The post-imperial maestro: Sir Colin Davis

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Sir Colin Davis here (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

colin davisSir Colin Davis, at play

Sir Colin Davis — “the reluctant king of English music making,” the FT calls him — recounts in conversation a turning point in his life that sounds like a parable for each and all of us and maybe for great nations, too. The year must have been 1962. Davis, who’s now 80, was then 35, a tempestuous young superstar conductor with the BBC and other symphony orchestras in London. He had just come through “the last night at the Proms,” the traditional spring revels, when…

… suddenly I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. I really wanted to be a musician, not a success. I wanted to make the most beautiful music possible.. That maybe didn’t happen in five minutes. It was a big crisis in the middle of my life. I didn’t like the life I was leading. My first marriage had gone to pieces. I had to start again. And one of the things I did was: I talked a lot to my mother and my sisters, and I went back to the places I remembered as a kid, because they told me I was a very jolly child, up to the age of five. So that must be there somewhere: things like that don’t disappear; they lie at the bottom of a pile of rubbish you’ve thrown on it. So I went back to try to find that spring of natural good nature, natural peace with the little world of a child of five. And I got married again and had five children — and they all play musical instruments. It really dates from then. And even then there were still remains of the fiery intolerant bad-tempered fellow. But the one thing I hung onto was music. Not to exploit music but really to try to get as far as I could to the essence of it.”

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

You must picture, to get the sense of this rambling, riffing exchange, a notably relaxed, handsome Englishman — supple on the podium, soft-spoken off it — who could make you think at different moments of Peter O’Toole or Noel Coward but also James Bond. He received me on the morning after an open rehearsal of Mozart and Schubert with pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This week he is conducting Edward Elgar’s oratorio, based on Cardinal Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius. Gesturally, Davis’s manner with orchestra players reminds you that not for nothing do they speak of “playing” music. In person he is almost continuously laughing quietly. His physical ease, he says, “may have something to do with the fact that I sleep with my Alexander Technique teacher.” He introduced his wife to the art of focused mind-body relaxation, and now she coaches him and others. Alexander Technique, he observes, can save musicians from an early, spastic end. “When you let things happen,” as he says, “there’s a chance that you might hear the music.” Colin Davis is a prodigious knitter — yes, as in the flowered cardigan he was making for Ms. Uchida (the only woman beside his wife he knits for). And he is an incessant reader. “I think if you stop reading, your mind just closes down.” 2007 was a big reading year: all of Dickens, and a start on Balzac’s four-score-and-some novels. “One is pushing one’s ignorance as far as it will go,” he says, laughing again. So we speak also of an obscure modernist classic he swears by, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil (1945), which I’d read under his influence. The book details the deathbed consciousness of Augustus Caesar’s court poet in his final hours, despairing of art as well as power and eager to destroy his epic Aeneid before he dies. Broch’s is a book, to Colin Davis’s mind, that is “trying to say what only music can say” and what Mozart in particular does say– about twilight mysteries, the organic “humus of existence,” the breath, in and out, of melancholy and consolation in life, about laughter and death, childhood and loss. Broch’s Virgil, in his last conversation with Augustus, says his life as a writer was wasted and wishes rather that he’d made “one useful human gesture.” And how did Colin Davis fix on his own “human gesture?”

To begin with, my passion for music was so intolerable that it was only gradually that it turned around from domination and telling people what to do, to trying to make this have nothing to do with tyranny and fear, because no good music ever came of any of that.

You listen to the great dominating maestros, like Toscanini in Verdi’s Requiem: it’s amazingly disciplined but it’s completely heartless to me. It’s a fantastic piece, and all that’s in it cannot come from the will to dominate other people. So that had to go. When it’s a big problem for yourself, you can only nibble away at it gradually, like a sort of miniature beaver, until the edifice collapses. And you don’t want anymore to do with that. But of course there are a lot of people who wouldn’t accept that, but I’m still there. There are some people who have a kind of Jehovah complex. They want to be dominated. They want to be told what to do, so they don’t have to be responsible. Now I don’t think great music is made like that. When everyone in the orchestra feels responsible for this piece of music, that’s when life begins.

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

How much of this can be translated into public life?

… These two demons — power and money — are running the show, and they’ve gone mad. They’re just false values. Those are the two things you really have to tackle if you want to be a human being. You’ve got to come to grips with not wanting power over other people and not working for money… Q. And how do great nations come to grip with that idea? A. Well, they don’t, do they? And the more you read, the more you realize it’s never been any different… For the private person to strut around the town, and to admire yourself when you shave in the morning is really a catastrophe for a human being. Q. Can the world at large ever taste and share the fruits of a lifetime in music? A. The attention of the world is not focused on the potential message of music. It’s all in The Death of Virgil and Augustus’s bread and circuses… That kind of world has no interest… Evolution hasn’t been kind. Brains can’t organize the world. It’s a bad business, and what can poor little Mozart do about that?

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

And what is his account of that post-imperial Englishness I sense in Davis’s music and his gab? “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s a curious mix of skepticism, lust for reading, and trying to follow Broch’s advice that the most important thing in the end is common decency.”

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  • hurley

    This is one for the time-capsule. Easy to imagine Davis’ slow, mindful delivery translated into the orchestral manner Chris praises. I’d always associated the Alexander Technique with summer-stock, leg-warmers, and a certain desperate ambition, but perhaps there’s something to it after all. Fascinated by the discussion of The Death of Virgil. A great, great book. I’d forgotten Virgil’s reckoning of The Aeneid vv a “useful human gesture.” Grateful to be reminded of it. Why not another hour with Davis on The Death of Virgil…?

  • GeorgeM

    As a conducting student in New York, I was very fortunate to have sat at Sir Colin’s feet for many years, and to have drunk greedily from the generous wisdom that he shared so effortlessly, always laced with grace, playfulness and endless humour, always dispensed with a chuckle somewhere between piano and pianissimo.

    This extraordinary conversation should be required listening for any young or not so young artist contemplating a life as a conductor or even as any kind of performer. It should probably be required listening for every political candidate presidential or otherwise. Sir Colin’s example of a life lived as conductor, clarinetist, voracious reader, generous mentor and teacher, fertile parent, prolific knitter, planter of trees and wise teacher to us all, is a testament — a testament that a properly interdisciplinarily “examined” life is a very good way indeed to spend a life.

    Sir Colin goes to the essence of the treacherous quicksands that lurk around the phenomenon of success and even of seeking success — the toxins that can come with looking in the mirror and saying, “Oh how pretty!” without a generous helping of irony or skepticism or something.

    One of the great unspoken topics in the conversation at which I was hoping that Sir Colin might make more than a feint — Ted Heath, British Prime Minister in the early 70’s and an accomplished organist and conductor was one of those “men” who knew a thing or two about Mozart. There have been such people ( one thinks of Ehud Barak, Israeli PM who failed to reach a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace, or the Polish pianist-composer-Prime Minister Paderewski or Vytautas Landsbergis, musicologist and conductor who presided over Lithuanian independence from the USSR) who were able to consider the wisdom of Mozart and Elgar alongside the daily hubbub of political life but didn’t really manage to do very much (with the possible exception of Landsbergis) as political leaders.

    If you live in Boston or within possible distance whether by air, rail, road or flying carpet, run to get tickets for this Dream of Gerontius this weekend. There will be no greater performances of this supremely universal monument until Simon Rattle turns 80.

    Conductors used to be taught that they have to lead, that they have to tell the musicians what to do. Sir Colin seems to suggest that the most potent variety of conductorial, artistic or just simply human engagement…. might possibly be LISTENING — a kind of active listening that carries a more transformative essence in itself than possibly any act of assertion with a view to establish anything for anyone. The best conductors have always been the great empaths who put their efforts in the service of the empowerment and facilitation of individual and communal expressive powers of the great artists in the community which is the orchestra or opera company.

    Thank you Christopher and thank you Sir Colin Davis for sharing this precious window into what you so tenderly call ” this little Kingdom.”

    George Mathew

    New York

  • nother

    A dignified resignation to awe – that’s how I would characterize the tempo of this man’s temperament.

    Beginning this conversation with the Piano Concerto 23 was apropos…the discourse invoked the unhurried mood of the second movement – Adagio in F sharp minor (which I just read was Mozart’s only composition in this key).

    So I second Hurley, a time-capsule keeper for sure. An exquisite dialogue between two men who will never be authorities on this music…they respect it too much for that.

    Chris asked Mr. Davis about being supple and pleasant in his conducting and I was fascinated to here him answer “well that’s another way of how you get along with people, isn’t it?” To hear him equate conducting musicians with relating to regular people makes me appreciate this art form (that I too often shy away from, fearing an infection of elitism) so much more. How is it possible that a man whose name starts with Sir, strikes me as not having an elitist bone in his body?

    Sir Colin Davis description of the Piano Concerto 23 will remain with me:

    “An aria of comprehensive melancholy…which is untouchable. And the consolation of that little serenade in A major in the middle is almost too much…too…too much for me anyway.” (The last phrase is spoken through a melancholy chuckle)

    I was at that concert the other night and as I sat and listened to the Piano Concerto live, I felt pings in my chest, and I literally froze up. It was as if Mozart was exposing me to everyone in that hall…hey man, that my insides your playing with up there! Somehow he dug up and chewed on that moist bone of emotions that I keep hidden so well…even from myself. Paradoxically I felt brotherhood – here is the great Mozart confiding in me (with ardor) that he has felt the same helplessness in matters of the heart.

    But then he went beyond me – way beyond – and delicately wrestled with unfamiliar sensual emotions in the way Dostoevsky eloquently wrestles with ideas. It’s not that I don’t have the capacity to feel and think like these men, it’s just that I haven’t looked deep enough yet, and that’s their challenge, they’ve knocked the ball into my court.

    “Why I love music so much is that they bring all of these sides of themselves and the world and everybody else, into a sense of order. The thing about Mozart is that it is supremely ordered, and within that security of the order he can express anything he wants.” – Sir Colin Davis

    It’s occurs to me that a good conversation can provide “that security of order” as well, enabling one (such as Sir Colin Davis) to “express anything he wants.” And considering that so much of music can be described as a conversation…well it all starts to make sense.

    Thank you for this gesture, Christopher Lydon and Sir Colin Davis.

    (And when it comes to Mozart, I too am “totally in a state of belief.”)

  • Zeke

    Listening to the discussion of Mozart in the same week that we are occupied with Henry V I thought of a connection. This may be far fetched, but I detect a touch of Falstaff in Mozart. Sir Colin spoke of how the composer was so far beyond the pretenses of those in his society. He is playful; sometimes a bit off color, but never malicious. Indeed, his “fart jokes” reveal a man aware of our rootedness to the flesh. Of course Falstaff is bumptuous and Mozart never less than elegant. But both retain the child within–wondering, exploring, enjoying. Turning to the Henry V conversation, this is precisely the “heart” that Mistress Quickly says Hal has killed–both Falstaff’s and his own.

  • nother

    Great point Zeke. I had the same feeling about Mozart…that he was in touch with his inner-child.

  • JohnJohn

    There is, in this conversation and in its silences, a sound I have heard less and less of in the last twenty years, the sound of a person actually thinking, a person speaking from long experience with all of its complexity. Sir Colin’s view of the relationship between conductor and orchestra is thrillingly humane.

    The new “Open Source,” in its free range and its need to please or pander no one, is the best speech show available. As Christopher has moved from television, to one public radio show, then to another, then to the net podcasting, one could, unkindly, make the case that he is moving to a smaller and smaller demographic, in marketing terms. But the message, the content, and the skill is refining immeasurably. Anyone read “The Rise of Silas Lapham” recently?

    And thank you, Christopher, for eliciting Sir Colin’s knitting as a theme.

  • SJP

    “I really wanted to be a musician, not a success,” says Sir Colin astutely. Today, more than ever, music is mired in what I will call Entertainism. Yes, of course music is partly entertainment, but one needs to look no further than the Britneys to know what I mean. Although classical musicians may not have taken to such extremes, it seems that today’s classical music has its own Path to Greatness that few have ventured off – competitions, large sponsorship, orchestral debuts, etc. In fact, it is likely that the very Entertainism in popular culture that is the driving force for the Entertainism in classical music. There seems to be a need to compete with the bells, whistles, and pop-whirring lights out there today, be it Super Bowl advertisements or blockbuster hits. I mean not to say that these have no entertainment value (because they certainly do), but rather that I am not sure the top-down approach is enough for classical music.

    Take for instance recent publicity efforts by orchestras to attract new, younger audiences. While I think these efforts are well-intentioned and do absolutely serve a purpose, it may not be enough. Because whether or not they know it themselves, aficionados are bottom-up folk. They go to concerts because of the music – the “too much…too…too much”-ness Sir Colin feels, or the “wrestling with unfamiliar sensual emotions” that nother experienced. Perhaps this publicity can draw in new listeners, and perhaps the occasional one will be converted into an aficionado, but I am not convinced that this is a lasting solution. What we need are bottom-up solutions, such as re-invigorating music education in schools. (On a side note, I do have sympathy. However, my sympathy thinks that classical music audiences have continued to dwindle since 1993, the year Mr. Holland wrote the article.)

    But back to Sir Colin’s wonderful time-capsule keeper. I continue to struggle with his lingering question, “It’s a bad business, and what can poor little Mozart do about that?” What can music really DO? This is still a perpetual, gnawing question for me – yes, still, despite having played, and felt to my core, and cried, and lived through music. And though Sir Colin did not have an answer to his own question, I am not happy to sit with this despair; any enlightenment is appreciated.

  • I resisted listening to this pod cast for too long. To be honest sometimes Chris gets into something that that doesn’t as such interest me, and I am at first underwhelmed. However, usually when I do get around to listening to it, I am surprisingly amazed at what I’ve been missing. This show is exactly the case.

    Personally, my knowledge of classical music in general is small. I own many classical records and CD which I never listen to. I am enthralled by any classical performance and regularly go to concerts. Mostly this is for the shear acoustic beauty and wonderment that transpires. I listen to classical music like I watch the Grand Canyon, unsurprised, in awe, and without a hint of looking for the deeper meaning of it. The orchestra bows, and I’m done. I have very little tolerance for most of the dialog that transpires afterwards, invariably pretentious, over analytical, and sometimes pure bullshit.

    Having said that this conversation really had a deep effect on me, the interview was fantastic, so many great points about music and humanity were made, and of course credit to where credit is due, talking to a genius of any sort is often enlightening. It hasn’t made me dust of my Mozart records, I wish it did, but it was a great interview with a fascinating person.

    This interview is yet another reason following Open Source is a good idea, Thanks.

  • Dear Chris,

    Listening to this interview five years later and on the day after Sir Colin Davis departed this world for the next, brought a new dimension to this miraculous interview which I had come to many times during the intervening years. I never thought I would be hearing Sir Colin’s voice (at Chris’s gentle prodding in this interview) as consolation to all of us bereft by the loss of this man — beloved artist, a wise, humble, learned and supremely compassionate human being.