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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davis, Herbert Nelson (1899–1963)

by Kay Dreyfus

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Herbert Nelson Davis (1899-1963), organist, choirmaster and conductor, was born on 21 April 1899 at Coburg, Melbourne, sixth child of native-born parents William Bulmer Davis, tailor, and his wife Letitia Ellen, née Calder. Educated at St Paul's Cathedral School, Melbourne, Herbert received his early choir training under Ernest Wood, and studied piano with Harold Smith, and organ with Claude Kingston at the Collins Street Baptist Church. Davis's first appointment as organist was in 1918 at the Presbyterian Church, Richmond. In 1923 he moved to the Australian Church, Russell Street, then to Wesley Church (1924-25), to the Independent Church, Collins Street (1925-30), and finally in 1930 to the adjacent Scots Church where he and the choir recorded Beloved Hymns of the Presbyterian Church. As a church musician he was noted for his innovative approach to repertoire and for the high standard of his choirs.

During the 1920s Davis also moved to the forefront in the wider musical community until, in 1939, the Herald wrote that he 'bids fair to rival Sir James Barrett as champion holder of presidencies and other leaderships around town'. Davis was president of the Musical Society of Victoria (1935-63) and of the Society of Organists (Victoria), vice-president of the St Paul's Cathedral Old Choir Boys' Association, and an active member of the Choral Association of Victoria, the Victorian Music Teachers' Association and the National Theatre movement. He was a popular organ recitalist, accompanist, examiner and adjudicator, as well as a conductor of amateur operatic productions.

Davis's principal secular sphere of influence as a conductor was that of the suburban choral societies. Founder and conductor (1925-54) of the Malvern Choral Society, he was involved with choral societies at Mentone, Mitcham and Box Hill, and with the Australian Boys' Choir, the Orpheon Choristers and the Presbyterian Oratorio Choir, many of which appeared together at the spectacular, massed-choir performances of sacred oratorios presented from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s.

In 1933-59 Davis conducted the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra. The link thus established between his choirs and a stable, if amateur, orchestral group led to performances of a large repertoire of sacred oratorios and the introduction to Australia of major choral works by such English composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Sir Hubert Parry. Between 1928 and 1959 Davis gave forty performances of Handel's Messiah. His special feeling for the music of Handel was further reflected in his concerts with the strings of the Z.M.S.O. and in his organ recitals. In 1937 Davis was appointed organ and piano teacher at the Melbourne (from 1956 Melba Memorial) Conservatorium of Music, Albert Street, where he subsequently served as director (1955-63). On Christmas Day 1947 he married Lorna Beatrice Mauger at St Giles's Presbyterian Church, Murrumbeena.

Davis was a major figure in Melbourne's musical life: 'If it was music, Herbert was in it'. He was held in affection for his humour, compassion, ideals and selflessness. It is said that he was 'devastated' when driven out of Scots Church by intrigue in 1960. Later that year he suffered a sudden illness, but continued his teaching and other activities. He died of coronary vascular disease on 17 July 1963 at Burwood and was cremated. His wife survived him; they had no children. The M.S.V. established three scholarships that bear his name.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Nemet, History of the Musical Society of Victoria, 1861-1981 (Melb, c1981)
  • D. Fairweather, Your Friend Alberto Zelman (Melb, 1984)
  • L. Marsi, Index to the Australian Musical News 1911-1963 (Melb, 1990)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 Oct 1937, 27 June 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 July 1963
  • Malvern Choral Society papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Musical Society of Victoria papers (State Library of Victoria and Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne)
  • National Theatre Movement papers (Performing Arts Museum)
  • Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra papers (Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne).

Citation details

Kay Dreyfus, 'Davis, Herbert Nelson (1899–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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