British composer Peter Maxwell Davies has died of leukemia, at his home in Orkney, at age 81. One of the most respected composers of his generation, Davis bridged early music and new music with often-challenging compositions, though his style — both musically and personally — softened in his later years.
A Salford native, Davies was a peer of Harrison Birtwistle and a student of teachers including Milton Babbitt; Benjamin Britten and Aaron Copland were among the composers who saw promise in the precocious young man.
He rose to fame — or, perhaps, infamy — in the 1960s with a series of compositions that were difficult to the point of being called, by some, unplayable. As the BBC notes, "he often referenced plainchant and medieval music, which he incorporated into challenging, serial compositions."
His music became gentler, however, in later decades as he explored a wide range of styles. His best-known work, Farewell to Stromness, is a wistful piano solo from a 1980 work written in response to a proposal for uranium mining near the composer's home.
Davies was knighted in 1986 and, in 2004, appointed Master of the Queen's Music — a musical honor akin to being named a poet laureate. The appointment raised eyebrows due to Davies's republican views, but the composer said that he became a monarchist after Queen Elizabeth earned his respect.
"I feel that I want to tell people how it is to be PMD," he said about his music, "and I do hope my music reflects something of the spiritual values and helps people to understand their own musicality, their own spiritual development, and that it means something to people's spiritual lives."