Remembering Dan Pinkham



Daniel Pinkham
Photo courtesy New England Conservatory

[Ed. Note: Just as the holidays were getting underway, composer Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) passed away on December 18. We asked his one-time (not composition) student David Rakowski, who was en route to Europe at the time, to offer a few words in his memory. – FJO]

Daniel Pinkham’s death last month at the age of 83 was very sudden and shocking to me. I did not know him well—in fact, every time I saw him I was a little surprised that he remembered who I was—but Dan was frequently brought up in conversations with any number of Boston musicians, and usually as the source of a new, amazing joke or story. More often than not, conversations would begin, “Wanna hear the latest Danny Pinkham joke”? (Example: “What comes between fear and sex?…Funf!”)

When I was applying to colleges to study composition, my high school band teacher, Verne Colburn, a New England Conservatory alumnus, said that NEC would be the best place for me, especially since Daniel Pinkham was on the faculty there. The name Pinkham was familiar from a number of choral pieces that were in the school library (with his name in those big capitals you get on CF Peters scores), and indeed those were very good pieces. At the time, I remember reading a publication that called Pinkham “America’s most performed composer.”

I did get into NEC, and I did go, but it was not possible to study composition with Dan Pinkham there—he taught music history and early music, but not composition. I therefore encountered him first as my teacher for a history of medieval and renaissance music class that I took in 1977. I remember that he had an authoratative manner with the material, that his lectures were extremely enthusiastic, and especially that when he got to the point of a substantial story, he would sit up straighter, cock his head a little, and smile broadly.


Listen to an excerpt of Daniel Pinkham’s one-act opera The Cask of Amontillado now available from Arsis.


Three things stand out from that class I had with him. First, the absolute delight he had in pronouncing the Squarcialupi Codex. So much so that he repeated it several times and had the class repeat it. Second, a sleuthing story that brilliantly demonstrated the importance of historical musicology: It was about a four-part motet that someone had discovered actually had five parts. The fifth part was nowhere to be found. Then research uncovered for what church and event it had been written, and digging through that church’s archives revealed a part book containing the missing part to that (plus presumably another) motet. The third hooked in to Dan’s parallel career as a performer. To demonstrate the difficulty of coming up with a suitable tuning system, the syntonic comma, and the “wolf” fifth, he spent the greater part of one class simply tuning the harpsichord. I remember the strange seriousness of his expression as he listened to each note, how he made the class confirm that each successive note was in tune, and the triumphant grin he had when he played a circle of fifths progression and landed on the “wolf” fifth—especially when a cellist in the class grimaced.

I was also pleased that Dan had a practice of excusing a few of the best students in the class from the final exam. Because I was one of those students that year, and I was able to use the time to write some bad music.

Since that class, I would frequently encounter Dan in the hallway—he always seemed to be rushing to something, head cocked with a jaunty walk and jingling keys. But he would always pause to say hello to me and offer another joke. Once I screwed in enough courage to ask him why he didn’t teach composition, and he smiled very broadly and said, “I had a choice between getting performances and teaching composition, and I chose the performances.”

During one trip back to my hometown after this, I attended a high school district music festival on which was performed a big choral piece by Dan (I don’t remember the name). It was eclectic and very changeable, climaxing on a very thick cluster chord. I had not thought it was possible to write such hard stuff for high school choirs, and I asked a friend how he got his note. He shrugged, “They told us to choose a note, and that was my note.” I couldn’t resist telling him I had taken a course with the composer. He said, “Wow, he must be really cool, huh?”

In the last twenty years or so I encountered Dan sporadically, usually when I visited NEC. He always had a new story, he always remembered me, and he even remembered what we talked about the last time we saw each other. I continue to remember him as a spry and lanky professor in his early 50s with that big smile and quick wit. Perhaps that is why his death caught me unawares. His passing is a great loss.

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David Rakowski is the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition at Brandeis University.