Joseph R. Wood
Professor of Music Composition and Theory
Wood was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May
12, 1915. He was an undergraduate student at Bucknell University
from 1932-34. He began his formal music training by studying
piano at the Juilliard Institute of Musical Arts, where he
received his diploma in 1936. He then studied piano with Bernard
Wagenear at the Juilliard School, completing his B.S. in 1949.
He studied composition with Otto Luening at Columbia University,
earning his M.A. in 1950. His awards include a full four-year
Juilliard fellowship from 1936-40 and the first prize for
his opera The Mother awarded by the Juilliard Opera Competition
in 1942. On the basis of winning the opera prize he was given
a Ditson Award from Columbia University in 1946, on which
he lived and wrote music for a year. He was a guest composer
at the Villa Montalvo in 1957, was awarded a Huntington Hartford
fellowship in 1960, and was a fellow eight times at the MacDowell
Colony. In 1966 and 1973 he received H. H. Powers travel grants
from Oberlin College.
music was sought after by many musicians, and he received
many commissions. His chamber music worklist includes a piano
trio from 1937 and a viola sonata from 1938. He wrote four
string quartets over a period from 1942-1978; these were performed
by excellent ensembles such as the NBC Quartet, the Gordon
Quartet, the Piastro Quartet, and our own New Hungarian Quartet.
He wrote a violin sonata in 1947 and a piano quintet in 1956.
Throughout his life he wrote a very large number of choral
pieces which are still being programmed, including a Te Deum
written on the occasion of Oberlin's sesquicentennial for
the Oberlin College Choir and Robert Fountain.
output for large ensembles includes a Concerto for Chamber
Orchestra, a Poem for Orchestra (1950), a Concerto for Viola
and Piano with orchestra in 1970 premiered by the Cleveland
Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jose Serebrier, a violin
concerto and a Divertimento for Piano and small orchestra
from 1959. He wrote three symphonies, one each in 1939, 1952,
and 1956. After the premiere of his third symphony in 1957,
the critic of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that the work
"was a thoroughly distinguished and handsome creation with
such an internal and external appeal that it would be no exaggeration
to place it in the very top rank of American symphonies."
The NBC Orchestra premiered his Overture to Twelfth Night
on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Arguably, his most important piece
was a large ballet-cantata commissioned by the Draco Foundation
and written to a scenario by Evelyn Eaton entitled The Progression.
was an established and respected composer in the urban world
long before he came to Oberlin. He was the staff composer
at the Chekov Theatre Studio in Manhattan from 1939-41 where
he wrote a wide variety of scores for many productions directed
by Michael Chekov. After his stint with the Chekov Studio
he was a freelance composer/arranger in New York City from
1941-50. During this period Joe was primarily a commercial
composer writing many of the tunes Madison Avenue used to
sell everything from soap to television dramas. He wrote
charts for many dance bands, the most famous of which was
his arrangement of "Chiquita Banana" that he did for Xavier
Cugat. Joe also wrote many of the orchestral arrangements
used for the first Muzak recordings.
1943-46, Joe took a break from commercials for a tour with
special services as a member of the U.S. Army. For years
he amused us all with his war stories, especially those
about the oddity of meeting many celebrities in remote and
dangerous places like Okinawa and other Pacific hotspots.
1950 Joe accepted a position at the Oberlin Conservatory
of Music where he remained a highly respected teacher
of music theory and composition until his retirement in
1985. Director David Robertson ostensibly brought Joe
here to teach music theory. In actuality he was hired
to shake up the place, to introduce some "new blood,"
and to bring some urban sensibility to the rural Mideast.
Joe, along with the other two young turks (Richard Hoffmann
and Walter Aschaffenburg), initiated the conservatory
major in composition in 1956. Soon after, this same dynamic
trio, with the enthusiastic support of Robertson, founded
the Oberlin Contemporary Music Festival, which was held
in February of each year until 1971. It brought to the
campus such distinguished composers as Roger Sessions,
Wallingford Riegger, Ernest Krenek, Leon Kirchner, and,
in 1963, Igor Stravinsky, as well as many outstanding
performers and commentators. As I survey our present faculty,
there are only a couple still in the saddle today who
could remember the noon assemblies where the Festival
guest music critic would address the entire campus in
packed Finney Chapel on such topics as "What is new music?"
Hoffmann, professor of composition and music theory, recently
wrote the following: "Exactly half a century ago Joe Wood
arrived at a renowned American conservatory when composition
was not yet a part of the curriculum. By the time he had
retired, that department which he had helped found and
chaired several times, had grown in national and international
stature to become one of the finest, non-doctrinaire undergraduate
composition departments in the country. His contribution
was paramount in bringing the Oberlin Conservatory into
the second half of the 20th century."
students remember his kindness, patience, and compassion
as much as his sharp musical ear and eye. He not only
had perfect pitch but he knew how to use it tempered
by his special sensitivity, intelligence, and, above
all, charming and wry wit. He was a great story teller
and, like many urbane, cultivated gentlemen of his generation,
he was not adverse to caustic asides during concerts,
faculty meetings, and funerals...it's just that his
asides were quite likely to be amusing and, at all times,
always diverting us from the pomposity of our condition.
was a "deli guy" who liked to smoke about as much as
he liked to consume coffee, which he did in spectacular
amounts. I assert with no fear of contradiction that
he went to more Con concerts than anyone in our history.
He loved The New York Times and spent the early parts
of every day sitting in the Con lounge with that paper,
ensconced out here in the farmlands but experientially
immersed in that culture and site where he had spent
many productive and exciting years.
Wood died in Auburn, Alabama, on June 3, 2000. He is
survived by his two daughters, Lynne and Lorna, four
grandchildren, a lot of elegant and heartfelt original
music, and many loving memories.
Coleman is professor of composition and music
theory, chair of the Composition Department, and director
of the Contemporary Music Division at the Oberlin Conservatory
of Music at Oberlin College. This Memorial Minute was
adopted by a rising vote of the General Faculty of Oberlin
College on November 21, 2000.