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Composing under the name of “B. Warren,” Betsy Warren-Davis was born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard University’s Radcliffe College, where she graduated with a BA in music in 1942. The following year she condensed a two-year master’s degree into nine months and graduated with an MA in music in 1943. She was tutored by Archibald Davison for choral composition and by Walter Piston for composition, fugue, and harmony. After graduation, she studied with Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music. Warren-Davis was also taught singing by her mother, Edith Frost, an opera singer who trained in Italy and France. Other vocal coaches included Gladys Miller and Alice Stevens of Boston, and E. Herbert Caesari and Alma Caesari of London.
From 1946 to 1951, Warren-Davis taught solfege and harmony at the New England Conservatory of Music. And for the next 20 years or so, she spent much of her time singing and performing with such well-known conductors as Boris Goldovsky of the New England Conservatory and Anthony Amato in New York. She gave solo recitals in New York, Boston, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, and at Wigmore Hall in London.
At the height of her singing career, Warren-Davis’s passion for composition emerged. This passion is reflected in her ability to write idiomatically and felicitously for a broad range of instruments and in combinations not widely represented or available in today’s market. Following in the footsteps of her teacher, Walter Piston, and her New England compatriot, Charles Ives, she has evolved a style that is sparse, lyric, and stylized.
In 1979, she set to music the “Appletree Madrigals,” a collection of poems commissioned by Radcliffe College for its 100th anniversary. She also wrote an organ processional for Radcliffe in 1997, which is now played each year at a special memorial service for alumnae.
Her first opera, with a libretto based on O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” and written by Boston poet David McCord, has been performed at venues as diverse as The New Orleans Opera, Harvard College, Texas Christian University, and the Harvard Club of Boston. She has written four operas since.
Her piece entitled “Jonah,” based on the biblical story, and written for baritone and string quartet, was performed at the Royal College of Music in London in 1981. The story is one of humor and the absurd, and in writing the piece, Warren-Davis says, she tried to bring out these elements, using musical onomatopoeia to portray the whale.
One of her favorite pieces is a string quintet (string quartet plus double bass), commissioned by the Boston Public Library and performed in the library’s auditorium in January 1995. In 2004, Warren-Davis’s works were featured in a series of five concerts also held at the Boston Public Library, and in May 2007, one of her works was again played at the Boston Public Library, this time by the Radius Ensemble. Over the past several years, her works have also been played regularly by Connecticut-based Blackledgemusic, Inc.
Her interest in cultivating the next generation of musicians is equally represented in her works for budding artists. Her “Octet for Wind Instruments” and “Pussy Cat Duets’ for instance, were chosen for inclusion in the Manual of the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA), which lists the repertoire students may perform at state-wide music competitions sponsored by the Association.
Since 1997, Warren-Davis has divided her time between composing and developing Learning by Listening: The Wiscasset Music Listening Course, currently in three volumes. It embraces a wide variety of music from the 12th to the 21st century in many countries. The course is an outgrowth of Warren-Davis’s support of ready-made, cost-effective music education tools for youngsters and teens, which build their interest in traditional and classical music, past and present.