Robert Stern, 84, of Amherst, composer and professor emeritus of music theory and composition, died Aug. 29.
Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1934, he developed an early love of music when his mother brought him to classical music concerts, and his musical talent was recognized during his elementary school years.
He received bachelor degrees from both the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester, after which he entered the Army and was assigned to the award-winning Third Army Band as a music arranger. He loved playing piano with his combo, the “Mood Masters,” at officers’ club and bars.
Upon discharge from the army, he attended UCLA to study with Lukas Foss, whose music he had found compelling and who remained an important mentor. Stern returned to Eastman for his Ph.D. in composition.
Stern was recruited to teach composition and theory in the department of music and dance at UMass Amherst in 1964 by then-department chair Philip Bezanson, and he remained with the department until his retirement in 2002. Over the years, he delighted in making music with and writing music for his many close colleagues.
In February, the department honored him with a special performance, during which he was lauded by friends and colleagues as a brilliant educator, composer, and “the personification of sensitivity and respectfulness.”
Stern’s music has been performed throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, China, South America, Japan and Israel by such prominent ensembles and artists as the Beaux Arts String Quartet, Collage, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Contemporary Chamber Players at the University of Chicago, the Eastman Musica Nova, Yehudi Wyner, Joel Smirnoff, Gilbert Kalish, Marni Nixon, Jan Opalach, Joel Krosnick and the Gregg Smith Singers.
During his 38 years with the department of music and dance, Stern was the recipient of numerous grants, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities and the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund. He was awarded fellowships from the MacDowell, Millay, and Yaddo Colonies, and awards from ASCAP and the Premio Musicale Citta di Trieste International Competition.
He received commissions from the Library of Congress McKim Fund, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Manchester International Cello Festival, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His works have been recorded on many labels and published by G. Schirmer, Rinaldo Music Press, and Transcontinental Music.
In 1990 he was recognized by UMass Amherst with the award of the Faculty Fellowship.
He became involved in the exciting new field of electronic music and the experiment of Hampshire College as a visiting professor of electronic music there in that college’s early years.
The 1962 publication of “I never Saw another Butterfly,” children’s poems and drawings from the Terezin ghetto, moved him tremendously, and he developed a deep interest in the artistic expression that emerged from Terezin, from the concentration camps, and in the ability of artists worldwide to create art while living in dire circumstances. He visited Terezin and met some of the then-adult surviving authors of those poems. Many of his compositional works from that time forward were responses to the Nazi Holocaust, and as the years went by, with the growing evidence that “Never Again” was a hollow cry.
Ten years later, he completed the oratorio, “Shofar,” working with Amherst writer Catherine Madsen, who wrote what he considered a “stirring and heartbreaking” libretto. “Shofar” explores the relationship between God and humankind through the biblical experience at Sinai and the four shofar calls used during the Jewish Days of Awe. The shofar calls represent wholeness, brokenness, devastation, and finally a return to wholeness. Ultimately, the oratorio finds, of the relationship of humankind and God:
“each craved a kinder lover,
we only have each other,
we make the world together,
there is no other labor.”
Stern is survived by his wife Judith, son Aaron and his stepchildren, Noah (Catherine Popper), Rachael (Al Weisz) and Seth Eckhouse (Catherine),
A memorial service will be held Monday, Sept. 3 at 1 p.m. at the Jewish Community of Amherst on, 742 Main St. Gathering for shiva minyans will be 7-9 p.m. on Sept. 3 and 4.