Personal Histories – Leslie Pratt Spelman (OC 28) (page 2 of 3)

“Coomaraswamy appreciated my sincere interest in Buddhism and spend an entire afternoon answering more fully my questions about Buddhist philosophy. I left him hungry to learn more. I began to read Coomaraswamy’s writings and through his study came to believe that Eastern wisdom could enrich our Western ways of thinking. It gave me a while new approach to spirituality, new openness and acceptance of life.”

Dissatisfied with his own level of musicianship, Spelman resigned from William Woods College in 1930. “I wanted to study with Lynnwood Farnum, but gave up on that when I found out there was a five-year waiting period before I could begin. Instead, Muriel and I embarked for Paris. I began studying with Joseph Bonnet as well as with Nadia Boulanger. Bonnet’s fee was two hundred dollars in advance for ten lessons. That was a lot in nineteen-thirty, when apartment rent was about thirty-five to forty dollars, and a good meal cost around a dollar.

“Bonnet was a marvelous teacher for me, as he seemed to have mystical leanings. He would say that the harmonic series is one of those universal laws—‘It just IS’—like Genesis. ‘All we can do,’ he’d tell us, ‘is manipulate the God-given materials in composition.’

“I needed to bring in money, so I took a position as organizer/choirmaster at the American Church. That was a learning experience, to say the least. The choir4 members were mostly American voice students, most of whom wanted opportunities to display their individual talents. One bass had been a soloist with Sousa’s band and was billed as ‘the voice that can drown out a brass band’; a contralto had won a national oratorio content is England, and a soprano was said to have ‘the most beautiful legs on Broadway.’

“I was also studying with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Many of her students worshipped her, but I never thought she had the answer to everything. She did have taste and was a great help to me and was a great help to me and many other American musicians. On Wednesdays she had class for all of us who were studying with her. We’d sing Bach cantatas and then analyze them. Boulanger would have soloists come in and afterwards, we’d all be invited to ‘high tea.’

“Muriel was taking piano lessons, and our money began to run out even with my salary from the American Church. Fortunately, both Bonnet and Boulanger were understanding. When I told Bonnet I would have it take fewer lessons, he said just to continue. After about fourteen or fifteen unpaid lessons, he’d suggest it was time to pay for another ten.

“Boulanger’s attitude was similar. Because I was serious and was married, I should just continue my lessons and pay her little by little after I went back to the States and had a job.

“Well, when we got back home in thirty-two, it was the middle of the depression. Our first child was on the way, I had no job waiting for me, and things looked pretty bleak. Happily, several good offers soon came and I accepted a position as head of the music department at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“In my fifth year there, I got a letter from a Baptist missionary I’d met at the American Church. He told me that Arthur Poister was leaving the university of Redlands in California to go to Syracuse. I applied and was offered an appointment as an assistant professor. I was naïve about academic seniority systems and told them that since I was a department head at Meredith, I should be offered full professor rank. Surprisingly, they agreed without a recital or even an interview.

“The first year at Redlands was not an easy one. Some of the faculty weren’t happy about passing them in rank. Besides that, Poister had been much loved and respected by his students. I introduced ideas from the new scholarship which some of them resisted as disloyalty to his teaching. Fortunately for me, Poister returned to give a recital and surprised them all by exhibiting the same new ideas in his playing.

“There were no art courses at Redlands when I arrived. As a highly conservative Baptist institution, art was viewed with suspicion as ‘so much nudity and questionable pleasures.’ With the coming of a somewhat more liberal president, I was asked to develop and teach a course in art appreciation. Wonderful! It gave me a chance to use some of what I’d learned at Oberlin, and the students responded enthusiastically. From a beginning of eight or ten, enrollments mushroomed into new courses and eventually a department of art. Later, I also taught a graduate course in Aesthetics.”

But not everything was perfect. In Raleigh, the Spelmans had visited a Quaker meeting and found themselves drawn to the practice of silent worship. However, they also loved and appreciated art in many forms and became dissatisfied with the restrictions of this “plain” Quaker Meeting.

In Redlands, they looked up the Quakers and, when in the home of the clerk of the Meeting, they saw paintings on the wall and Oriental rugs on the floor, they knew the Society of Friends would be their permanent spiritual home.

“As everybody knows, Quakers are pacifists. During World War Two, this was not a popular position to uphold, and when I became active as a draft counselor and helped young men find alternatives to military service, I lost my position as organist at a local church. No other church offered employment, and I was effectively blacklisted for nine years.

“It was a blessing in disguise. I used the free time to finish work for a doctorate in history from the Claremont Graduate School. With the Ph.D. in hand, I became Director of the Division of Arts and School of Music, and continued in that position until retirement in nineteen sixty-eight.”

In 1949, something happened which brought attention to American composers of music for the organ and at the same time brought wide notice to Spelman himself. A new Moller organ was installed at what is not north Texas State University, with dedicatory recitals by four American organists. Not one work by an American composer was included. Spelman thought this was deplorable and discussed with his students as to what might be done to bring recognition of our own composers. A few years later the opportunity arose.

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