Hugh Davis: Inspirational teacher, organist and director of music

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The Independent Online

As a young man Hugh Davis was a much revered director of music and housemaster at the Leys School, Cambridge, before he settled in Portsmouth and joined the staff of what was then the Polytechnic Teacher Training College. He was also deputy organist at the Cathedral and conductor of the Portsmouth Choral Union, and became an influential figure in the city's musical life.

Hugh Scott Davis was born in Greenwich in September 1916. He was the son of an insurance broker and maternal grandson of a gentleman farmer in Blackheath. He spent his early years in Blackheath before attending the Leys School between 1929 and 1934. Apart from his music, for which he gained prizes, he held the record for the 100 yards for over 30 years. After school, he went on to Queens' College as an organ scholar and read modern and medieval languages and history. He took a Master's degree at Trinity College, Dublin and then the Second World War intervened.

As an army officer Davis was based in the Himalayas, guarding against a Japanese invasion. "He used to play his piano accordion to accompany troop sing-song sessions," his son Brian said. "He went to Rangoon at the end of the war having reached the rank of captain and was a lifelong member of the Burma Star Association. Typically, he never claimed the medals to which he was entitled because he didn't think he deserved any!"

When Davis resumed his studies after the war he went to the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Herbert Howells, and in 1946 he joined the music staff at the Leys, where Thomas F. Bye was director. The following year Davis took over from Bye and also became housemaster of School House.

I can speak from personal experience of his dedication to his pupils and concern for their welfare. The symbolism is unusual: I was born in the year in which he went up to Cambridge as organ scholar of Queens' and it was his influence that enabled me to occupy the same post 19 years later. It was characteristic of his modesty that he always brushed aside any suggestion that he had had a significant impact on my own career, but I shall always be grateful to him.

During his regime at the Leys, Davis directed some impressive large-scale occasions – Handel's Messiah; Bach recitals with fine outside soloists and the girls from the Perse School joining in; and Gilbert and Sullivan. He allowed me to play keyboard concertos by Handel and Bach and inspired me with such a passion for the organ works of Bach that, in my last year at school, I used to go and play the chapel organ in the middle of the night. In these years, before he met and married Irene Jolly in April 1955, he seemed rather dashing. He rode around on a motorbike and enjoyed sailing on the Norfolk Broads, as he did later in Portsmouth.

In 1962 Davis and his family moved to Portsmouth. At the Polytechnic Teacher Training College (now within the University of Portsmouth) he became head of music; he was deputy organist at the Cathedral from 1963-78 and was widely in demand as a church organist until the late 1990s. In 1964 he was appointed director of the Portsmouth Choral Union, where he pioneered enterprising programmes. A highlight was his annual Christmas concert at the Guildhall, which was always sold out. His generous service to the community was recognised in 1998 when he was chosen to receive the Royal Maundy Money from the Queen in the Cathedral.

Davis's hobbies included woodwork and his creations would often be sold in aid of the Cathedral. He continued to sail, often taking his students, one of whom dropped the outboard motor overboard on one occasion. But Davis invariably regarded this disaster as a joke.

He learnt German because it was the language of Bach and he was a fluent speaker, still attending German conversation classes until well into his eighties. In his final years he became the oldest student registered for an Arts Foundation Open University Course.

Peter Dickinson

Hugh Scott Davis, organist and conductor: born Greenwich 19 September 1916; married 1955 Irene Jolly (deceased; one daughter, three sons); died Portsmouth 11 January 2010.