'Making God present' with music To lift worshipers' souls, the organist-choirmaster always strived to bring the best to Mary Our Queen.

CATCHING UP WITH: ROBERT TWYNHAM

August 02, 1998|By JUDITH GREEN | JUDITH GREEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A story in Sunday's Arts & Society section misidentified the neighborhood of retiring organist-choirmaster Robert Twynham. Twynam and his wife, Eileen, live in the Reservoir Hill area of Baltimore.

The Sun regrets the errors.

For almost 40 years, Robert Twynham has fought the good fight for church music as organist-choirmaster of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

By "church music," the 67-year-old musician doesn't mean folk Masses or contemporary Christian rock, though he has accepted elements of both into the worship service.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

He means the 1,700-year-old tradition of music for Catholic worship that ranges from transformed Judaic melodies to Gregorian chant to the mystical works of contemporary Catholic composers such as the French musician Olivier Messiaen.

"Music should do something to move the transcendent God into the assembly," Twynham says. "I believe in music that lifts the soul of the assembly ... that helps the assembly express in its singing and listening the faith it comes to celebrate."

Over the 37 years he spent at Mary Our Queen, serving under six rectors and three archbishops, two of them cardinals, Twynham created an exemplary choral department, composed several major sacred works and a sheaf of music for weekly worship, presented a long-running weekly concert series, produced a number of sacred music-dramas and established such traditions as choral evensong services and the Christmastime service of lessons and carols. He received the Peabody Conservatory's distinguished alumnus award in 1977 and the president's medal from Loyola College this year.

His goal, he says, was to make the cathedral, a soaring example of contemporary religious architecture built in 1959 on North Charles Street, into a cultural center. "He brought a level of quality that made the cathedral an important factor in the musical and cultural life of the city," says the Rev. Charles K. Riepe, the third rector of Mary Our Queen (1974-1978), who is now Roman Catholic chaplain for the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

All this Twynham accomplished with one eye, one good ear and a number of medical conditions that imploded last fall and forced a retirement that he has adjusted to with reluctance, according to his wife.

Born and raised in Washington, Twynham held his first job at the age of 13 as organist at the chapel of Walter Reed Army Hospital. He was a scholarship student at the Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with George Markey and Paul Callaway. In 1952, he followed his heart's desire and went to France to study with Messiaen, who was then unknown except to fellow organists.

"I attended his classes three times a week - Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays - for a year," Twynham says. "I remember sitting on a very hard bench. There was one lamp, like the kind over a pool table, that came down over two grand pianos. And what poor light it gave!"

To earn money to supplement his meager stipend, Twynham played at a cabaret called the Mars Club, filling in between the sets of an "enormously gifted American chanteuse" named Blossom Dearie. And at the Chez Ines, he accompanied Miriam Burton, who was later to sing the role of Serena ("My Man's Gone Now") in the touring company of "Porgy and Bess" that took Europe by storm in 1953.

It was in Paris that he experienced his first troubles with hearing, later diagnosed as Meniere's syndrome, a progressive disorder of the inner ear. Together with a bad right eye, these might have been enough to discourage him from a career in music. But he persevered. Over the years, the hearing started to lapse in the other ear. Twynham just donned a hearing aid.

In 1961, he came to Mary Our Queen and a year later brought his new wife, Eileen Ernst, a poet and music teacher. They bought a house in Bolton Hill and cast their lot with its changing fortunes.

The Twynhams are as classical as the music they love. In front of their house is a gaslight carriage-lamp, always burning, and throughout their home, so modestly displayed that one is inclined to overlook them, are first-edition prints by the French religious artist Georges Rouault, whose work combines medieval spirituality with contemporary printmaking techniques. It is not too far-fetched to see these pieces as a metaphor for Twynham himself.

Even in retirement, Twynham hasn't lost his pugnacity or his passion. "It hasn't all been wine and roses," he says dryly of his years at the cathedral.

Various rectors resisted many of the changes he proposed, from the small and cosmetic to the large and political. One protested the shifting of the front pews for a concert performance, though he later admitted that the musical effects were worth the labor. (And Twynham's choirboys put the pews back.) He was accused of elitism: "You drive people away with your music!" one rector said.

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