Obituary: Robert Stern, Composer, Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Composition
From UMassAmherst, August 31, 2018
Robert Stern, 84, of Amherst, composer and professor emeritus of music theory and composition, died Aug. 29.
Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1934, he developed an early love of music when his mother brought him to classical music concerts, and his musical talent was recognized during his elementary school years.
He received bachelor degrees from both the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester, after which he entered the Army and was assigned to the award-winning Third Army Band as a music arranger. He loved playing piano with his combo, the “Mood Masters,” at officers’ club and bars.
Upon discharge from the army, he attended UCLA to study with Lukas Foss, whose music he had found compelling and who remained an important mentor. Stern returned to Eastman for his Ph.D. in composition.
Stern was recruited to teach composition and theory in the department of music and dance at UMass Amherst in 1964 by then-department chair Philip Bezanson, and he remained with the department until his retirement in 2002. Over the years, he delighted in making music with and writing music for his many close colleagues.
In February, the department honored him with a special performance, during which he was lauded by friends and colleagues as a brilliant educator, composer, and “the personification of sensitivity and respectfulness.”
Stern’s music has been performed throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, China, South America, Japan and Israel by such prominent ensembles and artists as the Beaux Arts String Quartet, Collage, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Contemporary Chamber Players at the University of Chicago, the Eastman Musica Nova, Yehudi Wyner, Joel Smirnoff, Gilbert Kalish, Marni Nixon, Jan Opalach, Joel Krosnick and the Gregg Smith Singers.
During his 38 years with the department of music and dance, Stern was the recipient of numerous grants, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities and the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund. He was awarded fellowships from the MacDowell, Millay, and Yaddo Colonies, and awards from ASCAP and the Premio Musicale Citta di Trieste International Competition.
He received commissions from the Library of Congress McKim Fund, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Manchester International Cello Festival, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His works have been recorded on many labels and published by G. Schirmer, Rinaldo Music Press, and Transcontinental Music. In 1990 he was recognized by UMass Amherst with the award of the Faculty Fellowship.
He became involved in the exciting new field of electronic music and the experiment of Hampshire College as a visiting professor of electronic music there in that college’s early years.
The 1962 publication of “I never Saw another Butterfly,” children’s poems and drawings from the Terezin ghetto, moved him tremendously, and he developed a deep interest in the artistic expression that emerged from Terezin, from the concentration camps, and in the ability of artists worldwide to create art while living in dire circumstances. He visited Terezin and met some of the then-adult surviving authors of those poems. Many of his compositional works from that time forward were responses to the Nazi Holocaust, and as the years went by, with the growing evidence that “Never Again” was a hollow cry.
Ten years later, he completed the oratorio, “Shofar,” working with Amherst writer Catherine Madsen, who wrote what he considered a “stirring and heartbreaking” libretto. [Recording of this work shown farther down on this webpage] “Shofar” explores the relationship between God and humankind through the biblical experience at Sinai and the four shofar calls used during the Jewish Days of Awe. The shofar calls represent wholeness, brokenness, devastation, and finally a return to wholeness. Ultimately, the oratorio finds, of the relationship of humankind and God:
“each craved a kinder lover,
Stern is survived by his wife Judith, son Aaron and his stepchildren, Noah (Catherine Popper), Rachael (Al Weisz) and Seth Eckhouse (Catherine),
A memorial service will be held Monday, Sept. 3 at 1 p.m. at the
Jewish Community of Amherst on, 742 Main St. Gathering for shiva minyans
will be 7-9 p.m. on Sept. 3 and 4.
== Names which are links in this box and below refer to my
interviews elsewhere on my site. BD
To quote the informative liner notes to give the interesting circumstances
from which these compositions originated, Edward B. Benjamin (1897-1980)
"was a New Orleans industrialist who lived part of the year in Louisiana,
part of the year in North Carolina, and the remaining months in travels
dictated by his widespread activities. Wherever he was, his passionate
interest in music was unflagging and inventive (...). In 1953 Mr. Benjamin
offered to Howard Hanson, director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester,
New York, funds for the establishment of an annual prize in composition,
to be called the Edward B. Benjamin Award for Restful Music. Dr.
Hanson appointed a committee of judges from his Composition faculty, and
this jury was responsible in each subsequent year for choosing a composition
written by one of the student composers at the School that seemed best
to introduce restfulness in the listener. Mr. Benjamin believed deeply
in the performance of music that, again to use his own phrase, "charms
and soothes". His enthusiasm was such that multiple awards were sometimes
given each year until 1971, when the award was discontinued. This album
presents nine of the award-winning compositions, in addition to three other
pieces by Eastman School composers." [Also on the LP is
a work by Ron Nelson,
as well as selections by several others. The CD re-issue adds pieces by
Kent Kennan, and
Hampshire College is a private liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was opened in 1970 as an experiment in alternative education, in association with four other colleges in the Pioneer Valley: Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Together they have since been known as the Five Colleges or the Five College Consortium.The college is widely known for its alternative curriculum, socially liberal politics, focus on portfolios rather than distribution requirements, and its reliance on narrative evaluations instead of grades and GPAs. In some fields, it is among the top undergraduate institutions in percentage of graduates who enroll in graduate school. Sixty-five percent of its alumni have at least one graduate degree and a quarter have founded their own business or organization. It is ranked #39 among U.S. colleges and universities by the percentage of graduates who go on to earn a doctorate degree according to National Science Foundation data.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 11, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, and again in 1994 and 1999. This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.