Robert F. Twynham, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen organist, dies

Long-serving musician at Roman Catholic cathedral was a composer and leader in Baltimore's musical circles

  • Robert Twynham
Robert Twynham (ROBERT K. HAMILTON, Baltimore…)
April 15, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Robert F. Twynham, the long-serving organist and music director at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen who created a popular Sunday musical series, died of a gastric obstruction March 23 at his Reservoir Hill home. He was 80.

Though deaf in one ear and blind in one eye, he led the musical program at the cathedral for 37 years. News articles said he served under six rectors and three archbishops, two of them cardinals. He established a much-praised choral department, composed several major sacred works and a library of music for weekly worship, presented a long-running weekly concert series and oversaw sacred music-dramas. His choral evensongs and the Advent lessons and carols frequently filled every pew in the cathedral.

"Bob was a major figure in the music scene here for many years," said Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and a WYPR radio host. "His impact far exceeded the confines of the church, too. At the weekly concerts he established, you could count on a good-quality presentation in that magnificent space."

Mr. Twynham received the Peabody Conservatory's distinguished alumnus award in 1977 and the 1998 president's medal from what was then Loyola College of Maryland.

In newspaper interviews he said his goal was to make the cathedral, "a soaring example of contemporary religious architecture built in 1959 on North Charles Street, into a cultural center."

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he began playing the organ at 13 at the Walter Reed Army Hospital chapel. He studied with musicians George Markey, Paul Callaway and Wayne Dirksen and took inspiration from the Anglican tradition of musical programs at the Washington National Cathedral. He won a scholarship to the Peabody, and as a student he established his first choir at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on Riverside Avenue in South Baltimore. At the Peabody, he won the Horstmeier Prize for his playing of works by J.S. Bach.

In 1952, he traveled to France to study with Olivier Messiaen, who was then little known except among fellow organists. Messiaen is now considered a major 20th-century composer.

"I attended his classes three times a week for a year," Mr. Twynham said in a 1998 Baltimore Sun interview. "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!"

He made his living by playing popular music. In later years, he would entertain playing show tunes at his Reservoir Street home for friends.

"He 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 in the touring company of 'Porgy and Bess' that took Europe by storm in 1953," said the 1998 profile.

News accounts said that while overseas, he experienced his first troubles with hearing, later diagnosed as Meniere's syndrome, a progressive disorder of the inner ear. He also had a bad right eye. Over the years, the hearing started to lapse in the other ear and he wore a hearing aid.

He took a post at St. Barbara's Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. "He trained a boys' choir there, and I walked into St. Barbara's one day and I was bowled over," said his wife, the former Eileen Ernst, a poet and music teacher. "I thought, 'This is the real thing.' "

Mr. Twynham then returned to Baltimore and a job at the then-2-year-old Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He would later say his career cut across "an era of ferment and upheaval in Roman Catholicism," which was trying to transition to a less formal Mass.

"Twynham, with his extensive music education and classical outlook, thought church music should be more than easy listening. His solution was to merge the best of the old into the new," said the 1998 Sun profile.

Mr. Twynham established choirs and played for Masses. In 1966, he began a free Sunday afternoon concert series. He coaxed artists to play without compensation. Patrons gave a free-will offering to cover the cost of printing programs. He brought in choirs to sing Masses by Igor Stravinsky and other composers. He also tapped the jazz combo from the Prime Rib Restaurant to give a 1969 jazz concert.

In 1966, he received a call from the White House to take his boys choir to sing at the wedding of the president's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, and Patrick Nugent in Washington. "Barry Goldwater came up to him and had high praise for his music," his wife said.

His choir sang for Pope John Paul II in Baltimore and Washington.

He produced a 16th-century English miracle play, "Noye's Fludde" (Noah's Flood), by the modern British composer Benjamin Britten. He brought in 110 actors and singers and 85 instrumentalists — and took out several rows of pews in the process.

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