One of my favorite college professors, Dr. Warren Schmidt, died last week. I’m not really sad about it, because he lived a long, full life that was full of music. He was 89 years old.
I had Dr. Schmidt for music theory and ear training classes. He also taught organ, as well as serving as the college organist for worship services and the like. He was exactly what you would expect an old music professor to be like, in appearance and dress, and while he conducted classes at first in the same way, as you got to know him, he would gradually loosen up until you knew what everyone else who had already had him for class knew: that Dr. Schmidt was a terribly warm and compassionate man with a wickedly sharp sense of humor.
It’s hard to remember too many specific examples of things he said, this long after I studied with him. (I was a freshman twenty years ago, after all!) One time, we were analyzing a chord progression that he had written on the blackboard, when one of my classmates raised her hand and said that the progression employed parallel octaves. “Parallel octaves” are when two voices in a chord progression move in such a way that they stay one octave apart. It’s a “no-no” in music theory and composition circles, although I was never entirely clear on why. The problem with this particular example was that the two voices involved actually stayed on the same notes from one chord to the next. Dr. Schmidt pointed this out, and the girl argued the point, insisting that since it was a new chord and since those two voices had stayed on the same notes one octave apart, we were looking at parallel octaves. Finally Dr. Schmidt grinned and said, “But they don’t move! They stay right there! In the example, nothing is moving! These aren’t parallel octaves, they’re constipated octaves!”
One other time, I was walking past his office when he called me inside. I couldn’t fathom why, but in I went. Dr. Schmidt’s office was the “homiest” of all the offices in the music department, with its carpeted floors and book-lined walls and the fact that he always kept the blinds drawn and the ceiling lights off, preferring instead to light the place with a couple of regular old lamps that looked like they’d come from a living room in the 1950s. Well, anyway, I went in, and he handed me a piece of paper and asks me what I see on the front of it. It was the bulletin from the campus worship service the day before, and on the front was the usual church bulletin stuff, plus a little picture in the middle, which was a stylized picture of the head of Jesus, wearing a crown. I was puzzled, but then Dr. Schmidt said, “Look!” And he covered the face of Crowned Jesus with his finger, so only the outline was visible: an elongated, spikey-headed face. “It’s Bart Simpson! Ay caramba!” I laughed, more out of disbelief than anything else. Dr. Schmidt was up on The Simpsons. And at that time (fall of 1989 or spring of 1990), I wasn’t even up on The Simpsons — they were only just beginning to capture the pop cultural imagination of America, and my freshman year I didn’t have a teevee at school anyway.
Dr. Schmidt’s organ playing was something to behold. He was a big believer in the notion that if you have a big space to fill with sound, well then, you’d best be about the business of filling it. He’d play small and intimate organ works, but that’s not what everyone wanted to hear when he was at the controls. When he would accompany a hymn during a service, he would up the ante with each verse, until at the last, he wouldn’t just pull out all the stops (literally!), it was almost like he installed new stops just so he could pull those.
He was very good at improvising, too, which sometimes led to amusing results when he’d start improvising during the hymns at the services. Dr. Schmidt would cheerfully modulate into any key he wanted to, at any moment. A common question on the lips of Wartburg College music students after one of Dr. Schmidt’s hymns was, “What key was that in?”
When he announced his retirement in 1991, and then gave his final recital in the spring, every single music major was there. It was one of the most emotional musical events I’ve ever experienced, although I couldn’t tell you now what he played that night. He closed it out with one of his typically theatrical tour de force pieces, by which time everyone who knew this was his farewell recital was in tears. He gave a single encore (I think), and then, acknowledging the second ovation with a single nod, left the auditorium and didn’t return.
After his retirement, Dr. Schmidt did some touring and traveling before eventually settling into a retirement facility in Waverly (the town where Wartburg is located). I was, in all honesty, a little surprised that he had still been alive last week. He’d been a regular smoker, and could often be found on the front steps of the music building, indulging himself. Once I asked him why he still smoked, given what we now knew about the habit, and he just shrugged and said, “None of us are getting out of this world alive, right?” I thought his response cynically funny, and preferable to the possibly more appropriate response to the question posed by a know-it-all college student: “Mind your f***ing business, dumb-ass.”
I’ve been remembering other things about Dr. Schmidt: his neat and precise handwriting, which he kept aligned by writing along a straight-edge; this little ditty he would play in ear training classes when someone would fail to identify a perfect fourth (one of the most basic of all musical intervals); the day he suddenly broke off in the middle of a lecture because the musical example in the textbook was from Franck’s Symphony in D minor, which Dr. Schmidt especially loved and proceeded to tell us why; talking about professors with a couple of other music students and having one girl say, “Do you have any idea how good looking he must have been when he was our age?”
Farewell, Dr. Schmidt.