Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davison, James William

DAVISON, JAMES WILLIAM (1813–1885), journalist, the son of James Davison, of an old Northumberland family, was born in London 5 Oct. 1813. His mother was well known as an actress under her maiden name of Maria Duncan. He was educated at University College School, but, developing a taste for music, was sent to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied the pianoforte under W. H. Holmes and composition under Macfarren. He wrote several unimportant orchestral works, one of which, an overture, was played at a concert of the Society of British Musicians. He also wrote and arranged pianoforte music for ‘Bohn's Harmonist,’ and composed a few songs, of which his settings of Keats and Shelley were the most successful. Davison gradually abandoned the active exercise of the musical profession for the more congenial literary work of musical criticism. The only book he published separately was a little work upon Chopin, which appeared about 1849, but for thirty years he was connected with a number of leading newspapers. He first wrote in the ‘Musical Magazine and Dramatic and Musical Review;’ in 1843 he was connected with the ‘Musical Examiner,’ which was merged in the ‘Musical World,’ of which periodical he shortly afterwards became the editor, a post he retained until the end of his life. About 1846 or 1848 he became musical critic to the ‘Times;’ he also occasionally wrote for the ‘Saturday Review,’ and (until 1884) for the ‘Graphic.’ It was chiefly by Davison's advice that the popular concerts at St. James's Hall, instead of being, as at first, miscellaneous performances, have become the admirable institution of the last twenty years. He continued to contribute the analytical remarks to the programme books of these concerts until his death.

In 1860 he married Miss Arabella Goddard, the pianist, upon whose style his advice is understood to have had considerable influence. During the latter years of his life he suffered much from ill-health. He left London and went to Malvern, and afterwards to Margate. He died at the York Hotel in the latter town 24 March 1885, and was buried at Brompton four days later.

For many years Davison wielded almost despotic sway as a critic. The obituary notices of him contributed to the press by his friends are singularly laudatory in character. He was not a highly educated or cultured writer, though he was possessed of an extraordinary memory and a large store of miscellaneous knowledge. His style was terse and energetic, and he was never tired of inveighing against those members of his profession who thought that musical criticism should be couched in incomprehensible English. As a critic he will be remembered by his unswerving attachment to Bennett and Mendelssohn; indeed the position which the latter holds in popular taste in this country may be largely attributed to Davison's advocacy. He was also, somewhat strangely, one of the first to recognise the merits of Berlioz, but on the other hand he attacked Schumann's music with persistent bitterness, and possessed so little insight as to class him with Wagner as a would-be innovator. An article which he wrote after the first performance in England of Schumann's ‘Paradise and the Peri’ is perhaps one of the most memorable pieces of wrong judgment extant. It begins: ‘Robert Schumann has had his innings, and been bowled out—like Richard Wagner. Paradise and the Peri has gone to the tomb of the Lohengrins.’ It is small wonder that latterly Davison fell out of touch with the age. Personally he was popular among his friends, and a genial and amusing companion. As one who knew him well has said of him, ‘he committed faults of judgment, none of feeling.’

[Obituary notices (Times, 26 March 1885, Athenæum and Academy, 28 March 1885); private information.]

W. B. S.