Remembering our colleague, Jim Chapman

Long-time Vermont conductor James Chapman passed away on February 8, 2011. A brief obituary appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 9. According to the paper, a complete obituary will appear later this spring with an announcement of a memorial gathering and celebration of Jim’s life.
An article appeared in the Free Press on February 10: UVM conductor, music professor Chapman dies.

Below are reflections and remembrances from Vermont American Choral Directors Association President Frank Whitcomb and others.

February 9, 2011

Dear Colleagues,

I suspect that by now many of you have heard the sad news that Dr. James G. Chapman passed away yesterday morning at the Vermont Respite House in Williston. Indeed, many of us studied, performed, rehearsed, laughed, danced and shared many experiences with this most wonderful and gracious human being, and I for one feel a sense of loss and deep sadness at his passing. 

I feel that a few words might be in order here, although many others could surely more completely fill out a life experience outline with “Jim.” I understand that tomorrows newspaper will have a complete obituary which we can all read. I first came to Burlington in 1978 (?), and Jim was one of the first professors that I took classes from in my short year completion of my undergraduate degree. But I remember him, tall and lean and thin, with abounding energy and limitless enthusiasm for the profession he represented. His knowledge of music history was extraordinary, his theory the same, and his ear was infallible. His ability to rehearse a choral ensemble with no piano and just a pitch pipe were legendary, and his ability to find the inner meaning of the literature he was rehearsing and performing was uncanny in his best years.

We all know that Jim founded the University of Vermont Choral Union, and it is my understanding that for many years this was “THE” choral ensemble to which all singers aspired to belong; the history of this ensemble was known throughout the state and beyond, and the list of music performed by this chorus was extensive and impressive. This was due largely in part to the extreme commitment of its’ founder and his insistence on pitch and note accuracy, rhythmic integrity, outstanding attention to intonation and an unrelenting work ethic on the podium that at all times was striving for perfection.

During the years I was in the University of Vermont Choral Union I was exposed to music of the highest quality and the most masterful of construction. I do not really know how to thank this man for what he did for me and many others through our work with him in the Choral Union; his attention, his mentoring, the discussions about music and music education, and a multitude of other topics too numerous to mention here. The exposure to a wealth of a cappella choral literature has been invaluable to me, but the Choral Union, years ago, was not known for JUST the music of this genre. Mozart’s “Requiem,” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mozart’s “Masses” and other extended works. The Bruckner “Motets,” the Durufle “Motets,” The Poulenc “Motets,” the Poulenc “Gloria'” the Bach “Motets,” Beethoven’s “9th Symphony,” the music of Palestrina, Dello Joio, Schumann, Ockeghem, Byrd, Gabrieli, Pinkham, Josquin, Morley and a multitude of single works by others! Without Jim attending to the matters of this community’s “taste” in choral music we might not have the kind of flourishing choral activity in this area that we have today. He was, indeed, a kind of pioneer in this respect. I remember, in particular, many inspiring performances of Randall Thompson’s “Peaceable Kingdom,” a work he seemed to love, stating that he thought it was one of the 20th centuries best a cappella compositions.

I also remember Jim as an organist, and in his best years he was quite extraordinary. I heard him play quite a bit in my early years in Burlington and found his playing informed and exciting. His involvement in the early years of the Mozart Festival were extremely important in the evolution of that Festival, and his nurturing of many of the solo voices that we recognize today and call on for our performances is well known. The Choral Union “dinners” during the Christmas season were extremely popular…what great fun those dinners were!

No need to go on, as I am sure you see and maybe already know about this impressive man. But maybe a few personal notes to end this? I have some great memories of Jim….I remember him rehearsing the Choral Union at St. Paul’s where he simply could NOT get the choir to do what he heard in his head. He was frustrated and simply let go with a barrage, and than had us all take a break while he stepped outside and smoked a pack of cigarettes (an exaggeration of sorts)!!! We all reassembled, and with no explanation or apology we continued rehearsal, on the same piece! We KNEW he felt badly, but we also sensed his intense commitment to the music and to the ensemble. Nothing needed to be said….we just understood. I also remember being astounded at an after concert get together somewhere, when he did the polka like no one I have ever seen!! What a pleasure to see this man, who was passionate beyond belief about his classical music making, to get up and dance the polka with the same enthusiasm and commitment and energy! I cherish that moment very much! I remember a private conversation with him where he let down his guard a little and told me that “if one could just get the notes right, and follow this wishes of the composer as expressed in the written music, that the meaning of the music would virtually jump off the page!” I have always remembered that………

I remember a loving, kind, compassionate man, at times graceful and elegant, modest and supportive of others efforts. Jim Chapman was, in retrospect, a good man. What greater compliment could one pay another?

Please feel free to share your thoughts over the next few days on this forum; it would be a wonderful thing to hear others thoughts and a great testament to Jim.

Most Sincerely,

Frank Whitcomb

3 thoughts

  1. I, too, have profound memories of Jim Chapman. I first met him when he arrived in Burlington when I was about 15 years old. He was the organist at the ‘old’ St. Paul’s Cathedral where he also had an apartment. (Many of you probably do not know that he barely escaped when the church burned down.) I sang in the church choir and learned my very earliest “conductor chops” from him. He was temperamental at times with this group of amateurs, which actually was a complement for he felt we were capable of much more. I remember a Sunday when I came in a beat early in our anthem – oh, if looks could kill! And, boy did he hate “vibratos!”

    It was Jim that reaffirmed my desire to be a choral music teacher. And, one of the greatest compliments I ever had was to be invited to sing in the Choral Union when I was sixteen. The experience of singing in this group was profound. His attention to detail, his knowledge of the score and his ability to make every piece a work of art was legendary. I credit Jim for much of what I still believe a choral director should possess.

    Jim was a close family friend, often coming to our house for dinner. We kept his organ in our living room. His son Chip was my brother Rick’s best friend and eventually they roomed together in college.

    Jim encouraged me to attend UVM as a music major. I remember taking his Music History course. He was a wonderful, knowledgeable teacher. And for those of you reading this who were in that class also, we did NOT fool around!

    The last time I saw Jim was last July at my brother Rick’s memorial service. It was wonderful for both me and my Mom to see such a dear family friend and mentor at a difficult time.

    Thanks for providing an opportunity to reminisce, Frank.

  2. Thank you, Frank for this opportunity to reflect on our individual and collective experiences with Dr. James Chapman. I am enclosing an excerpt from a letter I sent to Jim several years ago. It read:

    “When I was a junior in high school, I was selected to attend the Vermont All-State Music Festival to sing as a member of the chorus. On arriving at Edmunds Middle School, the group was introduced to our conductor, Dr. James G. Chapman from the University of Vermont. That was the beginning of a great musical experience that continued for me until this very day. I had not given much thought to my college plans until that point, and my experience at All-State that year with you as the conductor opened my eyes to a profession that looked exciting, creative, life-long, and entertaining for those who were the beneficiaries of our labors.

    While a senior at Burlington High School, I became president of the chorus and with that honor came the added work of helping to plan the annual choir exchange concert. That year, we were scheduled to exchange musical evenings with students from Warwick High School in Warwick, RI. I’m sure you must remember my frantic call to you on the day we were to leave, when our chorus director didn’t show at school and we were told we would not be able to make the trip without a conductor for the performance! When I called you and explained the situation, you graciously accepted the invitation to be our surrogate conductor and made the trip to Rhode Island, rehearsed with us there, directed the concert, and then promptly got back in your car, a VW Bug as I recall, to drive back to Burlington in order to be at St. Paul’s Cathedral the next morning to direct your choir in the service.

    When I started school at UVM in the fall of 1971, I decided that I was going to work to become a musician, and particularly a choral conductor like Dr. Chapman. I auditioned for the Choral Union and was accepted as a member and continued to embrace the musical teaching of my mentor first hand as a member of his chorus. During those years, I learned so much from you as an educator and choral conductor, and on occasion, I was pleased to be asked to assist you in some way by directing the Choral Union in rehearsal or concert. One of those concerts was at Trinity College where I met my wife, Lynn, who was a student there. We didn’t see each other again for a year or more but as you can see, it was the beginning of another wonderful relationship. I’m not sure if you were directly responsible for this meeting but it is one that was precipitated by my directing the Choral Union that evening.

    I remember attending Mass at St. Benoit du Lac in Quebec as a field trip for Music History class. I was mesmerized by the music of the Monks and the whole history of Gregorian chant as you taught it to us. It had such an impact on me that my seventh grade curriculum still includes a unit on Gregorian chant and I still use notes that I took in your class. I have even taken students to St. Benoit du Lac on numerous occasions myself, especially in my earlier years of teaching.”

    Jim Chapman was my mentor and I am proud to call him so. He instilled in me a love for the choral arts which has been an inspiration for me for many years. When Dr. Chapman retired from UVM, he continued for several years conducting the UVM Choral Union. When he decided to retire for good from that position, I had the fortunate opportunity to begin as their music director. Imagine that, following directly in the footsteps of my teacher, mentor, and friend. I was so excited and honored. I directed the Choral Union for five years until this past December. Although my work with them ended sooner than I expected, I continued the work begun long ago in high school of sharing my love of choral music with them. I shall forever be indebted to Dr. Chapman for his affect on my life. He will be missed but never forgotten. As the Gregorian chant of the monks at St. Benoit du Lac so beautifully states:

    In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

    May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.

    Gary A. Moreau – Past President
    Vermont Music Educator’s Association

  3. Jim Chapman was my mentor at Middlebury College in Vermont, 1959-63. I took his harmony class in my first year. I also began organ lessons with him, learning to play fairly well, and landing a job at the local Anglican church, playing the old tracker organ for $10 a Sunday. I studied organ with Jim all four years, plus many other things toward my BA in music. After graduating, I helped him with his NYU dissertation, taking turns singing parts while the other proofread, both of us – as I recall – smoking like chimneys. I learned a great deal from him about music, directing choirs, and of course, the organ. Like him, I disliked vibrato, and wanted no more than the tiniest bit of a retard at the end of a piece. On Sundays, he and I would take turns playing the organ and directing the choir. Well do I remember his training us with only a pitch pipe. I learned a great deal about choir-rehearsing from him, and put it to good use later. I switched from music to linguistics, under my wife’s influence, and because I felt I had a better chance at academic success with it than of landing a music teaching job. I preferred to remain a talented amateur, playing at friends’ weddings, etc. At my 1964 wedding in a private house, Jim stood atop the record player in order to prevent the playing of Here Comes the Bride, which we both detested. I lost track of him after that, only hearing through the grapevine that he had moved to UVM. I’m very glad to have made enough contact with UVM to learn of his career and life.
    Lastly, I’d like to point out that for the five years I knew him, when he was in his mid-thirties, I never saw him lose his temper with the choir or with anyone else, He was a wonderful mentor, teacher, and friend. Even after almost a half century, I miss him.

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