108. Back to School

The four years I was in the Air Force Band were also the four years that I was a student at the Catholic University of America, although for the purpose of these recollections I treat these two occupations in separate discussions.

Why Catholic University? In 1959, in the immediate vicinity of Washinton D.C., were several outstanding universities, among them Georgetown and George Washington University. After graduating from the University of Michigan I had the strong desire to do graduate work in the areas I felt I remained deficient in my education—music history and theory—and Catholic University was the only local university where I could do this. I had visited the nearby University of Maryland, for example, a fine school, before making my decision, but they offered only graduate study in music education. At Catholic University I was able to make Music History my Major, with Music Theory my first Minor and Drama Criticism (a history of the historical development of drama) as my second Minor.

The Air Force paid about one fourth of the costs for educational purposes, but it was still not easy on my military pay to meet tuition costs plus the cost of driving across Washington. At the beginning of each semester I would go to the credit union and borrow the money for the coming semester’s tuition, then every two weeks, when we were paid, pay back some of the debt at the credit union. I would always just get it paid back in time to repeat this cycle thirteen times! On one occasion, on the day before payday, when I needed to drive to Catholic University and my little VW was out of gas except for the special extra tank which held about a gallon, I reasoned I could make the trip and back if I had 5 cents worth of additional gasoline. Today you could not even stop the pump that fast!

Catholic University at this time was only a graduate school, with no undergraduate programs, and had a good national reputation in Musicology. This was due, first and foremost, to having an excellent faculty, led by the Dean, Dr. John Paul, a man who got things done! John Paul was an amazing administrator who created an environment where rules and restrictions could be set aside in order to accomplish what the student wanted or needed, not to mention financial support. An example of his objective mind: Catholic University was a school which instead of having set semester fees, had individual fees for everything. When I had finished all the requirements for a Master’s degree I found that at that moment I could not afford the fee for a diploma. When I consulted with John Paul he said simply, “Forget it and go ahead and get the Ph.D. No one will ever ask if you have a Master’s degree!” And no one has ever asked.

Dr. Allen M. Garrett, the major musicology professor was a graduate of the University of North Carolina. He had a good broad knowledge of music history and was always friendly and helpful. Catholic University, in ancient university tradition, had frequent occasions when the faculty in full regalia marched across campus. Garret, though a tenured professor, was not allowed to march with the rest of the faculty because he was a Southern Baptist and not a member of the Catholic Church. He felt very hurt by this.

Dr. George Thaddeus Jones was certainly one of the strongest professors of music theory in the nation. He was very thorough and tough. You could not feel comfortable about your degree if you had avoided Jones. I studied privately with him and it was most interesting. He would say, “Next week bring in any score of Beethoven.” When I arrived for a lesson we would sit at the piano, he would open whatever score I brought at random and then discuss in detail everything one could see on that page. Aside from studying theory at this functional level, it made the point that music theory only really exists in the practice of writing music, not as some academic subject.

The most remarkable professor I ever had was Russell Woolen (1923–1994), with whom I studied medieval music and early notation. He was well-known as a composer and for years was the keyboard player with the National Symphony. His teaching career spanned nearly fifty years, most notably at Catholic University where he helped found the Music Department in 1950. He received his M.A. in music from Harvard University where he studied with Walter Piston. Private composition studies included work with Nicholas Nabokov at the Peabody Conservatory and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His study of Gregorian chant and organ took him to the Pius X School of Liturgical Music in New York and the Abbey of Solesmes in France. During the summers of 1943–47, he resided with the Trapp Family Singers (of the famous Sound of Music movie) as performer and private tutor to the children!

In 1947, Russell Woollen was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and in 1949, he assumed responsibility for all liturgical music at Catholic University where in the same year he received a master’s degree in Romance languages. Something happened in 1962 which was never explained to the students. In the middle of a semester the Dean entered the classroom, declared that Rev. Woolen had become incapacitated, this class was now concluded for the semester and that we would all receive a “B” on our transcript. I had just turned in the best graduate term paper I ever wrote, on the isometric construction in the music of Dufay, and to my disappointment not only did I never have Woollen’s comments but I never saw the paper again!

Leaving the priesthood and Catholic University in 1962, Woollen taught privately in the Washington, D.C. area, where he had made his home since 1946, and eventually joined the faculty of Howard University.

Woollen, who traveled widely, when once in Bolivia met my wife’s mother, who was a concert pianist. Following her wish that Giselle could study abroad, it was Father Woollen who arranged for Giselle to come to Washington and become a piano student at Catholic University. Giselle began as a first semester graduate student who spoke no English! That was not an easy semester, but her high intelligence and gift for languages soon bridged that gap and she received her BM in Music in 1963.

To return to the question, Why Catholic University?, one must mention the high level of graduate students. Because the national draft was still in place in 1959, many fine graduates from top universities had joined the Washington military bands and, like myself, wanted to take additional courses on the side. The Music Department at Catholic University was observant and clever enough to schedule its graduate classes in the afternoons, evenings and week-ends to accommodate these outstanding students.

In addition there were the Nuns, women who had been assigned for life in some parish somewhere and whose opportunity to do graduate study allowed them to escape temporarily to a new environment. They had the pressure to do well to maintain their residence and in addition they had to compete with Nuns of other Orders. So they came to each class with their notes from the previous class typed and organized and they tended to make audible nasty sounds if any of the rest of us made some mistake in class.

Catholic University was in many ways a very old fashioned university, that is they maintained some traditions long after other American universities had abandoned them. For example, up through the class before mine, following a nineteenth century tradition in which the publication of a book automatically resulted in one being called “doctor,” all dissertations had to actually be commercially published! Students before me had to pay some small publisher in Arizona a tremendous amount of money to publish the 200 copies of their dissertation required by the university. Then the students would spend the rest of their lives giving these books away, because in general no one ever reads a dissertation. It was an unexpected and tremendous last minute relief to learn that I would not be required to do this! Now only one single perfect copy had to be produced (on a typewriter before the age of personal computers!). When mine was finally accepted I found that I was not allowed to turn it in until after the final oral examination. Meanwhile I had to go to my first job in Montana and I was deathly afraid of what to do with this one very valuable copy during this interval. So I resolved this by going to the bank I had used during the past four years, filled out a deposit slip which read, “one dissertation” and asked to deposit it in the bank vault! The bank teller at the counter was at a loss what to do, but the bank manager concluded, “why not,” allowing me to leave Washington in peace.

Another unique requirement followed the old tradition of posting public announcements of proposed marriages, to see if anyone objected. Thus it happened that before I was at last awarded a doctoral degree, the university published a four page booklet consisting of my biography, the courses I had taken and a brief description of my dissertation which they then mailed to other universities throughout the nation to see if anyone objected to my receiving a doctoral degree! Of course young people like myself were completely unknown by anyone in other universities, but you can imagine the tension while we waited for weeks to hear if there were any objections!

And then there was the very formal final oral examination. Gathered together with the candidate was one’s major professors, a professor from outside the music department and an official time keeper, with a large bell!

The candidate could be asked any question from any period of music history. Each question and answer was limited to three minutes. If a question had been asked and the candidate had begun to answer but the time exceeded three minutes, the bell was rung and the candidate did not have to even finish the sentence! And when a difficult question was asked, one was allowed to think for a bit before beginning to answer (taking as much time out of the three minutes as possible!). All this with very serious faces and one had no idea on earth how well one had done in answering these questions until suddenly the moderator stood and said, “Congratulations, Doctor Whitwell!”

I might mention another unique tradition regarding the commencement ceremony. After the moment when the award of the degree was made, the new doctoral students walked up to the stage and sat with the faculty!

Regarding my own program, another ancient standard was that the dissertation had to present some new thought or fact to mankind, you could not just restudy some question or subject. Here the close proximity of the Library of Congress was very helpful, where one sat day after day looking for something which had never been studied. I, for example, looked at the usual “Life and Works” of some forgotten composers from the past and someone had suggested that a study of the church cantatas of Gounod had never been published. These would have worked but I could not imagine spending an entire year of my life studying such topics. In the end, I recalled a book of scores I bought in Japan in 1960 labeled “48 Symphonies of Mozart.” Since everyone knew the final symphony was Nr. 41, this book which included some that had been newly discovered allowed me to make my topic “The Early Symphonies of Mozart.” The great value of this study for me, by the way, was not so much in the study of these early works themselves but in the study in general of this period in which the sonata form was first being developed, together with a study of the changes as the Baroque Period became the Classical Period.

Also I should mention, again with respect of the seriousness of everything at Catholic University, when a topic had been found the major professor in person, not the student, had to defend this topic and its importance to the world in public before a large group of general faculty members and answer any questions. One can see consequently how careful the major professor would be in accepting any idea the student had for a topic!

Despite the hectic schedule of being full-time military and at that same time virtually full-time graduate student, I look back on these four years as having been the most pleasant of my life. This was due in part by having a great roommate most of this time, Erik Shaar, a cellist in the Air Force Orchestra who was also doing the same doctoral program and went on to become a college president. We took the same classes and always arranged for another student in those classes to mail us the class reading requirements while we were on tour so we could do that homework while on the bus.

ln addition, during the fourth year we both met our eventual wives, in my case Giselle Eckhardt, a piano major at Catholic University from South America who went on to become an authority on prenatal music, allowing us to enjoy many double dates and meals together. Erik’s girl, Jane Huber, was and is a very talented artist in oil painting. She was from a very small place in Pennsylvania called Chadds Ford, where her neighbor was a man whom many today would consider America’s greatest artist, Andrew Wyeth. Jane used to tell a story about a time when another neighbor, a farmer, had to use his tractor to pull Wyeth and his car out of a snow bank. In gratitude Wyeth each year sent the farmer a Christmas card. But the farmer was disappointed, observing that Wyeth must be cheap because instead of going to a Hallmark store and buying a nice Christmas card with a pretty picture for him, Wyeth drew his own! The poor farmer being unaware that a single card with an original drawing by Wyeth would be worth many thousands of dollars!