Walter Schenkman is not a name, probably, that you will know. For a long time, Walter was the Chair of the piano department here at the University of Northern Colorado, and an indefatigable pianist, writer of musical articles, and researcher. He nurtured a lifelong love affair with the Goldberg Variations, which he played for more than fifty years and recorded at least twice, and he recently published articles about it in BACH: The Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute and in Ad Parnassum.
Walter had long since retired when I came here in 1993. In recent years, we met irregularly for lunch and lively musical discussion—the next time was scheduled to be May 1 (this week is Passover, which is not much fun for eating out), when we were planning to wrangle over the end of the finale of Beethoven’s Op. 53…doppio movimento or not? He’d already told me he didn’t buy my bizarre take on Chopin’s Second Ballade, then laughed aloud when I responded “Oh, well, maybe you will when it’s published.” He recorded CDs constantly—Bach, Beethoven, Clementi, Chopin, anyone you can name—edited them, distributed them to friends etc., despite being in his early 80s. Last time I saw him, he said that he had considered giving it all up, but then he discovered that the French pianist Francis Planté began his recording career at age 89, in the dawn of the recording era. “I guess I’m ahead of schedule,” he laughed. “I’ll keep going.”
This morning I received an E-Mail from Walter’s E-Mail address:
“Jonathan, This is from Anne Schenkman. I am deeply sorry to tell you that Walter died last night quite suddenly — at his piano.”
Of course, that’s the way to go: quickly, doing what you love, and especially playing the piano. And those left behind—like me and his other friends—feel sad and poignant. The fact remains, though, that Walter served the Muses as with as deep a commitment as the biggest-name classical artists: his was a life spent at the piano, in the teaching studio, in the recording studio, and writing about music. Generations of piano students here at not-Juilliard, readers, listeners. This is not New York or Boston…WAY not New York or Boston. And so here Walter lived, peacefully serving the Piano Muse, studying, playing, and talking to his friends.
That is a noble, noble life. I like to imagine Walter as now knowing, once and for all, the answers to all the musical mysteries we used to discuss. (He also knows I was right about the Ballade…!) If music is what mediates between the worlds, as virtually all the world’s traditional cultures seem to agree it does, then Walter still has much to study, and learn. Think of all the lost pieces! (Traditional Judaism—with which Walter maintained virtually no connection whatever—holds that even the Almighty studies for three hours a day, because what greater pleasure could possibly be imagined?)
Another glance into the infinite: I probably mentioned this already, but at a colloquium in honor of a revered professor (in 2002), a Du Fay scholar, the guest of honor looked around, spied me, and—remembering that I have badgered him for decades to find the lost Du Fay Requiem Mass (under his tutelage, I had fallen in love with Guillaume Du Fay, a master of early Renaissance church music), said something like the following to those assembled: “Jon, I know you sing bassus, and I sing treble. I think I know enough about Du Fay to know that he sang tenor. I promise you, before the century is out, you and I and the Old Man will sing through his Requiem.”
Now, that’s heaven.
Forn gezunt, Walter. I don’t think I’ll ever play Bach again without thinking of you.