Osteogenesis Imperfecta - LIVING WITH BRITTLE BONES - Audrey Ekdahl Davidson

Chapter 6

Singing My Way Through

We set out for Detroit in late August 1959, and arrived to find that through a misunderstanding our friends, Betty Chmaj and her husband John, had not yet returned from their vacation. We stayed in a hotel near Henry Ford Hospital overnight, quite uncertain whether we were making the right decision to come to this city. We were exhausted, since the trip was much more tiring in the days be-fore the expressway system was completed, and Clifford arrived with an infection, related to the illness for which he had been treated at the University of Minnesota Hospital. The next day we easily found an apartment on Rochester Avenue, an area where, we found, crime would start to rise. While we were very opposed to segregation, the area was beginning to experience not only white flight but also an influx of people from a high crime area that had been leveled by urban renewal. During the riots of 1967 we saw a photo in a Detroit newspaper of the nearest intersection to our apartment, and there was an army tank in the middle of it. The apartment itself was small, only two rooms, with a Murphy bed that folded down out of the wall, but it was furnished and inexpensive, I think fifty-five dollars per month. I then set out to find a job, since Clifford’s assistantship only paid $1800, for which he would be expected to teach two classes of freshman English each semester.

The job that I found was as a clerk typist at Ford Hospital, where I assisted the head of nursing, Miss Moran. I would work the evening shift, which meant that I would be finished with work at 11:00 p.m. This left me time to take classes in the day at Wayne State University, but, unlike the University of Minnesota, entrance to the university involved more than just signing up. However, I was told that if I entered through the College of Education as a provisional student, I could then transfer to the College of Liberal Arts, and this is what I would do. I signed on for another class in music theory and composition, from Dr. Margery Stomne Selden. She would remain a lifelong friend, at the last settling, after many detours, in Portage, a suburb of the city where I now live. Her Ph.D. was received at a young age from Yale, where she had studied with the famous Leo Schrade - so she was not all that much older than I! I also was directed into the Girls’ Glee Club, which was conducted by Malcolm Johns, who had begun his musical career as a chorister at the Episcopal cathedral in Detroit and, after his military service and education at Oberlin College, had been an assistant to Robert Shaw. Very soon I was acting more or less as Malcolm’s unpaid assistant.

When the glee club was asked to perform for an event which the university president, Clarence Hillberry, was organizing, one of his underlings suggested to Malcolm that it would be a good idea not to invite women of color to sing. Malcolm himself was partly of Arabic descent, for his father had been brought to New York by an uncle whose consignment of rugs had been stolen, after which he disappeared, leaving the young boy alone and abandoned in a hotel room. Adopted by a Baptist couple, he had gone into the ministry and served a church in Flint, Michigan, until driven out by the Ku Klux Klan. His son was staunchly in the civil rights camp. For the president’s event, we recruited every African-American girl in the group to sing. Charlayne Hunter (later Gault), who later would be an interviewer for the Public Broadcasting System, may have been a member of the glee club at this time. A more lasting accomplish-ment for the glee club was the cooperation with the Detroit Symphony under Paul Paray to record Claude Debussy’s Sirens. Malcolm was of course the person listed on the long-playing record, and later on the compact disk reissue, as the glee club’s director, but I had a significant share in the preparations for the performance, for I even would arrive at the university’s music building at 7:00 a.m., before any classes were scheduled, to run rehearsals. The final recording, which was done by Mercury in the auditorium of Cass Tech High School, is not flawless, but in many ways pleases me more than any other recording of the Sirens and the other nocturns in the series that I have heard. Paray, an old man at this time and nearing the end of his career, was simply a wonderful interpreter of impressionistic music. And, being only twenty-four years younger than Debussy, he had imbibed the milieu of impressionism as later conductors of course had not.

When we arrived in Detroit, however, I do not think we felt at home until we were invited to an English Department picnic in September 1959 and I met the Schuellers. Herbert, the department chair, and his wife Gertrude were from Minnesota. It was when Gertrude said to me, “You are from Minnesota; let me touch you,” that I felt we were in the place where we belonged. When they found out I loved to sing the Lieder of Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf, they very soon invited me to their house. They had two grand pianos, and both were very competent pianists. Herbert, who had studied at Juilliard, spent his childhood on a farm near Mankato. When he was asked what he would like to be when he grew up, he replied, “A bishop,” because bishops live not in the country but in the city. He once accompanied my singing for a public performance; it was a concert in which I also did some duets with his daughter Barbara. But until we moved away from Detroit we often just read through music at his house, and after we left for Kalamazoo we visited them, or they visited us, until Herbert’s health and mine became too frail to travel.

After a time, Herbert hired me to tutor in the English Department’s composition clinic, where students were given help to pass the English literacy test required for graduation from the College of Liberal Arts. I resigned from my hospital job, but was asked to continue on a part-time basis. Because I could spell I had got on well with Miss Moran, who was a harridan and not above pulling the hair of a nurses’ aide when she was angry. By this time I also had yet another job, for I was singing professionally at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, where Malcolm Johns was organist and music director. Finally, when I was no longer needed at the hospital, I came to work and found all my things dumped out of my desk onto the floor. This surprise was a rude way to terminate one’s employment, but it was typical of Miss Moran. It was adding insult to injury, since this job had by then become an unnecessary burden, and I was only continuing to work as a favor. I am sure that she never learned that I had become friends with Dr. Frank Sladen, formerly the head of the hospital and a member of the church where I sang professionally.

The church was a really fine stone Gothic structure which had been funded by a single family as a memorial in about 1929. After a guest appearance in the fall of 1959, I started singing there as a member of the all-professional chancel choir in the new year and, with a hiatus after my injury in the auto accident that occurred in 1963, I would continue until we left for Western Michigan University in 1965. Grosse Pointe Memorial was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, but the layout of the building and some aspects of the services seemed more Anglican than Presbyterian. The starting salary at first was $1200 per year, later $1350, for singing for two services weekly, at 9:00 and 11:00, with a five-week vacation in the summer. The raise in salary took place about the time when Clifford would be signed on as a full-time instructor in English for $5600 for an academic year. Substitutes, however, had to be paid out of one’s own fees for singing. There were eight stalls in the chancel that always had to be filled in the regular season. On the Sunday morning when my mother died in 1964, I was told I had to come in and sing. Naturally I was crying, but the singing, as Malcolm had believed, was therapeutic.

People at the church were always kind to me, and, though I had to be helped into my choir stall, no one seemed to mind. There were, of course, tensions, since this was the early 1960s during the civil rights struggle, and the suburb of Grosse Pointe as yet had no African-American residents. The head minister, the Rev. Bert Atwood, used his pulpit to further the cause of reconciliation, and he did so powerfully, sometimes Sunday after Sunday, for he knew he was speaking to some influential individuals such as the CEO of Hudson’s Department Store who always sat in the front row as well as various automobile executives from the (then) Big Four auto companies. Fred Adams of American Motors, and also a trustee of Western Michigan University, and his wife Mary Grace became my special friends, and I was briefly to have as a friend Marcelline Hemingway Sanford, the sister of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I think I was the last person outside her family to see her in the hospital when she was dying of cancer. I still have an autographed copy of her book, At the Hemingways: The Years of Innocence, which she presented to me as a gift.

The parishioners at Grosse Pointe Memorial were also very supportive of Malcolm’s music program. When he arrived, the organ was quite unsatisfactory, so it was decided to have a new one built for the church. The then minister (this was before my time also) asked during a worship service if anyone would be willing to donate a new instrument, and one lady volunteered. After the organ, built by the Möller company, was installed, she confessed to Malcolm that she did not initially know what she was getting into. She thought that one would go down to Grinnell’s music store and pay down $20,000, and that would be it. But, she said, “when I received the bill for $90,000 it set me back a little.” This was, of course, in the mid-1950s when one could still buy a soft drink for a dime. Unfortunately, Malcolm was not at all satisfied with the new organ, for it was troublesome and also tonally not as satisfactory as he could have wished, even considering the taste in organ design of the time. For several Sundays running it was necessary to have the Möller technician sitting in the congregation in case of a cipher or other problem that might be serious enough to shut down the instrument. Later, the congregation would replace this instrument, and my friend Mary Grace Adams would be on the organ committee that made the choice. I have only heard the new instrument on a recording since it was installed following the one time I was back to the church after leaving Detroit so many years ago.

By 1959-60 when I came on the scene, Malcolm had already introduced much new and better repertoire, some of it very demanding, and I encouraged him in this. His expectations were high. There were times when we sight-read a piece without previous practicing, and were expected to turn out a perfect performance. I still remember, however, the time that, at the beginning of a service, Malcolm handed us the score of a polyphonic motet by Adriaan Willaert which we had not rehearsed. The piece was a tricky one, and by the end we were not at all together - rather catastrophic for polyphony. He held up two fingers. We started again - another catastrophe. Then he held up three fingers, and we knew we could not afford to fail this time. By now some of the people in the front pews were laughing, but this time carry it off we did. Malcolm was a wonderful conductor who could make sense out of any piece of music, for he worked from the internal meaning of the piece outward, while other conductors too often tended mechanically to work the other way around. I also learned from him to shape a piece without regard for the dynamic markings, which often enough were added by editors rather than by the composer himself. Nor did Malcolm suffer incompetence lightly. At one point, just before going away on a sabbatical, he had hired a bass with a fine voice but somewhat shaky musicianship. The bass kept singing wrong notes, much to Malcolm’s annoyance until finally he shouted to him that “you’d better hope my plane goes down when I go to Europe, because I’ll be gunning for you when I come back.” Though I was considered the lead singer and a very good sight reader, he could even make me cry on occasion.

Christmas and Easter were naturally very special. When Malcolm returned from Europe, he brought with him two very nice motets by Heinz Werner Zimmermann, whom he had met in Berlin. We performed This Day a Child is Born Here and Praise Him, O Servants of God, both influenced by Renaissance music but rhythmically based on American jazz. I thereafter helped Malcolm’s wife, Marian, to translate the text of Zimmermann’s Psalm Concert, which was published by Concordia Publishing House. Later yet, after we had met, Zimmermann dedicated a setting of the Twenty-Third Psalm to me, and he told me that this was his most popular work. I would prepare a little monograph for Chantry Press on his early work that was published in 1969, after I had left Detroit. When I was commissioned to write a Latin Mass for St. Barnabas Catholic Church, I had found myself very much influenced by his style. My Mass in D was premiered on Christmas eve in 1962, and we had to rush from Grosse Pointe Memorial to St. Barnabas in order at least to hear the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. This was of course before Vatican II when the Mass was still always sung in Latin in Roman Catholic churches.

Audrey Davidson and Sister Laura Smith, sopranos, at the Holy Family Chapel, Kalamazoo, c.1980.

I could not have succeeded as a soloist in Detroit if I had not found my way to the studio of Avery Crew, who was, I am convinced, the best voice teacher in the Midwest. At first he wondered how much he could teach me since on account of my shortened right leg I could not stand up straight. But he directed me to a shoemaker who would construct a built-up right shoe, and he also worked very hard to see that my posture was corrected as much as possible. His lessons were not part of my academic program, but I stayed with him until I left Detroit. This meant climbing, always with Clifford’s help, up the steep flight of steps to his studio each week, and hours of work on my voice each day. I had the determination to sing every note absolutely perfectly and with the support needed to give resonance to the tone - a very different mode of voice production than used by pop singers, who rely on microphones and electronic amplification to project their sounds. Avery’s bible was Lilli Lehmann’s How to Sing, and the technique he taught was translated by two of his students, John McCurdy and Shirley Love, into long careers at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

He was not, however, very adventurous with regard to repertoire. When I was engaged to sing the solos in Handel’s Messiah using the more-or-less original version as edited by J. M. Coopersmith, he could not refrain from indicating a preference for “the way it was always done” - that is, the essentially nineteenth-century version designed for a very large chorus and with redistributed parts. The rehearsals for this concert were brutal, since the director, Stephen Klyce, wanted the long lines sung without taking a breath whenever possible. This should have taken more lung capacity than I had on account of my OI, and I developed a punctured lung. Clifford rushed me off to the emergency room at Ford Hospital. In spite of still feeling a little tentative, I sang the solos in two performances on successive evenings. The tenor was Ed Kingins, another Avery Crew student and later a regular star in the Michigan Opera Company, while the baritone, Tom Pyle, had a national reputation, having been a soloist and recording artist with the Robert Shaw Chorale.

In the August of 1962, nine months before I sang the Messiah solos, I had, as I have described above, nearly lost my life in a gruesome auto accident. We had made the mistake of purchasing a year-old Chevrolet Corvair, which we thought again would be an economical vehicle that we could afford on Clifford’s salary as a beginning instructor in English on a four-year term appointment. We were coming back from Minnesota and were intending to return to Michigan by way of the upper peninsula. Clifford was driving at the legal speed, or very likely less fast since it was raining, down the long incline into Duluth when he found the front wheels of the car not responding on the slick highway as we approached a slow-moving grain truck. The Corvair was a very badly designed car, unsafe, as Ralph Nader said, at any speed. The car responded only so that it was aimed at the rear tires of the truck, and, to prevent an even worse accident, Clifford managed to pull it over so that we hit the iron bumper in the center. I had screamed and tried to clutch at the steering wheel. My seat belt was loosened for comfort, but even so it saved my life. If shoulder belts had been available, I could have avoided the serious facial damage that I sustained. I am immensely grateful to the surgeons at the Duluth hospital, where I spent nearly a month beginning my recovery. It is hard to believe that the daily rate for a shared room in those days was only $22.00. I was then flown back to Detroit, where Dr. Sladen and Bert Atwood of Grosse Pointe Memorial Church were waiting for me, along with an ambulance, on the tarmac beside the plane. My teeth were still wired, and of course my left leg was still in a large plaster cast. Dr. Sladen was the one who had arranged for Dr. Campbell White, also a member of Grosse Pointe Memorial, to look after my leg at Henry Ford Hospital. Since it was actually healing fairly well though not quite in place, he sensibly pinned it with screws that are still holding the bone. To the reconstructive work of the plastic surgeon, to whom I introduced the drawings in Lilli Lehmann’s book, I owed my ability to sing at all. In the following February, fitted with temporary dentures to replace the three teeth I had lost and seated in my wheelchair (I still had a cast), I sang the soprano solo in Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem with the University Choral Union and University Orchestra under Valter Poole in Ford Auditorium, with a full house of 3500 people. People still remember that performance all these years later.

Over the next couple of years it seemed that I was always singing. My name appeared in the Detroit Free Press, which devoted a feature story to my struggles and my successes. I performed numerous times at the Community Arts Auditorium at Wayne State, at Immanuel Lutheran Church of which we were members, at the University of Windsor, and for various organiza-tions. I was soloist with Malcolm’s university groups, including singing in the first such concert ever allowed in the historic St. Anne’s Church, when I participated in the beautiful Requiem by Maurice Duruflé and Zoltán Kodály’s Missa Brevis. The latter may have been the work that the musicians of Budapest had sung as bombs were falling at the end of World War II. According to the director of the Wayne State radio station, Dr. Boehm, who was among them at the time, they had gathered in the basement of the Budapest opera house, where the music was used at a Mass. A tape of our performance was sent to Kodály in Hungary. For a while I also sang as a member of the Kenneth Jewell Chorale, which sometimes performed almost weekly.

In the midst of all this activity, I had completed the residency for my bachelor’s degree in 1961 and had gone on to Graduate School. On the whole I was lucky in the courses that I was required to take, including work in composition with Ruth Wylie, whose music was being performed even by the Detroit Symphony. All my course work could be in music except for a single science course, in astronomy, that I took from Dr. C. Ettinger, a man who was in the news not for his legitimate science but for his interest in preserving the body by deep freezing until new remedies for illness, even death, could be developed. He was not given tenure. Then there was a bizarre music history course taught by a tenured professor of long standing. The course was required, and we “learned,” for example, that Beethoven wrote ten, not nine symphonies (though his composition of the Jena Symphony had long been discredited). Of course my friend Barbara Catanese and I had to team up in order to know what oddities would appear on tests. On the rare occasions when we have been able to get together recently, we still laugh about this, though I did not find it funny at the time that I had to pay out-of-state tuition for such a course.

I had started work immediately in the fall of 1961 on my master’s degree, and I think Barbara also began her graduate work at this time. I was often invited to her parents’ home, where we could laugh and have a good time. Barbara would decide not to continue beyond the M.A. and would marry, then teach at a suburban community college. She is a splendid musician, as are her sisters Virginia and Rosemary. At present she is editing previously unknown piano works of Muzio Clementi in meticulous editions.

The master’s degree would take three years instead of two on account of my accident, but always I was competitive, always at the head of the class. Some courses were extremely difficult, as in the case of the theory course taught by Roy Will in which I was asked to play a Tchaikovsky symphony from full score on the piano and to perform theoretical analyses of other scores by a range of composers. Arnold Salop, a recent Indiana University graduate, taught medieval and Renaissance music in his idiosyncratic way. My thesis on Henry Lawes was directed by Margery Selden, but with help from John Cutts, who possessed formidable expertise on the music and poetry of the seventeenth century and who also would be Clifford’s advisor for his Ph.D. dissertation. Lawes had an association with Milton on Comus, a dramatic piece presented at Ludlow Castle in the west of England and considered one of his finest early poems. My commentary on Lawes’ music for this entertainment, which in a sense I now see as an allegory of achieving freedom from one’s disability, would later be published in the Milton Newsletter and then reprinted in my first book, Substance and Manner. Though as a musicology major I was not required to do a recital, I nevertheless teamed up with Jim Tocco, a tremendously talented young pianist who I think was then still a freshman, to perform in the Community Arts Auditorium. In spite of being a dropout at Wayne State in his sophomore year, Jim eventually would teach at the University of Cincinnati and would be a well-known concert pianist, playing more than once with the Kalamazoo Symphony as well as with more prestigious symphonies.

In spite of the frenetic pace of things during much of my study in Detroit, we had nevertheless wanted to have children and applied to Lutheran Social Services for an adoptive child. I tried to soft-pedal my OI, which may have been a mistake, but even so we are certain that my disability was the reason for our rejection. We had by then moved away from the Wayne State area and had rented a very nice brick house in Detroit’s Chandler Park neighborhood for a hundred dollars a month. We had a room that would have worked nicely for a nursery. Instead the room was to be occupied by my mother when she came from Minnesota to be treated for cancer. My father had died the previous year, in 1963, and she had known then about the very large lump in her breast but felt she could not have it treated because of her duty to care for her husband. Since the current security measures were as yet unheard of, when she arrived at the Detroit airport we were able to go onto the plane to help her walk down the steps to the tarmac. Before she left the plane, the pilot would show her the cockpit. It was of course her first flight. We had arranged for treatment by an oncologist at Henry Ford Hospital, and she was able to be present for my graduation from the M.A. program. She enjoyed meeting some friends of ours from India whom she liked. In the summer, it was decided that she needed to have surgery, so she was admitted to the hospital. We bought her a television, which after her death we would inherit as our first TV set. She came home from the hospital to our house with a feeding tube, and rapidly declined until she was actually comatose. Her death came early one Sunday morning as we were standing by, and I have already mentioned how Malcolm insisted that I should come to the church and sing. For Clifford and myself the experience made us both decide that, when that time came, we would not want any unusual or mechanical means used to sustain our lives. At the present, in the fragile state of my health, I keep a “Do not resusci-tate” order posted on my refrigerator.

For the final year of our time at Wayne State, I decided that I would be in withdrawal if I did not continue. Since there was no Ph.D. in music, I applied for an assistantship in English. So, instead of working in the composition clinic, I now would be in a classroom teaching books such as High Wind in Jamaica to freshman students and taking classes in Renaissance literature and Chaucer. For the latter, I worked on the little clergeon’s song in the Prioress’ Tale and identified the Sarum version of Alma redemptoris mater that was actually sung in the liturgy in London in Chaucer’s time. Eventually my transcription would find its way into the Chaucer Variorum volume on this tale that was edited by Beverly Boyd. It was a good year, since it broadened my horizons, and it also gave me the opportunity to take the German examination that would be required for my Ph.D. work later. My office was shared space in State Hall, and unlike the music building where I had needed assistance to get to many of my classes, this one had an elevator. I could wheel around and talk to persons of like interests, including the Pulitzer prize winning poet DeWitt Snodgrass, who would bring his lute so that we could sing. He introduced me to Alonzo Mudarra, whose lament “Triste, estaba el rey David” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. I would later have the opportunity of including it in a program of early Spanish music after I had founded the Society for Old Music, which performed for local audiences and the medieval conference that met regularly at Western Michigan University. This is the university that offered Clifford an assistant professorship in 1965, so we knew by the middle of the academic year that we would be leaving Detroit that year after the summer session at Wayne State was completed.

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