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Stephen Paulus wrote and shared glorious music

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Stephen Paulus
The classical music community is still reeling from the recent death of composer Stephen Paulus. Here, Paulus jokes during a recording session at MPR in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News 2011

Stephen Paulus could have lived anywhere. A prolific composer and founder of the American Composers Forum, he had an impeccable reputation and a gift for writing music that touched the hearts of people around the world.

More: Philip Brunelle reflects on the legacy of Stephen Paulus

But instead of the east or west coasts, Paulus chose to live in St. Paul. He credited his ability to flourish as a composer to people in Minnesota, where a spirit of collaboration exists.

"There are many, many people who are willing to take a chance with composers living in the area," he said years ago in a Minnesota Public Radio interview. "They go out on a limb definitely you know in the early stages of a composer's career by volunteering to do these things."

Paulus died Sunday at 65. The classical music community is still reeling from his death. 

For more than four decades, he challenged musicians and listeners to open their ears and minds. One of his best-known compositions is, "Pilgrim's Hymn," a piece that comes at the end of his one-act opera, "The Three Hermits," adapted from a Russian folk tale.

House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul commissioned Paulus to write the work, which premiered in 1997.

Minneapolis poet Michael Dennis Browne, who collaborated Paulus on more than 16 compositions, immediately recognized the hymn's potential.

"When I heard the melody, I said, 'Stephen, can we bring that back at the end of the opera? May I write new words to that glorious melody?' And he hemmed and hawed," Browne said. "But he did it and changed the key and doubled up the voices, and that has become our major piece and in fact caused him to found Paulus Publications." 

Paulus made a good share of his living writing for individuals or groups who wanted a composition.

"He wrote pieces the players could play yet would hopefully challenge them and challenge the ear."

The composer's music was accessible even as he explored new ideas, said Linda Hoeschler, a former executive director of the American Composers Forum, the St. Paul-based organization that nurtures young composers.

Hoeschler and her husband commissioned Paulus every five years to write a piece of music to commemorate their wedding anniversary. "Courtships Songs," which premiered in 1981, was the first.

"He wrote something the singer could sing," said Hoeschler of St. Paul. "He wrote pieces the players could play yet would hopefully challenge them and challenge the ear."  

Born in New Jersey in 1949, Paulus came to Minnesota at age 3, when his father moved the family to Minnesota after taking a job as a chemical engineer at 3M.

In a 2000 interview on MPR, Paulus said his father was a church organist on the side and that their Roseville house was full of instruments.

"In addition to a grand piano, an upright piano, and a trumpet and several other instruments varying from accordion to banjo, we also had an old reed organ in the back room that my father had procured from somebody," he said.

Paulus graduated from Macalester College in 1971 and later earned a PhD from the University of Minnesota School of Music.

"The audience is what activates the life of the music from the bargain that the performer and composer have made."

Composer Libby Larsen, a fellow graduate student, said she and Paulus grew frustrated that only other graduate students heard their compositions. 

"The audience is what activates the life of the music from the bargain that the performer and composer have made," she said.

Larsen said she and Paulus wanted a wider audience to hear and judge their work, and they wanted the pieces to be played on the instruments they were composed for, not just a classroom piano.

"We would meet in Shevlin Hall. ... And, it wasn't very long before we said let's just make an organization," she said.

They asked Hoeschler, then a vice president at the the Dayton Hudson Corporation, for funding.

Hoeschler convinced the company's foundation to approve $10,000 to create the Minnesota Composers Forum in 1973, now called the American Composers Forum.

The St. Paul-based forum is the world's largest service organization for composers and is regarded as one of the premier incubators for new music.

Paulus rose to prominence early with the choral anthem "Carol of the Hill" in 1976.

Three years later, his church opera, "The Village Singer" commissioned by The Opera Theater of St. Louis, won favorable reviews.

Paulus wrote more than 400 works including operas, works with orchestral settings and choral music.

He also created new arrangements of old tunes such as "The Road Home."  

The original work is titled "Prospect" from the 1835 Southern Harmony collection. The Paulus' arrangement has new words written by Michael Dennis Browne and is one of the collection's most popular works.

Paulus was composer in residence for orchestras in Atlanta, Tucson, Annapolis and Minneapolis. He won coveted Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

Philip Brunelle, the founder and artistic director of Minneapolis-based VocalEssence, said Paulus' compositions have a world-wide following.

"I've heard them in Europe, I've heard them South America," Brunelle said. "People know Stephen's work, and then also of course, his operas, because he was the first American to have an opera performed at the Edinburgh Festival."

The opera, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," is adapted from a 1934 James Cain novel about a tragic romantic entanglement involving a drifter, a diner waitress and her husband was premiered in 1982. The New York Times review of the work referred to Paulus' as, "a young man on a road to big things."

Paulus also was a businessman who ran the music publishing house Paulus Publications. His wide influence in the music business, included the more than 15 years he served as a board member for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which represents artists' interests in copyrights and royalty payments.

Closer to home, fans in Minnesota supplied a steady stream of commissions.

With Browne, he composed "To Be Certain of the Dawn," an oratorio commissioned in 2001 by the Rev. Michael O'Connell, then pastor at the Basilica of St. Mary, as a gift to the Jewish community.

Performed by the Minnesota Orchestra with chorus and soloists, the work commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945 and the 40th anniversary of the Vatican document Nostra Aetate which condemns anti-Semitism.

Paulus said the first part is a statement of Christian repentance for the Holocaust; the middle part — a memorial to the experience of the Jews; and the final section a vision of reconciliation and cooperation among faiths.

In contrast to multi-layered operas and orchestral pieces, some of Paulus' choral works focused on multiple voices singing in unison and a straightforward melody.

Former Dale Warland Singers soprano Marie Spar Dymit said one of her favorites is Paulus' arrangement of the folk tune "The Water is Wide."

"One of the many things I love about Stephen's music is that he is not afraid to just make a very simple and yet elegant setting too," she said. "It's not all (music that is) just unbelievably difficult."

Hoeschler remembers him as a gifted artist and a gracious human being.  

"Steve would always take the time to meet with a composer and follow up with him," she said. "He was the most generous of spirit person that I've met in almost any profession."

Paulus is survived by his wife, Patty, and sons Greg and Andrew. A worship service will take place on Saturday, Nov. 8 at 3 p.m. at The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul. A reception will follow.