Numerous tributes to Carl Davis from his collaborators, colleagues, and friends have poured in since thecomposer and conductor passed away on 3 August 2023 in Oxford at the age of 87. A true musical polymath, Davis created soundtracks for some of Britain's best-loved screen dramas. He was also the driving force behind the reinvention of silent movies in concert, and composed a substantial body of internationally acclaimed ballet and concert works. Carl Davis was a Faber Music composer since the early 1990s.
In working with Carl over the years, nothing can rival the experience of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, whose 5½ hour score needed the assistance of Christopher Palmer, my brother David and myself. We were comparative amateurs in the world of the silent movie, and back in 1980 there was no way of putting a timecode on to the video copy that Carl worked from. He had to time the film with a stopwatch, and then carefully make sure that the music fitted - over such a long duration this was exceptionally difficult in performance : get out by a bar or two and it could be a disaster, and the rehearsals were quite fraught.
Carl knew exactly what he wanted in terms of orchestration, and I quickly learned how to make textures that sounded complex but took as little time as possible to rehearse. Though I didn’t always get it right: I still have a page from a decadent dance scene which I had made too tame - Carl sent it back with the message ‘This is an orgy!!’. There is no love scene in the film, but Carl contrived one during the sequence in which Napoleon looks at a globe but keeps seeing the face of Josephine looming out. Although it is a brief episode it is one of the highlights of the score. Just one example of the subtlety he brought, which far surpassed the music that was originally written or improvised.
Carl was a larger than life figure, an extraordinarily diverse musician and a wonderful conversionalist. He was so energetic and enthusiastic in our last contact that I thought he would go on for ever, and will miss him greatly.
I was a friend of Carl, and a collaborator with him, for over 40 years. His Napoléon prepared the way for a whole series of great silent films, for which scores were commissioned by Thames Television and mostly shown at the London Film Festival as well as on television, and in which Colin and I helped with the orchestration….Everything had to be done in a rush: I remember that I wrote the whole of the 105-minute full score of Old Heidelberg by hand (no computers in 1984) in a month.
I used to meet Carl at his house and he would play through a section of his score on the piano, calling out orchestration hints, sometimes saying things like “do a Richard Strauss here” or “this should sound like Tchaikovsky”. When orchestrating I would sometimes add extra parts, which Carl always approved of. I learned so much about orchestration from this work, it was a such a valuable experience.
I shall miss his phone calls: “David, I wonder if could give me a bit of help with…” The last time I spoke to him was at the end of last year when he rang up to ask if I could orchestrate one section from his ballet Phantom of the Opera, which he said he thought would be his last major work. It was a scene by a lake, so he asked if the scoring could be a bit like The Swan of Tuonela. I did it, he approved. I feel so sad that this will never happen again.
Neil Brand – read his full tribute on the BFI website here
Carl Davis…made his name with multiple gifts that embraced composition, orchestration, dramaturgy and showmanship…few were as prolific, eclectic or immediately recognisable as Carl.
By dint of his personality and through the sheer memorability of his best work, Davis the performer was very much a presence, wielding the baton as conductor and artistic director of the Liverpool Philharmonic’s Summer Pops concerts…or in synchronisation with nearly 60 silent film scores he composed across more than 40 years, from the mighty Napoleon to recent ‘live cinema’ performances scored for piano quintet. He loved to talk about his work, to speak directly to audiences and always to make a flamboyant presence in studio, theatre or concert hall.
I followed his work avidly, getting to talk to him at some of those premieres and marvelling from afar at his virtuosity. For me he is as responsible for the revitalising of silent cinema as the historians, filmmakers, academics and collectors who found and popularised the material. For Davis gave an accessible, contemporary voice to these lost masterpieces and went on to prove that the magic could be conjured up live in the auditorium as the film played out on the screen.
Sir Paul McCartney
I was very sad to hear that my friend Carl Davis had passed away. Carl and I wrote the 'Liverpool Oratorio' together. It was my first full-length classical venture and I really enjoyed working with him to make it happen…His enthusiasm was extremely infectious and we had a great time during the period that we worked together.
When we came to perform the piece at Liverpool Cathedral it was very exciting for me who had once failed an audition for the choir at the cathedral to be back there with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and tremendous soloists Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sir Willard White, Sally Burgess, Jerry Hadley, and a large choir for a very special evening.
Alan Bennett in The Guardian
Carl Davis was a newcomer to the British theatre when in 1968 he arranged and helped perform the music for my first play, Forty Years On.
I can’t remember who recommended him, but he was tireless, wielding the two dozen not always musical actors into a school choir while himself presiding on stage at the organ. Sitting beside him (if metaphorically at his feet) was the composer-to-be George Fenton, then a schoolboy.
Carl also did some wonderfully rumbustious music for a later play, Habeas Corpus. No more, alas, thereafter; he was always busy.
Dan Golding presented a special edition of ABC Classics’ Screen Sounds celebrating Davis’ life and music, which is available to stream here.
Alistair Hume – read Hume’s recollections of Carl Davis in the Times here
When I was in The King’s Singers we were fortunate to work quite a bit with Carl. In 1974 the Cheltenham International Festival commissioned a contemporary project of Seven Deadly Sins, with a different distinguished composer assigned to each Sin. Elisabeth Lutyens was one, and Carl another…He ended up with Covetousness.
They must have laughed so much when writing it, because they reached the very last page of a 20-minute piece, and suddenly realised that there was nothing remotely connected with covetousness anywhere in it. Rather than start again, on that final page they cheekily posed the question of: “What possible motive could there be?” for the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and left, “Covetousness?”, just hanging in the air.
One of the best performances of it was perhaps when Carl gave me a preview when I went to see him at his home in Barnes. He played the entire six-part score from his handwritten copy on the piano at breakneck speed, sang lustily throughout, including the countertenor, tenor and bass solo parts, and punctuated proceedings with a constant stream of zingy one-liners that owed much more to Brooklyn than Barnes SW13. A complete genius, as well as a warm and lovely man.
Sandra Parr – read her full tribute on the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra blog here
Since the early 1980s Carl has been associated with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra through his many concerts and particularly as he was the driving force behind the successful Summer Pops at the King’s Dock in the 1990s. His collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney led to the “Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio” first performed in Liverpool Cathedral in June 1991 for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir's 150th Anniversary. The Orchestra then toured it internationally, including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra debut at Carnegie Hall in November 1991.
The range of programmes that Carl presented in the Summer Pops always involved him wearing his wonderful range of sparkly and highly decorated waistcoats and jackets. Over those years the Summer Pops saw Carl and the Orchestra working with many artists including names such as Michael Ball, Daniel O’Donnell and Honor Blackman, with programmes that included music from Beethoven to Beatles, Bond to Bach and thousands of pieces in between. He and his wife, Jean Boht, were known to thousands of Liverpool people as they mingled with audiences post-concert or shopping in town. Their generosity and dedication helped many people over the years.
Matthew Sweet, broadcaster and presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Sound of Cinema, paid tribute to Davis in a special repeat broadcast of Davis’ 80th birthday concert with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Davis. Listen here.
If you were to ask me to name three of the most important artistic experiences of my life, I’d say: hearing Carl Davis conduct his score for Abel Gance’s Napoléon in 2004, hearing Carl Davis conduct his score for Abel Gance’s Napoléon in 2013, and hearing Carl Davis conduct his score for Abel Gance’s Napoléon in 2016.
Few composers gave so much in the service of a masterpiece…I can’t help but think that the film itself must also be in mourning for Carl, too. His music shows a deep understanding of the relationship between sound and image, and a strong sense of how to evoke the past without resorting to pastiche or surrendering an individual voice. It’s why he was so good at period drama…Goodbye maestro – we’ll miss you.