Since moving to England in the 1960s, American-born conductor/composer Carl Davis has been a leading figure in both the concert hall and in film music, carving out a unique niche in each. Born in New York City, Davis attended Bard College and later studied composition with Paul Nordoff, Hugo Kauder, and Per Nørgård. He served as a conductor with the New York City Opera and the Robert Shaw Chorale, and earned an award for his 1959 off-Broadway revue Diversions (written in collaboration with Steven Vinaver). He became active in England at the outset of the 1960s with the Edinburgh Festival (where Diversions was performed in 1961), and this led to his being commissioned by producer Ned Sherrin to compose the score for the satiric television series That Was the Week That Was. The success of his work on at series led to further work on British television and, later, commissions from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Davis first began gaining international recognition in 1973, when he was engaged to write the score for Thames Television's landmark 26-hour documentary series The World at War, which was an immediate hit in the United States and was widely shown for decades after — his grim, often irony-laced scoring was among the most haunting ever heard in a television series.
As a film composer, Carl Davis has worked on notable contemporary movies, most notably The French Lieutenant's Woman, which won him a British Academy Award and an Ivor Novello Award. His most unusual film work, however, has been in the authorship of new scores for such renowned silent films as the European restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon , Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ, Phantom of the Opera, and The Thief of Bagdad. Davis has scored more than 50 silent films, earning him the sobriquet "Mr. Silent Movie," and by 2005 Davis had scored all 12 of Charlie Chaplin's Mutual films, key early Chaplin shorts that Chaplin had not scored himself. Davis' score for Napoleon earned him the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture in 1983, and he had the privelege of returning to Napoleon when a new five-and-a-half hour long restoration was unveiled in 2005. The US premiere of the restored version was scheduled for 2012, with Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony.
Since the 1970s, Carl Davis has been an active recording artist, principally as a conductor, most notably for EMI with a collection of film music by Sir William Walton and on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's own imprint with a compilation of his own film music. In 1991, Davis assisted Paul McCartney in the composition of his Liverpool Oratorio, and subsequntly Davis led the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's Summer Pops Concert series from 1993 to 2001. Davis has also written concert works, including a symphony, a clarinet concerto; a fantasy for flute, strings, and harpsichord; and a programmatic work entitled A Circle of Stones. Ballet is a form in which Davis is particularly productive, and his ballets include A Christmas Carol, A Simple Man, Alice in Wonderland, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Davis' ballet of Cyrano de Bergerac appeared in the spring of 2007, followed by The Lady of the Camellias in 2008. Though American born, in 2006 Davis was awarded an honorary CBE from the British government for his contrbutions to music.