David Montague Davis was a seminal figure in the world of Anglo-Jewish Synagogue music. He was born in London and little is known about his childhood. It is thought that he was educated privately.
He began his career as Choirmaster of the East London Synagogue in 1877, and the following year he was appointed Musical Director, Choirmaster and Organist of the New West End Synagogue, one year before it opened its doors in 1879. DMD, as he was affectionately known, remained in that post for the next fifty-one years!
He was renowned as a fine musician and trained his choristers to sing from music – an activity that was not common at this time. There was a period during which Shabbat afternoon services were held at the New West End, for which he arranged the musical settings. He was a pioneer in the area of congregational singing and led and conducted singing classes on a weekly basis for the Synagogue’s members, as well as for the children.
In 1899 the Choir Committee of the Council of the United Synagogue, London invited DMD to become a joint editor, together with Rabbi Francis L Cohen, in the production of a ‘Handbook of Synagogue Music for Congregational Singing’ to be called Kol Rinah V’Todah – Voice of Prayer and Praise. This was an expanded version of Rabbi Cohen’s (and B.L.Mosely’s) Shirei K’nesset Yisrael – Songs of the Congregation of Israel, that had been published in 1889, and was no longer in print. This work became a huge success and, since it was originally published in a blue cover, has ever since been called ‘The Blue Book.’ It contains melodies for the entire Jewish year written in four part harmony, and tonic sol fa. It contains many of DMD’s own compositions or arrangements, and in 1933 it was re-edited and a supplement was added to it by Samuel Alman.
DMD was a well-known organist, particularly in London, where he was frequently called upon to conduct a choir or to play at weddings and special services, such as the consecration of a Synagogue, and the Jubilee and Coronation. He composed a Jubilee anthem to Queen Victoria which was sung by choirs at Crystal palace, the Royal Albert Hall and other venues. At one time he also set the National Anthem to Hebrew words!
He was founder of the Hebrew Choral Association, and often lectured to both Jewish and non-Jewish groups on the subject of Jewish music.
In 1900 he was appointed Director of the Gunnersbury School of Music and
in 1906 he became conductor of the Chiswick and Gunnersbury Philharmonic Society. He was an Associate of the Royal Philharmonic Society and was elected a member of the Incorporated Society of Musicians in 1883. DMD was a Fellow of the Tonic Sol fa College and Chairman of the Committee of Choirmasters of the United Synagogue. He conducted the Sunday school Choirs at the Crystal Palace for many years. It is said that he knew every part of every score he conducted and he always conducted from memory.
DMD frequently contributed items on the subject of Jewish music to the columns of the Jewish Chronicle.
After his retirement, he was appointed Emeritus Director of Music of the New West End Synagogue. In his sermon on the occasion of DMD’s final Shabbat in office, the minister of the Synagogue, Rev Ephraim Levine, referred to the fact that Mr Davis had conducted the choir since his appointment ‘without a break and with a remarkable record of consistent attendance. He has not been absent from duty in fifty years’ – a remarkable achievement indeed!