Charles Davidson, composer of I Never Saw Another Butterfly which set music to poems written by Jewish children in the Terezin Ghetto during World War II, died on November 24, 2023. He was 94, and lived in Elkins Park, PA. Davidson’s highly prolific career as a composer and arranger extended to more than 300 works and included synagogue pieces, song cycles, choral cantatas, operas and works for children’s choirs and musicals, including many choral works that are sung by secular choirs in high schools and colleges to this day.
“The Milken Archive of Jewish Music was honored to work closely with Charles Davidson, recording several of his inventive and memorable works such as …And David Danced Before the Lord and A Singing of Angels,” said Milken Archive of Jewish Music Founder Lowell Milken. “He also served with great distinction on our editorial board. We mourn his loss and offer our deepest condolences to his family.”
Davidson was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1929. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and studied at the Eastman School of Music, C.W. Post College, as well as at the Brandeis Art Institute in Santa Susana, CA under composer Max Helfman. Davidson was one of the first graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School), where he also received his doctorate in sacred music and where he was the Nathan Cummings professor of nusah and liturgy.
During the Korean War, Davidson served as a chaplain’s assistant, performing as many as 16 services a week. Early in his career, Davidson held the position of music director and conductor of the International Zionist Federation Association Orchestra at the University of Pittsburgh as well of the Hadassah Choral Society and director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Dance Association. Davidson also served for many years as cantor of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, PA. The Philadelphia Inquirer described Davidson as “a modest man who would much rather tend his vegetable garden than have people fuss about his accomplishments.”
Davidson’s recordings for the Milken Archive of Jewish Music were representative of the wide variety of musical styles he embraced, from Baroque to Yiddish folk tunes to jazz and blues. For the Milken Archive recording of Davidson’s landmark 1966 composition …And David Danced Before the Lord, the Ramon Ricker Quintet performed one of the first Jewish sacred services in jazz and blues idiom. A Singing of Angels--commissioned by the Beth Abraham and Beth El congregations in Ohio and released by the Archive in 2005, incorporated Eastern European Jewish folk melodies and Yiddish songs into English to be sung by children’s choirs. Baroque Suite, inspired by the golden age of Spanish-Hebrew poetry, was rendered in music reminiscent of 17th-century dance suites. Another composition from 1966, The Hush of Midnight, adapts the s’liḥot service and incorporates verse by the poet Ruth Brin in what Davidson described as “a combination of traditional cantorial chant with the musical vernacular of the day.”
Throughout his career, Davidson addressed many aspects of Jewish liturgy, history and literature. He composed L’David Mizmor, a service for the Park Avenue Synagogue; Libi Mizrach, a Sephardic synagogue service, as well as a Hassidic service; an oratorio in remembrance of Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass; The Trial of Anatole Sharansky; Amud HaEish, a moving memorial for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; as well as an opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool and another based on Singer’s The Magician of Lublin.
Davidson’s most performed and celebrated work was I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which, according to Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil W. Levin, has been performed more than 2,500 times around the world, including at the White House and the Vatican. The work has been featured on no fewer than eight commercial recordings and was the subject of two PBS documentaries: The Journey of Butterfly and Butterfly Revisited. In 1991, Czech President Vaclav Havel hosted a special performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly in the town of Terezin, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Nazis’ creation of the camp.
The Milken Archive of Jewish Music remembers Charles Davidson warmly and with the utmost respect. May the legacy of his works be forever an inspiration and a blessing.
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