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Robert Ward

By Samuel Adler

In 2011 when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Bob Ward its highest opera honor it cited “his commitment and concern for social and political issues of his times as well as his interpretation of American idealism.”

Robert Ward, born in Cleveland, OH in 1916, died in Durham, NC this year at the age of 95, was called the “American Opera Man”, or “America’s Grand Old Man of Opera”—I would like to amend those titles and call him one of America’s greatest citizens devoted to the arts.

I had the pleasure and privilege to serve with Bob on several important arts boards. We served together on a panel of the National Endowment, the Ford Foundation Contemporary Music Project, the Rockefeller Fund for Music, and several others. I was always struck by his very cogent and passionate suggestions and his insistence that the highest possible standards be preserved in any artistic undertaking. He was always civic minded and wanted to help raise the artistic standards and consciousness of our general population.

This was also the reason that he was so proactive in the arts education, especially music education on every level. After serving in the U.S Army as a band master during World War II, he returned to New York City to complete his education at the Juilliard School, but also took courses in English, Philosophy, and World Religion at Columbia University. This led to teaching positions at Columbia as well as Queens College and the Juilliard School. I think Robert Ward lived the busiest and most creative life any person could live since he was never satisfied with just a teaching job even at three leading schools, but took on the position of editor for the classical music division of Galaxy Music Publishers.

Yet composition was of course his main life-long focus and he was extremely successful pursuing his ambitions.

I remember an interesting session he conducted with our composition students at the Eastman School on the occasion of a performance of his opera The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play with a libretto by Bernard Stambler. He was always very loyal to the Eastman School from which he had graduated in 1939 and thrilled to be back for the performance of his opera. The composition students were of course very interested in Bob’s career especially in the great success of this opera that had garnered the 1962 Pulitzer Prize as well as the New York Critics Circle Award that same year. One of the students asked him towards the end of the discussion how he felt about possibly only being remembered in music history for one work. He answered beautifully with a smile: “I think it is better to be remembered for one work than for none at all.” I hope that taught that smart-alecky student a lesson!

However the intimation of The Crucible being an overarching force in Robert Ward’s life was indeed a fact. In his long and most distinguished career, he wrote seven operas, nine symphonies, many other orchestral works, as well as band pieces, choral works, much chamber music, songs, and some works specifically to be performed by children. When asked once why The Crucible was such a success and perhaps the most performed American opera both here and abroad, he speculated, “It has staying power. It keeps being produced now all over the world in Japanese, German, Italian, French, etc… I think it is the political power thing which it holds for in many countries in the world at this point mirroring the McCarthy anti-Communist craze that still haunts us. So I am very happy about its popularity because the terrific story which Arthur Miller tells so successfully was what attracted me to the subject in the first place.”

Ward, throughout his life was in the forefront of the fight to have more contemporary opera presented by the opera companies of America. When The Crucible was first performed by the New York City Opera there were really only four opera companies in this country, and for the most part they presented only the standard opera repertoire. By the time many of Bob’s other operas had been written, opera companies sprang up in many of the major cities of our country. Many of these commissioned operas to be presented by them yet none of these companies were committed to doing second performances or exchanging new operas. Bob through the American Opera Project convinced quite a few of the opera companies outside of the Metropolitan to reexamine the huge volume of operas created in America and give further performances of the most deserving works. His work along these lines has born fruit and the American opera world has been greatly enriched in this manner by his untiring efforts.

Besides his huge compositional output and his many other duties as editor and conductor, Robert Ward was also most concerned about being a teacher. He became an educator par excellence. After his move to North Carolina, he became the chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts from 1967 to 1974 and raised the standards of this school to become one of the finest training grounds for both high school as well as collegiate music, art, and dance students. After he resigned the presidency of that school, he accepted positions at the University of North Carolina and then chaired a university professorship at Duke University which he kept until his retirement in 1989.

Our fellow Academy colleague Stephen Jaffe in his recollection of Robert Ward said of him: “As a teacher and mentor, Bob will remembered for being something of a populist for his period. He was also a wonderfully supportive presence in the community. His music would have been enough to remember him by, but he was also deeply devoted to music education. If a student was performing a piece of his, Bob would love to come and hear this. I saw this kind of concern over and over again.”

Robert Ward had five children with his beloved wife whom he married while serving in the army in Hawaii in 1944. One of his sons, Mark Ward, when interviewed by Public Radio said of his father: “He was a great father because he made it possible for us to follow our dreams.”

This is the way Bob treated his students, letting them flower and express themselves on their own, encouraging them in every way along their journey. That is the reason he had hundreds of devoted students and admirers.

We remember him today for his wide and excellent musical output and also as a man who treated his fellow citizens and colleagues with the greatest respect and love which will be a tremendous legacy remembered for as long as music and the arts thrive in our country.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters