Charles Davidson 1929 – 2023

Charles Davidson in front of leaves with a smile

Dr. Cantor Charles Stuart Davidson died November 24, 2023. He was a devoted husband of the late Frances Davidson (nee Smolover); loving father of Miriam Davidson (Kim Singleton), Michael Davidson, Alyssa Davidson Arms (David Arms), and Ilana Davidson (Greg Cooper); cherished grandfather of Kaitlyn Arms. Service and Interment are private. Instead of flowers, contributions in Charles’s memory may be made to His family and friends plan to celebrate his life for the upcoming spring.

Charles Davidson (1929 - 2023) was a highly revered composer known for his numerous commissions by synagogues, Jewish organizations, cantors, and secular choruses throughout the United States. One of the earliest graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Cantors Institute (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School), he later earned his doctorate in sacred music there. He served on the faculty since 1977 as the Nathan Cummings Professor. His education includes a degree from the University of Pittsburgh and studies at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied under Howard Hanson.

In his early career, Davidson became music director and conductor for several organizations, including the International Zionist Federation Association Orchestra at the University of Pittsburgh, the Hadassah Choral Society, and the Pittsburgh Contemporary Dance Association. Before his studies at the seminary, he attended the Brandeis Arts Institute in Santa Susana, California. This unique program, led by conductor and composer Max Helfman, fused the talents of established Jewish artists with college students, fostering an innovative space for contemporary Jewish artistic expression and providing a rich and exciting forum for Jewish arts. Davidson, alongside other future eminent composers like Yehudi Wyner and Jack Gottlieb, learned under the guidance of acclaimed resident artists such as Julius Chajes, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Erich Zeisl, and Heinrich Schalit.

Davidson's most renowned composition, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," is a poignant musical setting of children's poetry from the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. This piece, marked by its tragic history of only 100 survivors out of the 15,000 children imprisoned, has received worldwide acclaim with over 4,500 performances. It has been featured on numerous commercial recordings and is the subject of two award-winning PBS documentaries: "The Journey of Butterfly" and "Butterfly Revisited." In 1991, a special performance occurred in Terezin to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the camp's creation. This event, attended by Holocaust survivors and presided over by Václav Havel, the new president of the Czech Republic, was followed by performances at Smetana Hall in Prague and the Jesuit Church in Brno.

Davidson was a prolific composer and arranger who began his journey in composing while singing in a high school chorus in Pittsburgh. His compositions are works of integrity, his hallmark - modesty. When asked recently to explain how he gets his inspiration to compose, he mentioned the texts of songs he receives from collaborators. “Just give me the text,” he intoned. And when responding to how he has composed such an extraordinary volume of music over the years, he points to a clock. “When I was on vacation during the summer, I used to get up very early, at 4 a.m., and work until 8 a.m. Your mind is fresh in the morning, easier to think,” he said. He founded and is published by Ashbourne Music Publishing, and his catalog boasts over 300 works. These include synagogue pieces, songs, choral cantatas, Psalm settings, entire services, musical plays, theatrical children's presentations, instrumental pieces, and even a one-act opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool." His work also includes secular and non-Jewish holiday choral settings commonly performed by high school and college choirs.

In addition to his composing, Davidson edited "Gates of Song," a collection of congregational melodies and hymns. He authored "From Szatmar to the New World: Max Wohlberg—American Cantor" and the instructional cantorial series "Immunim B'nusach Hat'fillah". He served as hazzan of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, from 1966 to 2004, where he taught numerous children to sing and significantly influenced many families' lives.