Karl Davidov was an important Russian cellist of the nineteenth century. He was born in Latvia in 1838 into a musical family. His father was a doctor and an amateur violinist. Karl began piano lessons at the age of five, and took up the cello at twelve, with Heinrich Schmidt, principal cellist at the Moscow Theatre.
Davidov was a child prodigy, but his parents insisted that he complete his education before embarking on a career as a cellist. He completed a degree in mathematics at St. Petersburg University, and later studied composition at the Leipzig Conservatory with Moritz Hauptmann. Under the influence of Hauptmann, Davidov became one of the first cellists to link cello technique with anatomical and physiological aspects of performance.
At that point in his life, Davidov's intention was to be a composer, however, after filling in for Grutzmacher on short notice, and being very well received as a cellist, he followed that path instead. When Grutzmacher moved to Dresden, Davidov, now 22 years old, took his place at the Leipzig Conservatory as professor of cello.
Davidov thereafter toured Europe extensively, and was considered the best cellist of his time. Tchaikovsky declared him to the the "Czar of Cellists." Julius Klengel, another leading cellist, said, "I only understood what cello playing signifies after hearing Davidov in St. Petersburg in my youth." In 1870 a wealthy benefactor gave him the beautiful Strad cello which now bears his name.
In 1876 Tchaikovsky and Davidov were both candidates for the post of Director at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and it was Davidov who was awarded the position. In 1887 he was forced to flee Russia after being discovered in a scandalous love affair with a beautiful young student at the conservatory. He returned to Russia the next the next year, and began concertizing again. In January of 1889, at the age of fifty, he was suddenly taken ill in the midst of a performance of a Beethoven sonata, and he died a few days later.
Davidov was of the opinion that cellists should learn from the technique of violinists, and advised his students to observe the best violinists carefully. He made improvements in the cello technique of playing in thumb positions across the lower strings (later called the Davidov hinge). His most famous cello composition, still performed today, is "At the Fountain." He also wrote four cello concertos. Among his many students were Carl Fuchs, Leo Stern and Hanus Wihan, to whom Dvorak dedicated his famous cello concerto.