The Continued Influence of Dr. Ellsworth Peterson
For more than 50 years, members of the Southwestern community have gathered on Sundays for two reasons – to spend time with a treasured friend and mentor, Ellsworth Peterson ’55, P’84, P’88 (Georgetown, TX), and to listen to the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. During the pandemic, the group has actually grown due to online accessibility through a weekly zoom call. Alumni, former Southwestern faculty, friends, and friends of friends are drawn together for two hours each Sunday.
Dr. Peterson began the in-person Sunday cantatas in his home early in his career as professor of music at Southwestern, likely around the year 1970. He was inspired from his time as a Southwestern student. “Dr. Claude Howard, a professor of English and perhaps the greatest teacher I have ever had, welcomed a few students to his home (across the street from the present Fine Arts Building) on Sunday evenings for discussions of great works of literature. For me, these cantata evenings offer a chance to share my appreciation of Bach’s music with others, and in doing so, to come to a deeper understanding of the cantatas myself.”
Mikal Hart ’84 remembers his time as a Southwestern student attending the sessions with Dr. Peterson. “I can date the tradition of listening to music at Ellsworth’s house as far back as my freshman year (1980-1), when we were invited to come listen to Mahler in a series of Sunday nights leading up to the 1981 Brown Symposium Gustav Mahler and his Vienna. I didn’t miss a single one of those. Even then I understood what a privilege it was to be invited to your professor’s house for such an enlightening experience. Later I attended some of the early Bach sessions but eventually moved away from Austin. About 5 years ago, after our lives had settled down after our kids went away to college, I started going again.”
Bob Horick P’99 (Georgetown, TX), former director of academic computing and associate professor of Russian at Southwestern, has been a regular attendee both at the in-person cantatas and the virtual sessions. He offers that “the sessions have constituted a comprehensive scholarly study of Bach’s cantatas. Outside of that, a limited but cordial social gathering – limited owing to lack of time for more than anything else but the music and associated commentary. I have never had any other experience that could compare with the Bach evenings. They are always pleasant and cordial, but there isn’t much time for anything beyond the music, which takes almost all the time.”
When the pandemic hit, Hart helped Ellsworth transition the group to an online gathering. “When the pandemic made it clear that we wouldn’t be able to meet live at Ellsworth’s house anymore, we began trying to invent ways to meet digitally. We met for a couple of weeks in March over Facebook Messenger but soon realized that Zoom provides better tools for sharing a computer’s audio and video. The virtual format has obviously facilitated a big expansion of the sessions—we now sometimes have as many as 15 or 20 attendees on the Zoom call, compared to 3 or 4 in the “before” times.”
Ben Oliver (Georgetown, TX), former dean and provost at Southwestern and also president emeritus of Hiram College, is the only individual who is present with Dr. Peterson in his home during the virtual sessions. Oliver shares, “When I came to Southwestern I was immediately impressed with him. He was a consummate and caring teacher whom his students loved, he was respected by his colleagues, not simply in fine arts but across the campus, and he was also well known and respected throughout the musical world. All this in a man who was not pretentious and who carried himself with humility. I recall well how even as a busy member of the faculty he spent time with me helping me understand the character and culture of Southwestern.”
The virtual cantatas bring Dr. Peterson back into the classroom setting in a very different format from his years of teaching at Southwestern. The influence of his teachings go beyond those on the calls though. A professor at Wayland Baptist University, Ann Brashear Stutes ’84 (Plainview, TX) joined the group with Dr. Peterson when they transitioned to virtual sessions. She offers, “Since joining the sessions, I have used several of our recently-studied cantatas in my own undergraduate teaching. Dr. Peterson’s influence is limitless – he continues to impact young musician-scholars, even today.”
Dr. Peterson’s daughter, Kirsten Peterson ’88, joins the calls from her home in Brookfield, CT. “It gives me time to share something with my father. With Covid and the fact that I haven’t been able to get down to Texas since last March (and I’m not sure when that will happen again), it’s nice to know that I will get to ‘see’ him on a regular basis, although we do talk regularly on the phone…. I’ve gained a new and enhanced appreciation for Bach’s music, and I love being able to connect with my father on this new level. He’s still my teacher.”
Connie McManus Clement ’88 (Bellingham, WA) shares, “When I was a music history student at SU, I loved the Sunday evening Bach cantata nights at Dr. Peterson’s house. I remember returning to my dorm after these sessions with an extra spring in my step. It’s been 33 years since I graduated from SU, and I now live far away from Georgetown. Being able to participate in the Sunday Bach Cantata night again has been a real silver lining to the pandemic. I’m in the Pacific Time Zone now, so often I listen to the first hour while making dinner, and then join in with the camera on for the second half. It makes for a lovely Sunday evening. I am so happy to connect with the SU community in this way.”
“I look forward each week to hearing new cantatas (they’re all new to me, to be honest) and to seeing the faces of so many SU family members,” says John Reynolds ’71, P’05 and Sara Schucany Reynolds ’71, P’05 of Durham, NC.
Billy Stubblefield ’71 (Georgetown, TX) adds, “I joined the group to gain peace and comfort in the midst of our pain and stress in 2020. I have discovered that humanity in the first half of the 18th century must have been experiencing travails equal to ours and surely found strength and relief in the gospels so beautifully expressed in the words of Bach’s librettists and, of course, his immortal cantatas.”
The Sunday cantatas welcome anyone who would like to attend. When attendees share the impact of these lifelong-learning experiences with friends and family, the group expands beyond the inner Southwestern circle. Elle Clifford is the daughter of Southwestern alumni, David Clifford ’71 and Judy Campbell Clifford ’71. She joins the conversations for a love of Bach. “I have many memories bonding with my dad over Bach growing up. I am nowhere near being as well versed in Bach as many of the group members but the connection and thought and open exchange of thoughts and information is invaluable.”
David Clifford joins the calls from St. Louis, MO. “The music is challenging and not the kind of thing that it’s easy to pull together for performance in the 21st century. However, accessibility of fine performances has never been better, and it has been really amazing to listen several hours a week for a year without repeating a thing, and hear stunning music every session.”
Knowledge of the cantata sessions often come from personal connections. Jeanne Clifford Weiss ’83 (Woodinville, WA) joined the calls after learning about them from her brother David. She has gained a great deal from the experience, learning from Dr. Peterson and engaging with others. “I realized how wonderful Dr. Peterson was able to explain easy and difficult musical concepts to just make sense – how to really listen to what Bach was telling through his music. Dr. Peterson’s calm soothing voice was so wonderful to hear and learn about the history of the music which was developed for certain liturgical times of the year week after week after week. I knew Bach was a genius but it came more ‘alive’ with incredible performances studied by Dr. Peterson and presented by Mikal Hart on the computer calls every week.” Bill Nicholas (Georgetown, TX), a retired professor from Birmingham-Southern University, learned about the sessions through his engagement in Georgetown’s Festival of the Arts.
There is much appreciation for Dr. Peterson’s efforts to hold the cantata sessions every Sunday. Marlene Escamilla Williams ’78 (Georgetown, TX) says, “My deep gratitude to Dr. Peterson for his wisdom and expertise in sharing so many of these amazing compositions with us each week.” Stubblefield adds, “Quite simply Dr. Peterson is a towering figure in the story of Southwestern University and of our beloved town.” Lynn Parr Mock ’83 (Dallas, TX) shares, “Ellsworth is a treasure. We all value him and are hungry for culture and community.”
Dr. Peterson has invited others to join the Bach cantatas. If you would like to join, please email him at email@example.com.
The following individuals have joined the virtual sessions with Dr. Peterson since the start of the pandemic. Many are alumni, while others are friends of Dr. Peterson and friends of other attendees.
Connie McManus Clement ’88
David Clifford ’71
Bob Coats ’82
Virginia Hyde Dupuy ’71
James Giroux ’85, P’20
Mikal Hart ’84
Bob Horick P’99
Lynn Parr Mock ’83
Mary Jane Moore
Bill O’Brien P’00
Kirsten Peterson ’88
Maureen Rendon ’21
John Reynolds ’71, P’05
Sara Schucany Reynolds ’71, P’05
Pam Gregory Rossman ’73
Julie Schnepel ’80
Vicki Pierce Stroeher ’81
Billy Stubblefield ’71
Ann Brashear Stutes ’84
President Laura Skandera Trombley
Jeanne Clifford Weiss ’83
Carleton Wilkes ’76
Marlene Escamilla Williams ’78
“A Sonnet to Music” by Dr. Ellsworth Peterson
O noble art, in nights of dark despair,
Or during days of frantic fevered rush,
How oft a haunting chord or cherished air
Has brought into my heart a healing hush.
How oft, o Music, hast thou shown the way
To worlds where things are other than they seem,
To worlds where violence is only play,
Where sorrow teaches joy, where jesters dream.
The fine enchantment that you offer me,
Sublime, fantastic, passing all my thought,
Would seem the less if it were mine alone.
O may I teach, that others learn of thee;
May I give thanks for those whom I have taught:
Joy must be shared if it be fully known.
We would like to offer a special thank you to Jeanne Clifford Weiss ’83 of Woodinville, WA (President of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Southwestern University Alumni Association) for gathering the information for this story.