Gordon C. Cyr

[ Age 81 ] Composer, Towson University professor took a long, unconventional path to a successful career in music.

"He could pick out melodies on the piano but basically wrote ... straight out of his head," James M. Anthony said.

May 15, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Gordon Conrad Cyr, a retired Towson University music professor and composer whose Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, died of complications from intestinal surgery Thursday at Mercy Medical Center. The longtime Charles Village resident was 81.

Born in Oakland, Calif., and raised in San Francisco and Berkeley, Dr. Cyr followed an unconventional path to a career in music.

He dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley in 1945, after just one year. "I was an indifferent student," Dr. Cyr recalled in a 1994 interview with The Sun - just before his symphony's premiere.

He began writing songs and chamber music while working odd jobs and in record stores. In 1951, after marrying his college sweetheart, Helen Wheeler, he took a regular 9-to-5 job as a clerk for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Composing only during his annual two-week vacation, he produced "Peter Quince at the Clavier" in 1954 and "Three Shakespeare Songs for Soprano and Orchestra," which was performed in 1963 at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos, Calif.

With the support of his wife, who was a pianist and librarian, Dr. Cyr quit his utility company job after 13 years and returned to Berkeley in 1964, amid the growing Vietnam anti-war movement and campus unrest.

"It was a crazy, wonderful time, and the counterculture had - especially the anti-war movement - a lot of my sympathies," Dr. Cyr said in the interview. "But I was 40 and had invested too much to screw up."

He earned a bachelor's degree from Berkeley in 1966 and a doctorate in music composition in 1969.

He taught at the College of The Holy Name in Oakland and San Francisco State University before moving to Baltimore's Roland Park in 1971 and joining the faculty at what is now Towson University.

While not a prolific composer, Dr. Cyr was respected for the quality of his chamber music and songs.

His "warmhearted music is never afraid to go its own way," a Sun music critic wrote in 1994. "He has a wonderful ear for poetry, and his settings of American poets - such as a particularly memorable 1985 setting of Walt Whitman - have a rugged, emotionally open quality that suggests, in the way the music of Ives does, that these pieces could only have been written by an American."

With a head of thick white thatched hair and ever-present black-rimmed eyeglasses, Dr. Cyr exuded the air of the composer and professor.

"He wrote hard-edged, uncompromising music in the international style that was prevalent at the time," said Ray Sprenkel, a composer and Peabody Institute faculty member. "It was very cerebral and considered very progressive, and he was doing it at a time when the postmodern movement was beginning to be felt."

"He was very devoted to and very much a part of the `new music' scene in Baltimore during the 1970s and 1980s, and he made a strong impact on the movement," said James M. Anthony, an associate professor of music history at Towson. "He was an odd composer because he had never been a performer and did not come from a performance background. He could pick out melodies on the piano but basically wrote his music straight out of his head."

David Zinman, then music director of the BSO, followed the progress of Dr. Cyr's Symphony No. 2, telling The Sun at the time of its premiere how he was impressed five years earlier on seeing its completed first movement.

"It had great strength and propulsive energy," Mr. Zinman said. "I had enough faith in that movement to believe in the rest of it."

Dr. Cyr retired in 1992 from Towson, where he had been known as an affable and popular teacher who always began class with a joke or pun - the latter able to "elicit groans of exquisite agony from his listeners," said Gerry L. Phillips, a longtime friend and music faculty colleague at Towson.

He also was a Shakespeare scholar, and wrote widely that the Bard of Avon was actually Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

He had been a member of the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore, Res Musica Baltimore, American Camerata for New Music and the Society for Composers.

In an article for The Sun in 1994, touching on why he wrote symphonies that paid little and for audiences that at times had difficulty understanding them, Dr. Cyr wrote: "I compose the way I do because I must; I can see no other way of doing it. I write the kind of music I like to hear when others write it. And my experience with audiences has been that there are many patient listeners to my music who have found their patience rewarded in time."

Plans for a June memorial service to be held at Towson University were incomplete yesterday.

His wife of 42 years, who had worked as a Pratt librarian and was a former president of the Baltimore Film Forum, died in 1993. His second wife, Shirley Cyr, died several years ago.

Surviving are a sister, Yvonne C. Koshland of Lafayette, Calif.; several nieces and nephews; and a companion, Hattie Rowe of Baltimore.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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