Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davy, John (1763-1824)

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DAVY, JOHN (1763–1824), musical composer, was born on 23 Dec. 1763, at Creedy Bridge, in the parish of Upton Helions, eight miles from Exeter, the illegitimate son of Sarah Davie or Davy, and was baptised two days later (parish register). He was brought up by his maternal uncle, a blacksmith of Upton Helions, who also played the violoncello in the church choir. When under five years of age he could play on the fife any simple tune after once or twice hearing it. Before he was quite six years old, Davy appropriated between twenty and thirty horseshoes from the house of a neighbouring smith. He selected as many horseshoes as formed a complete octave, hung each of them by a single cord clear from the wall, and with a small iron rod imitated upon them the chimes of the neighbouring church of Crediton ‘with great exactness.’ James Carrington, then rector of Upton Helions and chancellor of the diocese, hearing of the story, showed Davy a harpsichord, on which he soon learned to play easy lessons. He also began the violin. In his twelfth year he was introduced by Carrington to the Rev. Richard Eastcott of Exeter, a well-known amateur, who afterwards, in his ‘Sketches of the Origin, Progress, and Effects of Music’ (8vo, Bath, 1793), gave some account of Davy's extraordinary musical faculties. Eastcott set the lad down to the pianoforte, and recommended his friends to article him to William Jackson [q. v.], the organist of Exeter Cathedral. Davy's progress in the study of composition was rapid, and he soon became a capable performer on the organ, violin, viola, and violoncello. After completing his articles he continued to live for some years at Exeter as organist and teacher. A passion for the stage, which had once led him to essay the rôle of Zanga to Dowton's Alonzo at the local theatre, was probably the reason of his coming, about 1800, to London, where he obtained employment as a violinist in the orchestra of Covent Garden Theatre, and as a teacher. His talent as a writer of songs and dance music soon brought him more lucrative work, and for nearly a quarter of a century he was regularly engaged by the theatres royal to supply music for the light English opera and pantomime then in fashion. But giving way to habits of intemperance he fell into difficulties, and died neglected and penniless in a wretched lodging in May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane, on 22 Feb. 1824. He was buried in St. Martin's churchyard on the following 28 Feb., at the expense of two London tradesmen, one of whom, a Mr. Thomas, was a native of Crediton. Davy's first published work was the admired ‘Six Quartetts for voices’ [1785?], which was followed by ‘Twelve favourite Songs with an accompaniment for the pianoforte, Op. 2’ [1790?]; ‘Four Divertimentos for the harp and pianoforte, Op. 6’ [1805?]; ‘A Grand Sonata for the harp’ [1805?]; ‘Six Madrigals for four voices, Op. 13’ [1810?]; ‘A Sonata for the pianoforte’ [1820?]; and many other works. He also set to music the following dramatic pieces: 1. ‘What a Blunder!’ 1800. 2. ‘Perouse’ (with J. Moorehead), 1801. 3. ‘The Brazen Mask,’ ballet (with Mountain), 1802. 4. ‘The Cabinet’ (with Braham and others), 1802. 5. ‘The Caffres’ (with others), 1802. 6. ‘Rob Roy,’ 1803. 7. ‘The Miller's Maid,’ 1804. 8. ‘Harlequin Quicksilver,’ 1804. 9. ‘Thirty Thousand’ (with Braham and Reeve), 1805. 10. ‘Spanish Dollars,’ 1805. 11. ‘Harlequin's Magnet,’ 1805. 12. ‘The Blind Boy,’ 1808. 13. ‘The Farmer's Wife’ (with others), 1814. 14. ‘Rob Roy Macgregor’ (new version), 1818. 15. ‘Woman's Will, a Riddle,’ 1820. He composed, too, an overture and additional music for Shakespeare's ‘Tempest,’ performed in conjunction with the songs of Purcell, Arne, and Linley. Some of Davy's songs became great favourites with the public. Though ‘May we ne'er want a Friend,’ ‘The Death of the Smuggler,’ and ‘Just like Love’ are now seldom heard, ‘The Bay of Biscay’ has lost none of its original popularity. In the British Museum are manuscripts of anthems and part-music from his pen (Addit. MSS. 31670, f. 61, 31671); the manuscripts of several of his operas are in the possession of Mr. W. H. Cummings.

[Edwards's Paper on Crediton Musicians in Transactions of Devonshire Association, xiv. 322–5; Brown's Biog. Dict. of Musicians, p. 203; Eastcott's Sketches of the Origin, Progress, and Effects of Music, pp. 95–9; Gent. Mag. xciv. pt. i. 280–1; The Georgian Era, iv. 267–9; Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 435; Cat. of Music, Brit. Mus.; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. iv. 396, 4th ser. ix. 319.]

G. G.