Tag: sacred music

Julian Wachner: Transcending the Sacred and the Profane

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
As the director of music and the arts for Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner wears many hats. The 45-year-old composer, conductor, organist, and pianist oversees the music-making at this Lower Manhattan Episcopal house of worship, navigating both what the extremely versatile Trinity Wall Street Choir sings during religious services and a broad range of secular concerts held both in the main church and in St. Paul’s Chapel, which survived the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center across the street. But while religion is central to his musical as well as his personal life (he is a practicing Episcopalian and his wife, Rev. Emily Wachner, serves as a priest at Trinity), he also is a regular conductor for the PROTOTYPE Festival, earlier this month conducting Ellen Reid’s Winter’s Child. (His own opera Evangeline Revisited was showcased on the New York City Opera’s VOX series in 2010.) And in February he will conduct Charles Ives’s 4th Symphony and a rarely performed Alberto Ginastera choral work at Carnegie Hall.

“For me, all music is meant to induce a transformative experience upon the listener. … I want it to be life changing,” exclaimed Wachner, when we spoke with him at Trinity’s office shortly after the start of the New Year. He actually sees it as “moral responsibility of the compositional craft and the performative craft as well.” In booklet notes he wrote for the first CD devoted to his vocal music conducted by someone else, a 2010 Naxos disc containing both sacred and secular choral music performed by the Elora Festival Singers under the direction of Noel Edison, Wachner described an often-perceived schism between music he calls Apollonian (either music for worship or academic music) and music that is Dionysian (popular music or theatrical music including operas and ballets). His own aesthetic inclinations, he pointed out, have led him to ignore this schism and to freely mix approaches that have traditionally been polar opposites.

Cover for Naxos American Classics Wachner CD

This is in no small part due to his family background, how he first became involved with music, and how that involvement led to his own personal religious awakening. He describes his parents as “sort of California hippies” and remembers that there was “no religion in my life at all.” His mother “grew up Catholic but totally rejected that,” and his father had a Jewish background but was also a non-practitioner even though Wachner learned from his paternal grandmother, who had been a strong influence in his life, that among his ancestors “were all these chief rabbis in Germany.” But there was another important influence—a musical one. Wachner’s stepfather Robert Cole was a conductor and served as Michael Tilson Thomas’s assistant at the Buffalo Philharmonic during Wachner’s childhood. “So I had that whole world of post-Bernstein energy,” he acknowledges. An early piano teacher of his recommended that he sing as a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, so he started doing that at age seven.

“It was really just a performance opportunity,” Wachner explains. “When I went there, I thought of my identity as Jewish, even though I had never been bar mitzvahed or anything like that. But it was understood that that was what I was and it was cool with everybody.”

Wachner holds framed memorabilia as FJO looks on.

Wachner shares some family memorabilia with FJO.

But a few years later, he had an epiphany. By this time, he had moved to New York City and was singing with the St. Thomas choir:

Part of it was the music and the power of the liturgy. But the other part of it was the actual mission and message. We would sing the Byrd Mass in Five Parts and this incredible music by Howells, but then we’d go out and feed the homeless. That was part of our training. That whole gospel message really resonated and I became an Episcopalian at age 11 or 12.

After his conversion, however, Wachner remained deeply involved with a great deal of music outside of the Christian sacred repertoire. In high school, he even played in rock bands while sporting a Mohawk and an earring. “As I went through life, I had always a sort of wilder side and a more conservative side,” he confesses. At the same time he was immersing himself in the downtown rock club scene, he was composing his first polyphonic mass, a Missa Brevis for chorus and organ; he points out that “the Sanctus of it is has almost an ‘80s pop ballad chord progression which comes from the Depeche Mode/Smiths/Howard Jones world I was living in during that period.”

Wachner holding a page of music manuscript with a electric keyboard and a bust of J.S. Bach on top to his left.

Wachner studying a score in his studio.

That 1987 mass, which appears on the Elora Festival Singers’ disc, sounds more secular than parts of his ethereal cycle of Rilke settings, Rilke Songs (2002), or even his 1998 E. E. Cummings-inspired cycle Sometimes I Feel Alive, despite their texts. (Both of which also appear on that recording.) For Wachner, finding the sacred in the secular is as important as finding the secular in the sacred. In fact, he believes there is a fluid continuity between the arts, the sciences, and religions—all religions. That multiplicity of perspectives is something he aspires to tap into as much as he can in anything he composes or performs.

My definition of sacred is so liquid that I am able to interpret everything in that direction in the same way I see everything as theater as well, how action follows action and produces some kind of response or result. … I’ve been drawing on not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but also Islamic, the Buddhist world, the Martial Arts, as well as the scientific. I’m also a Feldenkrais practitioner. For me embracing all that is available to us now is actually a sacred act. The gift of intelligence and curiosity and seeking is a God-given act, if you want to say that, or that humans are endowed with as part of our make-up.

Cover for Musica Omnia Wachner 3-CD set

Wachner’s “little c” catholic interpretation of faith is the inspiration behind all of the music that is featured on a 3-CD set devoted to his vocal and instrumental works released last year on Trinity’s own Musica Omnia label. The track list includes extremely flamboyant settings of psalms, a majestic symphony, and a powerful trumpet and organ duo, Blue Green Red, whose only immediate sonic relationship to sacred music is that it features a pipe organ. Also included is Wachner’s over-the-top arrangement of the ubiquitous “Joy To The World” by George Frederick Handel (a composer whose sacred and secular works he has frequently conducted and whose own balancing of the sacred and secular is perhaps the most famous compositional precedent for what he is doing).

Yet despite his own musical omnivorousness and his firm belief that any kind of compositional technique can serve both sacred and secular music, Wachner admits that he approaches sacred and secular music differently as a performer.

“In terms of musical language and compositional technique, I think it’s all available to both areas,” Wachner explains. “In terms of what’s off-limits, I haven’t really found that yet. I interpret work theatrically; I tend to do that with everything. But if I were to do a sacred work in a liturgical setting, I tend to downplay my physical performance. I do that to draw more focus to the specific theater of the liturgy and not the theater of me as performer. I tone down my gestures; it feels more appropriate to temper the extremities. For me temperance comes in the performance; in the creation of a piece of music, the possibility of using everything at my disposal adds to the ecstasy of it and those ecstatic moments are the high point.”

Wachner standing in front of seven framed portraits on a wall.

As the music director of Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner is part of a long lineage of music directors and vicars at the church. Pictured behind him are portraits of seven of Trinity’s previous vicars.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, Parts 10-12: Stick to Texts Even Though It’s All About the Music…Actually, It Isn’t

“Do you remember…?” is how the song starts. AlleeWillis was writing a song with Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire and thought that the nonsense phrase “Ba de ya” was Maurice’s place holder. She kept thinking they were going to change it, but they never did, so “Ba de ya, say do you remember / Ba de ya, dancing in September / Ba de ya, never was a cloudy day” stayed, and “September” became one of EWF’s biggest hits.

Songwriters can change lyrics, but composers generally don’t, unless we collaborate with a librettist or a poet on a new work. I’m guessing that, because of the two-edged sword of copyright, we mostly work with old texts by dead people. Our choice, then, is limited to what texts we decide to set.

In church music we have that choice, too, up to a point. We match, say, an anthem or hymn text to one of the many church themes, knowing that it will fit somewhere during the year. (We could use more Doubting Thomas anthems, by the way.) Even in liturgical music, there are numerous texts in a variety of traditions. But they’re written, if not in stone, at least in a tradition, so once we choose a part of the liturgy to compose music for, we have to stick to it.

10. Stick to the Text

What a good education this has been for me. The “21st night of September” follows “Do you remember” in Earth, Wind & Fire’s song only because they already had “remember,” which rhymed with “September,” and “the 21st” fit better than all the other dates of the month. (Willis said they tried them all.) The intro was already finished, and the “greatest lesson” in songwriting, she says, kicked in: “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
musical setting of Alleluia
But composing to a locked-in text upends that. Take the example I mentioned in the first essay, the Easter Alleluia. “Alleluia. Christ being raised from the dead will die no more; death has no more dominion over him. Alleluia. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. Alleluia.” Three Alleluias sandwiched around the words of Paul in Romans and the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John. Those were the words for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in the liturgy we were using. If I were to write an Alleluia verse for that Sunday, those were the only words I could use.

That’s the deal. My job, reversing the songwriter’s, is never to let the music get in the way of the text. If I don’t like the words, I can find a church whose words I do like, or I can find another line of work.

But assuming I go ahead and set it, whence the music? Well, I dig it out of the words. I don’t shoehorn them into whatever musical idea I happen to have at the moment. I don’t start with a groove, but with words, and dig, and dig, and dig some more, until I lift up the words with the music I unearth. With all that digging, I’d better enjoy it. More than that, I have to fall in love with it, just like with any text I set. I fall in love with the text, or I don’t bother setting it.

11. It’s All About the Music

Still, I’m a writer of music, and the text, in this case, is the way to get there. Words are not to be worshiped. Composers pretty much manhandle them, in fact, elongating syllables and pulling words out of their natural state. Even in a short piece like an Alleluia verse I may repeat a word or a phrase, as long as I don’t muck about too much. (The people have just stood up and are waiting for this to end so that the Gospel reading may commence.)
Score featuring musical setting of the words "truth and the life"
Music in church has been a great reminder to me, therefore, that my writing needs to be efficient and strong. It needs to get to the point, and the point had better be a good one. I’ve never liked oohs and ahs in music, and now I think I know why. They’re weak. Sometimes you want a sonic cushion, but I’d much rather get it from the text itself than from a mercenary ooh hired from outside. “Alleluia” has lots of vowels, and therefore lots of built-in cushions should I want to use them that way. Those triple leading tone D-sharps against the E fall on the word “truth,” as ooh a moment as you could have.

Once I see the text this way, as a carrier of musical information, I can get beyond the words and to the music itself. There are a myriad of ways texts suggests this, of course, with rhythm and accent and consonants and so on. All of these factors change, depending on my reading, and so a vast musical landscape opens up as I fall deeper and deeper in love with the text. I move things about, finding even deeper meanings as I move through the text and discover that I am no longer reading but composing.

12. It’s Not About the Music

And composing is what it’s all about, right? Ooh, no, actually. Church music is about church. I have to get on with it, I have to hit my marks, and then move on—like an actor, and it’s much like theater in that sense. Things more important than music are going on. They didn’t invent church to provide me with composing opportunities.

So what about composers who have nothing to do with church? What about me, when I’m not writing for church?
Well, just as they didn’t invent church for composing, neither did they invent choirs or organs or string quartets or orchestras for composing. But without composing, we say, there’d be no music and no orchestras. Of course, but people don’t get together and play—and people don’t get together and listen to other people play—because they love composing. They love something else, something inside, around, below, and above themselves. They love…that’s it; they want to love. Even if they don’t know it, they want to love.

Composing has to serve that. We have to serve the words and what they want to say. We have to serve the notes and where they want to lead. We have to serve the performers, how they play and sing and how they ought to play and sing and how they want to play and sing. They want desperately to sing to each other and to the listeners. We serve listeners, performers, words, notes…everywhere we turn, there are double basses and parallel fifths and altos and more, to love and to serve.

Listen to a cello and an oboe as they serve each other, as they match a quintuplet in a duet, as they listen, lead, and follow at the same time. They cannot do that without love. The listeners in pews or concert halls lift their faces to the music; their minds race ahead and follow behind at the same time. A leading tone desperately wants to resolve up—but, maybe, not this time; maybe this time there’s a deeper resolve.

All these we think of as musical choices, but ultimately they are not. They are choices to serve, choices to love. I keep having to remind myself of this. For me, in these twelve lessons and in many more things I’ve tried to learn about composing, I’ve learned them most neatly in church music. When it’s late and when I’m tired and when for hours I’ve been composing, I have to remember that it’s not about composing. I have to ask myself, Do you love? Do you serve? Do you remember?

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music Parts 1-3—Where You Are plus What and Who You Know

List of four numbered hymns on placard
In choir practice I was shaking my head not because of all the parallel fifths and octaves, not because of the doubled leading tones (and one tripled), and not because of the wacky key (three sharps, but not A or F# minor…hmmmm, E mixolydian, except for those D#s half-cadencing on, what, E over A, I guess). Nor were my lips pursed because I had been singing this almost every year for 15 years yet had forgotten these theoretical hiccups. No, I was shaking my head, pursing my lips, and smiling, because I had composed it, and wouldn’t change a thing.

Believe me, there is music I’ve written over the years that I’d edit heavily if I had the chance, and music that I’ve ritually burned in the fireplace, but this is not one of those. No, this Easter Alleluia verse is a keeper because it works right out of the box. It sits well, it sings well, amateur choirs pretty much nail it from the get-go, and it sparkles “Alleluia” from beginning to end. The choirs in two churches, the smaller one I wrote it for and the larger one I’m in now, just sound good when they sing it.
This little piece, to be sung right before the Gospel reading, sums up almost every reason I can think of to write music. And better than anything else I can think of, writing music for the church taught me how to compose.

1. Start Where You Are

When I’ve been asked how to have a career in composition (it’s actually happened twice), my first thought is to look behind me for a composer who can answer. Seeing none, I’ve said the only thing I can think of: Start where you are. Then repeat.
I started in church. My parents were those types who took their kids to church, which some oddly consider to be more abusive than sending them to school, but while at some point with great enthusiasm I stopped going to school, I still go to church.
Like many composers, I write orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, for any sort of concert opportunity that comes up, but since I started composing I wrote church music because that’s where I was. In the churches I’ve gone to, that meant writing for choir. If I played in a band or a string quartet I’d write for them, but what I know, from the inside out, is choral sight-reading, choral rehearsing, and choral singing in my fair-to-middling but quite untrained bass/baritone voice. (I’ve sung in every school choir available to me, also; I was only, oh, half-kidding about school.)

2. Write What You Know

It’s what Jo March had to learn in Little Women. Prof. Bhaer disapproved of her serialized potboilers, which had no basis in real life. His tut-tutting meant nothing (as he told her), but lunatics, vampires, and “The Sinner’s Corpse” also meant nothing—to her. Even if she made money at it, what was the gain for her soul? When Jo writes the book about her sisters, however, she discovers real writing, real love, and herself.

It isn’t a matter of writing what I know and then moving on to what I don’t know. It’s rather like turning to additional things I know, or rediscovering things I had forgotten. Composing leads me down paths I thought I knew but didn’t—until I walked them. A critic once told me that after a concert, an acquaintance asked him what he thought of the performance. He replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t written my review yet.” Composing is very much like that for me.

The Renaissance wind-band Piffaro asked me to base my Vespers, written for them and the new music choir The Crossing, on the music of the early Lutheran Reformation. They knew that I’m Lutheran and that I adore this music. So I did. But I had no idea what lay in wait for me: I found counterpoint through Vespers. I “knew” counterpoint, of course, the way we learn it, more or less, in school. I had learned it but never really liked it. But a light went on—no: fireworks, cannon, sequential bombs went off—as I composed. I wrestled with my utter ignorance of counterpoint and ended up falling in love with it. I had started with what I’d known—strong chorales and ruddy-faced texts—and ended up in undiscovered territory, right in my own back yard.

3. Write for People You Know

Often we write a piece, show up for the concert, maybe give a talk, and shake hands afterward. Writing for church, however, at first meant, and still often means, writing for my church. That’s a good experience, a very good experience, and a learning experience.

It’s good because I know the choir’s strengths and weaknesses. An average church choir comprises a dozen singers: ten women and two men, typically. One or two women will be legitimate amateur sopranos, meaning they have a high G; A if you’re lucky. Both men are baritones; one sings tenor but shouldn’t. That would be me, by the way. (I’m in a bigger and well-balanced choir now—about 20 with three real tenors!—but that explains why some tenor lines in my anthems go no higher than E-flat.)

It’s very good because I’m writing not for an imagined audience, not for any audience at all, but for a community, my community. They know me, and what we do for people we know is this: we cut them a break. Choirs have gotten to know, and have gotten to like, new pieces of mine much more readily because I was there, singing it with them. After one gnarled moment (maybe that one with the tripled leading tone), I’ll hear, “Thanks a bunch!” but with a laugh. They know I detest descants because I’ve told them. So when I write a descant and confess that this is my penance for having such harsh opinions, that makes it special, and it makes it their own. There’s no gaming, it’s just living together.

It’s a learning experience, this living together, because we discover that there are opinions other than ours, and we have to deal with them. I’ll hear what’s more difficult to sing than I’d thought and, if I’m smart, I’ll figure out why and fix it. But I’ll also hear about things I’d never considered, and that’s where the real learning begins. There are thousands of Alleluia models. But when you hear your own choir, even your own voice, rambling through your own Alleluia, rosy-fingered dawn appears, or fireworks go off, or a light bulb goes on. I may change the piece or just smile and shake my head, but I have at least learned, in community, a lesson. I have learned how to compose.


Photo of Kile Smith

Kile Smith

Kile Smith is Composer in Residence for Philadelphia’s art song ensemble Lyric Fest, the Helena Symphony, and The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, as well as a classical host at WRTI-FM where he hosts the contemporary American music program Now Is the Time and Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection. He is also a Contributing Editor for the Broad Street Review and teaches composition. In addition to his residencies, he is currently working on commissions for The Crossing and other groups.

Richard Toensing (1940-2014)—“The Oak Doesn’t Grow as Fast as the Squash”

Richard Toensing

Richard Toensing, photo courtesy Bella Voce Communications

Richard Toensing (March 11, 1940 – July 2, 2014) started teaching composition at age 26 at Upsala College, and at age 33 began a storied career on faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). He continued teaching privately a bit after he retired from CU in 2005, and he passed away last month at age 74. After over forty years of teaching, Dick was well known as a pedagogue for his integrity, his delightful wit, and his zero-tolerance policy for what he called “that bull-hooey ego nonsense that gets in the way of hard work and real life.”

Composer Greg Simon, a former student of Dick’s currently completing his DMA at the University of Michigan, wrote a beautiful memorial blog post in which he wrote:

No one would ever accuse Dick of coddling his students. True to his upbringing, he demanded work, dedication, and a bit of a thick skin. If you came to a lesson without the work done, he sent you away to do it. He was quick to tell you if he disliked something, and slow to spell out the solution – he believed you should find it. But Dick loved his students, and he cared for them. He would lend students hours of extra time to help them make decisions about music or life.

Dick was also a wonderful composer. The writer of an obituary published in the Boulder Daily Camera the day after he died remarked: “Reviewers of Toensing’s works, sacred and otherwise, have said that the listener is struck by a transparency of sound, a simplicity that exists inside complexity, and a sparkling clarity of parts.” After being raised a Lutheran in Minnesota, in the ’90s Dick converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. If you’ve not yet heard his music, a great window in would be to start with his Responsoria, his Flute Concerto, and/or his Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ.

Mere weeks before he passed away, Dick wrote an e-mail to a group of former students, telling us of his terminal cancer and how proud he was to have been able to teach us. Since his death last month, I’ve re-read the full contents of my “RT” e-mail folder. We began e-mailing in the fall of 1998, after my three years of master’s degree study with Dick ended and I had moved to Ann Arbor for the downbeat of my DMA at U-M. RT’s folder spans 16 years of correspondence, and I share his words in excerpts from his e-mails (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind), to best illuminate how he was as a teacher.

As in his music, Dick embraced the challenges of teaching with his simplicity inside complexity. He had an indelible ability to be engaging, stringent, rigorous, and nurturing all at once.

Congrats on your entrance exams – that’s no mean feat, and you should be proud of what you did. But don’t overload yourself – save plenty of time to think and to write. Just remember that the first two bars always have to be something folks would go across the street twice to hear! I’m sure that once you find your sea-legs you’ll do splendidly.

Dick taught like he wrote music, with a stunning patience. Lessons were calm, slow. He looked only at the score and never touched the piano. With his patience and diligence he heard every note he saw.

Glad to hear that things are going well with you and Albright – but again, remember; take your time, the oak doesn’t grow as fast as the squash.
I’ve learned the absolute necessity of taking time thru the composing of Orthodox liturgical music – since everything one writes in that genre is intended to be sung forever (well, at least for a millennium or so) the music has to absolutely sound well and wear like iron – a far cry from the Western idea of “write it, perform it, and if it’s no good, throw it away.” I just revised the second half of my Cherubic Hymn this a.m., and now am letting it sit and cook for at least a year (with numerous revisitings, tinkerings, tweakings, etc. along the way.)

Dick had a staggeringly dry wit. He often imparted compositional wisdom via exaggerated impersonations of his own U-M mentors Ross Lee Finney and Leslie Bassett, and/or his tried-and-true Minnesotan Ole & Lena jokes. In re-reading his e-mails I was reminded, too, of how often he’d dapple in delicious nuggets like so:

Did you read that Frankie Yankovic died? He, along with Whoopee John, was the King of the Polka Bands. If you can find a Yankovic record, get it – it’s SO bad that it’s actually good – the ultimate low-brow high camp – and makes Lauren Swelk* look like the Hollywood cheese that he really was.

(* A pun or a dig or a ridiculous misspelling was RT’s way.)
In his diligence and dedication to his art, Dick believed all one needs is faith in one’s process and faith in one’s self – simply stay at it, it’ll come. He signed off most emails with a variance of “just keep writing beautiful notes, and you’ll be just fine – RT” or, my favorite, “write thousands of good notes – RT.”

Sounds like you’ve got a full plate, all right. Well, welcome to graduate skule, Michigan-style. Not only will you survive, you’ll thrive, if I know you. A propos of your pno. piece – just keep slugging away, and remember to compose every day, even if only for a little while.

Expect that your first effort there, in a new and demanding environment, will be like your first effort here (remember how long it took to do that little piece for clarinet, vibe, and bass, and how dissatisfied you were by the end of the year when you heard it?). But that was an important first step – what you are writing now is likewise. So keep your powder dry and keep on firing.

One thing you might try to maintain is continuity: at the end of each composing session write out in longhand for yourself exactly where you are in the piece, what you need to do next, what problems you need to solve, etc., etc. Then when you next get back to your work, read what you had written – it’ll help focus your mind. Another trick that I often use when I get stuck is to “unravel” a bit of the piece – i.e. to take a clean piece of paper and simply re-write the last phrase or so as a way to get the wheels rolling; usually you can move forward then.

Dick spoke of feeling musically rejuvenated when he converted to the Orthodox Church. This faith and its community seemed perfectly suited to his mind and musical aesthetic. He didn’t over-speak about how his church informed his life; yet it was clear his was a deep, poignant faith with which he engaged passionately.

The Orthodox are strict about what they will allow to be sung in the Liturgy – it has to be “orthodox music” (which is one of those things that no-one can quite define, but, as Fr. S. says, “I know it when I hear it.” Quite different from my good ol’ lax Lutheran days, when anything I wrote “went.” But in Orthodoxy one is writing music that the church will use potentially from now unto ages of ages, amen, so one has to take time and really do it right. It’s a good spiritual discipline – keeps one humble.)

Dick really knew repertoire. He believed in and demanded exacting, hard-core score study. He also loved to lunch and rep-talk. He adored melody; his own music is plushly drenched in it. At the same time, Dick was also all about harmony, harmony, harmony, in every sense of the word.

I finally got this new piece off the ground (barely) this a.m. – I’ve decided to do it the old-fashioned way – lots of hard work, hand-crafting each spectacular sound (and all that jazz).

About the (two pieces) you sent: I was very impressed and pleased by the increasing sophistication of texture and gesture in both pieces – they mark a huge step forward for you in that regard (remember the piece for clarinet, vibraphone, and double bass only a few years ago?); I’ll be eager to hear where you go next, and most interested to see where it all ends up. The only thing that gave me pause a little was what I heard as a kind of static harmonic rhythm which seems at odds with the sophistication in other areas. I’m certainly no foe of slow harmonic rhythm (as you know), but I had the sense that harmonic movement was something which wasn’t a principal concern in either piece. As you continue, you may want to try working out a tentative harmonic rhythm plan beforehand, so that the piece has a harmonic shape which is totally under your control; I’ve found that harmonic movement (or the lack of it) is such a powerful expressive tool; I think you will too.

Re-reading his e-mails has been like patching together a massive memories-montage of my formative years in Dick’s studio, even before we wrote to one another. He is responsible for my love of Stravinsky’s music. When he heard I was to play Piano IV in Les Noces at CU, Dick said, “Goodness. Well. Excellent! We must take time in your lessons this term to analyze that one to death.” He frequently pointed to Stravinsky’s scores as good go-to’s for help, particularly with proportioning contrasting sections and economy of musical materials.

I was surprised (and pleased) to find you writing in as diatonic an idiom as you did; somehow I had expected something more chromatic. A couple of points to ponder: 1. Do you need the winds? In the main, they didn’t seem to be doing that much that was significant. 2. You need to have some larger sections of the work that are simpler, more melodic, and more transparently scored to balance the sections that are more dense – it seems to me that your writing is generated more harmonically than melodically, and you may want to re-consider that for future works. But these are small cavils in what is a huge achievement – buy yourself some roses!

Dick’s manner was like a perfectly constructed song about being comfortable in one’s skin. He wrote a large collection of solo and choral vocal music; it all sings exquisitely. He talked about “screaming quietly,” or “loudly whispering” – which is how he taught. As in his music, Dick taught steadily, steadfastly, unwavering, with kindness and precision. He believed that our lives sing. That our music is not simply a 19th-century romantic notion in which the notes are “tied to life”; rather, our music is life, and that tones are “simply beautiful in themselves.”

Finney once said to me, “You don’t like melody much, do you?” (Obviously that’s not true now.) In the piece you sent most recently, melodies, when they occur, are some of the most fetching and expressive parts of the music – make more of them! They’re what connect with a general audience, and show that you have a heart, as well as technique.

As the years drew on, our correspondence became less about the nuts and bolts of composing, and more about our general lives. Dick shared updates about his kids and his cats, he spoke of his beloved wife Carol’s goings-on, his students, etc. His obituary states his fondness for gardening, “with a special weakness for irises.” From the last e-mail I received before his death, which was so sweetly him:

To contemplate the end of one’s life is quite an experience! But I’m thankful, at least, that I have both the time and (still) the mental capacity to actually do that contemplation, and my Orthodox faith makes it both a time of sadness for what will soon be lost, and joy, for what will soon be gained. I look forward to the future (for myself) with hope and confidence, though I will miss Carol more than I can possibly ever say. But some day even that pain will be erased. So – we go forward.

Dick Toensing gave us some of the most gorgeous music on this earth. Equally important, the distinguishedness of the sheer volume of wisdom he imparted to his students is immeasurable. He was an ever-optimist, an ever-realist, and never a downer. Yes, he could see through the bull-hooey quicker than most and didn’t hesitate to politely call it out. His career was like the slow-growing oak, and as an artist, teacher, and human he expressed himself clearly, gently, with respect and compassion. Then, for example, when a former student sent a quick note from NYC saying she had a job offer from his shared alma mater, his words sang:

WUNNERFUL! WUNNERFUL! HIGH CONGRATULATIONS – THAT’S ABSOLUTELY GREAT! BRAVO FOR YOU! (I assume you’ll take it….) It’s 10:20 in the evening out there, or I’d call you and gush all over the place, but I will save that for another day and time. I can’t tell you how proud of you I am, and how pleased for you. I know that you’ll make the most of it.
One word of advice: don’t bring out that little piece for vibraphone, etc.

As always, for the loving advice Dick, thank you.