Richard Toensing (1940-2014)—“The Oak Doesn’t Grow as Fast as the Squash”

Richard Toensing

Richard Toensing, photo courtesy Bella Voce Communications

Richard Toensing (March 11, 1940 – July 2, 2014) started teaching composition at age 26 at Upsala College, and at age 33 began a storied career on faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). He continued teaching privately a bit after he retired from CU in 2005, and he passed away last month at age 74. After over forty years of teaching, Dick was well known as a pedagogue for his integrity, his delightful wit, and his zero-tolerance policy for what he called “that bull-hooey ego nonsense that gets in the way of hard work and real life.”

Composer Greg Simon, a former student of Dick’s currently completing his DMA at the University of Michigan, wrote a beautiful memorial blog post in which he wrote:

No one would ever accuse Dick of coddling his students. True to his upbringing, he demanded work, dedication, and a bit of a thick skin. If you came to a lesson without the work done, he sent you away to do it. He was quick to tell you if he disliked something, and slow to spell out the solution – he believed you should find it. But Dick loved his students, and he cared for them. He would lend students hours of extra time to help them make decisions about music or life.

Dick was also a wonderful composer. The writer of an obituary published in the Boulder Daily Camera the day after he died remarked: “Reviewers of Toensing’s works, sacred and otherwise, have said that the listener is struck by a transparency of sound, a simplicity that exists inside complexity, and a sparkling clarity of parts.” After being raised a Lutheran in Minnesota, in the ’90s Dick converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. If you’ve not yet heard his music, a great window in would be to start with his Responsoria, his Flute Concerto, and/or his Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ.

Mere weeks before he passed away, Dick wrote an e-mail to a group of former students, telling us of his terminal cancer and how proud he was to have been able to teach us. Since his death last month, I’ve re-read the full contents of my “RT” e-mail folder. We began e-mailing in the fall of 1998, after my three years of master’s degree study with Dick ended and I had moved to Ann Arbor for the downbeat of my DMA at U-M. RT’s folder spans 16 years of correspondence, and I share his words in excerpts from his e-mails (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind), to best illuminate how he was as a teacher.

As in his music, Dick embraced the challenges of teaching with his simplicity inside complexity. He had an indelible ability to be engaging, stringent, rigorous, and nurturing all at once.

Congrats on your entrance exams – that’s no mean feat, and you should be proud of what you did. But don’t overload yourself – save plenty of time to think and to write. Just remember that the first two bars always have to be something folks would go across the street twice to hear! I’m sure that once you find your sea-legs you’ll do splendidly.

Dick taught like he wrote music, with a stunning patience. Lessons were calm, slow. He looked only at the score and never touched the piano. With his patience and diligence he heard every note he saw.

Glad to hear that things are going well with you and Albright – but again, remember; take your time, the oak doesn’t grow as fast as the squash.

I’ve learned the absolute necessity of taking time thru the composing of Orthodox liturgical music – since everything one writes in that genre is intended to be sung forever (well, at least for a millennium or so) the music has to absolutely sound well and wear like iron – a far cry from the Western idea of “write it, perform it, and if it’s no good, throw it away.” I just revised the second half of my Cherubic Hymn this a.m., and now am letting it sit and cook for at least a year (with numerous revisitings, tinkerings, tweakings, etc. along the way.)

Dick had a staggeringly dry wit. He often imparted compositional wisdom via exaggerated impersonations of his own U-M mentors Ross Lee Finney and Leslie Bassett, and/or his tried-and-true Minnesotan Ole & Lena jokes. In re-reading his e-mails I was reminded, too, of how often he’d dapple in delicious nuggets like so:

Did you read that Frankie Yankovic died? He, along with Whoopee John, was the King of the Polka Bands. If you can find a Yankovic record, get it – it’s SO bad that it’s actually good – the ultimate low-brow high camp – and makes Lauren Swelk* look like the Hollywood cheese that he really was.

         (* A pun or a dig or a ridiculous misspelling was RT’s way.)

In his diligence and dedication to his art, Dick believed all one needs is faith in one’s process and faith in one’s self – simply stay at it, it’ll come. He signed off most emails with a variance of “just keep writing beautiful notes, and you’ll be just fine – RT” or, my favorite, “write thousands of good notes – RT.”

Sounds like you’ve got a full plate, all right. Well, welcome to graduate skule, Michigan-style. Not only will you survive, you’ll thrive, if I know you. A propos of your pno. piece – just keep slugging away, and remember to compose every day, even if only for a little while.

Expect that your first effort there, in a new and demanding environment, will be like your first effort here (remember how long it took to do that little piece for clarinet, vibe, and bass, and how dissatisfied you were by the end of the year when you heard it?). But that was an important first step – what you are writing now is likewise. So keep your powder dry and keep on firing.

One thing you might try to maintain is continuity: at the end of each composing session write out in longhand for yourself exactly where you are in the piece, what you need to do next, what problems you need to solve, etc., etc. Then when you next get back to your work, read what you had written – it’ll help focus your mind. Another trick that I often use when I get stuck is to “unravel” a bit of the piece – i.e. to take a clean piece of paper and simply re-write the last phrase or so as a way to get the wheels rolling; usually you can move forward then.

Dick spoke of feeling musically rejuvenated when he converted to the Orthodox Church. This faith and its community seemed perfectly suited to his mind and musical aesthetic. He didn’t over-speak about how his church informed his life; yet it was clear his was a deep, poignant faith with which he engaged passionately.

The Orthodox are strict about what they will allow to be sung in the Liturgy – it has to be “orthodox music” (which is one of those things that no-one can quite define, but, as Fr. S. says, “I know it when I hear it.” Quite different from my good ol’ lax Lutheran days, when anything I wrote “went.” But in Orthodoxy one is writing music that the church will use potentially from now unto ages of ages, amen, so one has to take time and really do it right. It’s a good spiritual discipline – keeps one humble.)

Dick really knew repertoire. He believed in and demanded exacting, hard-core score study. He also loved to lunch and rep-talk. He adored melody; his own music is plushly drenched in it. At the same time, Dick was also all about harmony, harmony, harmony, in every sense of the word.

I finally got this new piece off the ground (barely) this a.m. – I’ve decided to do it the old-fashioned way – lots of hard work, hand-crafting each spectacular sound (and all that jazz).

About the (two pieces) you sent: I was very impressed and pleased by the increasing sophistication of texture and gesture in both pieces – they mark a huge step forward for you in that regard (remember the piece for clarinet, vibraphone, and double bass only a few years ago?); I’ll be eager to hear where you go next, and most interested to see where it all ends up. The only thing that gave me pause a little was what I heard as a kind of static harmonic rhythm which seems at odds with the sophistication in other areas. I’m certainly no foe of slow harmonic rhythm (as you know), but I had the sense that harmonic movement was something which wasn’t a principal concern in either piece. As you continue, you may want to try working out a tentative harmonic rhythm plan beforehand, so that the piece has a harmonic shape which is totally under your control; I’ve found that harmonic movement (or the lack of it) is such a powerful expressive tool; I think you will too.

Re-reading his e-mails has been like patching together a massive memories-montage of my formative years in Dick’s studio, even before we wrote to one another. He is responsible for my love of Stravinsky’s music. When he heard I was to play Piano IV in Les Noces at CU, Dick said, “Goodness. Well. Excellent! We must take time in your lessons this term to analyze that one to death.” He frequently pointed to Stravinsky’s scores as good go-to’s for help, particularly with proportioning contrasting sections and economy of musical materials.

I was surprised (and pleased) to find you writing in as diatonic an idiom as you did; somehow I had expected something more chromatic. A couple of points to ponder: 1. Do you need the winds? In the main, they didn’t seem to be doing that much that was significant. 2. You need to have some larger sections of the work that are simpler, more melodic, and more transparently scored to balance the sections that are more dense – it seems to me that your writing is generated more harmonically than melodically, and you may want to re-consider that for future works. But these are small cavils in what is a huge achievement – buy yourself some roses!

Dick’s manner was like a perfectly constructed song about being comfortable in one’s skin. He wrote a large collection of solo and choral vocal music; it all sings exquisitely. He talked about “screaming quietly,” or “loudly whispering” – which is how he taught. As in his music, Dick taught steadily, steadfastly, unwavering, with kindness and precision. He believed that our lives sing. That our music is not simply a 19th-century romantic notion in which the notes are “tied to life”; rather, our music is life, and that tones are “simply beautiful in themselves.”

Finney once said to me, “You don’t like melody much, do you?” (Obviously that’s not true now.) In the piece you sent most recently, melodies, when they occur, are some of the most fetching and expressive parts of the music – make more of them! They’re what connect with a general audience, and show that you have a heart, as well as technique.

As the years drew on, our correspondence became less about the nuts and bolts of composing, and more about our general lives. Dick shared updates about his kids and his cats, he spoke of his beloved wife Carol’s goings-on, his students, etc. His obituary states his fondness for gardening, “with a special weakness for irises.” From the last e-mail I received before his death, which was so sweetly him:

To contemplate the end of one’s life is quite an experience! But I’m thankful, at least, that I have both the time and (still) the mental capacity to actually do that contemplation, and my Orthodox faith makes it both a time of sadness for what will soon be lost, and joy, for what will soon be gained. I look forward to the future (for myself) with hope and confidence, though I will miss Carol more than I can possibly ever say. But some day even that pain will be erased. So – we go forward.

Dick Toensing gave us some of the most gorgeous music on this earth. Equally important, the distinguishedness of the sheer volume of wisdom he imparted to his students is immeasurable. He was an ever-optimist, an ever-realist, and never a downer. Yes, he could see through the bull-hooey quicker than most and didn’t hesitate to politely call it out. His career was like the slow-growing oak, and as an artist, teacher, and human he expressed himself clearly, gently, with respect and compassion. Then, for example, when a former student sent a quick note from NYC saying she had a job offer from his shared alma mater, his words sang:

WUNNERFUL! WUNNERFUL! HIGH CONGRATULATIONS – THAT’S ABSOLUTELY GREAT! BRAVO FOR YOU! (I assume you’ll take it….) It’s 10:20 in the evening out there, or I’d call you and gush all over the place, but I will save that for another day and time. I can’t tell you how proud of you I am, and how pleased for you. I know that you’ll make the most of it.

One word of advice: don’t bring out that little piece for vibraphone, etc.

As always, for the loving advice Dick, thank you.

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