2001 Volume XXX, No. 2
Robert Starer, composer, author, and member of the music faculty at Brooklyn College from 1963 to 1991, died on 22 April. Highlights of his long career include ballet scores for Martha Graham; symphonic works performed by major orchestras under such conductors as Mitropoulos, Steinberg, Bernstein, and Mehta; a violin concerto written for and premiered by Itzhak Perlman; three operas, two on librettos by his long-time collaborator, the writer Gail Godwin; and an acclaimed memoir, Continuo: A Life in Music. Two Guggenheim Fellowships and an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters are among his many honors.
Brooklyn College, of course, took rightful pride in listing a person of such significant accomplishments and international reputation as a member of the faculty. But Robert also gave to the college in ways that did not bring him fame or prizes but that profoundly affected our department and the students and faculty with whom he worked. A number of his compositions were premiered by our ensembles and continue to be part of their regular repertory. Robert’s Invocation for Trumpet and Winds and his settings of Norman Rosten’s poem Brooklyn Bridge and Thomas Wolfe’s short story Only the Dead Know Brooklyn were performed at this year’s joint concert of the Conservatory Wind Ensemble and Choruses on 8 May.
Robert brought to his teaching a wide-ranging intellect and an unusual openness to new ideas. His presence on our faculty attracted many composition majors, but his approach to teaching theory through composing also encouraged students concentrating in performance and other areas of music to explore their creative potential. Student recitals could be surprising events, with contributions ranging from string quartets to rock ‘n’ roll. And although his own compositional activities were confined to instrumental and vocal media, he played a seminal role in establishing the college’s electronic music studio, now the Center for Computer Music, which for many years was the only such facility at a public college east of the Rocky Mountains. Robert was also committed to bringing music to general audiences. I recall him performing his piano miniatures, Sketches in Color, for hundreds of undergraduate music appreciation students, engaging them in a dialogue about the materials, structure, and expressive qualities of each piece. To commemorate Robert’s advocacy of bringing contemporary music to wide audiences, the Conservatory is planning to permanently endow an award he established two years ago for student performances of works by living composers.
I was a totally inexperienced graduate teaching fellow when I first met Robert, who had been sent by the chairman to observe me teaching an introduction to theory class. I don’t recall his comments except for one general, almost off-hand remark about being a teacher that made a tremendous impression at the time and has helped me in many situations over the years. He said, “I don’t believe in playing God.” To the world, Robert left a rich legacy of beautiful and moving music. Those of us to whom he was a friend and mentor will treasure his compassion and generosity, which inspire us to nurture and call upon the best in ourselves.