to something similar on Twitter earlier today) but in my teens I just couldn’t get enough of Davis’s Tippett recordings. There was something languorous yet vital in the way his interpretations put across the melodic, fugal feel of Tippett’s work – contemporary enough to make a 17 year old brought up on a hard diet of Bach sonatas feel like they’re rebelling, but with a depth of harmony that isn’t entirely alien. I wasn’t alone by any means – Tippett himself recognised Davis’s gift for his music, telling Alan Blyth in 1972 that "Colin has an instinctive understanding of what I want without our ever having discussed it. I just feel that as far as interpreting my music is concerned, he's the tops."

To date, Davis is the London Symphony Orchestra’s longest-serving conductor, at the helm from 1995 to 2006, and became its president in 2007. As has been widely noted by his obituary writers, he steered the orchestra to one of its most stable and fruitful periods. Even once his own eminence in his field was well established he didn’t lose his desire to bring lesser-known composers to public attention, memorably working with James Macmillan on a number of performances and recordings.

Davis will be remembered as a great musician, to be sure, and a grand maestro of the 20th century, but part of his charm as a personality lay in his honesty and eccentricity. As the Guardian’s tribute notes, he lived with his family and “a pet iguana that would terrorise visiting colleagues by landing on them unpredictably” and the FT points out that as well as playing with his pet he liked to relax by knitting and chopping wood.

In 2007, Davis gave an interview to the BBC in which he touched on the subject of music and death. He said: “Every time you give a concert, time is suspended: you're mastering it; time is not the enemy. It doesn't put off death, unfortunately, but it gives you a very good time while you're still alive." He might be gone, but his music will continue to give us a good time.

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If you’ve never seen Davis in action, it’s worth watching him conducting Yehudi Menuhin and the London Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major in 1962. His facial expressions alone are worth it.

Colin Davis during a performance in 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser