British composer. He was knighted in 1987.
Born in Manchester, he studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr (1932– ), and John Ogdon (1937–89) were fellow students. With them he formed the New Music Manchester Group for the performance of European avant-garde music and their own compositions. After studying with Goffredo Petrassi (1904– ) in Rome on an Italian government scholarship (1957–58), when he was awarded the Olivetti Prize for his orchestral work Prolation (1958), Davies returned to England to teach music at Cirencester Grammar School (1959–62). This was a period of great importance in the development of his compositional style. His formation with Birtwhistle of the Pierrot Players (founded to perform Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire), later to reform as the Fires of London ensemble, provided him with a group of sympathetic players and singers for the performance of his works. He held a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University (1962–64), working with the composer Roger Sessions; in 1966 he was composer-in-residence at the University of Adelaide. Since 1970 Davies has lived and composed in Orkney, producing a series of scores based on Orcadian or Scottish myth and music, including (in collaboration with the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown) Fiddlers at the Wedding (1973–74), for voice, alto flute, mandolin, guitar, and percussion, and An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise (1985) for orchestra.
Dominant in Davies's music is his use of distortion and parody of generally medieval or Renaissance music: the string quartet (1961), the Leopardi Fragments (1961), and the Sinfonia (1962) for chamber orchestra are all based on material from Monteverdi's Vespers. Dramatic action has been an integral part of Davies's music since the Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969). The opera Taverner (1962–68; partly revised 1970) is one of many works that explore the conflict between blasphemy and established conformity. From 1971 Davies's religious preoccupation has been expressed in more lyrical and mystical pieces, such as Hymn to St Magnus (1972), the chamber opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1976), Agnus Dei (1984), and the opera Resurrection (1987). Six symphonies date from 1975–76, 1980, 1985, 1989, 1994, and 1996. His orchestral music also includes the ten Strathclyde Concertos (1987–96).