Judith Davidoff, who mastered an assortment of stringed instruments that had not been played much for centuries, especially the cello-like viola da gamba, and became a leading proponent and player of early music, died December 19 at her Manhattan home. She was 94.
Her children, Max Rosen and Rebekah Rosen-Gomez, confirmed the death.
Mrs. Davidoff was trained as a cellist, and she was a good one.
“She was an absolutely wonderful reader,” Lisa Terry, a fellow musician who learned from her, said in a phone interview. That skill had been requested by Mrs. Davidoff for recording sessions.
But while she was studying the cello as a teenager, Mrs. Davidoff up something.
“As I got into the repertory, I started noticing music for an instrument called the viola da gamba,” she told The Intelligencer Journal of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1983. instrument.”
That instrument was a bow and fretted violin, held mainly between the legs, which first became popular in the late 15th century and flourished during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Curiosity sparked a passion for early music and the instruments used to perform it. First in Boston, then in New York, Mrs. Davidoff was part of an early music scene that gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century and became a major force in classical music, even influencing the way works from later periods were performed.
Over the years she has been a member of numerous ensembles, including the Boston Camerata, the Cambridge Consort and New York Pro Musica. She was a founding member of the group Music for a While and founded the New York Consort of Viols in 1972. She also played vintage instruments on numerous recordings.
She liked to devise programs that, in addition to the presentation of the music, also had an educational element. One program she created with the Consort of Viols, for example, was called “The Road From Valencia” and featured Renaissance works by Jewish composers and gamba players who, after being expelled from Spain in 1492, went to Italy and, in some cases, at court of Henry VIII in England.
Her knowledge of instruments of yesteryear was vast. In a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” she once elaborated an educational program she called “The 39 Strings,” featuring seven vertically held string instruments that had gone in and out of fashion—the rebec, the viol, the two – Chinese erhu with strings, medieval violins and more. Collectively, the seven instruments had 39 strings and represented eight centuries of music.
“Our musical experiences have improved through each successive period and style,” she told The Northern Valley Suburbanite when she presented the program in Englewood, NJ, in 2002.
Judith Davidoff – she continued to perform under her own name after her marriage to Sumner Rosen in 1949 – was born on October 21, 1927 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Her father, Sidney, was a composer and musician, and her mother, Ruth (Feinstein) Davidoff, was a teacher.
Judith began her musical studies at age 7 and at age 18 she performed as a cello soloist with the Boston Pops. She studied at Radcliffe College and the Longy School of Music and obtained a soloist diploma.
A few years after she first became curious about the viola da gamba, she heard the early music group the Boston Camerata and spoke to some of its members after the concert, expressing her interest in learning the instrument. A member left the group and offered to sell Mrs. Davidoff her instrument; another offered to teach her; a third told her she could probably join the group once she got the hang of it.
“I had the instrument and the stimulus at the same time,” she said in the 1983 interview.
While living in the Boston area, she was able to practice and perform on the period instruments in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1964 she moved to New York, partly to play with Pro Musica.
The curiosity that first brought Mrs. Davidoff to early music stayed with her throughout her career. In 1971, for example, when she already had an established name as an early music artist, she took a course in baroque court dances. Learning the steps gave her new insights into how to play the accompanying music.
“This course revolutionized the feel of the entire music of this period for me,” she told DailyExpertNews.
She was also always looking for new discoveries.
“She toured the world looking for instruments to play,” said Ms. Terry, past president of the Viola da Gamba Society of America. In addition to teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and other institutions, Ms. Davidoff worked in residencies in Turkey, where she learned a stringed instrument called the kemence, and Taiwan, where she learned the erhu.
While the instruments she played may have been from earlier eras, she believed that new works could and should be created for them.
“A powerful impact Judith had was her fierce dedication to getting live composers to write for the viola da gamba,” said Ms Terry. In her late 60s, Ms. Davidoff earned a Ph.D. at the Union Institute (now the Union Institute & University), located in Cincinnati. Her dissertation, “The Waning and Waxing of the Viol,” included both an in-depth history of the instrument and a catalog of music written for it in the 20th century.
The husband of Mrs. Davidoff, a political economist known for his work on social issues, died in 2005. In addition to her children, she leaves behind a sister, Edith Muskat; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Ms. Davidoff knew that some people might need a little help to appreciate the music she loved to play.
“The process of courting the public is a tricky one,” she wrote in her dissertation. “Listeners, except for the ardent early music groupies, often feel insecure about their lack of preparation, and the right tone must be found – the mystery of the unknown must be broken without doing the music injustice or patronizing its patron.”