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Pinkham, Daniel (1923-2006)

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Daniel Pinkham
Disclaiming any unusual precocity in music, Daniel Pinkham nevertheless recalls the routine of childhood piano lessons and his innocent first attempts to peddle to parents and friends the melodies he had copied from his keyboard exercises. When it was duly pointed out to the six-year-old that saleable music needed to be original, he quickly adapted, and the composer Pinkham was born.

The oldest of three boys, Daniel Rogers Pinkham had come into the world on June 5, 1923, in Lynn, Massachusetts, bearing a surname that was nationally as well as locally famous. Three generations earlier the Vegetable Compound and other patent remedies of Lydia E. Pinkham had become household standbys, and though the founder of the firm realized only limited wealth, her children and grandchildren had made “Lydia Pinkham” into an eminently profitable industry. Daniel’s father, who was to rise to the presidency of the company in the 1960s, was in a position to provide his sons with a private education, which for Daniel meant continuing a family tradition by attending Phillips Academy in Andover. Pinkham recalls his father’s view that wrestling and exposure to Old Testament narratives were the most meaningful parts of an Andover education; for Daniel however, it was to be music, though not without a similar exposure to the cadences of Scripture.

At age sixteen the young musician experienced a musical revelation, a kind of musical epiphany as Pinkham describes it. This occurred at a concert in Andover by the Trapp family, one of the very first appearances in America by the Austrian emigre ensemble that was to go on to such celebrity in the 1950s. With their unfamiliar instruments—viola da gamba, virginal, and a quartet of recorders, together with the timbre of children’s voices—the Trapps produced a spare, clean sound that spoke to the young Pinkham as no music had before, becoming “a part of my way of looking at things.”

As a first result of this encounter, Pinkham began to read everything the Academy library owned on 17th- and 18th-century music (“The Dolmetsch book on interpretation I simply memorized; it was my Bible at that time,”) and soon acquired a Neupert tabletop clavichord from Germany to compete for his practice time. When opportunities arose at the Academy, Pinkham composed his first choral music, even then “strictly for performance,” so the pragmatic young musician could hear and judge the result for himself. Finishing at Andover a year early as the result of an accelerated program of studies, Pinkham was able to enter Harvard College in 1940 as a music major.

King's Chapel

King’s Chapel

At Harvard Pinkham pursued choral composition with Archibald “Doc” Davison (1883-1961), a man he remembers as an inspired organist and conductor. Beginning in his second year he studied composition with Walter Piston, who emphasized consistency of style and filled the younger musician with practical ideas on “what works and what won’t” in actual performance.

A medical deferment enabled Pinkham to remain at Harvard to complete his B.A. in 1943, with his Masters following a year later. Staying on in Cambridge, he continued compositional studies in seminars with Piston and with Aaron Copland; the next logical step for the young composer was to approach Nadia Boulanger in 1945. He had met the eminent French musician and teacher as early as 1941 when he loaned his budding “voix de compositeur” to a weekly madrigal group she conducted at the Longy School. Now, however, he enrolled for private lessons, working intensely for the next two years, after which he had become so self-critical, “so concerned for where each note goes,” that for the space of a solid year he “could not compose at all.”

In the summer of 1947, he had the opportunity of studying with Arthur Honegger at Tanglewood. The Swiss composer-in residence spoke little English, so Pinkham became his translator and chauffeur, remaining at his side for days at a time while learning and absorbing the older man’s ideas on the teaching of orchestration. This ideal situation was cut short by Honegger’s heart attack and subsequent return to Switzerland at midsummer. His replacement, Samuel Barber, was a much less effective teacher in Pinkham’s view; but if he did not learn a great deal from their formal sessions, he found Barber all the more inspiring in his afterhours devotion to songwriting and “the music of English.”

Throughout his Harvard years Pinkham was continuing to prepare himself as a performer on the harpsichord and organ. He studied the former with Wanda Landowska and her pupil Putnam Aldrich (1904-1975). His organ teacher was E. Power Biggs, with whom he learned repertory and developed a working collaboration, replacing Biggs on occasional broadcast concerts from the Germanic (now Busch-Reisinger) Museum at Harvard. It was Biggs who gave the first professional performance of a Pinkham work, presenting his Sonata No. 1 for organ and strings (with Arthur Fiedler) in 1944.

As the only professional harpsichordist in the Boston area in the days before what he whimsically calls the “earlier than thou” movement took hold, Pinkham was soon called on to provide the keyboard continuo in performances of the Bach Passions and other works with the Boston Symphony under Munch and Markevitch. In 1948 came the chance to pursue the performing side of his musicianship on a regular basis as half of a violin-harpsichord duo. Joining with Robert Brink (b. 1924), “a fine player with unlimited technical ability and an elegant, beautiful tone,” Pinkham began a 10-year performing career which took the duo through parts of the United States and Canada and on two State Department-sponsored tours to postwar Europe. Their choice of repertory reflected a mutual interest in early music, in chamber music sonorities, and in experimentation: the two performed all the Corelli sonatas, as well as works of Marini, J.S. Bach, and Mozart “up to the limits of the harpsichordist’s ability” as Pinkham acknowledges. He recalls, with understatement, that Brink possessed “a sensitivity to ensemble style which would make the delivery of 18th-century pieces really quite reasonable.” Among their contemporaries they commissioned and played music by Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness, and others; and it was for Robert Brink that Pinkham composed his violin concerto (1958).

Pinkham also concertized alone during this time, transporting his harpsichord thousands of miles by station wagon to keep engagements in remote parts of the U. S. and Canada. Award of a Fulbright grant in 1950 offered a tempting alternative, but Pinkham turned it down because he feared losing the momentum of his performing career.

For the performance of larger ensemble works, Brink and Pinkham founded the Cambridge Festival Orchestra in the mid 1950s, a somewhat ad hoc organization made up of freelance and retired musicians from Boston’s various orchestras. Brink served as concertmaster and Pinkham conducted the group, formed initially to produce a recording of Purcell’s Fairy Queen. About this time, however, Pinkham was experiencing a gradual shift in his interests in the direction of Renaissance music, and the Brink-Pinkham duo finally curtailed its activities after Brink developed a hand affliction (“trigger finger”) which necessitated refingering of the violinist’s music, with a corresponding loss of tone and intonation. Brink moved over to a second career as professor of violin at the New England Conservatory where the two have remained close friends. For Pinkham, a similar caesura intervened in 1961 in the form of a broken finger, followed the next year by a life-threatening attack of hepatitis. After a slow recovery, the composer was strongly advised to abandon travel and concertizing in favor of his teaching career at the Conservatory and his two-year-old position at King’s Chapel.

Teaching, indeed, had been a concomitant of much of the previous fifteen years, beginning with his appointment at age 23 to the Boston Conservatory of Music. Subsequently Pinkham was named special lecturer in music history at Simmons College in Boston in 1953. He was lecturer-recitalist in Devon, England, in the summer of 1954, before being appointed teaching associate for the harpsichord at Boston University later that year. He returned to Harvard as visiting lecturer in 1957-58, joining the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music the next year to teach undergraduate music history, theory, and composition, as well as harpsichord.

The guest professorship at the New England Conservatory became a permanent appointment a year later and from that point forward has been his mainstay, absorbing nearly all his teaching activity since then. With the arrival of Gunther Schuller as director in 1967, Pinkham petitioned for a restructuring of the curriculum to enable him to create and chair his own Department of Early Music Performance, a highly congenial arrangement.

King's Chapel organ
King's Chapel organ

Two views of the organ at King’s Chapel

In the fall of 1958, Pinkham had also been alerted to an imminent opening to succeed Elwood Gaskill as organist and choir director at King’s Chapel, Boston’s most venerable musical institution. The decision to seek this position was to be decisive for shaping the balance of his career. Founded in 1686 (the present building was completed in 1758), King’s Chapel had housed the first pipe organ in an American church (1713), and was the scene of the first known music festival (1786) in the new United States. Today the diminutive Chapel remains a landmark in downtown Boston, where a slender iron fence still protects it from the highrise resealing of the city center. Prominent among earlier organists and conductors at the historic site were William Selly in the 18th, B. J. Lang in the late 19th, and, for a brief period, Virgil Thomson in the present century.

Under its most recent music directors, King’s Chapel had employed a sixteen-voice male choir exclusively. When asked, as part of the interview process, what operational changes he might make at the Chapel, Pinkham proposed several things: greater involvement of the Chapel’s Music Committee in handling nonmusical matters and providing liaison with the parishioners, and replacement of the all-male choir with a smaller, mixed choir, to be augmented by volunteers and conservatory students, thus saving costs while permitting greater versatility in programming. Pinkham’s ideas convinced the Committee, who chose him over others he feels might have been superior organists.

In 1962 Pinkham received a Ford Foundation grant in connection with his position as choral conductor. This enabled him to commission four new works for mixed chorus and strings (the commissions went to William Flanagan, Ulysses Xay, Ned Rorem, and Charles Wuorinen), all of which were subsequently performed by the Chapel Choir and commercially recorded. Two years later he had the satisfaction of inaugurating a new three-manual organ, the first of a number of tracker-action organs to be built in the United States by Charles B. Fisk. This was the result of a gift from Amelia Peabody, whose father had donated the Chapel’s previous organ in 1912.

His music, while not programmatic, is often what he calls “affective,” using titles or narratives to provide an extramusical continuum to which the music can respond. He is known for his meticulous setting of language to render it as comprehensible as possible in performance. His instrumentation is spare and translucent, showing a preference for winds over strings, a delight in percussion effects, and a positive predilection for high, bell-like sonorities that still recall his fascination with the sounds of the Trapp Family choir. A further quality is defined by his friend, music critic Richard Dyer: “Pinkham . . . takes the trouble to explore the basic vocality of whatever instrument—or machine—he is writing for. That’s why no matter how advanced the idiom or how unconventional the sound source, a certain basic, slightly diffuse, very humane sweetness sings through.”

A belated and unexpected influence on Pinkham’s work arrived in 1970 when he undertook to rehearse a score by Richard Felciano (b. 1930), a composer he calls “a very grave and serious thinker about music and sound.” Felciano’s Pentecost Sunday is written for organ, electronic tape, and male voices; and Pinkham found himself immediately intrigued by the way the tape element took over the role of providing cues and pitches for the chorus, at the same time filling King’s Chapel with new and more resonant sounds than were possible with a conventional ensemble.

Writing takes place in the small frame house he shares with organist Andrew Paul Holman on a side street in Cambridge. The work space itself is shared with the chamber organ Pinkham acquired in the days when he performed with the Boston Symphony. His preferred time for composing is in the forenoon when he finds that ideas come more easily; other parts of the day are given over to the meticulous copying of scores and parts in an elegant hand on fine, Swiss-made paper. Players attest to his care in providing cues and interpretive directions in his published music. With his pragmatic view of musical execution, the composer often suggests alternatives in scoring to facilitate performance.

He is Past Dean of the Boston chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In twenty-five years of ignoring his doctor’s advice to “slow down,” Pinkham has criss-crossed the country for countless premieres and honors, and for appearances at increasingly frequent “Pinkham Festivals.” By virtue of putting down his professional roots early in his career, however, and leaving them undisturbed, he has remained closely identified with the region where his musical life began. Boston, in the meantime, has become the early music capital of the country, not least through the efforts of Pinkham himself; and no place could be a more suitable home for the musician and his music.

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations derive from interviews with Daniel Pinkham conducted by the authors in July 1986 and March 1987.

— By Kee deBoer and John B. Ahouse, abridged from Daniel Pinkham: A Bio-Bibliography (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).

Pinkham Gives 75th Birthday Gift of his Own

Daniel Pinkham

Daniel Pinkham’s many friends celebrated his 75th birthday in the most fitting fashion—with a concert of new music, written in tribute by his colleagues, 15 works for voice and organ by as many composers. Amiably and elegantly serving as hosts for the evening were soprano Phyllis Curtin, who was singing music by Pinkham half a century ago, and Carl Scovel, minister of King’s Chapel, where Pinkham has served as music director for 41 years. Curtin rightly stressed the primacy of composition in musical life. During the proceedings, William A. Seymour, president of the Boston Conservatory, and a group of faculty presented Pinkham with an honorary doctorate.

The event served as a benefit for the Daniel Pinkham Endowment at King’s Chapel, a fund created to help perpetuate the church’s distinguished musical tradition and presence. In a characteristically witty speech, Pinkham said it is hoped that the fund will endow the music director’s chair, “in which case,” he added, “I hope it will be lavishly upholstered.”

The piece de resistance was the premiere of a new work by Pinkham himself, “Three Latin Motets,” composed to commemorate half a century of friendship with Ned Rorem, who had contributed a new work of his own to the event. The presence of these Motets on the program, Pinkham said, resulted from a “deception engineered” by the organist James David Christie, one of the prime movers of the concert.

The Motets are prime Pinkham and a catalog of his virtues as a composer: literary discrimination in the choice of texts, imagination, and utter professionalism in handling them musically, attractive melody, clear textures, grateful vocal lines, a sweet sincerity, and a true depth of feeling. Pinkham’s musical roots entwine English Renaissance and 20th-century French roots with something genuine and American. His music comes from a well-stocked mind, but it is full of surprises because of the way he makes connections among unexpected things; his irrepressibly vital personality expresses itself in humor and in unpretentious seriousness. The Motets were superlatively performed.

— By Richard Dyer, abridged courtesy of the Boston Globe, June 8, 1998.