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William Donald Davison MBE PhD MSc FRCO ARSCM

Dr. Donald Davison, who has died aged 76, was a highly regarded organist, choirmaster and composer and a leading figure in Irish church music.   He produced a wealth of choral music for use in parish churches and was musical editor of The Irish Church Hymnal (2000), the 5th edition of the official hymn book of the Church of Ireland and its first update since 1960.

Donald was most at home on the organ stool of a parish church or perhaps at the end of the choir stalls conducting the anthem but he also had a highly successful secular music career.  He held the post of Belfast City Organist for 21 years and worked tirelessly to gain greater public appreciation of the magnificent Mulholland Grand Organ at the Ulster Hall.  To this aim he was helped enormously by the late Henry, Lord Dunleath whose great-great-grandfather had donated the organ to the city in 1862.  As well as giving countless recitals on the instrument, Donald played it on many orchestral recordings with the Ulster Orchestra.  His efforts to increase the popularity of organ music often included a practical element.  The introduction of sausage rolls and Cornish pasties at lunchtime recitals helped boost audience numbers.

Many of Donald’s colleagues in the musical world found it hard to believe that he was also a full-time academic.  He was in fact head of the Department of Statistics and Operational Research at Queen’s University Belfast.  He was a scientific advisor to the Home Office and was part of the group charged with developing strategies for the aftermath of a nuclear attack and was a regional advisor on civil defence to the Northern Ireland Office.  He sombrely observed the secrecy required by the Home Office role and when asked what he did always replied that it was his job to race on his bicycle towards the dropping nuclear bomb and catch it.

Donald’s two careers required rapid shifts of gear – sometimes quite literally.   A typical Friday schedule might involve giving a lecture on Probability Theory at noon; a drive at breakneck speed to the Ulster Hall to give a lunchtime recital of Bach, Vierne and Messiaen; and then a sprint from the organ stool to the car to get back in time to deliver the 2pm lecture on Statistical Modelling.

William Donald Davison was born on 17 July 1937, the only child of William and Meta Davison.  After spending the war years in Dungannon, the family returned to Belfast and Donald attended Rosetta Primary School and then the Royal Belfast Academical Institution where he was Head Boy.  He was at this time assistant organist at Rosemary Presbyterian Church and he was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists at the young age of 19.  He studied Physics at Queen’s University Belfast and then won a research scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.  It was a good time to be at Caius where the organ scholar was Martin Neary who went on to become organist at Westminster Abbey and the composer Patrick Hadley was a fellow of the college.

After completing his PhD in Theoretical Chemistry in 1962 Donald returned to Belfast where he took up the post of lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Queen’s University.  He was organist and choirmaster at St Jude’s, Belfast from 1964 and then in 1977 began the 36 years he would spend as organist and choirmaster at St John’s, Malone.   He sat on the Joint Committee for Church music in Ireland and founded the Ulster Church Music Centre which provided much needed support, training and advice to church organists and choirs all over the province. 

His appointment to the Hymnbook Advisory Committee (and subsequently the Hymnal Revision Committee) saw the start of many years of meticulous work revising and updating the Irish Church Hymnal as its musical editor.  Following retirement from academia in 2002, he joined forces with Edward Darling, the former Bishop of Limerick to co-author the authoritative Companion to the Church Hymnal which was published in 2005.

His ability as an organist was widely recognised and he was invited to give many recitals around the United Kingdom including St Paul’s Cathedral and Kings College, Cambridge.  His repertoire was enormous, the result of many series of lunchtime recitals given at the Ulster Hall as Belfast City Organist, a post he held from 1981 to 2002.  He was also a highly gifted improviser.  However, if ever asked the composer of some extended and complex improvisation, he would always modestly attribute it to Zelenka, a Czech contemporary of Bach.

Donald Davison was fundamentally a parish choirmaster and organist. He saw with absolute clarity and conviction that the life of the Church is realised in the local context using the resources available.  Through his own example, and that of the many young organists whom he taught, he showed that, with skilful direction, a high standard of choral music is possible with encouragement, commitment and hard work.  His own compositional output included several hymn tunes, a number of settings of the Eucharist Service designed to encourage congregational participation and a carefully annotated and pointed Psalter according to the Book of Common Prayer 2004 (Church of Ireland).

He was elected as an Associate of the Royal School of Church Music in 2006 and in the following year was awarded MBE for services to music in Northern Ireland.  He was given honorary life membership of the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters in 2013.

Donald Davison was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 but continued playing and teaching the organ right up to his death.  He is survived by Rosemary, his wife of 50 years, and their children Ruth, Andrew and Debbie.

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