Robert De Cormier, a composer, musician and prolific arranger of choral music, passed away Tuesday at the age of 95.
For well over half a century, De Cormier’s presence in the world of classical and folk music has been felt, around the world and at home in Vermont. A graduate of Juilliard, De Cormier straddled classical and folk music, often bringing the two together in new and unexpected ways.
De Cormier was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1922. According to De Cormier, his musical journey began at age seven:
“I wanted a trombone but it was a little big for me and my parents finally got me a trumpet. I have no idea why,” he told VPR in a 2002 interview. “Music is that kind of thing which has the strange effect on people.”
De Cormier stuck with the trumpet through high school, and by college, he knew he wanted to study music. He spent two years at Colby College in Maine, then two semesters at the University of New Mexico before joining the army and fighting in World War II.
After he being wounded in the war, De Cormier was sent to a hospital on Staten Island. During his recovery, he heard of a chorus being formed in New York City by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a federation of labor unions. De Cormier decided to try out.
“I got into that chorus and I was very socially conscious at that point," De Cormier explained. "I was really concerned about the troubles of the world, as I’m still concerned about them. And was trying to make up my mind if I wanted to be a union organizer or a musician."
At the advice of the director of the CIO Chorus, De Cormier chose to go to the Juilliard School and study choral music. During his years there, he got his first job directing a chorus: The Jewish Young Folk Singers. With that group, De Cormier began arranging folk music for choruses.
“I was very interested in folk music, probably because of my interest in social causes,” he said. “I began to hang around with the folk music people in New York ... through the whole birth of the Weavers. [I] knew all those people very well and actual did a lot of arranging for people like Cisco Houston and I did some arranging for Paul Robeson. So I was very involved in that kind of music.”
From Juilliard To Belfonte And Beyond
During this time, De Cormier met Harry Belafonte, who was a soloist in the Jewish Young Folk Singers. Belafonte ended up offering De Cormier a job.
“After his first big success with the Calypso album, his second album, he asked me if I would be willing to do it with him. So I did all arrangements for his second album and then he asked me to work with him full time,” De Cormier said.
Over the course of five years in the late 50s and early 60s, De Cormier worked with Belafonte and helped form the Belafonte Folk Singers. The group sang backup for Harry Belafonte before going on to record and tour on their own.
When De Cormier stopped working for Belafonte in 1962, he formed his own group, the Robert De Cormier Singers. The group recorded and toured for Columbia records, remaining active until 1987.
But it was around this time another big job came De Cormier’s way.
In 1970, he became the director of the New York Choral Society.
“He really built the New York Choral society into the first class choral organization that it is,” said John Goodwin, De Cormier’s successor at the Choral Society.
Goodwin said that De Cormier put together adventurous programs for the chorus to perform. But that wasn’t the only thing that made him stand out. De Cormier loved to work with all kinds of musicians.
Goodwin began working with De Cormier in 1981 as his assistant and took over the chorus when De Cormier stepped down in 1987.
“One of things that really strikes me about working with Bob is how many people have worked with him over the years and how of them love to work with him again,” Goodwin said.
Among them was the folk-trio Peter, Paul & Mary.
De Cormier met the late Mary Travers when he was teaching high school in Greenwich Village after Juilliard. Travers was one of his students.
“What a charismatic conductor he was,” Travers told VPR in a 2002 interview. “Everyone loved [his chorus] and everyone loved and adored him. He’s one of those charismatic people that are great leaders.”
When Peter, Paul & Mary formed in 1961 they wanted De Cormier to be their musical director, but he was busy working with Harry Belafonte.
After an eight-year hiatus, the group reunited in 1978 and brought De Cormier on with them.
Travers described De Cormier as being the objective ears of the group: He would keep track of the parts, remember what people did and when everyone was stumped, he’d offer up a fresh idea.
“Bob is the fourth voice of the trio,” Travers said. “It’s four creative people sitting in a room making something by hand. What we do it’s kind of like a bunch of people cooking together.”
Noel Paul Stookey — the Paul in Peter, Paul & Mary — agreed.
“In many cases, Bob contributed to the stable quality of the music that Peter, Mary and I produced over his tenure with us which was you know 30 years,” he said.
Stookey said De Cormier’s experience as a choral arranger enhanced the group’s work. In particular, he praised De Cormier’s ability to arrange folk music in a way that preserved the authenticity and simplicity of the style.
“When he provides a symphonic score for a particular piece of folk music, he — rather than overwhelms it — embraces it or surrounds it much the same way a character in the middle of a movie screen would be enhanced by the scenery,” Stookey said.
Robert De Cormier’s choral arrangements of folk music captured the beauty of the source material. Folk tends to be sparse, which can make it a challenge to arrange for a large chorus or orchestra. The beauty of the original song can get obscured by complex harmonies and intricate orchestration.
But not with De Cormier.
"[DeCormier is] really good at cutting away extraneous ideas until he’s got it down to core of what he wants," said Nathaniel Lew, a professor of music at St. Michael’s College and director of the group, Counterpoint.
“What struck me over the years is how sparingly he uses musical complexity of the 19th century,” Lew explains. “You end up arrangements that are very clear, sometimes surprisingly spare in the voicing."
Lew met De Cormier in 2003 when Lew joined Counterpoint, a vocal ensemble De Cormier founded in 2000.
Counterpoint was actually the second vocal ensemble Robert De Cormier started in Vermont. In 1993, he was asked to start the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus. He said in the years between leaving the New York Choral Society and starting the VSO Chorus, he didn’t have too many projects.
“I was still working with Peter, Paul & Mary but that was about it at the moment,” he said. “Thank goodness Kate Tamarkin and Tom Philion asked me to form the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 1993 because this has been the most wonderful time for me, as wonderful as anything in my life really with the VSO chorus and Counterpoint is sort of the icing on the cake.”
In the VSO Chorus, De Cormier said he connected with many well-trained singers interested in forming a professional group. And, according to De Cormier, Counterpoint was the result.
He said the goal was to bring together a group of professional Vermont singers: top-notch performers, compensated for their skill.
In 2011, Lew took over as the director of Counterpoint.
Lew said De Cormier taught him how to make clearer and more direct choral arrangements and how to make more deliberate choices when organizing a concert.
“I’ve thought so much more about what it means to sing particular pieces, what it means to the audience,” Lew said. “The kind of questions he’s spent so much time thinking about. I think it really matters to make a program that at the end of it both the singers and the listeners have had a deeper experience than just hearing wonderful music wonderfully sung.”
Settling in Vermont
Music was a huge part of his life, but it was hardly the only thing.
In 1956, he and his wife Louise bought an old farmhouse in Belmont, Vermont. De Cormier says he fell in love with Vermont the first time he visited.
“There was no running really water, no electricity,” he said. “It was an old farmhouse, beautiful old barn. Barn was about 200 years old … We’ve just loved it ever since.”
De Cormier and his wife didn’t live full-time in Vermont till 1977, even though they continued to commute to New York weekly for the next 10 years.
The farm and the animals he kept on it were important to De Cormier.
“My association with him runs deep because I was so enamored of him in the horse stalls shoving out the horse poop,” Stookey said. “He was not a gentleman farmer as much as he was a participant in the rural community.”
In conversations with those who knew Robert De Cormier, people consistently mentioned the strong bond between De Cormier and his wife Louise.
The two met in 1950 when Louise saw Robert accompanying Paul Robeson on guitar; they were married that same year.
“How can you talk about Bob away from music without mentioning Louise?” Stookey said. “[She] was a pistol and definitely his equal in terms of conversation and emotional familiarity. Eager to participate in discussions that range everything from the latest movies to ethical discourse.”
Goodwin remembered De Cormier and Louise singing at his wedding.
“They sang a song called “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Bob played the guitar and the two of them sang it was just so moving for everyone that was there, people that didn’t even know them. It was a tremendous experience,” Goodwin said.
And Lew said that the couple brings out the best parts of each other.
“Robert is funniest when he and Louise are together because Louise and Robert together are just so delightful,” Lew said. “They’ve been married forever and it’s so fun to watch them interact and they raise each other to a level of real delight in life.”
De Cormier love of music wasn’t about making something beautiful but making something that would hit people at their core. He said music, whether it’s religious or secular, can be spiritual and affects people in many ways at a profound level.
“Music is an important part of our lives,” he said. “I’ve never been able to quite figure it out what it is really except I know I couldn’t live without it and I don’t think people can really exist without music, I don’t think they ever have.”
Disclosure: Liam Elder-Connors attended St. Michael’s College and had Nathaniel Lew as a professor.