The people close to conductor and Music Humanities professor Johannes Somary said they will continue to hear his music long after his passing.
Somary died at his home in the Bronx on Feb. 1 at the age of 75.
Susan Boynton, chair of the music department, was one of Somary’s students at the Horace Mann School in New York where he taught Advanced Placement Music Theory for over 40 years and helped him get a job at her department in 2009.
“I’m the chair of Music Hum, so I read all the course evaluations, and the students just loved him, raved about him,” Boynton said, adding that many wrote that “he was the best professor they’d encountered at Columbia.”
Somary’s students at Columbia said his enthusiasm and vivacity were unparalleled.
“He walked up to every Music Humanities class on the 7th floor of Hamilton. We [the students] would come in panting or would take the elevator, but he was always so composed,” Emily Steinberger, CC ’10, said. “He loved life and tried to transmit his joie de vivre to his students.”
After Somary suffered a stroke last December, his family set up a CaringBridge website for friends to send him good wishes. Today, the website has over 30,000 hits on it from friends, musicians that he taught or performed with around the world, and students, according to his son Stephen Somary.
“This overwhelming outpouring of emotion for this man, the scope of how many people he touched … it was quite overwhelming,” Stephen said.
Boynton described attending a rehearsal last November for a concert conducted by Somary—it included one of her favorite compositions, Carissimi’s oratorio, Jepthe, to which Somary introduced her when she was his student.
“Hearing him rehearse was like old times. What I saw in his conducting in November was no different from what I had seen in his conducting 30 years ago,” Boynton said.
Boynton said the piece still connects her to Somary.
“I now teach it to my students at Columbia. The way I teach is in some way inspired by his teaching,” she said.
Stephen said he grew up on his father’s music, attending concerts with him from a very young age. He said he will always remember “feeling the intensity of the music that he made, and the intensity of the audience just … enraptured, and the explosions of applause at the end.”
Although Somary, the founder and artistic director of Amor Artis, an all-professional chorale with orchestral accompaniment, was interested in music that spanned genres and periods, “the work most dear to his heart was by Franz Joseph Haydn, a large choral oratorio called ‘The Creation,'” Stephen said. “That was the seminal work for him … [upon] which he really based his spirituality. It’s the story of the creation of the world and the very beginning of Genesis.”
Stephen added that his father greatly valued the last two years of his life spent teaching at Columbia.
“His last years at Columbia were very meaningful for him,” Stephen said. “He was a great father to my brother and sister and I, but ... he was really a father figure for hundreds and hundreds of people.”