Robert De Cormier was born January 7, 1922 – 100 years ago.
Prior to founding the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 1993 and Counterpoint, Vermont’s only professional vocal ensemble, he served as Music Director of the New York Choral Society, pop star Harry Belafonte, and popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
“He sincerely believed that music could change the world, saw it happen, wanted it to happen more. It is this passion that drove him to create great music, ”explained Dawn Willis, Deputy Director of De Cormier during her 20 years at the helm of the VSO Chorus.
“Robert was a person who dedicated his life in a very unusual way to the betterment of humanity. And it mattered so much to him that he said music was part of it, ”added Nathaniel Lew, who took over the reins of Counterpoint when De Cormier retired.
De Cormier passed away on November 7, 2017 in Rutland at the age of 95, leaving behind a new world of vocal and choral music in his chosen state.
Vermont will celebrate De Cormier’s 100th birthday at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 7, at Grace Congregational Church, when eight Vermont choirs perform a program of De Cormier’s beloved arrangements.
“It’s a really good strain,” Lew said. “We have some spirituals, Christmas carols and older arrangements. Jeff Rebach (who will lead the VSO Chorus) found a book of arrangements from the 1950s.
Willis, also founder and choir director of Bella Voce and Solaris, added: backing vocals to truly express the heart and soul of this music.
“He had a deep understanding of how these spiritual carols, folk songs and Christmas carols were designed and what it took to make a choir bring their message to life,” she said. declared.
The participating choirs are: Bella Voce Women’s Chorus, Counterpoint Chorus, Grace Church Sanctuary Choir, Greater Burlington Children’s Chorus, Harwood Union High School I Cantori, Mill River Union High School Chamber Singers, Solaris Vocal Ensemble and the VSO Chorus. They will be joined by a brass quartet: Glendon Ingalls and David Etzler, trumpets; Bear Irwin, trombone; and William Keck, tuba.
De Cormier and his wife Louise, a professional actress who performed often at the Weston Playhouse, made their home in Vermont, first part-time and then full-time, for some 60 years.
When De Cormier received the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in Arts in 2002, the then Lt. Col. Governor Douglas Racine said, appropriately, “He has touched thousands of people with the power of music. It has become as important in our way of life as cheddar or maple syrup.
De Cormier was born on Long Island to a middle class family and grew up during the Great Depression in Poughkeepsie, New York, where his father was a schoolteacher. He attended Maine’s Colby College, playing the trumpet and singing in a big band. But because the school lacked a good music department, he quit after two years.
In 1942, De Cormier joined the army and found himself on the European front, first in Belgium, then in the Netherlands, then in Germany in the push towards the Rhine in November 1944. He was hit by a shell of mortar which destroys his wrist. It took 13 operations to save his hand, but he lost the ability to move his wrist.
In 1946, De Cormier entered the famous Juilliard School of Music in New York on the GI Bill. Fortuitously, it was around this time that Robert Shaw came to Juilliard to teach. Shaw, perhaps America’s greatest conductor, would become De Cormier’s main musical influence. De Cormier was Shaw’s disciple while earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees there. Shaw’s influence was revealed in De Cormier’s ability to create beautifully sounding backing vocals and emotionally effective performances.
De Cormier’s political interests led him to the folk music circles of the time. He met and befriended Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, The Weavers, and Pete Seeger. The night Louise De Cormier, then a young singer and aspiring actress, first saw her future husband, he was playing folk guitar for legendary singer and political activist Paul Robeson at the Freedom Theater. The next day, she auditioned for De Cormier, was accepted and started touring with the company.
They met in February 1950 and were married in August. After their marriage, De Cormier accepted a teaching position at the Elizabeth Owen Private High School in Greenwich Village, New York. A student was to play a major role in the life of De Cormier later, the late Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Belafonte’s career was starting to take off, so the singer asked De Cormier to become his musical director. For five years, De Cormier arranged and conducted the music for Belafonte’s weekly TV show as well as its live performances.
The De Cormiers then headed to Europe, where he created folk choir programs for the BBC for three years. Between television seasons, De Cormier created and toured the Robert De Cormier Singers across the United States, performing choral arrangements of folk music.
Yet De Cormier missed the musical depth of the classics. In 1970, everything changed. First, the New York Choral Society, one of the city’s premier choirs, asked De Cormier to become its musical director. He accepted and stayed for 17 years, performing many of the most important choral works in classical music. Two years later, the respected Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, invited De Cormier to conduct its choir and teach.
However, De Cormier could not entirely renounce folk music. When Peter, Paul and Mary started to be successful, Travers had asked De Cormier to become the musical director of the trio, but he was too busy with other projects. After 10 years, the group disbanded to reunite again seven years later, and this time Travers was able to recruit De Cormier. He has since arranged and directed the music for the trio’s latest performances, recordings and television specials, including the PBS holiday show, “Peter, Paul & Mommy Too”.
In 1993, De Cormier was approached by VSO director Thomas Philion and musical director Kate Tamarkin, who wanted him to create the VSO Chorus. It was also through the VSO Chorus that the De Cormiers – of which Louise was a member – cemented their relationship with Vermont.
In 2000, Robert De Cormier selected 11 members of the VSO Chorus to create a professional vocal ensemble. The group Counterpoint quickly rose to prominence throughout the state, giving concerts and making CDs and DVDs. He retired from Counterpoint in 2012, VSO Chorus in 2014.
“I quit Counterpoint and got used to it. I’ve been to concerts and love them, and I really appreciate what Nat has done with them. But think about not having a group? De Cormier said in 2014. “This will be the first time since I left the military in 1946 that I have not been intimately involved in some sort of choir. I don’t know, what am I going to do?
“He comes from a courageous and liberal far-left background,” said Noel Stookey, “Paul” of Peter, Paul and Mary, on the occasion of De Cormier’s 80th birthday. “If he didn’t march for the labor movement, he was definitely a supporter,” Stookey said. “He has a definite sensitivity to the needs of workers in a way that a person with conventional training and elite training may not always have.”
Yet until just before his death, De Cormier continued to arrange and compose and – appropriately – conduct Counterpoint’s peace concerts.
“We’re going to start with his arrangement of ‘Joy to the World’ with brass, and we’ll end with ‘We Shall Overcome’,” Lew said. “It’s him.”