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Home » Theology & Philosophy » Archibald Thompson Davison

Archibald Thompson Davison

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 14: Archibald Thompson Davison

For a generation Archibald Davison was professor of music as well as organist and choirmaster at Harvard University; besides this, he was the conductor, and indeed the creator, of the Harvard Glee Club as it has become known. Many a student of his and many a member of the Harvard Glee Club gained from him an orientation that became fundamental for the rest of their lives. I count myself among those grateful students.

Most of us students in Harvard Divinity School in the old days took his course on Church Music, which he gave from the piano bench. My roommate and I, members of the Harvard Glee Club, attended rehearsal three evenings a week, from 7 to 8 o’clock. There we came to know, under Dr. Davison’s direction, the classics of choral music. Our long periods of rehearsal were punctuated by the Glee Club concerts in Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky. At the rehearsals immediately preceding the concerts, Dr. Koussevitsky took charge, and these rehearsals were concluded by the great dress rehearsals with the orchestra in Symphony Hall. Through this discipline, I came to understand the meaning of the phrase attached to the name of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Fifth Evangelist.

Let me add here that after I assumed pastorates in nearby parishes, Dr. Davison enabled me and the respective music committees in those parishes radically to transform the choral music of those churches. Indeed, Dr. Davison was a major figure in the reformation of Protestant music in America. His book, Protestant Church Music in America, was a culmination of his effort.

It used to be said of President Charles W. Eliot that, under his aegis, Harvard was transformed from a small town college to a university. Dr. Davison performed an analogous function; he was the maieutic mentor who assisted American Protestant church music to come of age. He did not accomplish this feat with the heat of battle. If you have ever looked into his book, you will recall the acid comments on the moralism of American Protestant preaching and on the triviality of Protestant church music of that time. Here Dr. Davison, like Sampson of old, wielded the jawbone of an ass as he smote the Philistines, us Protestant Philistines. Dr. Davison not only convinced us that the man of taste and of genuine piety should be, and also was, offended by the jaunty barber shop music that one could hear in the churches. He also castigated the impoverishment of imagination and the subjectivity of the characteristic music. For Dr. Davison, the reformation demanded in church music was part and parcel of a reformation demanded in preaching, a reformation that would overcome the anthropocentricism of Protestant preaching and music, a reformation that would transform the taste of the people seduced by spurious claims made in the name of the democratic average. Listen to a characteristic sample:

The average American would as readily admit being deeply moved by beauty as he would wear a monocle and don a silk hat. Now this ‘kalaphobia,” if we may invent a term, works untold harm to church music which is immediately intelligible to everyone. To use anything else implies an affectation which is undemocratic. To such an extent, indeed, have we democratized our services that, although we admit the almightiness of God, we behave as though God would prefer to be treated like one of us. Whatever may be the merit of such an attitude, it may be stated in behalf of a high standard of church music that no great art has ever issued from any concept of God as the Supreme Benign Rotarian.

Dr. Davison made no claim to being a theologian, but he felt that his deficiencies here were in large part owing to the quality of the preaching he heard in the Harvard Chapel through the many years of his incumbency as organist and choirmaster. He says that for twenty-five years, summers excepted, he listened to an average of five sermons each week; and for a period of years, he said, he consumed between Sundays not less than twelve sermons a week. He was always struck by the discrepancy between the theology contained in the sermon and that belonging to the anthems and the hymns. Something of his theological outlook is indicated by his statement that on the theme of the salvation of the world though the death of Jesus Christ, “It is no exaggeration to say that probably not less than eighty percent of the greatest church music centers about this theme upon which, incidentally, I have not heard a sermon preached in years.”

He said that, regardless of questions of dogma, any general review of the last quarter century’s preaching cannot fail to reveal that in spite of some preaching of sustained power, much sermonizing has increasingly lost that quality which is one of the richest endowments of great church music, namely, affirmation. On this theme, he could be eloquent, and on its absence in preaching and in church music, he could be furiously indignant. However, the quality of affirmation was not the only standard he delineated. He emphasized also the qualities of repentance and humility.

I recall his once saying that a test of one type of church music is that it expresses a sense of the cross, an aloofness to secularity. Christianity for him was compounded of mystery and of renunciation, as well as of affirmation. In his own words, “Music, like religion, is fundamentally a mystery.”


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