|Wilmer Welsh, Musical Heart of Davidson for Three Decades, Dies at Age 75
March 13, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
Wilmer H. Welsh, the embodiment of Davidson's music department for almost 30 years, died March 5 in Charleston, where he lived since 1994.
In Memoriam - Wilmer Welsh
Welsh was born in Cincinnati in 1932, but grew up from age 11 in Baltimore. He exhibited his lifelong dual love of literature and music early on. Before graduating from high school, he had secured his first organist/choir director position, won a citywide short story contest, and served as editor of his school paper.
He received a B.S. degree from The Johns Hopkins University, and B.M., M.M. and the Artist Diploma in Organ from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. In the next few years he studied with virtually every major American and European composer, including Henry Cowell, Jan Langlais, Nadia Boulanger, Paul Hindemith, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Giancarlo Menotti.
He became recognized in the press as a significant young composer. In 1954 a Washington Post review of his "Requiem" stated, "It has beauty and fresh ways with old materials. This composer, at age 22, makes us interested to hear his music in the years to come."
Welsh accepted a position at Winthrop College in 1959, and in 1963 joined the Davidson faculty. For the next 28 years that he served the college, he was a classroom teacher, played organ at all official college occasions, wrote more than 100 original compositions, and led the music program at Davidson College Presbyterian Church. He was devoted to exposing students to the full scope of music scholarship, and ended up creating and teaching many new courses for the department. In some semesters he taught up to eight courses, in addition to supervising some independent study projects.
His dedication and leadership of the music program led the college to award him the Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1976.
Though teaching limited his compositional output, he believed that music should be central to liberal learning, and lobbied determinedly to gain respect for fine arts in the Davidson curriculum. He received several offers to work elsewhere, including as music director at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, but he remained at the college because of his conviction that music should be central in liberal learning.
|Welsh played organ on all official college occasions, such as Commencement and Convocations.|
While he wrote in the contemporary language of his time, he was always mindful of the abilities of his performers and the sensibilities of his audiences. Most of his works were targeted specifically to the musicians who were to perform them. He wrote a Christmas opera, "Please Get Out of the Way While We Rehearse," to feature some of the strongest amateur singers from the faculty and staff. His second symphony, subtitled "Davidson College," was premiered by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of Davidson's Sesquicentennial, and offered a moving series of musical statements about life in the community.
His contributions at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church were a natural extension of his college activities. Almost all of his sacred music was inspired by Biblical characters, including Jonah, Eve, Moses and Judas. He treated the Davidson College Presbyterian Church chorus like a professional ensemble, and challenged them to perform complex cantatas and oratorios he wrote. His organ music had a similar religious connection to his choral works. His "Sonata for Organ, No. 2: Isaiah the Prophet"was premiered at the dedicatory recital of the new 3,576-pipe organ that he designed for the church.
He loved art as much as music and literature. He acquired a collection of more than 60 pieces of African art, and in 1991 loaned half of them for display at the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte. He hoped the collection would promote greater understanding between races, explaining, "I want to take it to children, black and white, and show them what these people have done. I've worked to understand the culture and people that created this art and want to pass that on."
|His outstanding collection of African art was displayed in 1991 at the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte.|
Welsh began to suffer increasingly painful tinnitus, and he elected to retire from the college in 1991 at age 58. He moved to Charleston in 1994. He became a dedicated supporter of that city's Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture, and The Gibbes Museum of Art. He also cultivated an expertise in the early music of South American Indian culture and Spanish organ music.
In a tribute upon his retirement, Millner Professor of Music Bill Lawing stated, "Most of all, I admire your courage. You have brought this department back into the center of the college. More important, you have deeply affected this entire community through your convictions."
Last year the college created an annual student prize named in Welsh's honor for excellence in musical composition.
He is survived by a sister, Margaret Welsh Blount of Towson, Md.; two sons, Benjamin H. Welsh of Keuka Park, N.Y., and Stephen A. Welsh of Havertown, Pa.; and six grandchildren. He leaves behind his partner of many years, Ralph Blakely '67.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz