My connections to Dick Davis are both personal and professional. I remember hearing about him during my childhood when my mother shared memories of him and other illustrious students whom she recalled fondly from her days as a French and Latin teacher at the then Ebensburg High School in the 1930s. When he and his family moved back to Ebensburg in the 1960s, after 20 years of military service in various parts of the world, his children were among my mother’s students.
As part of my preparations for a year of study in France after college, my mother put me in touch with Dick and Doris, who in turn put me in touch with a former colleague in France to whom I could turn for assistance if necessary. When I returned to Ebensburg after two years in France, Dick and Doris were among the first people I sought out, knowing that they would understand just how tricky it can be to return “home” when “home” no longer quite holds the same meaning. Since I had studied voice seriously for one year of my stay in France, Dick immediately shared some of his vocal settings of French poetry with me. Thus began a challenging and rich professional relationship that lasted until the end of his life.
The first Dick Davis composition that I performed was a little mélodie, “L’oiseau mort,” which featured an interesting experiment in meter: The accompaniment was in triple meter and the vocal line in duple. Dick explained to me how the format and meaning of the text led him to choose this apparent contradiction. I must say that, although it sounds very difficult to perform, it was not. Somehow the unusual combination worked together quite smoothly!
Shortly after I took over directing the chorus at then Saint Francis College (now University), Dick spoke to me of his choral works and asked if I would be interested in programming some of them, particularly his settings of Christmas carols. Thus began a decades-long collaboration resulting in quite a few World Premieres of Dick’s choral and solo vocal works, often drawing on his particular fondness of Christmas texts from a variety of British poets. Although some of these texts are quite well-known (notably “The Boar’s Head Carol” and “The Holly and the Ivy”), Dick Davis’ settings are fresh and unique musically. One of these carols, “The Sayer’s Carol,” became a favorite of the Saint Francis choral groups and was performed regularly as part of our Christmas concerts in the 1990s. (“The Sayer’s Carol” is cataloged in this collection as “Beeching 88” in “Book 2” of H. C. Beeching’s A Book of Christmas Verse.)
In 1997, Dick approached Kenny Resinski, the theatre director at Saint Francis University, about creating a performance incorporating staged elements and choral singing. What emerged from this collaboration was Gargoyle Solstice, which Dick eventually compiled as a separate volume in this collection, Gargoyle Solstice: Ceremonies, Spelles, & Other Christmas Verses by Robert Herrick. The performance of Gargoyle Solstice consisted of pantomimed action on stage accompanied by choral renditions of Dick Davis’ settings of a number of Herrick’s texts. The accompanying program (which is included in the volume in this collection) includes notes by Dick Davis, Kenny Resinski, and myself.
Dick’s program notes indicated that
. . .On a purely musical note, Herrick lived at the height of the madrigal. . . It was not a
popular but rather an aristocratic (or at least a bourgeois) form of musical art. . . While
the madrigal was in high favor in the better houses of England, the round was in
equal favor among the common people. For this reason, many instances of the incipient rudimentary form of counterpoint (the round) will be heard in these pieces.
Kenny’s notes included the following explanation of the staging:
“. . . A group of post-apocalyptic survivors enact rituals of the old days to protect
themselves—there is no more “story” than that. . .”
And my notes, speaking as the choral director:
Working with the music of Dick Davis is always an adventure and a learning experience.
He chooses interesting texts which present many challenges and do not become boring
with repetition. His musical settings are accessible stylistically but full of delightful
harmonic and rhythmic surprises. It is music which “wears well”—beneath the seeming simplicity there is a wealth of subtle structural intricacies which emerge and come into
focus in the course of repeated rehearsals. It gives me great pleasure to be a part of this project.
Although I wrote those notes specifically for Gargoyle Solstice, they sum up my thoughts about much of Dick Davis’ music that I had the pleasure of interpreting over the decades of our association.
The last Davis work that I performed was “Kyrie Eleison Blues,” written originally as a vocal duet in his setting of some of the texts from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. (Spoon River Sketches in this collection.) For the Saint Francis University performance, he utilized one of the vocal parts as a saxophone solo that wove in and out of the primary vocal line. I performed the vocal solo, one of the most challenging yet satisfying pieces I have ever performed, with Vince Remillard (cf his “Avant Propos” to the Davis Collection) on saxophone and Theresa Wilson on piano. For Dick’s memorial service, Vince and I reprised our parts, with Tina Illig on piano. It seemed to me to be a fitting way to bid him adieu.