Memorial Minute

Walter Eugene Aschaffenburg ’51 was an esteemed member of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music from 1952 to 1987. He taught music theory in all its dimensions—offering one of the first courses in 20th-century music—and he was among the first teachers at Oberlin to offer credit-bearing work in composition. He served several stints as chair of the theory department and as chair of the composition department.

Born in Essen, Germany, in 1927, Walter and his family immigrated to the United States in 1938. As a young man he studied at the Hartford School of Music, where he continued to write music, a practice he had begun as a boy. After the war, he migrated to the cornfields of northern Ohio to take up his studies at Oberlin. He earned his BA degree, preferring the broader dimensions of the College program to the more specific foci of the Conservatory.

He studied composition, before Oberlin even offered an official degree program, with Herbert Elwell, a well-known music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer who frequently spoke of Walter as one of his most talented students. A bonus of his tenure as a student was meeting and marrying Nancy Cooper, with whom he had two daughters, Ruth Margareta and Katherine Elizabeth.

After graduating, Walter attended the Eastman School of Music, where he earned his master’s degree in composition. He returned to Oberlin the next year as an instructor, beginning his long and distinguished career.

Walter was a traditionalist—as a person, a pedagogue, and a composer. As such, he had inordinate respect for the ways things had been done best in the German and American cultures in which he lived. He eschewed novelty and superficiality and promoted formal idealism and respect for “highbrow values.”

He saw as his mission the installation of these values and attitudes in the minds and bodies of a population that became more comfortable with the Rolling Stones than the Second Viennese School. Perhaps he was ahead of the times when he insisted that social decorum, good manners, and respect for fixed and everlasting qualities were a requirement for progressive and democratic societies, without which, he asserted, we would descend into anarchy and chaos. It was after some of these assertions that a friend and colleague affectionately dubbed him “Walter the Positive.”

As a composer-teacher, he believed there was a template for art music composers, and that template was forged in Germany. Toward the end of his career he bemoaned the clear indications that younger Americans were not being raised to appreciate the European canonic composers he so fervently revered.

Walter was a believer in monumentality and hierarchy. For all that, he was a generous composition and music theory teacher for 40 years, one who gave unstintingly to those who would put forward a serious effort.

Walter was a fastidious person who had habituations for every occasion. His office and workspace at home were forever neat—no, make that immaculate—poised at all times with a sharp pencil (Ticonderoga #2, if you please) and fresh bond at the ready. His lecture notes were thorough and complete. His lectures were choreographed to begin and conclude with the bell (mythical in the case of the Conservatory’s bell system, which was as erratic as its notoriously inaccurate clocks, which Walter never gave up complaining about. They still don’t work, and somewhere, without a doubt, he is still grousing about them).

Walter was just as careful in his creative pursuits. Each of his more than two dozen compositions, from his juvenilia to his Three Dances for Orchestra, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under James Levine, and his final Oboe Concerto, written for the recently deceased oboist James Caldwell, was rigorously considered in its pre-compositional stages, as well as in the relentless editing to which he submitted his drafts. His always-beautiful music calligraphy was testimony to his thoroughness and artistic sensibilities. He favored the historic formal structures of part forms, sonatas, and fugatos, preferring to work his creative juices through the filters of historically tried-and-true parameters rather than to trust willy-nilly improvisation or more recent methodologies that had not yet undergone the imprimatur of time’s considerations. He wrote for ensembles large and small, but he would offer as his greatest creative accomplishment his opera Bartelby, which was produced by our Oberlin Music Theatre to much critical and public acclaim.

Among his many awards were two Guggenheim fellowships, a Fromm Foundation award, annual acknowledgements from ASCAP, awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Cleveland Arts Prize for music in 1980.

After taking early retirement, and with his second wife, the pianist Rayna Klatzkin Barroll, Walter migrated to the wilds and warmth of Phoenix, Arizona, where he enjoyed communing with his fruit trees and reminiscing about a rich and productive life.

In conclusion, while he would probably not appreciate the vernacular expression, Walter was the quintessential Obie-Dobie. Like his dear friend and colleague Richard Hoffmann, he never bought into the overwhelming encroachments of the American mass culture he was inundated with in his later years. He never ceased attempting to infuse into his students’ lives an appreciation and respect for the historical values of his native German culture, values incompatible with the flash and dash of jazz, hip-hop, and his favorite bugaboo, country, and western music. Walter, through his teachings and writings, helped to keep the Oberlin culture oriented to “higher and better values.”

Walter will be missed and fondly remembered by all of us—family, friends and colleagues—and by generations of Oberlin students. friends and colleagues—and by generations of Oberlin students.

Randolph Coleman is a professor of composition and music theory at Oberlin College. Excerpted from a Memorial Minute adopted by a standing vote of the General Faculty of Oberlin College on April 19, 2006.