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Judith Davidoff (1927-2021)

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The Sacred Muses lament the passing of the Grande Dame of the Viol.

The Early Music Movement recently suffered the loss of a major pioneer: Judith Davidoff passed on peacefully at home in New York City, at the age of 94, one month after her teacher and New York Pro Musica colleague, Martha Blackman. Considered to be the “Grande Dame of the viol,” Judith began her musical journey as a cellist in Boston, where she was born, raised, and educated. Also in Boston she became familiar with the Camerata of the Museum of Fine Arts, later known as The Boston Camerata, an ensemble that specialized in performing music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque periods on the instruments for which the music was intended. The American early music movement began to gather momentum in the mid 1950s, enthusiastically embracing newcomers like Judith. As a cellist, she accepted encouragement to take up historical bowed-string instruments, and the viola da gamba became the instrument with which she would become identified. Judith’s journey included residencies in both Turkey and Taiwan, studying the kemençe (a Turkish Black Sea fiddle) and the erhu (a Chinese fiddle), and she performed and taught at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts before settling in New York. The Boston Museum also allowed her access to instruments such as the vielle, nun’s fiddle, and the baryton, expanding her knowledge as an early bowed-string specialist.

Noah Greenberg invited Judith to become a member of the New York Pro Musica sometime in the early ‘60s; she performed with the ensemble on its legendary Soviet Union tour in 1965.  After Noah Greenberg’s death and the ensemble’s demise, Judith created the New York Consort of Viols, served as a founding member of Music for A While with LaNoue Davenport and Sheila Schonbrun, performed regularly with the Waverly Consort, and cultivated a robust private teaching studio.

I first met Judith in NYC after graduating from Vassar College and settling on Manhattan’s upper west side.  I was looking for a viol teacher and had heard of Judith Davidoff through my college viol teacher Grace Feldman and through Judith’s work with the New York Pro Musica and the Waverly Consort. We did not have the convenience of the internet at that time, so I found a Waverly Consort recording of the “Cantigas” which featured Judith. There she was on the cover, dressed in elegant medieval attire and posed as if about to use her vielle bow to pull Katherine Hepburn off the set of “The Lion in Winter.”  Because she appeared so intense, serious, and intimidating in those images, I was a bit stunned when I finally met her in person. She was quite small in stature, gracious, and soft spoken with a distinct Boston accent. I continued my studies with her encouragement in the historical performance master’s program at Sarah Lawrence College and on many occasions, drove Judith to and from Sarah Lawrence.  During these commutes I really got to know her. Very much down to earth, she possessed a wry sense of humor, telling many stories, delivered with a deadpan expression and punctuated by her distinct and sophisticated Boston accent.

Judith methodically groomed me for a professional career. In my first gig with the New York Consort of Viols I played an “In nominee” line (a slow-moving cantus firmus melody around which others play elaborate polyphony). She eventually moved me up to a lyra viol solo from the Manchester Viol Book which she invariably assigned me when The Consort programmed it.

I also shared the stage with her for my first concert with The Waverly Consort at Alice Tully Hall. I remember crossing my leg over my knee and leaning forward so I could hear those performing more clearly. Judith took one look at my demeanor, and during intermission whispered, “You are doing very well, but don’t cross your legs on stage.” Just as we were starting the second half of the program, she looked at me and nodded with approval, and then Wendy Gillespie, sitting next to her, proceeded to cross her leg over her knee in a dramatic gesture and lean forward just as I had.  Judith looked at me and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Oh well!”

Sometime in the last century, I joined the New York Consort of Viols on a tour of Turkey, where Judith earlier had perfected her skills on the kemençe. She had also developed a friendship with a visual artist who painted her portrait that hung over the mantelpiece in her music studio and now hangs in her son’s apartment. We had a wonderful dinner at the home of the painter, the perfect personal touch to our tour of Ankara and Istanbul. Judith communicated with her friends in French, blowing me away with her ability to speak so fluently without losing her Boston accent.

A lecture Jack Ashworth gave one summer at the Viola da Gamba Society of America Conclave on the similarities between bluegrass and early music, further cemented her extraordinary talent. Jack played a recording of Judith executing an incredible, brilliant improvisation on “La Bounette,” an anonymous dance from the Mulliner Book. You could imagine her fingers flying, as she distinctly played each note, while giving great shape to phrases. Jack then presented Judith, in what he termed “mano-a-mano,” with fiddler Paul Warren of Flatt & Scruggs, playing “Earl’s Breakdown.” Switching back and forth between the two, he created a hilarious musical duel between them, one-upping each other in separate worlds and I couldn’t help but create a vision of Judith wearing a wimple and veil while Paul sported a 10-gallon hat.

One of my last memorable experiences, a few years ago, was interviewing Judith about the Pro Musica tour of the Soviet Union. I was researching the presence of African Americans in classical music and Noah Greenberg had hired African American percussionist, Fredrick King, for the tour. Judith remembered that she and Frederick decided to take a walk around Tbilisi and discovered a “lovely farmer’s market.” As she turned to say something to him, she realized he had disappeared. However, in the distance she found him in the midst of a crowd of curious Tbilisi citizens who were just staring at him in silence; she said that this must have been the first person of African ethnicity they had seen in the flesh.

My relationship with Judith further strengthened my development as a professional viol player. That she embraced me and regarded me as a serious student at a time when there were few African Americans in this profession, pleased me very much. In her presence I never felt marginalized or isolated as an anomaly because of my ethnicity. When the going did get rough in that respect and my interests were challenged, Judith’s conviction for my success gave me the strength to weather those unsavory moments. This is what one hopes for in a music teacher because, as we all know, the qualities of a good musician go beyond just technical facility. Judith lent me the confidence to realize my own dreams, leading by example with her talent, encouragement, engaging personality and humor, and she offered the same support to many others who had the opportunity of studying and/or playing with her. So I wonder if Judith might agree that her legacy may be best expressed by Langston Hughes in his poem “Dreams”: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow.”

Patricia Ann Neely (viola da gamba, vielle, violone) has appeared with many early music ensembles and is director of Abendmusik, New York’s Period Instrument String Ensemble.  She is also on the Board of the Viola da Gamba Society of America and chair of its Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.  
 

15 Comments »

15 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you Patricia for your informative and loving tribute to Judith, a true star among the first American early music performers. The New York Pro Musica recordings of the 1960’s influenced my lifelong love of the genre since 1963 when I heard them as part of my eighth grade music appreciation course. We owe so much to these pioneers.

    Comment by Robert Humberston — December 28, 2021 at 4:09 pm

  2. A moving tribute to a stellar and groundbreaking musician. Thank you for posting.

    Comment by Stephanie Wada — December 28, 2021 at 9:17 pm

  3. Just a few additional thoughts, adding to Patricia Neely’s excellent essay:

    Judy Davidoff was a core member of the early Camerata of the Museum Fine Arts. Pat rightly points out the importance of Judy’s experience learning and playing instruments from the Museum’s important collection. A hats off is due here to the late Narcissa Williamson, curator of the collection and co-founder (with Anne Gombosi) of the Camerata. Narcissa’s policy was to make restored instruments available to performers, and she thus contributed to the education and _Bildung_ of any number of musicians, Judy and myself included. Narcissa, Judy, Alison Fowle, the von Huenes — what a magnificent array of ardent pioneers! And how much richer in spirit we all are for what they undertook.

    Another element struck me in Pat’s memoir, namely Judy’s commitment to fairness and racial equality. Judy’s husband was Sumner Rosen (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/nyregion/sumner-rosen-82-professor-of-social-policy-at-columbia-dies.html), a lifelong advocate for working Americans, and for social justice. And her boss at Pro Musica was Noah Greenberg, who had previously spent many years as a labor union organizer. I had the incredible privilege of knowing all of these people (Sumner before Judy, in fact), and they had a permanent, ongoing influence on my ideas about life, art, and the relation between the two. For years I assumed that an interest in early music, and the music of other cultures, was a natural concommitant of an engagement for a fairer and more compassionate world. Come to think of it, taking stock at this difficult year’s end, that’s still my belief.

    Judy, Sumner, and Noah, your values live on.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 30, 2021 at 10:45 am

  4. Patricia, that is a wonderful tribute to Judith. She was not only a patient teacher even to a dilettante like me, but made me feel tall standing next to her!

    Comment by Susan Snyder — December 30, 2021 at 9:06 pm

  5. So proud to call this remarkable person my cousin. Wish I knew her better. My Dad Macy spoke highly of her and her family.( Macy S. Feinstein)

    I loved the comments above.

    Comment by Sandijo Goddard — December 31, 2021 at 12:25 am

  6. This was a beautiful read, Pat. I knew Judith so little, yet your words brought so many details that had slipped away in time. She was remarkable. Thanks, and love, Betsy BlACHLY

    Comment by Betsy Blachly — December 31, 2021 at 12:53 pm

  7. Judith had an important connection with the Longy School of Music during her years in the Cambridge/Boston area. Among lots of other musical activities, she coached chamber music as a cellist during the Wolf Wolfinsohn era. In recent years, when it came time to find a home for her collection of viols, vielles and other early instruments, she thought of us at Longy. Her well-maintained instruments have been a wonderful and inspiring resource for our students. Thank you again, Judith.

    Comment by Jane Hershey — December 31, 2021 at 5:20 pm

  8. Thank you Pat for this incredible tribute to our mom and to everyone for their insightful and genuine appreciation for my mom and even my dad. We miss them both terribly, but are so grateful for their true impact on those that knew them, and on society as a whole.- Max and Rebekah

    Comment by Rebekah Rosen-Gomez — January 4, 2022 at 8:31 am

  9. Please consult as well this lengthy and well-researched obituary in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/06/arts/music/judith-davidoff-dead.html

    It would be encouraging also to read an appreciation of Judy in our local paper of record, the Globe.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 7, 2022 at 10:18 am

  10. Judith Davidoff was an important member of the West Side Arts Coalition Governing Board. She regaled us with lovely and generous recitals for the organization. On a personal level, she was generous and patient with me and I am so lucky to be custodian of two violins belonging to her father. I will miss her kindness and humor and it was an honor to be in her presence. May her music and love live on.

    Comment by Anne Rudder — January 7, 2022 at 12:19 pm

  11. Thank you, Pat, for your well-written and informative tribute. I wish I’d had more opportunity to know her better.

    Comment by Olga Hauptman — January 9, 2022 at 12:55 am

  12. How do I write a short note of testimonial to someone who was so important in my life? For five years she was my absolutely skilled totally reliable beautifully expressive teammate in Music For A While. This was beyond friendship. It is probably like what troops in Afghanistan experience with each other. We were always THERE – for and with each other. Every moment – always knowledgeable and sensitive – to the idiosyncrasies of each other … in order to faithfully professionally and artistically adjust and support … as a person, as a colleague, as a musician. There was no finer person in all that we did. It was a HUGE privilege, and JOY, to serve with her.

    Comment by J. Christopher Kenny — January 9, 2022 at 2:12 am

  13. I remember the first time I heard and watched her play, in a concert by the New York Pro Musica on tour with a stop in Ann Arbor. I had just returned from Munich after most of a year there, bringing with me a couple of recorders which I was beginning to find use for with small amateur groups at home, and that concert really opened my ears and mind to the wonderful and intriguing aspects of “early music.”

    I had no idea when I bought my first recorder what that would get me into. Not only recorders, but viols, transverse flutes, crumhorns, curtals, & renaissance recorders. Quite a journey, still going on!

    Comment by Eric Arnold — January 12, 2022 at 2:44 pm

  14. also, this notice:

    https://theviolinchannel.com/viola-da-gamba-player-judith-davidoff-has-died-age-94/

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 15, 2022 at 8:22 am

  15. I just heard from Ed Smith in Verona that Judith had died. So sorry to hear that!! Judith recorded the Carissimi and Stradella cantatas with Ed & I for Musical Heritage, and of course I heard her perform on many concerts. She was not only a terrific musician, but a wonderful collaborator. Our hearts go out to her family for their loss!! Judith left such a beautiful musical legacy!!

    Comment by Neva Pilgrim — January 16, 2022 at 1:31 pm

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