Remembering Mario Davidovsky

On Friday, August 23, 2019, the music community lost a giant – Mario Davidovsky. A Jew born in Médanos, Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 4, 1934 to Polish and Russian parents, Davidovsky was one of the pioneers of electro-acoustic composition and renowned as a teacher and mentor. Like Felix Mendelssohn, Davidovsky had a grandfather who was a rabbi. Davidovksy’s list of teaching appointments and awards is awe-inspiring, including his appointments as Director of the Columbia University Electronic Music Center,[1] the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and professorships at Harvard, Yale, Manhattan School of Music, University of Michigan, and more. The Music Division holds on deposit the Mario Davidovsky papers (which include holograph scores and original magnetic tapes) and holograph scores and sketches of three Library of Congress commissions. Davidovsky’s letters appear in collections such as the Aaron Copland collection, Serge Koussevitzky Archive, and Oliver Daniel papers. For this memorial post, my interests in Latin American and Jewish composers inspire me to highlight Davidovksy’s relationship with Aaron Copland – a Jewish American composer fluent in Spanish.

Davidovsky first came to the United States from Argentina to study at Tanglewood (known then as the Berkshire Music Center) with Copland in 1958. In Copland Since 1943 by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis (who also passed away this summer), Davidovsky contributes memories of his summer with Copland in a transcribed interview, including their conversations about Latin American versus European musical influences. After Davidovsky’s return to Buenos Aires from Tanglewood, he wrote a letter to Copland on November 23, 1958 to emphasize his deep interest in electronic music composition and to request Copland as a recommender on a fellowship application to the Guggenheim Foundation. [2] By 1960, Davidovsky achieved this career milestone.

Copland and Davidovsky’s relationship through letters reveals one of deep respect and mentorship. Davidovsky sent Copland many scores and recordings over the years for feedback. Following Davidovsky’s Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, he wrote a letter to Copland on August 23, 1966. “I always remember the pleasant experience I had in 1958, studying with you at Tanglewood. I think I told you many times, that since then, you are in some way responsible for all the good things that have happened to me.” Davidovsky’s letters from 1958-1974 open with a variety of salutations, including “Dear Maestro Copland,” “Caro Maestro Copland,” and “Cherido Maestro Copland.” One letter from June 1966 is half in English and half in Spanish.[3]

Holograph title page of Divertimento for Cello and Orchestra by Mario Davidovsky, 1984. Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress. Call number ML30.3c.D36 No. 1 CASE.
Holograph title page of Ladino Songs by Mario Davidovsky, 2012. Co-commissioned by the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music in the Library of Congress. Call number ML30.29a.D38 No. 1 CASE.

Mario Davidovsky’s relationship with the Library of Congress Music Division began with three commissioned works at very different stylistic points in his career, and culminated in placing his papers on deposit in 2013. In 1964, Davidovsky was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress. On October 26, 1964, Davidovsky enthusiastically replied to the Foundation’s offer, “It was with great pleasure that I read your letter telling me of the good news. I don’t have to tell you how honored I feel to be a recipient of a Koussevitzky Foundation grant. . . I will put the best of my effort and talents to write an orchestral work that will meet the high standards of your Foundation.”[4] In 1974, the Music Division received a holograph score of the completed work: Synchronisms No. 7 for orchestra and tape. In 1981, Davidovsky received his second Koussevitzky Foundation commission; he completed the holograph score of Divertimento for Cello and Orchestra in 1984. Davidovsky was also the first composer commissioned with the Music Division’s newest fund, the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. The 2009 commission was Ladino Songs, a chamber work premiered by the Cygnus Ensemble with Elizabeth Farnum at the Library of Congress on March 7, 2012. In this final commission, Davidovsky set poetry in the language of Spanish Jews before expulsion from Spain in 1492. Listen to the world premiere here.

I also encourage readers to watch this video interview with Mario Davidovsky from February 15, 2006 conducted by Frank J. Oteri for New Music Box, which also includes excerpts of Davidovsky’s music.

 

The Music Division expresses our deepest condolences to Mario Davidovsky’s family, former students, and all who admire his music.

_____________________________

[1] For a history of the Columbia University Electronic Music Center and the international composers involved, I recommend the following articles:

Patterson, Nick. “The Archives of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.” Notes 67, no. 3 (2011): 483-502. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23012776; and

Gluck, Robert J. “The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center: Educating International Composers.” Computer Music Journal 31, no. 2 (2007): 20-38. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40072574.

[2] Letters from Mario Davidovsky to Aaron Copland, 1958-1974, Box 253, Folder 11, Aaron Copland collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Letter from Mario Davidovsky to the Advisory Board of the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, 1964 Oct 26, Box 470, Folder 19, Serge Koussevitzky Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress.

2 Comments

  1. מנחם צור
    September 1, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    I entered Columbia University in 1973 to study composition with Mario. We became colleagues and friends very soon after that and we stayed in close touch ever since. His wisdom, humanity and warmth have accompanied me daily. Mario was the ultimate Jew; while being not observant he deeply cared about Jewish history and Jewish spiritual values that guided his life, his judgment, his humor and ideals. In that too, he served as a model to me.
    His musical advice stayed with me and was projected and passed on to generations of students of mine both in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the world. He will always remain my spiritual father.

    Prof. Menachem Zur, Jerusalem, Israel.

  2. Menachem Zur
    September 1, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    I entered Columbia University in 1973 to study composition with Mario. We became colleagues and friends very soon after that and we stayed in close touch ever since. His wisdom, humanity and warmth have accompanied me daily. Mario was the ultimate Jew; while being not observant he deeply cared about Jewish history and Jewish spiritual values that guided his life, his judgment, his humor and ideals. In that too, he served as a model to me.
    His musical advice stayed with me and was projected and passed on to generations of students of mine both in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the world. He will always remain my spiritual father.

    Prof. Menachem Zur, Jerusalem, Israel.

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