Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
Joseph R. Wood
Professor of Music Composition and Theory

19148 Pg 58Joseph 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.

His 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.

His 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.

Joe 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.

From 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.

In 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?"

Richard 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."

His 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.

Joe 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.

Joseph 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.

Randolph 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.

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