VPA mourns passing of celebrated soprano and faculty member Helen Boatwright
Helen Boatwright, a celebrated soprano and central figure in the history of the Rose, Jules R. and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), died Wednesday, Dec. 1, in Syracuse. She was 94.
Boatwright was a legend in American music, respected for her pioneering, critically acclaimed performances and first LP recordings of numerous songs by Charles Ives, Ernst Bacon and other landmark American composers, as well as her influential performances of early music. She was a favorite soprano of Paul Hindemith, Leopold Stokowski and Erich Leinsdorf. Her career spanned four decades and included notable guest performances for the Crown Prince of Japan, the Queen Mother of England and President and Mrs. Kennedy at the White House.
Boatwright and her late husband, Howard Boatwright, a prolific composer, concert violinist and SU professor emeritus, came to Syracuse in 1964 when he was appointed dean of the Setnor School, then known as the SU School of Music. Helen joined the school’s voice faculty, and together, the Boatwrights helped establish the school’s reputation as a champion of contemporary music. Helen taught and inspired countless students, many of whom went on to distinguished careers, including Phyllis Bryn-Julson ’67 G’69, Christine Flasch G’80, Margaret Chalker G’79 and Eileen Strempel, who is also an associate professor of fine arts in The College of Arts and Sciences and assistant vice president for academic advancement in enrollment management at SU.
“Helen Boatwright was, without question, a pillar of the cultural life of Syracuse,” says James Tapia, co-interim director of the Setnor School and director of orchestral activities. “Upon her arrival in Syracuse with her husband, Howard, she immediately established her position as an arbiter of vocal performance and vocal studio teaching. She mentored many of the great singers who have come from the Syracuse area and has left us with some of the truly great musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
“Helen was a consummate musician, performer and teacher,” says Martha Sutter G’83, a mezzo soprano and assistant dean of student affairs in VPA. “I was fortunate to begin my vocal studies with her when I was just 16, a relationship that continued over many years and developed into one of a colleague and friend. Her passion for music and joy of singing were ever present. She will be missed.”
Born Helena Johanna Strassburger on Nov. 17, 1916, in Sheboygan, Wis., Helen was introduced to singing, especially to the music of J.S. Bach, by her large German family. Intent on becoming a professional singer, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio and also studied at the Cleveland Opera Workshop and Tanglewood, where she performed with the young Leonard Bernstein and sang opposite the then-unknown tenor Mario Lanza.
The Boatwrights first met in 1941 in Los Angeles at the National Federation of Music Clubs’ biennial competition. That summer, Howard set some poems to music for Helen—the first music he ever composed. They married in 1943 and began what became a long and successful musical partnership, performing together throughout their lives across the United States, Mexico, Europe and India. Many of Howard’s compositions for voice were written for Helen.
Helen became renowned for the purity of her voice and was in great demand as a performer of early music and oratorios. She sang with such groups as Paul Hindemith’s Collegium Musicum, Alfred Mann’s Cantata Singers and Johannes Somary’s Amor Artists, as well as under the batons of such renowned conductors as Stokowski, Leinsdorf, Seiji Ozawa and Zubin Mehta. While much of her career focused on performing Bach, Mozart and Handel, she performed under her husband’s direction in concerts of the music of then-unknown 17th-century composers such as Franz Tunder, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Rosenmüller and also had significant successes with such contemporary works as Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” and Hindemith’s “Das Marienleben.”
In 1954, Helen became the first person to record an album of the songs of Ives. Her “24 Songs” with pianist John Kirkpatrick (Overtone Records) is a highly sought-after collector’s item and was re-released in 1994 by Composers Recordings Inc., in combination with settings of Emily Dickinson poems by Bacon, her late longtime friend and colleague and an SU professor emeritus.
In addition to teaching at SU, Helen was a professor of voice at the Eastman School of Music from 1972-79 and was a guest teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and Cornell University and Connecticut College. In 2003, SU awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in recognition of her many contributions.
Helen, who lived in Fayetteville, N.Y., was an active supporter of the Syracuse music community, including the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music, Syracuse Opera, Civic Morning Musicals and Society for New Music. She celebrated her 90th birthday in 2006 with a standing-room-only concert at St. David’s Episcopal Church in DeWitt, N.Y., performing music by her late husband as well as works by such local composers as Edward Ruchalski and Marc Mellits. At age 92, she returned to the stage to put on a benefit recital for Civic Morning Musicals at the Everson Museum of Art.
A dedicated musician and educator, Boatwright continued to teach until three weeks before her death.
“It was a true honor to have known and learned from Helen,” says Tapia. “We, all who have known her, are richer for her love and attention. She will truly be missed, but her force of character and her vision for music and music making will be with us for a lifetime.”
Helen was predeceased by her husband in 1999. She is survived by her three children, Howard Leake “Lea” Boatwright III, Alice Karth Boatwright and David Alexander Boatwright.
Calling hours will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 7, from 5-8 p.m. at the Eaton-Tubbs-Schepp Funeral Home, 7191 East Genesee St., Fayetteville. The funeral will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 8, at 3 p.m. at St. David’s Episcopal Church, 14 Jamar Drive, DeWitt.