ICQ 2003/1

REPORT from Music


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 Fiedler.

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

ITHACAIthaca College HomeICQ HomeCollege Site IndexDirectoriesContacting the College

A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 25 April, 2003