NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

A composer adopted by island community

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was one of the UK's foremost composers

Celebrated British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died at the age of 81. The Salford-born musician, who had leukaemia, died at his home in Orkney.

It was June 2014 when I met Sir Peter Maxwell Davies for the first and last time.

I'd seen him onstage at concerts, heard him interviewed on radio and TV and felt like I knew him through friends and colleagues in Orkney, where he'd been a popular and active member of the island community since he moved there in 1970.

He'd been seriously ill with leukaemia, spending months in hospital in London (where he continued to compose). His 80th birthday concert was both a homecoming, and a joyful celebration of Max at the St Magnus Festival, which he'd founded in 1977.

No-one was quite sure what to expect. Notorious for his sense of mischief, bad timekeeping and sheer spontaneity when something, or someone, caught his eye on the way to an interview, even his publicist couldn't be sure he'd turn up.

And yet, as the children gathered in the school hall to perform the songs they'd been rehearsing for weeks, Max quietly slipped into the school cafe, and into the interview seat.

He may have been the natural successor to the avant garde movement, the enfant terrible of the classical music world, who challenged as well as charmed audiences with his music, but there was another side to Max, which allowed him to bring classical music to a wider audience.

He was a keen teacher, a champion of music education, outspoken on most things - something of a challenge in a small community. And he was enormously focused when it came to winning over new audiences.

"I always thought the best way to get people to come to the festival was to involve their children."

So he wrote a series of song cycles for children - specifically for the children who lived in Orkney - like the Kirkwall Shopping Songs.

Originally called Kirkwall Messages, the title was changed to avoid confusing international choirs, although the references to local landmarks, language and people remain and the songs have since been performed everywhere from Berlin to Bath.

And for his 80th birthday, they were performed in Orkney, by the children and grandchildren of those who'd sung them originally.

He was touched, he said, that the festival was marking his birthday, and that he'd been fit enough to attend.

The treatment he'd received for leukaemia had taken its toll on his mental, as well as physical, health. Music had helped him through the darkest hours. He'd been discharged from hospital just a week before, with a brand new symphony - his 10th - in hand.

The experience had left him buoyant and grateful to be back in the community he called home.

And as the excited choir burst into an impromptu chorus of happy birthday, dragging the reluctant composer into the limelight, it was obvious how important Max and his music had become to that island community.

I was glad to share their pride and joy that day, and I share their sadness now at his loss.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conducts Welsh soprano Mary Thomas in a rehearsal in 1968

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