A Personal Perspective
Dick Davis (nee Walter Richard Davis) was born on July 24, 1922 in Ebensburg, PA to parents of Welsh heritage. Dick’s heritage would play an important role in his musical productivity, as witnessed in his transcriptions of hymns from the Ebenezer Chapel Book, which had served as the hymnal at the Ebensburg Welsh Independent Church from 1797-1866. At the Ebensburg bicentennial in 1997, Dick also contributed an original musical composition entitled Festival Toccata.
It was while he matriculated in the Ebensburg public school system that Dick began his study of music theory. Inspired by his music teacher’s assignment at the end of the course to write a musical composition, Dick received the class’ first prize. He was very proud of this achievement, and it served to launch his lifelong interest in composing music.
This initial success motivated Dick to pursue writing musical compositions throughout his high school years. The High School Notebook (1938-1941) bears testimony to his musical, aesthetic and personal interests at the time, and most importantly, his nascent musical creativity. It consists of poems, such as My Lost Youth by Longfellow, which so inspired Dick that he felt the need to set them to music. His study of French at the time is reflected in ‘Une jeune fille au bal.’ Lyrical pieces, such as ‘Nocturne’, occurred during a snowy evening when, unable to sleep, he worked late into the night to finish this composition while his mother hollered from the bedroom for him to get to bed. He finished another lyrical piece, ‘Edith’, dedicated to the girl with whom he had a teen-age crush, just before he discovered that she had left town to marry someone else. Extra-curricular school activities, such as in the high school marching band, inspired his composition of marches, such as ‘The Flag Goes By.’
Poetry would serve henceforth as the inspiration for the greater part of his musical compositions. In the section of the High School Notebook entitled, ‘Not Necessarily for Singing,’ he states that poetry for him was “just the music I heard when I read the verses.” In ‘Necessarily for Singing,’ he introduces the poems he chose to set to music by saying that he “always imagined voices singing in some polished, professional way.” For Dick, poetry served to articulate beyond words his thoughts and sentiments.
Further musical inspiration would arise from Dick’s subsequent life and aesthetic experiences. After high school, he pursued studies in engineering at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. At the end of his first academic year in 1942, he enlisted in the army. Following basic training, he was assigned to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute to continue his studies in engineering. Subsequent to the Normandy invasion in 1944, he experienced combat in France, serving in the Army 84th Infantry’s campaign at the Battle of the Bulge. He would later be among the first to cross the Siegfried line in the invasion of the German home front. During his wartime service, Dick earned the Purple Heart and two Bronze stars with valor.
His time in the military and in combat, in particular, would become the inspirational source of his musical compositions based on Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. Kipling had been one of Dick’s favorite poets as a high school student; and coupled with his own wartime experiences, he connected his military experiences with his aesthetic and musical proclivities.
In 1946, Dick remained in the Army and attended the City College of New York graduating Phi Beta Kappa with Honors in French and a degree in Modern Languages. Upon graduation in 1949, he received orders to serve as a military attaché in Cairo, Egypt. Simultaneous to this deployment, he married Doris Rosenblatt who was to be his life partner. Dick would later create a number of musical compositions over several years, entitled For Doris (her wedding songs). Some of these compositions would be performed several years later at the Sala Ponce in the Palacio de Bella Artes in 1954, in Mexico City. More songs were added later, such as a poem written by one of Dick’s students, Brian Sanker. Dick continued this collection of wedding songs to the end of Doris’ life. They testify to his enduring and lifelong love for her.
It was while Dick was an attaché in Cairo that he discovered the poetry of H. C.Beeching’ A Book of Christmas Verse, first published in 1895. His service in Egypt ended abruptly, however, following a trip down the Nile where he contracted poliomyelitis. He was then shipped to an army hospital in Germany for medical treatment, and later to the Valley Forge Hospital in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. While confined to bed for long periods of time, he used that occasion to read Beeching’s verses, which he claims, began to “grow on me.” Unable to use a piano, he would write “musical notes in the margins” of Beeching’s poems. Following his convalescence, and for 50 or more years, Dick would compose several compositions of Beeching’s Christmas verses.
Another source Dick drew upon in composing Christmas verses is the Oxford Book of Carols. He would often use the music contained therein and then create music that fit better his own appreciation of them. Students at Saint Francis College often performed Dick’s compositions from the Oxford Book of Carols. Dick makes special mention of a Saint Francis College student by then name of Maryhelen Bednarchik (accompanied by Fr. Chris Dobson, TOR), for her outstanding performance of his composition of ‘As Joseph Was Walking.’
The inspiration for other Christmas music came from Robert Herrick which Dick entitled Ceremonies, Spelles & other Christmas Verses.
After learning to use his legs again at Valley Forge Hospital, Dick attended the distinguished Army Language School in Monterey, CA. He was then assigned as a military attaché in Mexico City (1952-1955), where he undertook intensive study in music theory at the Mexican National Conservatory under Rodolfo Halffter Escriche who would later receive Spain's highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Música.
The years Dick spent with Professor Escriche led to the three volumes of Conservatory Notes, music he composed from texts of German poets of the Romantic period (Heine, Rilke, and Mörike et al. in Vols. 1 & 2) and traditional English poets (Shakespeare, in particular) written between 1952-1955. The Conservatory Notes were publicly performed in Mexico City under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Centro de Compositores.
Dick’s service as an attaché in Mexico City would represent for him a period of intense musical study and creativity. It was during this period, too, that he composed music to Robert Burns’ Gala Waters. These poems had attracted Dick even as a student at Ebensburg High School.
It was during this period that Dick also composed music to the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine (Baudelaire et Verlaine - Chants), poets Dick had been introduced to as a student at the City College of New York. Baudelaire and Verlaine recognized the essential role of music in expressing the ineffable. For Baudelaire, the ineffable was l’Idéal, defined as “l’évasion du reel,” or the flight from the concrete. As Baudelaire states, “it is by and through poetry, by and through music that the soul catches a glimpse of the radiance that lies beyond the grave” (translation is mine). As for Verlaine, he would state unequivocally in the first verse of his Art Poétique, that mystical purity and innocence are realized “through music before all else.”
In short, the goal of both these poets and French symbolist poets, in general, was to convey the mysterious and the primordial. The symbolist poets offered challenges to Dick as their poetry focuses not on real world entities and events, but rather on what they suggest, as conveyed through the senses.
After his attaché assignment, in Mexico City, Dick would go on to serve in that same role at the American Embassies in Paris (1957-1960) and Brussels (1960-1964). During this time, he wrote several musical compositions on the symbolist poetry of Jean Moréas. Moréas’ manifesto defined symbolism as hostile to "plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description." Its goal was to "clothe the Idéal in a perceptible form." Entitled Comparaisons, from the Stances (stanzas) selected by André Gide, this volume of music contains 40 years of musical compositions from 1957-1997, inspired by Moréas’ poetic verses. As with Baudelaire and Verlaine, Moréas’ poetry reaches out to express the ineffable Idéal through the medium of music.
It was during his service in Paris and Brussels that Dick also was drawn to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, a contemporary of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Moréas. Dick had once indicated to me that he had truly had “a love affair” with Rimbaud’s poetry, especially with the Illuminations, and the poems contained therein, entitled Phrases. Unlike the poetic density associated with much of Rimbaud’s poetry, such as Bateau Ivre, the Phrases are short, light, prose poems, hallucinatory and fleeting in nature, that savor the physical and sensual. Indeed, Rimbaud prefigured the surrealists in this respect. The imagery Rimbaud uses evokes rather than simply describes. Dick saw in the Phrases (as did many others, ranging from the classical composers such as Benjamin Britten and Harold Blumenfeld, to rock musicians such as Bob Dylan and Jim Morisson), an extremely rich source of musical inspiration.
Upon retirement from the military in 1964, Dick returned to Ebensburg. From 1965 to 1989, he served as a Professor of Modern Languages/Linguistics at St. Francis College in nearby Loretto, PA. During his early years at St. Francis, he pursued graduate studies in Spanish literature at the University of Pittsburgh. It was here that he delved into the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca Lope de Vegas, as reflected in Ciclitos 1-7, Ciclitos 8-9, Ciclitos 10 and the Sueltos). In a forward to the Ciclitos 1-7, Dick provides a detailed description of how he was proud to study Lorca’s poetry at Pitt with Professor Guillén, an esteemed poet himself.
As was the case with the For Doris compositions, Dick wrote many other musical compositions over an extended period of time. These was the case with Padraic Colum’s and Francis Mahoney’s Irish Songs, A. E Housman’s A Shopshire Lad, Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Sketches, and Frost’s Versed in Country Things. The dates for many of these compositions extend from the year of his retirement in 1964 until his death in 2015, years during which Dick reminisced increasingly about his years as a youth in Ebensburg. Later, from the date of his retirement in 1990 to the end of his life, Dick developed a growing sensitivity for the role of the supernatural in his life.
The themes in the poems listed above reflect the supernatural influence, as they deal with the adventures of youth and the mystical, as evoked in folklore. These themes characterize the poems of Padraic Colum and Francis Mahony, the two poets Dick used to compose Irish Songs. Both these poets exploited Irish folk tales to convey mystical stories of Gaelic origins. Colum in She Moved through the Fair deals with a loved one who appears as a visiting ghost. In The Deer of Ireland, an old man has a vision of a stag, a doe and a fawn of long ago who represent the pride of an era long gone by. In The Bells of Shandon, Francis Mahony reflects on the mystery of the bells he heard during his youth as they magically surrounded his life from the time he lay in the cradle. There is also a wit and insouciance in both Colum’s and Mahoney’s poems that attracted Dick to express their themes in music. A final characteristic of these poems (as in many of the poems already mentioned above, such as Rimbaud’s Phrases), is Dick’s predilection for poetry that is light, both in language and form.
Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology is a collection of poems in free verse, conversational in tone, consisting of epitaphs from a variety of individuals, ranging from the elite to the lowest commoners in the small town of Spoon River. Each poem consists of a folk story that reveals the most trivial to the most scandalous events that occurred there. Dick related very closely to Master’s description of the town of Spoon River and its secrets, as he himself was privy to many town secrets in Ebensburg that dated back over several generations. Dick was particularly attracted to the mystical themes in the Spoon River Anthology. He felt a very close connection in this respect with people from Ebensburg’s past and would indicate on more than one occasion that his own home “was filled with ghosts.”
A. E. Housman’s A Shopshire Lad appealed to Dick’s penchant for poetry that focused on the sensitivities of youth, and male adolescence, in particular. Interestingly, Housman’s poems inspired Dick’s musical compositions as they had done with several other English composers prior to World War I. Houseman’s main themes are those of death, separation from loved ones, suicide and unrequited love that shadow adolescents. As in the Spoon River Anthology, ghosts play an important role in A Shopshire Lad. There is also a folk quality in Houseman’s poems, as in Padraic Colum’s and Francis Mahony’s poetry, that appealed to Dick.
Robert Frost was perhaps Dick’s favorite poet. The volume entitled . . Versed in Country Things reflects not only Dick’s partiality for topics dealing with rural life but especially his admiration for Frost’s imaginative poetic energy. In this volume, Dick covered most of the poetic themes that inspired his musical compositions. There is Frost’s focus on rural life (The Pasture), the mystical sounds of nature that speak to us (Tree at my Window, A Cloud Shadow), and the eeriness expressed in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. The imagination of youth (The Last Word of a Bluebird, Precaution), the lightness of poetic language and form (Dust of Snow, Fireflies in the Garden, A Minor Bird, The Span of Life, The Wright’s biplane, The Hardship of Accounting) are all part of a thematic repertoire that captivated Dick’s imagination.
I once quoted to Dick a statement attributed to Dr. Lewis Thomas that music is “the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brain works.” Upon hearing this, Dick was quiet and after a few moments replied: “That’s it! It does reflect how my mind works.”
I would also characterize Dick’s musical creativity in the words of Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and which cannot remain silent.” In short, music was for Dick the communicative expression of a life he felt compelled to follow.