Born in Pittsburgh in 1929, Charles Davidson is one of the most frequently commissioned composers by synagogues, cantors, and Jewish organizations, as well as by general secular choruses across America. He was one of the first graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute (now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School), where he later also received his doctorate in sacred music and where he has served on the faculty since 1977 (now Nathan Cummings Professor). Early in his career, Cantor Davidson became the music director and conductor of the International Zionist Federation Association Orchestra at the University of Pittsburgh and of the Hadassah Choral Society, and director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Dance Association. Prior to his formal cantorial training at the seminary, he was a student at the unique Brandeis Arts Institute (a division of the Brandeis Camp Institute) in Santa Susana, California. The program there under the direction of the conductor and composer Max Helfman provided a rich and exciting forum for Jewish arts by bringing established Jewish musicians, dancers, and other artists of that period together with college-age students in an effort to broaden their creative horizons in the context of contemporary Jewish expression. Davidson and other future composers of distinction, including Yehudi Wyner and Jack Gottlieb, were able to benefit from the influence and tutelage of distinguished resident artists among them Julius Chajes, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Erich Zeisl, and Heinrich Schalit.
Davidson’s monumental I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a setting of children’s poetry from the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia (where only 100 of the 15,000 imprisoned children survived), is unquestionably his best known and most celebrated work. It has been performed throughout the world (more than 2,500 performances) to consistent critical acclaim and is featured on no fewer than eight commercial recordings. It is also the subject of two award-winning PBS documentaries: The Journey of Butterfly and Butterfly Revisited. In 1991, following the collapse of the communist regime and the birth of the Czech Republic, it was performed at a special ceremony in the town of Terezin, presided over by the new president, Vaclav Havel, among other dignitaries, and attended by an audience of Holocaust survivors to mark the 50th anniversary of the Germans’ creation of the camp and ghetto. Performances followed at Smetana Hall in Prague and the Jesuit Church in Brno.
Davidson is a highly prolific composer and arranger. His catalogue contains more than three hundred works including dozens of synagogue pieces, songs, choral cantatas, entire services, Psalm settings, musical plays, theatrical children’s presentations, instrumental pieces, and a one-act opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story Gimpel the Fool. Among the many memorable works in addition to those recorded for the Milken Archive series are The Trial of Anatole Sharansky; Night of Broken Glass, an oratorio in commemoration of Kristallnacht; Hush of Midnight: An American Selihot Service; L’David Mizmor, a service commissioned by the Park Avenue Synagogue; Libi B’Mizrach, a Sephardi synagogue service; and a service in Hassidic style. His oeuvre also includes a number of secular and even non-Jewish holiday choral settings that are performed often by high school and college choirs.
Cantor Davidson is the editor of Gates of Song, a collection of congregational melodies and hymns, author of the book From Szatmar to the New World: Max Wohlberg American Cantor, and author of several cantorial textbooks. He served with distinction as hazzan of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, from 1966 to 2004. He is currently working on an opera based on another Singer story, The Magician of Lublin.
(Neil W. Levin)
Role: Classical Artist