Ed Swenson, a Modern Renaissance Man
Swenson at an 1850 piano by J. B. Streicher
Hundreds of alumni remember music history professor Edward Swenson's
affection and enthusiasm for many styles of music. What they may
not have realized is the breadth of Swenson's work: he's a trombonist,
singer, researcher, piano restorer, scholar, and professor.
Swenson began his music career as a trombonist,
performing with the Chicago Youth Orchestra. "They set a very high standard," he
recalls with pride. "I think it was better than many conservatory
orchestras of the time." In high school he belonged to the musicians'
union and was often called for professional gigs, sharing the stage
with more seasoned professionals.
Like all other juniors studying at the Oberlin
Conservatory of Music, Swenson went to Salzburg, Austria, for
the entire school
year to study at the Mozarteum. "It was a fascinating time to be
in Europe," he remembers. "An aura of the old world still lingered,
yet the culture was blossoming." Swenson decided he liked it enough
to return for graduate school, completing master's degrees in both
trombone and music history. He also performed on trombone with
Salzburg's professional orchestra and the Oberlin orchestra --
including memorable concerts conducted by Igor Stravinsky and Arthur
In his final year at Oberlin, Swenson was inspired to sing during
an evening he remembers vividly. Famed Canadian soprano Lois Marshall
gave a recital of Schumann's Dichterliebe, and Swenson was
enthralled by how the language and music worked together. He resolved
to take up singing himself.
Swenson also became fascinated by piano technology during a course.
This led to a summer job maintaining pianos for Lyon and Healy.
He learned quite a lot on the job, and he has since tuned for pianists
such as Sviatoslav Richter and Ray Charles.
Graduate studies at the Mozarteum nurtured a growing interest
in Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart. Though the movie Amadeus,
which suggests a link between Mozart's death and Salieri, was still
years from being released, Swenson was intrigued by this (now debunked)
theory. Swenson also found much to admire in the often-maligned
music of Salieri, and he would later write his thesis at Cornell
University on the composer's life.
Swenson arrived in Ithaca to work on his Ph.D. with the legendary
musicologists at Cornell. He was the last student to complete a
degree with Donald J. Grout, whose History of Western Music has
become familiar to music students everywhere. While Swenson was
translating the libretto of an Italian opera, he sought help from
an Italian student named Maria, who was studying at Cornell on
a Ford Foundation grant. They were married a year later. She has
taught Italian at Cornell for the last 20 years.
Swenson joined the IC faculty in 1970. On top of teaching a full
course load, he studied voice with the late Leslie Bennett, sang
with Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, and often performed solo roles
in oratorios. He took particular delight in the energy generated
by composer- conductor Karel Husa at performances of the Cayuga
Chamber Orchestra. Swenson tells of the time Husa gave him a rather
dramatic cue: the maestro misjudged the distance between himself
and Swenson, so the cue became a sharp smack on Swenson's forehead.
The first antique piano he acquired was by
pure chance. As a youthful musicologist Swenson was doing research
in an Austrian monastery
on the Inn River, hoping to find an undiscovered Mozart work lying
around. One day he heard the abbot tell the carpenter to throw
out a dilapidated old grand piano that was lying around. Swenson,
seeing on the piano the name of a builder famous for his work with
Beethoven, convinced the abbot to sell him the piano. Old pianos
that Swenson has restored are in major venues throughout the world,
including the Nippon Cultural Center in Tokyo, the Smithsonian
Institution, the Beethoven Center at California's San José State
University, and the Schubert Club Museum in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The highlight of Swenson's career at IC, he says, was the 1975
choral and orchestral performance of a mass believed to be an early
and previously unknown work by Joseph Haydn. Swenson had found
and edited the score. Soloists were baritone Angus Godwin; soprano
Sharon Abel Sweet, M.M. '78, who is now on the roster at the Metropolitan
Opera; and Swenson himself, singing tenor.
Still deeply involved in all of his varied
activities, Swenson managed to coordinate an event last year
that brought together
his interests in research, piano restoration, and singing. Billed
as "Three Pianos and a Tenor," Swenson sang various lieder accompanied
by three different pianos he had restored.
Swenson speaks of his decades at Ithaca College
with genuine affection. "The
recent addition to the music building has given us first-class
facilities. I can honestly say that this place runs like clockwork.
It's not like that everywhere -- we're all very lucky to be in
this well-organized and nurturing environment."
Photo by Bill Truslow