April 4, 2013

Composer, educator Robert Ward dies in Durham

Robert Ward, grand old man of American opera and a major figure in North Carolina music since the 1960s, died Wednesday at his apartment. He was 95.

Robert Ward, grand old man of American opera and a major figure in North Carolina music since the 1960s, has died.

Ward passed early Wednesday morning at his apartment in a Durham retirement home, after a period of failing health. He was 95 years old.

Ward remains best known for composing the music to the opera version of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962. He also wrote another seven operas, seven symphonies and numerous choral works and chamber-music pieces.

But composition was only half of Ward’s legacy. The other half was his contribution to music education, particularly in North Carolina. He moved to the state in 1967 to become chancellor of the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, playing a major role in establishing the school during his seven-year tenure.

In the mid-1970s, Ward came to Duke University to teach composition and helped build a formidable music department during his 10 years there. He was instrumental in hiring noted composers including professor Stephen Jaffe, now a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“Bob will be remembered for being something of a populist for his period,” said Jaffe. “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 playing a movement piece of his, Bob would love to come hear that. I saw that repeated over and over.”

Ward was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and had graduated from the Eastman School of Music and studied at Julliard when he joined the Army in 1942. Ward became director of the Army’s 7th Division Band, an experience he called “wonderful,” and finished two compositions while stationed in the Philippines.

It was during the war that he met his wife of 62 years, Mary, who was working for the Red Cross in Hawaii.

After the war, Ward resumed his studies and composing, striking Pulitzer gold with “The Crucible,” which used the 17th-century Salem witch trials as an allegory about McCarthy-era anti-communist paranoia. In addition to his Pulitzer, Ward also won a lifetime award from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Opera Honors in 2011. He was a major figure of 20th-century American music, peers with Aaron Copland and other compositional giants, and also one of the longest-lived of his generation, which he attributed to a combination of luck and staying “too busy to get sick.”

Ward’s health and memory began to decline only in the last year and a half, said his biographer, Robert Kolt.

“Bob was a remarkable person, never had any serious health problems. And his memory used to be phenomenal,” Kolt said. “But his decline was becoming obvious.”

Mary Ward died in 2006. After that, Ward stayed as active as he could and attended an N.C. Symphony performance of his “Jubilation Overture” this past February. But in recent years, Ward spent a lot more time on a history-writing project than music composition.

“I remember talking to him when he was about 92 and saying, ‘Dad, you’re not talking about any big projects anymore,’ ” remembered his daughter, Joanna Crecelius of Freeburg, Ill. “And he said, ‘I just found I don’t have the energy for that anymore.’ ”

Ward is survived by his five children. Crecelius said plans for a memorial service were incomplete Wednesday.

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