While most music lovers would not recognize the name of Katherine K. Davis, they have undoubtedly heard at least one of her works, the famous Christmas carol "The Little Drummer Boy." But Davis composed considerably more than just that perennial favorite: her output includes seven operas, cantatas, choruses, songs, piano and organ pieces, and much else, making up more than 600 compositions altogether. Unfortunately, only her famous Christmas piece receives any attention today, but its wide popularity assures Davis a place in music history and leaves the hope that enterprising musicians may one day want to explore the vast output of this largely forgotten pioneering woman.
Davis was born on June 25, 1892, in St. Joseph, MO. She studied piano from her early childhood and began composing at 15. After graduating from St. Joseph High School she enrolled at Wellesley College, where she won the Billings Prize for Composition. As a talented pianist, organist, and composer of promise, she sufficiently impressed the faculty to stay on there as a teacher of piano and theory after her 1914 graduation.
She began advanced studies in her post-graduate years at the New England Conservatory of Music. Later on Davis traveled to Paris where she studied briefly with iconic music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.
After returning to the U.S. she joined the Faculty at the Concord Academy (Massachusetts) and while there took up the study of choral music with Thomas Whitney Surette. Davis also taught music at the Philadelphia-based Shady Hills School for Girls. While on the faculty there she wrote many works for the school's chorus in hopes of rectifying what she perceived as a paucity of good music for girls' choirs as well as for amateur choral ensembles.
In 1941 Davis wrote her mega-hit "The Little Drummer Boy," which she originally entitled The Carol of the Drum. Oddly, she published the work under the pseudonym C.R.W. Robertson. Early scores and recordings of this piece often carried the attribution "transcribed by C.R.W. Robertson." The piece did not achieve immediate success, but would become a big hit in the postwar era when the Trapp Family Singers recorded it under its original title for RCA. Davis remained active as a composer and educator in her later years. At her death on April 20, 1980, she bequeathed royalties and other monies to the music department at Wellesley College.