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Katherine K. Davis

When Katherine Kennicott Davis died in the Spring of 1980 at the age of 87, America lost one of its most beloved and popular choral composers and arrangers. There is probably not a single school or church choir in America today that does not have in its library music of "K. K. Davis" (the peppy, professional shortened name she came to use). We too, at Galaxy Music Corporation lost one of our most successful writers; but we also lost a very fine friend, one whose ties with the company go back almost a half century.

K. K. Davis came out of Middle America (she was born in St. Joseph, Missouri) and she settled in Concord, Massachusetts, the famed colonial town of the Minutemen and the transcendental New England poets. Something of these two places-the American heartland and the cradle of the Republic-was very much a part of her music. She praised in song the virtues of simplicity and strong faith, the joys of childhood, the festive holidays of the church year; and she was throughout her career attracted to folksong, particularly to Early American folk elements.

Her music background as a child was, by her own account, fairly haphazard. Often she seemed to have transformed handicaps into strengths. Difficulties with her vision from a very early age seemed to have helped sharpen an exceptional musical ear, an ear that even Nadia Boulanger singled out for praise. At the age of 9 the young Katherine fell from a horse and the injury to her arm, which never healed well, effectively ended formal piano lessons. However, this left her free to do the thing she most loved, to play by ear for hours on end; and in all probability it was during this period that she developed the fluency for keyboard arrangement that would serve her so handsomely in later years.

Two musicians were of major influence when K. K. Davis was a student in her 20's. One was Thomas Whitney Surette of Concord, the English-born educator whose lifelong passion was to improve the quality of music in public schools. Through Surette, K. K. Davis developed her interest in music for treble choir and her concern with practicality in musical composition and arranging. ("Will it work?" she so often asked her music editors about her newest compositions.)

The other great influence was that of Nadia Boulanger, the famous French pedagogue whose emphasis on clear voice leadings, well spaced sonorities and refinement of harmonic idiom helped K. K. Davis develop a personal musical language. There has always been a certain French overlay to K. K. Davis' harmonic palette; the use of 7ths and 9ths, for example, though mild enough, are modernisms which continually freshen a tonal idiom that, in the hands of others, can be quite routine.

Galaxy Music Corporation has always considered itself one of K. K. Davis' major publishers. She brought her first composition to us in 1937, an SSA arrangement of the folksong Barbara Allen. Over the years the company published 122 of her compositions and arrangements, most of these, to her (and our) credit, remain in-print. Many of our K. K. Davis publications became enormously popular, such as her setting of the Missouri folksong Deaf Old Woman, with its comic punching; or her stirring arrangement of the English carol As It Fell Upon a Night; or the adroit transcriptions of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze; the Easter processional Riding to Jerusalem; the sturdy anthem on the Old 124th Thou Who Wast God. She was at home in all genres—secular to sacred, earthy to celestial.

We are particularly proud to have published her music up to the very end; and this includes in the last years the Blake settings of The Lamb and The Tyger, her marvelous arrangement of Amazing Grace, the setting of Sydney Carter's modern Christmas song Every Star Shall Sing a Carol; as well as her arrangement of that energetic Early American anthem How Firm a Foundation.

In March of 1980, Kay wrote that she would like to send us a setting of some Isaac Watts stanzas called Songs Abound. It would be her last work. In failing health, she had moved to a nursing home in Littleton, Massachusetts, and, though it must have been depressing there, she wrote to us with characteristic optimism, sharp wit and, as always, self-effacement: "...It feels good to be writing to a musician again. Music here is OK for the feeble—"sing-alongs"—incredibly bad piano. I hope I can finish this piece. It doesn't aim at much. Watts words—nice and strong. Thanks for listening."

We read through the manuscript of Songs Abound and loved it instantly. The piece was just being prepared for the engravers when we received word that Kay had died. There is something prophetic in the final Watts verse that she had set:
Then let our songs abound
And every tear be dry;
We're marching through Emmanuel's ground
To fairer worlds on high.

View Choral Music by Katherine K. Davis

View Piano Music by Katherine K. Davis

View Vocal Music by Katherine K. Davis