Symphonies and other struggles

It is an unusual admission. “I’ve had to start right from the beginning again,” says Sir Colin Davis, gazing serenely out of the window of his north London home. Davis is not talking about relearning the conductor’s art; he is pondering something more immediate – Elgar’s Third Symphony, a work he has not touched for several years but will perform again with the London Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, two days after his 85th birthday.

“Everyone does [a work like this] when it comes out but you don’t hear it so much now,” he muses, reflecting on the symphony’s popularity in the late 1990s, when composer Anthony Payne unveiled his reconstruction of a work Elgar had left as a string of unfinished sketches at his death in 1934. “The Third Symphony doesn’t have the emotional climaxes of the First and Second but it has some beautiful things, and it does feel like Elgar.”

Such talk suggests that, despite his venerable age, Davis has not given up on life. Two years ago, when his wife, Shamsim died, many feared he would. For 45 years she had been his rock, calming a temperament that, in his early career, had been notably unwieldy, and creating a family environment that kept him down to earth.

“It was like an amputation,” he whispers, reflecting on her death. “It was dreadful, it is dreadful, but it has become easier. My children are an enormous help ... ”

It is hard to think of any classical performer who has remained active for so long. Some of Davis’s tempi may have slowed but there is still fire in his belly, as he made clear last year in his superb Nielsen series with the LSO. And he still looks well-turned-out as he leads me upstairs past a large portrait of his late wife and into the first-floor drawing room. Watching over us here are Davis’s musical gods: a death-mask of Beethoven, a pencil drawing of Richard Strauss, a bust and three portraits of his beloved Berlioz, plus a handwritten letter by Sibelius, whose oeuvre has been a staple of Davis’s career. He will return to it in December in an LSO concert featuring the Finnish composer’s last two symphonies and violin concerto.

Davis talks happily about Sibelius’s music but, as if to excuse the conductor’s subjective art, declares: “I’m not an academic. When you spend a long time with a piece [like the Seventh Symphony], it grows in intensity and you find out more and more meaning in what happens, why it happens and where it happens. It seems to me this is a lifetime piece. There’s that wonderful contrapuntal passage [early in the symphony] introducing the trombone melody – a demonstration of all the good human qualities, grandeur, nobility, generosity. Then gradually Sibelius tries to destroy it.”

Davis believes many of the great symphonic works are coded language for the battle between good and evil, the Sibelius Seventh being an example. “However grand your ideas about yourself, about the world you live in, about what is right and noble, they are not going to survive without a colossal struggle. This symphony is a trial of belief – whether you can withstand the pressures around you.”

A sort of existential battle? “That’s it. But I’m not a philosopher,” says Davis, a man long renowned for articulating his philosophical approach to the conductor’s power and influence.

“Music itself is amoral – but why did Sibelius write this symphony the way he did if he didn’t want me to think like that? Of course, if you spend half an hour with a Haydn symphony, he’ll convince you the world can’t be such a bad place – such joyous sounds. But the music of Hagen and Alberich [in Wagner’s Ring] tells you the opposite. It’s horrible.”

Davis knew he wanted to be a conductor from the age of 12, when he discovered Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. “You open the first page and it goes ... [he sings the dynamic opening motif]. You’re terribly impressed with that as a child. As a student I used to organise little orchestras. It was frowned upon because I hadn’t learned the piano but healthy ambition won through.”

Sir Colin Davis conducting in 1960

In his first appointment, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the late 1950s, he “pretty much cracked up” due to the volume of work. “As a conductor you are expected to know everything before you know anything – a terrible fate for young men. But everyone has to live through it to discover it.”

As music director at Sadler’s Wells (forerunner of English National Opera) in the early 1960s his first assignment was Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Then, as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s: “I had to learn how to behave myself. I wondered how I had become such an opinionated, stroppy and unhappy fellow and so I began a toilsome journey” of self-analysis. His time at the BBC was not helped by a group of musicians who “thought I had no business being a conductor. It wasn’t nice. Towards the end it was better, and then I jumped into a much bigger furnace.”

He remembers his 15 years as music director of the Royal Opera (1970-85) as a time of “endless battles”. The nadir was The Ring, which brought brickbats not just from critics but from singers. “I wasn’t good enough for the old guard,” he recalls. “But when one looks back one isn’t quite sure if one’s telling the truth or not.”

Davis’s principal conductorship of the LSO (1995-2006) brought, to his relief, a period of professional harmony – not enough, though, to change his philosophy of life. As I get up to go, he quotes “Love’s Grave”, a favourite poem by George Meredith, which he describes as “a wonderful image for the turmoil we create. It’s not damning of human endeavour but it’s still devastating, because in the end all the striving and dust and quarrels don’t really mean anything.”

Colin Davis’s 85th birthday concert is at the Barbican, London, on September 27,

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