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In Memoriam: Carl Davis, CBE (1936-2023)

Aug. 03, 2023

We are deeply saddened to announce the death of acclaimed composer, Carl Davis CBE. His publisher, Faber Music, recalls his life and works here:

Carl Davis was a true musical polymath. Across a long life in music, Davis created soundtracks for some of Britain's best-loved screen dramas. He was the driving force behind the reinvention of silent movies in concert, as well as composing a substantial body of ballet and concert works which have received acclaim worldwide. A beloved Faber Music composer since the early 1990s, Davis passed away peacefully on the morning of Thursday August 3.

Born in New York in 1936, Davis first rose to prominence as co-author of the 1959 revue Diversions, which won an off-Broadway Emmy and subsequently travelled to the 1961 Edinburgh Festival. Success there led to a commission to write music for the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was (1962-3). Other radio and TV commissions followed and, having moved to London in 1961, Davis soon found himself at the heart of the UK’s theatre, television, and film scene. His work included scores for the National Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as television series The World at War (1973), Goodnight Mister Tom and Pride and Prejudice (1995). His film soundtracks included the BAFTA-winning The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Silas Marner (1985) and Ken Russell’s The Rainbow (1989). Other television work included The Snow Goose (1971), Hotel du Lac (1986), A Dance to the Music of Time (1997), Cranford (2007-9) and Upstairs Downstairs (2010).

Following work on Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Hollywood documentary series (1980), Davis created a score for Abel Gance’s epic film Napoleon. The performance at the Empire Leicester Square, conducted by Davis himself, was so unique in its scale and ambition that it stimulated a global revival of silent film performance with live orchestra. Davis created music for over 50 silent films ranging from Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton to DW Griffiths’ masterpiece Intolerance. Among the many international performances of these scores he conducted, particularly notable was his decades-long partnership with the Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg which saw him make annual visits to conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg.

Davis’s lifelong love affair with ballet resulted in a vast number of stage works. Commissions from Northern Ballet Theatre included the award-winning A Simple Man (1988) and Lippizaner (1989) both with Gillian Lynne. His collaborations with Robert Cohan, a fellow New Yorker, included A Christmas Carol (1992) and Aladdin (2000), both written for Scottish Ballet. Aladdin was later taken up by Sir David Bintley for Tokyo’s New National Ballet in 2008, and subsequently enjoyed a critically acclaimed season at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Bintley had previously commissioned Cyrano (2007) for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. A long association with Derek Deane led to Alice in Wonderland (1995), based on themes by Tchaikovsky and commissioned by the English National Ballet, and later The Lady of the Camellias (2008), commissioned by the National Ballet of Croatia and since performed in Naples, Shanghai, and Australia.

Davis’s concert works include the Ballade for cello and orchestra (2011) and Last Train to Tomorrow (2011), a dramatic narrative for children’s choir, actors and orchestra that recounts the story of the Kindertransport. High-profile collaborations included The Last Night of the Poms (1981, with Dame Edna Everage and the London Symphony Orchestra) and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio (1990, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic). Davis was awarded a CBE in 2005, founded record label The Carl Davis Collection in 2009, and in 2016 was the subject of Wendy Thompson’s biography Maestro.

Davis’s creative zeal remained undiminished over the last decade of his life. In 2016 he explored new ground with Ethel & Ernest, his first score to an animated film (after the book by Raymond Briggs). The focus of his creative energies, though, was dance, creating four full-length works: Nijinsky (2016) Chaplin, The Tramp (2019), The Great Gatsby (2019) and, finally, Le Fantôme et Christine which premiered at the Shanghai Ballet in May 2023.

Richard King, CEO of Faber Music said:

“The Faber Music family is devastated by this sad news. Carl was a central figure in our roster since his arrival in 1990, over half of the company’s existence. We are honoured and proud to have worked alongside such a compositional giant, and our thoughts are with Carl’s family at this time.”

Richard Paine, Director of Commercial Rights, said:

“To say that Carl Davis was prodigious is a huge understatement. He accumulated literally hundreds of credits for film and television over his long career, not to mention over fifty scores for movies from the golden age of silent cinema, and the range and consistent quality of his work is breathtaking. On a personal level, I have admired Carl since first noticing his name on TV credits in the 1980s, and it was an immense pleasure to get to know him and find him a warm, humorous and thoroughly engaging man. Indeed he was so garrulous that I sometimes wondered how he found time to compose. But compose he did, and his impact on our lives as publishers, and on the wider world of stage and screen, has been immeasurable.”

Sam Wigglesworth, Director of Performance Music, said:

“To spend time with Carl was an energising - often dizzying - joy. A typical conversation might range from his voracious love of orchestral repertoire and his deep knowledge of the history of ballet (passions that coloured every bar of his own dance scores), to vivid tales of his early life in Brooklyn, the surprising fact that he had once sought out the Danish modernist Per Nørgård for lessons, as well as endless and fascinating insights into his pioneering work on silent film scores. A consummate professional, Carl also had a wicked sense of humour (wonderfully illustrated by his cameo in the French and Saunders ‘Opera Divas’ sketch) and this Maestro was often at pains not to take himself too seriously. Few, if any, composers today can boast such an eclectic life in music, and our world will be a duller place without him.”

The family of Carl Davis CBE has also released a press statement:

We are heartbroken to announce that Carl Davis CBE passed away this morning, following a brain hemorrhage.

We are so proud that Carl’s legacy will be his astonishing impact on music. A consummate all-round musician, he was the driving force behind the reinvention of the silent movie for this generation and he wrote scores for some of the most loved and remembered British television dramas. He was a conductor and composer of symphonic works, as well as a notable writer for the ballet.

In 2005 he was awarded a CBE (Hon).

A beloved Father, Grandfather and Husband, Carl married the actress Jean Boht in 1970. They have two daughters, Hannah and Jessie and three grandchildren, Molly, Fred and Alice.

The family would like to send their grateful thanks to the paramedics who assisted Carl and the Neurological ICU Team at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

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