We Remember Robert De Cormier
Robert De Cormier, a prolific musician, composer, and arranger, died on Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at the age of 95. He died at the Rutland Regional Medical Center in Rutland, Vermont from kidney failure. His death has been confirmed by Louise de Cormier, his wife of 67 years.
A resident of Belmont, Vermont with Louise since 1956, Mr. De Cormier had an esteemed presence in the world of classical and folk music for well over half a century. An inimitable musician and deeply altruistic, Mr. De Cormier was a wonderful teacher and a man immensely concerned with social justice.
Mr. De Cormier was born in Farmingdale, Long Island, on January 7, 1922, to parents Robert Romeo De Cormier and Selma Stigberg, and he had four siblings. His father was a teacher and his mother a musician, and when Mr. De Cormier was two years old they moved to Poughkeepsie, New York. Mr. De Cormier claimed that his life as a musician began when he was gifted a trumpet at the age of seven. He played the trumpet throughout high school and upon reaching college he knew that he wanted to study music. He spent two years at Colby College and two semesters at the University of New Mexico before joining the army to fight in World War II. After his wrist was wounded during an explosion in the war (which would end up requiring 13 surgeries), De Cormier was sent to a hospital on Staten Island. During his recovery he decided to try out for a chorus being formed in New York City by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Upon receiving encouragement by the director of the CIO Chorus, Mr. De Cormier chose to go to the Juilliard School and study choral music. At Juilliard he directed The Jewish Young Folk Singers, and with that group he began arranging folk music for choruses.
After graduating from Juilliard, he was the music teacher and chorus director at Elisabeth Irwin High School from 1954 to 1957. He then became the conductor and leader of The Belafonte Folk Singers during most of its lifetime from 1957 to 1965. He also led The Robert De Cormier Singers, who performed extensively in the mid-1960s and then intermittently until the mid-1990s. From 1970-1987 he was the Music Director and Conductor of the New York Choral Society and afterwards the Music Director Emeritus. From 1972-1977, he served as an associate professor of conducting and ensembles at the Eastman School of Music. In 1993 he helped found the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Mr. De Cormier also founded Counterpoint, a Vermont-based professional chamber chorus. Finally in 2007, Mr. De Cormier founded Vermont Sings for Peace.
Mr. De Cormier was famously a longtime music director, arranger, and friend of the folk group “Peter, Paul and Mary.” When the group formed in 1961 they had originally wanted De Cormier to be their musical director, but at that time he was busy working with Harry Belafonte. But after the group’s eight-year hiatus, Mr. De Cormier was reunited with them in 1978.
During his successful years as Music Director and Conductor of the New York Choral Society, Mr. De Cormier arranged for choral collaborations with Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary, and diversified the chorus’s songbook by supplementing canonical works by Brahms and Handel with modern pieces (some of which Mr. De Cormier even composed himself).
A prolific composer and arranger, Mr. De Cormier composed music for chorus as well as ballet, Broadway scores, and spiritual arrangements. His ballet score Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder is in the active repertoire of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He also directed concerts and recordings for television specials, and he performed and recorded with legendary classical musician such as Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and James Levine. Mr. De Cormier conducted and recorded operas from Jewish composers with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The operas were Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis and Hans Krása’s Brundibár. He and his wife Louise (also a singer) collected and recorded folksongs from the Catskill Mountains in New York State, and he arranged the music in The Weavers Songbook. With The Robert De Cormier Singers he recorded several Christmas albums, and his recording of Kodaly's Missa Brevis with Vox Turnabout received a Grammy nomination. Mr. De Cormier often collaborated with the late Milt Okun, who was an American arranger, record producer, conductor, and singer. On September 23, 2017, his final composition Dona Nobis Pacem, received its world premiere at the gathering of Vermont choruses.
In 2008 Mr. De Cormier taught a class at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont entitled "Songs of Resistance: Music in Struggle." A year later in the summer of 2009 he conducted at the Vermont International Music Festival. And in the winter of 2012 he directed the Chorus at the Vermont High School Honors Music Festival held at Castleton State College.
Mr. De Cormier served on the New York State Council on the Arts, and was a member of the choral panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. He was presented the 2002 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts by the Vermont Arts Council, and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the New York Choral Society and Choral Arts New England. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Middlebury College in 2007, an honorary degree from the University of Vermont in 2012, and an honorary degree from Saint Michael’s College in 2016.
In addition to his wife Louise de Cormier who remains in Belmont, Vermont, he is survived by his daughter Robin Timko who lives in Proctorsville, Vermont, as well as two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Mr. De Cormier’s son Christopher De Cormier died of cancer in 1977. A piece written by Mr. De Cormier in his son’s honor, titled “Legacy,” is scheduled to be performed at a 2018 tribute concert for Mr. De Cormier. The keys of the work’s four movements spell out Christopher De Cormier’s initials: C major, D minor, E minor and C again.
For Robert De Cormier, music was more than something of beauty- music was a profound spiritual experience. He believed in music’s ability to unify people in order to overcome injustice. Even when a piece of music was not specifically about social justice, it was still at the core of his approach.