David S. Boe, Longtime Organ Professor and Dean of the Conservatory, Dies at 84

April 30, 2020

Erich Burnett

former professor and dean of the conservatory David S. Boe
Photo credit: courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Revered teacher and administrator remembered for his kindness, wisdom, and musicianship.

David S. Boe, a beloved professor of organ and the ninth dean of Oberlin Conservatory, died April 28 at Glenbrook Hospital near his home in Chicago from complications due to COVID-19. He was 84.

Boe enjoyed an Oberlin career that spanned an incredible 46 years, from 1962 to 2008. Deeply passionate about his teaching, he also excelled as an administrator, first as associate dean beginning in 1974 and eventually as dean of the conservatory from 1976 to 1990, in addition to interim periods in that role before and after.

Oberlin’s expansive, world-renowned collection of organs—more than 30 in all—and the conservatory’s famed emphasis on historical performance can be traced in part to Boe’s unwavering passion. His leadership, together with that of his Organ Department colleagues, resulted in the acquisition of Fairchild Chapel’s Mary McIntosh Bridge Memorial Organ (crafted by John Brombaugh, Opus 25) in 1981 and Finney Chapel’s Kay Africa Memorial Organ (C.B. Fisk, Opus 116), installed in 2001.

Under Boe’s leadership as dean, Oberlin underwent numerous transformations that expanded the scope and offerings of the conservatory in ways that are still richly felt today.

David S. Boe
photo courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Born in Duluth, Minnesota, to a Lutheran pastor and church choir director, David Boe relocated several times with his family before settling in Menomonie, Wisconsin, during his teen years. He began piano lessons at an early age but switched to organ by the start of high school—“Just in time for the church organist post to open up,” he told The Lorain Morning Journal in 1976.

Boe earned a bachelor of arts degree, graduating magna cum laude from St. Olaf College, and a master of music from Syracuse University, where he studied with Arthur Poister, a former longtime professor at Oberlin. On a Fulbright Fellowship, Boe continued his studies with Helmut Walcha at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt, Germany. There he met Sigrid North, who was also the child of a pastor. They were married in her father’s church before returning to America, where Boe began his teaching career at the University of Georgia.

The same year he arrived in Oberlin, Boe also assumed the role of organist and music director of First Lutheran Church in nearby Lorain, a position he held for more than four decades. The church, with Boe's guidance, commissioned the first major instrument crafted by now-legendary organ builder John Brombaugh in 1970.

Joyfully consumed by music even in his spare time, Boe once devoted some 600 hours to building a harpsichord, a model of a French Double he fashioned from birch, spruce, and mahogany. He once described his creation to The Morning Journal as “good, but not outstanding,” adding: “I learned from it, but no, I won’t try again.” Other notable forays into engineering and construction—to the delight of many in his family—included a homemade go-cart and Mini-max speedboat.

Boe’s ever-present humility was perhaps well suited to descriptions of his craftsmanship, but it far undersold his prowess at the keyboard. He was a celebrated organist who appeared in concert and on radio across Europe and the United States. A WindWerk Artists performer for many years, he recorded for the Gasparo and Veritas labels; he appeared on the 1982 recording The Organs of Oberlin (Gasparo), which served as a showcase for the college and conservatory’s magnificent collection of instruments as well as Boe's fellow organ faculty. He appeared in the 1987 documentary The Wind at One's Fingertips, which was broadcast nationwide on PBS.

“As a teacher, colleague, friend: These are the ways in which I knew David Boe, and all three are precious,” says William Porter ’68, a professor of organ at Oberlin from 1974 to 1986. “In all of these, he was a remarkable human being: quiet, reflective, compassionate, understanding, deep in his thoughts, loyal in his commitments, and unfailingly trustworthy. He was truly a gentle man."

For generations of Oberlin students, Boe’s virtuosity paired seamlessly with his kind and patient nature. Over the course of his career, he taught hundreds of young organists and harpsichordists, many of whom went on to become top performers and teachers as well.

One of his former students, David Kazimir ’99, now serves as curator of organs at Oberlin.

“David’s gentle spirit, thoughtful guidance as a teacher, and prodigious knowledge of the organ throughout time were a constant source of inspiration to me and countless others, as a student and beyond,” says Kazimir. “He taught me to think and act in life in ways that help make music serve the needs of the world.”

After serving for a year as associate dean under fellow teacher-turned-administrator Emil Danenberg, Boe ascended to the conservatory’s top job after Danenberg, a longtime professor of piano, was named president of Oberlin College in 1975. Boe’s promotion was eagerly endorsed by Danenberg and ultimately by the search committee as well.

Boe’s achievements as chief administrator were numerous and far-reaching. In his earliest years, he ushered in the study of ethnomusicology, expanding the scope of Oberlin’s teaching far beyond the bounds of Western music and foreshadowing an ever-evolving shift toward the study of world music in conservatories everywhere.

Fueled by the great success of the Baroque Performance Institute, the annual summer music festival founded at Oberlin in 1971, Boe spurred the development of a wide-ranging suite of summer programs designed for pre-college students as well as dedicated amateur performers. His vision gave rise to the summer programs of today, which host hundreds of musicians young and old on Oberlin’s campus from June through early August.

"David was a wonderful colleague and dean, and was the fairest and most clear-minded person I've ever met," says Lisa Goode Crawford, a professor of harpsichord at Oberlin from 1973 to 2006 and a longtime BPI faculty member.

Boe led the $1 million renovation of Warner Concert Hall, the stately venue at the heart of the conservatory that was constructed during his first year of teaching. He oversaw a $2 million expansion to the Conservatory Library, one of the most highly regarded music libraries in all of higher education, which today houses some 345,000 recordings, books, scores, and more.

In 1988, as decades-old tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union began to dissipate, Boe co-founded the American-Soviet Youth Orchestra, a joint initiative of Oberlin Conservatory and the Moscow State Conservatory—the first arts exchange produced jointly by two countries. The orchestra consisted of more than 100 U.S. and Soviet student musicians under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, Zubin Mehta, and other acclaimed conductors. It continued through 1991, with heralded performances in dozens of major cities and in countries throughout the world.

In 1989 the conservatory launched the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) Department, signaling the formal arrival of a program whose groundbreaking Oberlin roots can be traced to the mid-1960s. A sturdy supporter of the program, Boe had come to recognize that an increasing number of young musicians were turning to synthesizers to approximate the experience of playing gargantuan pipe organs; more than 30 years later, Oberlin’s TIMARA Department continues to be a leader in the creation of electronic music.

Beyond the construction projects and curricular innovations, Boe also fostered a conservatory culture in which faculty were encouraged for the first time to step away from their studios and pursue their own artistic pursuits, wherever those passions may take them.

David Boe at keyboard in Finney Chapel
courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Boe himself long knew the importance of breathing the air outside of Bibbins Hall. During sabbatical leaves in the 1960s and ’70s, he had undertaken studies in Europe, including lessons with Gustav Leonhardt, and conducted research on historic instruments and early keyboard temperaments with various organ builders and musicologists. In the early 1990s, he completed visiting professorships at Florida State University and the University of Notre Dame.

“When I came to Oberlin, the faculty did nothing but stay in Oberlin and teach,” Boe told The Plain Dealer in April 1990, as he prepared to step away from the dean’s office and back to full-time teaching. “We coddled the students. It was an ivory tower. Our faculty now has greater involvement with the outside world.”

A comfortable leader at the conservatory and elsewhere, Boe was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Pi Kappa Lambda, which he served as national president for a four-year term in the 1980s. He was also secretary of the National Association of Schools of Music from 1981 to 1987 and vice president of the American Organ Academy.

“At Oberlin I am so often and so easily reminded of David Boe’s remarkable legacy,” says Steven Plank, a longtime professor of musicology and a dear friend of the Boe family. “His early championing of the organ builder John Brombaugh helped the Oberlin Organ Department establish its signature historical niche, and his decades of teaching profoundly shaped an entire generation of players who lead the organ world today. They do that, in no little part, by carrying forth his quiet devotion to the task at hand, his embrace of historical practice, his sensitive musicality, his mastery of technique, and the deep joy he took in music.

“David’s years as dean were rich ones, marked at times by exciting new initiatives, but also by a quiet and confident nurture of the school’s tradition. But above all, he was also always a caring friend, whose advice was wise, whose door was open, and whose smile and quick laugh sustained the years with welcome grace.”

Boe stepped away from the conservatory in 2008; four years later, he relocated with his wife to Chicago to be closer to family. Since his retirement, Boe had valiantly battled with Parkinson’s disease. While limited in their ability to travel far from their new home, the Boes maintained connections with Oberlin through alumni and friends who came to Chicago.

In 2011 Oberlin Conservatory established the David S. Boe Chair in Organ Studies, the institution’s first endowed professorship named after a current or emeritus professor. It was made possible through a gift from Oberlin trustee Frederick R. Haas ’83 and the Wyncote Foundation.

Years earlier, Haas had studied under Boe, who worked with only one organ student at a time during the years he served as dean. Haas considered himself among the fortunate few.

“David’s teaching style was gentle and firmly based on sensitivity to historic playing practice and solid technique building,” he says. “I learned how to practice and how to build technique and play without stress or tension. Time with David in his studio was challenging in the best way, where I was pushed to be the best player I could be. I treasure the memories of my time with him.”

That same year witnessed the naming of the David and Sigrid Boe Organ at Peace Community Church in Oberlin.  The instrument, made possible by an anonymous gift to the conservatory, is a re-creation of an 18th-century organ by central German builder Gottfried Silbermann. It honors both Boe and his wife, the longtime Oberlin community activist and recipient of the 1994 Oberlin College Distinguished Community Service Award.

In February 2016, the Boes returned to campus for the dedication of the Brombaugh organ commissioned for their Oberlin home, which they had donated to Oberlin four years earlier. That instrument, named the David S. Boe Organ and installed at the front of Fairchild Chapel, was celebrated in a performance that included works by Bach, Eberlin, Weckmann, and others. Featured performers included a host of conservatory students and faculty, including Jonathan William Moyer—Oberlin’s David S. Boe Assistant Professor of Organ and chair of the Organ Department—at the keyboard.

It would be Boe’s final visit to Oberlin.

“I witnessed a brief exchange between Mr. Boe and John Brombaugh that I will always hold dear in my memory,” Moyer says of the organ dedication. “With the gleaming façade of Brombaugh's Opus 25 behind them, I saw John lovingly look David in the eye and remark with the sincerest tone in his voice and smile on his face: ‘You have done remarkable things in your life!’

“Indeed he has," Moyer adds. "Thank you, David Boe.”

Boe is survived by his wife; their son Eric and his wife Lisa; son Stephen and his wife Joo; granddaughters Sydney, Haley, Alexis, and Olivia; sisters Judith Boe and Carol Brann; and countless friends, former colleagues, and students.

In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to Oberlin College and Conservatory in memory of David Boe. Memorial celebrations will be announced at a later date.

Hear David Boe perform on the September 2001 dedication concert of Oberlin's C.B. Fisk organ in Finney Chapel, also broadcast on WCLV-FM radio in Cleveland:

Checks, designated in memory of David Boe in the memo line, should be made out to Oberlin College and sent to: Oberlin College, PO Box 72110, Cleveland OH 44192-0002.

To give online, please visit https://advance.oberlin.edu/donate and designate your donation as "David Boe Memorial Gift."

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