Wilfred C. Bain: A Reminiscence In Memoriam
Written by Ennis Williams
Symposium Volume 38

Wilfred Bain died in Bloomington, Indiana, March 7, 1997. It is no exaggeration to say that he was the most influential music administrator in higher education in the United States within the 20th Century. During a period of unprecedented expansion in collegiate music studies, a period that recalls such luminaries as Eastman's Howard Hanson, Juilliard's William Schuman, Southern California's John Crowder, and Northwestern's George Howerton, Bain looms largest. He more than any other changed both the face and the core of professional music education.

Although born in Shawville, Quec, Canada in 1908, he was thoroughly American from the age of ten when his parents moved to the state of New York.1 From some unspecified youthful moment his life was devoted to singing and conducting, to furthering the cause of music, directly or indirectly, in one way or another. His first collegiate degree was completed at Houghton College in 1929, but his professional future began in earnest when, immediately following the Houghton degree, he entered Westminster Choir College as a voice and choral major. His B.M. was granted by Westminster in 1931, then he busied himself with the dual responsibilities of expanding his professional credentials and full time employment: a master's degree came in 1935, the music education doctorate in 1938, both from New York University.

American academics usually do professorial yeoman duty before engaging seriously in administration. It's a rite of passage, an assumed boot-camp for preparing those who will lead by helping them learn to follow. Bain's path was characteristically more direct. His first post-baccalaureate year found him heading the small music department of Central College in Columbia, S.C., after which he returned to Houghton, in 1931, as head and principal conductor for the choral department. He remained at Houghton for the seven years prior to his appointment at North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas), where he became chair of music in 1938, later dean.

A gregarious, lively, pleasantly forthright man, Bain administered as he lived. He was not one to hold grudges, to delay actions, to cower in the face of hardship. His self-imposed project at North Texas State became evident from the beginning of his tenure. Within the first year he had organized the university's first a capella choir, touring with it extensively in neighboring communities of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, later prepping its augmented version for concert appearances with the civic orchestras of Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. He would cultivate this entrepreneurial outreach with all manner of vocal and instrumental ensembles, including even a "Concerto Orchestra Tour" one year under the direction of pianist Silvio Scionti, featuring student soloists such as Albert Gillespie and Jeannine Dowis.

As hard-won Texas funds allowed, he immediately began the methodical assemblage of a faculty that had no parallel in the Southwestern U.S. It was a measure of the depth of his view and professional commitment that Bain's goals exceeded mere padding of his roster with newsworthy performers. Within less than a decade he had surpassed any suggestion of systematic window-dressing. In addition to major appointments in opera, conducting and composition, he had hired three proven scholar-historians from the fabled East—Harvard/Radcliffe products, no less—Helen Hewitt, Lloyd Hibberd, and Hugh Miller. Such a stable of scholarly bluebloods was previously unheard of in these parts. Clearly, he meant serious business. Indeed, it was not long before he had raised the ire of a few Texan colleagues who felt that if such elements of high culture belonged in their state at all, it was in the state university at Austin, not in a mere "teachers college."

Bain's more global accomplishments while at North Texas State were but indirect products of the enhancements he wrought locally. His most lasting and telling acts lay in establishing a broader base for the entire music education process. He insisted upon a base encompassing a deeper musical wherewithal than traditional perspectives demanded, one that enabled blossoming musicians to expand their professional horizons along with an assurance of thorough preparation. He was N.A.S.M.'s principal proponent and supporter of the Doctor of Music in Performance degree that we take for granted today. He argued, a half-century ago when it was not popular, that the professional future of the country's best performers would largely depend on their opportunity to compete on equal terms of employment with the Ph.D.s, E.D.s, and D.M.E.s, those who make their livings in conceptualizing about music more than in doing it. In this way he helped shape the employment democracy known in the best schools today, replacing past inequities when fine performer-teachers could be relegated to fragmented appointments that echoed a single message: No academic credentials, no academic tenure.

Bain was singularly responsible for establishing a degree program in jazz studies and making it a respectable academic operation. His task was made more arduous by some of his own faculty's distaste for the repertory, and a lingering strain, within the state of Texas, of a religious fundamentalism that frowned on both jazz and the kind of dancing associated with it. Bain's perspective was as refreshingly direct as it was realistic. As it turned out, it also was presciently wise despite its run against the grain of conventional wisdom: Those aspiring jazz musicians, he argued, are as talented and as technically proficient as the kids who want to be symphony players and opera singers. So why don't they merit higher educations too? And with his direct help, the jazzers started joining higher education in 1946.2 That was the spark that began the first jazz curriculum in a public college in the U.S. The result, of course, is history.

Bain's most notable success, his 26-year tenure at Indiana University, began in 1947. It followed just as he seems to have secured for North Texas State the principal faculty excellence and curricular repairs he had envisioned. The full impact of what he accomplished at Indiana and its broader ramifications can best be appreciated if we recall briefly the conditions of music in higher education prior to World War II.

During the first half of the century, professional training for musicians in this country entailed essentially three kinds of institutions. The preparatory functions and operations of the three, sometimes robustly complementary, sometimes not, were quite separate.

There were conservatories. They trained music makers—composers and conductors as well as singers and instrumentalists—to go out into the world and prosper wherever and however those functions might be found remunerative. And then there were music departments. Departments such as those of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Chicago maintained two basic functions: They were preparatory schools for young scholars whose futures would be in higher education, as functioning scholars as well as teachers of scholars for the future. But they also typically provided enriching "service" courses demanded in their universities' curricula for general students. And finally, there were "normal schools,"3 training institutions with missions and curricula expressly planned for the future teachers of pre-collegiate music, the K-12 curricula of the nation.

Bain's ideas and efforts during the peak years, his tenure at Indiana, were instrumental in bringing to an end this trinity of educational opportunity. More than any other administrator, he initiated and rendered palatable the changes that merged the three under a single coherent roof. The Colleges of Music (of which his former School at North Texas is but one) and the Schools of Music that dot the countryside—the Indianas, Southern Californias, Michigans, Northwesterns, Ohio States, and their likenesses—are the multifaceted products of that post-war merger. It brought future scholars, composers, performers, and teachers together in an unprecedented enterprise of professional co-dependency.

Upon arrival in Bloomington in 1947 Bain began to retrace his early Denton steps, first in putting in place a faculty that could realize his operational dreams anew. Within a dozen years, this formerly slumbering "music department" of just over two-hundred majors had come alive and begun to stretch. Its faculty had become home to the likes of Anna Kaskas, Josef Gingold, Eileen Farrell, James Pellerite, David Baker, Janos Starker, Menahem Pressler, Philip Farkas, Eugene Rousseau, Margaret Harshaw, Jorge Bolet, Frank St Leger, Martha Lipton, Abbey Simon, William Primrose, George Gaber—to chip away at only the tip of the mass. And still, true to form, that impressive roster of "performance faculty" was blended with historians, composers, conductors, and directors such as Paul Nettl, Walter Kaufmann, Bernhard Heiden, Iannis Xenakis, Juan Orrego-Salas, Ernst Hoffman, Willi Apel, Hans Busch, Mario Cristini—and on and on. These musically exciting people were in southern Indiana, rather than in any one of the world's cultural centers, because Wilfred Bain had sold them a bill of goods. His school was on the way to becoming a music hub of the Midwest; its music education program would populate the nation's schools; its choruses would sing in the world's music centers, its orchestras play wherever discerning audiences were to be found; its opera forces would mount as many productions each year as the Chicago Lyric (even more than the San Francisco or Los Angeles companies); its elite student orchestra would be at least as polished as the professional ensembles of many larger American cities. The I.U. campus was developing into more than a bustling center of music education: It was transforming by the month into a dynamic world center of the art, more to be compared with the Lincoln Centers and Kennedy Centers and their look-alikes in principal metropolitan areas than with colleges, universities, and conservatories.

And the bigger picture, only faintly visible in the 1950s and 60s, was even more historic. With Bain setting the pace, the large music schools were developing an audacious new responsibility of leadership. Indeed, the best ones, like North Texas, Indiana, and Michigan were following in the historic footsteps of the Church, the Court, and the Metroplex. Now they were the sites where the best musics of all genre and dimension are most properly produced and consumed. To a limited degree, music deans were slowly but ineluctably beginning to poach on the traditional domains of the Judsons, Wolfsohns, Ellises, and Fleischmanns of the larger musical world.

Bain was not just an academic player, a pencil-pushing navigation officer striving for an efficient and stabile ship. In Texas and in Indiana he persistently nudged faculties and established programs toward the future. Although the opera complex he created at Indiana was larger and better known, his feet were already thoroughly wetted in that expensive and risky genre while at North Texas. And not irrationally. He had wholly practical and considered reasons for his operatic enthusiasms, the "weakness" some educators looked upon as fiscal excess, educational frivolity. He knew something they didn't. He knew that opera demands orchestral players and dancers as well as singers and all of the staging accoutrement entailed by modern dramatic presentations, thus a ready-made workshop, a do-it-yourself laboratory for training a wide variety of musicians and drama-makers. In that sense, opera is a most practical affair.

As one should expect, the kinds of productions Bain favored, first in Texas and later in Indiana,4 were traditional fare, the Verdi-Mozart-Puccini training fodder of convention. What few realize is how persistently he cajoled and struggled for the new and unconventional as well. At North Texas he premiered such curiosities as Julia Smith's opera about the life of Indian maiden Cynthia Parker. He was even instrumental in the local Phi Mu Alpha chapter's revival of Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. At Indiana, with more time, money, and talent at hand, he was responsible for an average of roughly a world premiere per year, all of this sandwiched between the vaunted Palm Sunday Parsifals and stunning productions of more orthodox fare. In one twenty-year period the I.U. forces mounted eleven world premieres, among them Bernhard Heiden's The Darkened City, Lukas Foss's The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Bernard Rogers' The Veil,5 Walter Kaufmann's The Scarlet Letter, John Eaton's Heracles. And the American premiere of Britten's Billy Budd was an I.U. production during the same period. Within two decades of Bain's arrival, a total of 625 performances of 130 different operas had been mounted, one of these an unexpurgated Turandot for an audience of 12,000 at the 1964 New York World's Fair.6

From our privileged hindsight we are compelled to wonder: Why did Bain flourish so spectacularly? How did he manage to wring such elemental changes from our tired European educational models when other administrators of the same era—equally intelligent, musical, and willful—exited deanships in much the same condition as when they entered?

He was a dedicated professional, a tireless worker without seeming driven, even though a typical day was at least sixteen hours of absorption in his beloved profession. He was an adroit manager, knowing how to vanquish obstacles others found intractable. A part of that genius was an uncanny sense for overcoming conflict through the economy of well-chosen words rather than wasteful emotion. He overcame one segment of lingering opposition to the jazz program he envisioned at North Texas by a simple semantic ploy. Suspecting the program would be known best by its very public performance ensemble, he coined the title "Laboratory Band," thus avoiding the suicidal potential of "jazz" or "dance." It worked, and the name remains in force to this day.

At Indiana he once warded off severe curricular damage when university-wide demands for stronger general education programs threatened reduced music programs. Piggy-backing concurrent revisions in progress in his music theory department, he engineered a new title for the two-year undergraduate studies: Bland old "Music Theory" became the "Materials of Communication in Music," an elegant bit of abstraction that in time proved to be a more apt description of actual course content. 7 But globally more crucial, it was instrumental in gaining university approval of the 20-hour block as "general education."

Aside from the bountiful proofs that he was an administrator of unique sophistication, he by no means championed institutionalized indifference. He repeatedly fought for individual human needs, students and faculty alike, when those needs conflicted with bureaucracy. People—and especially talented people—were paramount to him.

Even a Wilfred Bain couldn't accomplish today what came from his hard work, high intelligence, and strong will in mid-century academia. It was that era's good fortune that he had what our hindsight tells us was needed: The right vision, noble but with a hard edge of humane realism. It had to be a vision capable of meeting the remainder of the century's social, fiscal, and artistic needs. It is our good fortune that music in higher education prospers, with many thanks to him.

1He did not become a naturalized citizen, however, until 1940.

2The University of North Texas inexplicably ignores that Bain appointed the first director of the jazz program, M. Eugene Hall, not in 1947 but as a part time instructor in 1946. Charles Meeks, not Hall, directed the first Laboratory Band, in the fall of that year.

3The term I presume from the école normale of French traditions. The less dated "Teachers College" replaced it at many schools early in the century, only to be dropped after W.W. II as itself obsolete.

4He maintained ultimate fiscal and programmatic control even at Indiana as the opera program's "Administrative Director."

5The Foss and Rogers premieres were on the same double bill.

6After a memorable summer try-out in the abandoned Indiana football stadium.

7The course title was similar to the Schuman-Persichetti precedent at Juilliard (The "L & M" sequence), which had been motivated by similar musical and educational goals.

3109 Last modified on October 17, 2018