Remembering Donald Erb

[Ed. Note: American composer and educator Doanld Erb (January 17, 1927-August 12, 2008), a former president of the American Music Center’s board of directors and a recipient of the AMC’s Letter of Distinction, meant a great deal to many of us here at the AMC. Upon learning of Erb’s death earlier this week, we asked composer Margaret Brouwer, a one-time Erb student and a lifelong friend, to share her thoughts about him and his compositional legacy. —FJO]

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Donald Erb (1927-2008); Photo courtesy Theodore Presser Co.

I remember the first time I heard Don Erb’s music in a live performance, before I had ever met him. The concert was at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he would begin teaching the next year. There was no lighting in the auditorium except a strobe light illuminating what seemed like thousands of painted ping pong balls and streamers flying through the auditorium to his wild and wooly music, Souvenirs. This was the first side of Don that many saw—the outrageous, the over-the-top, thumbing his nose at convention. But that was just the beginning. Soon, the deep compassion—and anger at injustice—that was Don Erb showed in his person, and his music.

Those of us who were Don’s students knew him not just as a creative and forceful composer, but also as a man of deep emotions and compassion. Along with standing for individualism, creativity, and uniqueness, Don was all about honoring and helping those plagued with misfortune. He hurt for the world and its problems. It tore him up inside. He was a critic of everything in the world that did not stand for the noble, the honorable, and the helping spirit. He showed no fear about saying exactly what he thought, bucking the establishment, and showing noisy displeasure when something in the world was wrong. At the same time, he was extremely supportive of his students and quite indulgent with their less stellar sides. He would flail out at the world, but seldom at a student. When he did say something less-than-kind to a student in a moment of rage, he would apologize later explaining how it was said out of his own problems at the moment rather than directed personally toward the student.

We saw his anguish when he told us about the experience he had had when serving in the Navy on the USS Baltimore at the end of World War II. He saw Hiroshima soon after the atomic bomb had destroyed it. In later years, this experience seemed to occupy his mind, and he frequently talked very emotionally about it. I believe that this experience strongly influenced the music he wrote throughout his life. He was consumed by his anger at a world where this terrible event could happen, his helplessness to make things better for the innocent, burned, and blinded children and mothers—but also his anger at their country for the attacks, some of which he had personally experienced on his ship. This complex mixture of anger, guilt, compassion, and love of people are the emotional elements in his music.

We, his students saw this compassion constantly—for myself, his concern when my husband was near death in the hospital, and he and his wife, Lucille, were ready to make a ten-hour drive to be there for us. He kept up with all of his students, knew what they were doing, and was always ready to hear the latest music they had composed or help with any personal problems they were experiencing. In Texas, we watched his anguish and fear when Lucille, his true soul mate and the person to whom he was deeply and completely devoted, was in the hospital having heart surgery.

Don lived by an astute intuition in dealing with people, and also in composing music. He had an excellent feeling for pacing, and for drama. He felt the music physically. I remember many times in lessons as he went through the score of what I was writing. He would become more and more physically involved, growing tense as the tension grew in the music. He would begin to move with it, leaning forward, willing it to grow. When he did not have this reaction and simply said, “Hmm, not bad,” I went home and rewrote!

When teaching, I found myself quoting Don to my students. Does the music move me to a deep emotion: anger, shock, grief, love? Does the music pull me along without allowing my mind to wander? Do new events happen exactly where they should so the musical flow makes sense in the overall shape? And direct quotes: “It doesn’t matter which pitches you use, just use the right ones!” “Never be afraid to take chances, even if you fall flat! That’s how you grow as a composer and contribute to the art.”

As much as he was the antithesis of a conservative person, Don was an adamant supporter of family values, and a religious person—however unconventional. He was a strong advocate of marriage and fidelity, which he unabashedly promoted to all of his students. He was married to Lucille for 58 years and is survived by her as well as four children and nine grandchildren.

While being very much a critic of the materialistic world, Don loved people. He loved to be around people and to find out about them. He started conversations with anyone he met, and asked personal questions. He loved to “hang out” with friends and former students over a glass (or two or three) of wine or bourbon, and was deeply loved by many people. He was a strong father figure for almost all of his students, and even for the students of his students. Many people leaned on him. Looking back now, it is amazing that he could be such a tower of strength for so many people. But his strength was grounded in a true partnership with a strong and devoted wife whom he deeply loved, and upon whom he depended and leaned.

Don’s music is controversial, uncompromising, powerful, emotional, and very personal. He wrote over 100 works, 25 of which are works for orchestra. His knowledge and use of orchestral instruments, and of the orchestra itself as an instrument, was comprehensive and savvy. He was an extremely intelligent man and a musician with vast knowledge who seemed almost to make it a point not to play that role, except occasionally. He received awards from the Rockefeller, Ford, Guggenheim, Kulas, Koussevitzky, Fromm, and Aaron Copland foundations, as well as the Prix de Rome. He was president of the American Music Center from 1981 to 1984 and received AMC’s Letter of Distinction in 2001. He served as composer-in-residence with the Dallas and St. Louis Symphony Orchestras.

Don was a maverick composer. He ignored the conventions of the day in the world of composition. He followed his intuition and his heart. He was a giant as a person, and wrote “giant” music—bigger than life, emotional, outrageous, beautiful, and heartrendingly expressive, sometimes in a strong, in-your-face way. He was all about feeling and emotion. Don Erb devoted his life to music, to Lucille, to people, and to his students.