A Tribute to Robert Beckwith

Bowdoin Professor of Music (1953-1986), Choral Conductor, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Music Publisher, and Arts Advocate

Robert Beckwith
Professor Robert K. Beckwith with members of the Glee Club,
Feb. 26, 1966

(Image 7702.1 provided courtesy of the George J. Mitchell
Department of Special Collections & Archives)

A native of Brooklyn, NY, Robert K. Beckwith joined the faculty of Bowdoin College in 1953, and served as chair of the Music Department for three terms, until his retirement in 1986.   Professor Beckwith’s primary interests were modern music, late Baroque music, and opera.  His interests and legacy are reflected in the extensive collections of the library that bears his name, the Robert K. Beckwith Music Library in Gibson Hall at Bowdoin College.

Professor Beckwith followed a non-traditional path to Bowdoin and his music career.   In 1943, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh University, he accepted a position as research chemist for Standard Oil in New Jersey.  While employed at Standard Oil, he pursued his interest in music by singing with the Collegiate Choir under the famed choral conductor, Robert Shaw.  As a member of the choir, he assisted Shaw in a variety of capacities and with Shaw’s urging decided to make pursue a music career.

Beckwith was once asked how he managed to make a complete break from the oil industry.  He answered, “Standard Oil was very understanding about a somewhat sticky situation.  I was supposed to give the company 90-days’ notice, but Julliard didn’t admit students until 10 days before classes began.  So the company waived the severance requirement.  They reasoned that if I were every going to be fully effective as a research scientist for them, I’d have to get this music out of my system.  I never did.”[1]

Beckwith attended both the Tanglewood School of Music and the Julliard School of Music.  After receiving his master’s degree from Julliard in 1949, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music under Hugh Ross and Julius Herford, a mentor of Robert Shaw.

Beckwith joined the music faculty of Marymount College from 1949 to 1950 and for three years taught at Amherst College before coming to Bowdoin in 1953.  His accomplishments at Bowdoin were many and include developing the Music Library that bears his name, adding instruction in applied music, expanding public concert series, acquiring instrument  collections that can be seen throughout Gibson Hall and electronic music studio, and co-founding the Bowdoin College Music Press in the 1960’s with Elliott Schwartz.

Robert Beckwith’s contributions during his distinguished music career also reached beyond Bowdoin.  In 1964, with Lewis Kaplan the current Artistic Director, Robert Beckwith co-founded the Bowdoin Summer Music School and Festival, now known as the Bowdoin International Music Festival.  This Festival continues to bring renowned instructors, performers, soloists, and gifted pre-professional classical musicians from around the world and has presented chamber, orchestral, and solo concerts for six weeks for the past 47 years. 

Beckwith’s  contributions outside of Bowdoin also included director of Opera New England, Inc., director and president of Opera New England of Maine Inc, member of the music advisory panel of the Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities, president and director of the Coastal Theater Workshop, and music and choir director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick.

In 1979, Beckwith received the Bowdoin Alumni Council’s Award for Faculty and Staff, an annual award recognizing “outstanding service and devotion to the College.”  Commenting on the establishment of an endowed chair that was established in Beckwith’s name in 1986, Prof. Elliott Schwartz, the Robert K. Beckwith Professor of Music Emeritus,  stated, “Nothing could be more appropriate, if only because the name Robert Beckwith brings to mind great accomplishments, personal integrity, and human warmth. “[2]

(Adapted from materials held at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library.)

[1] “Robert K. Beckwith, Bowdoin College Professor of Music Emeritus, Dies,” Bowdoin News (Aug. 29, 1989)

[2] Memorial Minute,” presented by Prof. Elliott Schwartz, at the Bowdoin College Faculty meeting on Sept, 11, 1989.