Dr Nigel St John Davison 1929-2009
18 November 2009
Dr Nigel Davison, who died on October 26, was one of Europe’s most distinguished musical scholars and editors of Renaissance polyphony. Wyndham Thomas, Research Fellow and former Head of the Department of Music, remembers a dedicated, modest and much-loved figure.
After university, his passion for church music and organ playing (developed in college chapels during his student days) led him initially into public school teaching at Oundle (1954) and, subsequently, as Director of Music at his alma mater, Wellington (1957-67). Along the way, he studied conducting with Sergiu Celibidache at Sienna and undertook the rigorous preparations for the Edinburgh Doctorate in Music that involved writing a research thesis in addition to submitting a substantial repertoire list of organ works from which the examiners could select at will (and at very short notice) for his doctoral recital. Already a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, Nigel was awarded his DMus in 1962; his Pierre de la Rue research and transcriptions were published, and careers in cathedral music and academic life beckoned. It was Bristol’s good fortune that, when an unexpected vacancy occurred in 1966, Nigel was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Music, where he remained from Easter 1967 until his (early) retirement in 1991.
In the days before the expansion of the university sector most British music departments were relatively small. Consequently, staff were expected to be multi-talented – general practitioners in the best sense – and Nigel Davison’s combination of keyboard and research skills, together with his teaching and conducting experience, made him an ideal colleague. During the next 20 years or so, he was as likely to be found contributing his light tenor to the Choral Society as playing the organ for Bristol’s innumerable degree ceremonies – or even struggling in the ‘cello section of the University Orchestra (since Lecturers then were expected to participate fully in all spheres of music-making). His teaching duties embraced both his specialisms and a selection of his general interests. Hardly a term passed without his colleagues being amazed by his insights into Wagner, for example, or his discerning appraisal of modern compositions. Among the many highlights were his regular recitals on the University’s rebuilt Nicholson organ and some memorable choral performances that ranged from his conducting of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in the Colston Hall to Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in alium.
It says much for Nigel Davison’s motivation and dedication to the study of primary manuscript sources that, despite the varied demands on his time and talents, he continued to produce outstanding research that enhanced his reputation as a leading authority on the music of Pierre de la Rue and his contemporaries. With J Evan Kreider and T Herman Keahey, he was appointed Joint Editor of the American Institute of Musicology’s complete edition of La Rue’s works, and by the early 1990s the first fruits of this co-operation (much delayed by technical problems) began to emerge to critical acclaim, which cited the ‘encyclopaedic erudition shown by the editors’. This was a truly monumental achievement – and all the more remarkable for being completed with the minimum of sabbatical leave and in a context which saw the production of many other Davison publications on Josquin des Prez, Antoine de Févin, Christopher Tye, and Salisbury Cathedral Liturgy (the Processions).
A more ambitious and self-centred person could well have used these achievements as a springboard for self-advancement, but Nigel Davison was essentially a modest man, albeit gently (and genteelly) eccentric, who settled for a Senior Lectureship at Bristol and weekend hill-walking in Wales or the Lake District with his friends and family. For some years he indulged his operatic interests by conducting the Bristol Opera Company (1967-77) and he combined scholarly and performing roles while directing the early music choir, Westron Wynd, and serving as organist at the Lord Mayor’s Chapel. He was much loved and admired by students and colleagues alike. As a tutor he distributed wise counsel and, as a member of the Faculty Board, he offered sage advice together with an occasional shaft of well-aimed wit.
He continued with editorial work up to the end – most notably completing the Opera Omnia of Mabriano de Orto (Antico Edition, 2009- ) – and for a while he acted as a locum organist in local churches. Sadly his marriage to Kirstine (née Meikle) ended in divorce but he remarried in retirement (in 1997) to Katharine Bridget (Biddy) Taite who helped to unite their two families and became Nigel’s soulmate for the rest of his life. Nigel Davison is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and five grandchildren.