Cancer claims a walking encyclopedia of English music

Cancer claims a walking encyclopedia of English music


norman lebrecht

July 03, 2020

Diagnosed a few weeks ago with pancreatic cancer, Oliver Davies died this week in his sleep. He was 81.

A pianist by vocation, Oliver founded the picture archives at the Royal College of Music and fought valiantly to stop successive bursars from throwing it, as he put it, ‘on a skip’. He delpored the College’s lack of historicity. One friend says: ‘He takes with him an enormous amount of knowledge about British musical life from c. 1800 onwards – he knew more than all the rest of us put together.’


  • Simon Dearsley says:

    When William Glock ran Dartington, Oliver was always the accompanist of choice. He was a very kind man, in my youth so encouraging. I turned pages for him in many concerts. The one I can never forget was the concert when he and Linda Hirst performed Messiaen’s Harwari. It was a page turner’s nightmare, and for the pianist, there are no words to describe what Oliver played so effortlessly. It was a highlight for listeners as Linda sang stunningly. It said everything about Oliver that when the work finished, he turned to me and thanked me before standing to take his bow. The world is a less rich place without him.

    • Melisande says:

      Messiaen’s song cycle HARAWI, composed in 1945, consists of 12 songs (duration: approx. 50 minutes). The lightly surrealistic texts are by Messiaen himself and the music is based on Andean folksongs.
      Nice to read about the mezzo Linda Hirst who performed the cycle in Dartington.

  • Ronald Cavaye says:

    I was Oliver’s first pupil when he began teaching at the RCM in 1970. We have been friends ever since. After a performance of the “Goldberg” by his friend, Andre Tchaikovsky, in Dartington, I spoke to Andre about Oliver. His first words – “Oh, Oliver! He’s like nobody else!” What more can one say. An extraordinary musician, an extraordinary person.

    • JANE AVERY says:

      Are you by any chance related to Cecilia Cavaye who I knew in the 50s and 60s in Edinburgh ?
      Jane Avery (nee Fraser)

  • Barry Sterndale-Bennett says:

    I first met Oliver surrounded by the picture archives at the RCM some 40 years ago and during the last 15 years was in frequent contact with him as he tirelessly worked for the good of his beloved Museum of Music History. Gentle and modest by nature, but with a wicked sense of humour, he was not only a very fine pianist and teacher but his historical knowledge of 19th century classical music was unparalleled. Whenever we met I learned something new. A huge loss.

  • Brendan G Carroll says:

    It is very difficult for me to write anything adequate about my dear friend Oliver. His passing is an incalculable loss to the world of music. Apart from only one other person (anotheer dear friend, the composer and musicologust Harold Truscott) I have never met anyone who knew seemingly everything about music.

    It did not matter how obscure the work or the composer, if I happened to mention either to Oliver he would not only know (immediately saying “oh yes, of course….”) but would usually have a rare, first edition score under his bed!

    But aside from his extraordinary knowledge and musicianship, he was also the truest and most supportive of friends and one of life’s great enthusiasts.

    A huge void now opens up in my life as a result of his passing.

  • Dr Lindsay Stainton says:

    Neither a professional musician nor musicologist, merely a lay person with a passionate interest in music, music history and performance history, Oliver became a close friend from the 1970s onwards. How much one owes him. He taught me and countless others an infinite amount, always driven by a sense of joy in what he heard, always fascinated by a recent discovery, whether a long-neglected manuscript or a brilliant young musician. Alongside that, he had an unerring belief in excellence, and the role of the musician in faithfully interpreting a score. His later life was chiefly dedicated to establishing a Museum of Music History, which exists in digital form and through its extensive collections. Above all, Oliver’s unmatched gift for friendship, across an astonishingly wide range of people, was quite remarkable. He had the ability to bring out the best in everyone, perhaps because he always saw the most positive in them, and had no sense of envy or schadenfreude; on the contrary, he took immense pleasure in the success of others. That generosity of spirit was immediately apparent to all. He lived astonishingly frugally, in some degree of chaos (though he could always lay his hand on what he sought), devoting his modest resources to snapping up unconsidered trifles, whose significance he invariably recognised, for the Museum of Music History. It was an appropriate coincidence that he shared his birthday with Sir George Grove, whose wide-ranging musical knowledge and sympathies he shared. How lucky we were to be the friends of this modest, delightful and remarkable man.

  • Peter Arnold says:

    I worked as an assistant to Oliver from 1979 – 1986, in the RCM Department of Portraits, a job that he gave me after I had finished my studies abroad. During that time, and since, he showed me immense kindness, both with musical help and in general. In those early days he would often give me ad hoc piano lessons, sometimes for a couple of hours, after we had finished work, and he was someone to whom I could always turn for the wisest advice and counsel. His friends and musical collaborators have included many famous and distinguished people but he always had time for and took an interest in all those that knew him. Although not an imposing figure, he possessed a towering intellect, which, combined with his wonderful musical brain and tremendous commitment to truth and integrity, touched all that knew him. I consider it a great privilege to have been one of his friends.

  • OLIVER DAVIES was a man of magic.I first encountered him when I was a Governor of the Royal Society of Musicians, where he was quaintly entitled Keeper of Portraits, a job he did purely out of love for the history of the Society and its members.
    Erudition just poured from him on all subjects “artistic”. In his knowledge, he could seem daunting and maybe eccentric to those of lesser talent although everything he talked about was delivered with the utmost charm and modesty. I began to be as a “rat following the Pied Piper”, hanging on his every word, hoping to improve my knowledge and bask in the glory of his knowledge.
    And so it continued. I never lost the inspiration that he gave so many of us and it was always a joy to be near him and to be considered a like mind.When I stopped being a governor of the RSM and Oliver had been removed from his post at the RSM, he asked me to become a Trustee of the Museum of Music History which he had created to fill a huge void in that subject.
    It was an honour to join such an amazing group of talented people,personally selected by Oliver for their expertise and humanity and the hole in all our lives now is incalculable.The Davies Museum of Music History will go on burning ever brighter in his memory.
    Last, it dawned on me after many years of friendship that I had never heard Oliver play the piano so I attended a couple of his concerts.Would the music making be as magical, I wondered- but I needn’t have.
    The personality was the same,warm, intensely communicative and surrounding me with the same MAGIC as always.
    Sleep sweetly Oliver. You will always be loved by many including Tessa

  • Ronald Cavaye says:

    Could I suggest that you remove “English” from this title? Oliver was a walking encyclopedia of ALL music!

  • Richard Shaw says:

    Bravo Oliver!

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    I can only echo all these comments about the wonderful Oliver: he and Paul Collen were so helpful to me with research in the 1970s/80s. Silly things one remembers: that he had his own set of eating irons in a pot on his desk in the Department; and that he regularly rescued from the (then) Keeper of the Parry Room’s wastepaper basket valuable material that didn’t happen to coincide with that officer’s current tastes! Musically he had a great clarinet/piano partnership with his colleague Colin Bradbury, which so often featured the music he had rescued. As Tessa Cahill says, he was inspirational.

  • Jennie Goossens says:

    Desperately sad to hear this news. A good friend, a brilliant archivist, a huge loss to the world of music.
    RIP Oliver.

  • James Dutton says:

    I knew Oliver since I was a student at the RCM in the late 1980s. We remained great friends and in the last few years spent a lot of time together performing recitals all over the U.K. and abroad. He was without doubt the most influential person in my musical development and a true friend. I’m devastated by his loss.

  • Jacky Cowdrey says:

    I was so very sad to hear the news of Oliver’s passing. He was a truly brilliant man, with an extraordinary knowledge of music and everything connected, but also the sweetest, kindest person. I first met him over 30 years ago when I worked as archivist at the Royal Albert Hall, and we would meet to commiserate over our lack of funding and support. I had a copy of the orchestral score of Praise Ye the Lord by Sir Michael Costa, which the Hall’s management was considering reviving for an anniversary. I took it to Oliver, who played and sang it straight off, never having seen it before, I was completely in awe of his talent! He suggested perhaps it wasn’t the greatest piece for audiences of today! He always found time to help with any request I had, and I loved browsing through the college archives, which existed solely because of him and his passion. Later he asked me to catalogue part of the Museum of Music History’s collection which I found fascinating, and I so enjoyed meeting up with him again. He was unique, bringing a passion and joy to everything he did.

  • Peta Steel says:

    A delightful enthusiastic lover of music and all its facets. His life was spent teaching and emparting all that he knew about music. A dear friend whose death leaves a vast chasm in knowledge and a painful loss in my life and those of others.

  • Sheila Innes says:

    So very sad to hear the news. I met Oliver at the RCM 20 years ago and was very lucky to be counted as one of his many friends. His boundless energy and enthusiasm were endless and we had many laughs over my speed at climbing the stairs to his eerie in the RCM compared to his! His knowledge about all things musical was amazing. There will never be another Oliver. He will be greatly missed.

  • Charles Hampshire says:

    I only knew Oliver for a short time when I worked at the Royal College of Music temporarily but his enthusiasm and charm were infectious and meetings with him a joy. He always had something interesting to show you from the College’s portrait collection and an interesting story. RIP you wonderful man.

  • A.T. Cooper says:

    Oliver once revealed to me that he was in fact a distant relation of the 19th century English composer Dr. Charles Horsley. Dr. Horsley, as a member of the infamous ‘Mendelssohn Circle’, had managed to acquire one of the great composer’s silk handkerchiefs following a card game. The game had already entailed Mendelssohn having to surrender the entirety of his purse following an embarrassingly costly run of bad luck. The said cloth was all that he had left to give to Horsley as his winnings, and he had grudgingly accepted it. Oliver had managed to inherit this same handkerchief through his maternal grandmother and revealed to me that this ‘Pinkly Wonder’, as he euphemistically referred to what would seem to be the untrained eye nothing more than a threadbare piece of grey tat, would always take pride of place in his top pocket for every one of his public performances. Following his recent tragic diagnosis, Oliver bestowed on me the great honour of the gift of this precious heirloom. It now sits atop my piano and I will think of Oliver and his wonderfully generous nature whenever I play.

    • HENRY ROCHE says:

      Dear Mr Cooper, I am amazed to read your story of Oliver Davies and Charles Horsley and Mendelssohn’s handkerchief! Could you contact me about it?

      • Katherine Jessel says:

        Dear Mr Cooper. I am still more amazed as I am actually related to Charles Horsley through my great great great aunt Elizabeth Callcott who was Charles’s mother, having married the composer Dr William Horsely in 1812. The family famously knew Mendelssohn well. I knew Oliver for fifty years but he never told me about this connection. I would be very grateful if you could get in touch with me.
        Katherine Jessel

    • HENRY ROCHE says:

      Dear Mr Cooper, I am amazed to read your story of Oliver Davies and Charles Horsley and Mendelssohn’s handkerchief! Could you contact me about it?

  • I have just learned this moment of Oliver Davies’ death. I am devastated, all the more so because I had lost contact with Oliver until very recently when he luckily spotted a Freischutz item on my website. Instantly, as if there were never a time lag, we resumed via email a conversation that started in London some 40 year’s ago. I was so excited to be connected again to this marvelous, wonderful man and would have flown from New York to London to see him again but for the damned Corona virus. He had no barriers and shared his amazing wealth of musical knowledge so readily and always seemed interested in everything. What a stunning loss. I am pleased for him that he died in his sleep.

  • Natasha Dissanayake says:

    Every year in the course of over 10 years we in our Sutton Russian Circle enjoyed performances by pianist Oliver Davies with his young colleague, cellist Adrian Bradbury. Their latest concert was scheduled for Friday 19 June but was cancelled due to pandemic. In July, I received a sad news that dear Oliver died in his sleep.
    How lucky we were to have this professional of high calibre and an enthusiastic propagandist of music as a devoted friend of our modest Circle. And what a generous friend he was! For every particular concert Oliver researched a special programme, looking for works by Russian composers for cello and piano mainly of the XIX century. Some of those works have never been performed in Britain before, so thanks to Oliver we found ourselves present at the first night several times! He always made most interesting introductions and commentary about the authors, performers and the general atmosphere of the period when that music was created.
    And what a delightful person Oliver was! We will miss his music, his stories, his vivacity and candour — these are precious memories.
    Natasha Dissanayake
    On behalf of Sutton Russian Circle