Corning's Memorable Maestro
Charles C. Corwin
The Legacy of "Mr. Music"
Having laid down the baton of the Philharmonic, Charles Corwin was back where he had been in 1914, the occupant of one post: organist and choir director at Christ Church. True, he had resigned from that position in 1923, following a rather sharp tiff with the current rector over styles of church music. (It was largely a high-church/low-church issue.) He was eventually offered a similar position by two Elmira congregations: the Lake Street Presbyterian Church (1928 to 1934); and the Park Congregational Church (1937 to 1939). In 1939, however, the vestry of Christ Church invited him to "come home," and he was happy to do so.
Unfortunately, Charles had to vacate even his church office not long after retiring from the Philharmonic. Arteriosclerosis became an ever more pressing affliction, and while playing for a church wedding during the summer of 1953, he suffered a stroke. With characteristic grit, he finished the postlude (jaggedly, of course) by using the pedals and his fit hand. Then, finding that he could walk, he made a beeline to his car and by some miracle managed to drive to his summer cottage on Keuka Lake's Marilena Point.
Rest and care improved, but did not cure the musician. His career as an organist was obviously ended. In August, on his physician's advice, he sadly tendered his resignation to the Christ Church vestry. Subsequently he experienced two graver strokes. Charles Corwin died in Corning Hospital on February 26, 1954, aged 70. After funeral services in Christ Episcopal Church, he was interred in Corning's Hope Cemetery.
Shortly after Charles's death, his local friends and admirers took steps to memorialize him in some fitting manner. Leaders in Christ Church decided to renovate their choir room and name it after him. Chaired, appropriately, by Mrs. Amory Houghton, daughter-in-law of Charles Corwin's early sponsor Alanson Houghton, the project committee invited parishioners and others to donate to the remodeling fund. Handsomely refurbished, and adorned as we have said, with Choirmaster Corwin's photograph and Mr. Curtiss' framed citation, the Corwin Memorial Choir Room was formally dedicated after the service on Sunday, January 5, 1958. During the brief rite, the choir sang its late director's favorite hymn, "The Strife is O'er."
Meanwhile, the Philharmonic had undertaken its own commemorative gesture. Collecting a memorial fund, it subsidized several special musical events. Its crowning salute was the grand "Memorial Concert in Honor of Charles C. Corwin" of November 28, 1962, presented to an overflow crowd in Christ Episcopal Church. Conducting the ensemble was the well-known Rochester musician Theodore Hollenbach, whom the Philharmonic Society had engaged in 1953 to succeed Mr. Corwin as its first salaried musical director. Soloist was the world-famous organist Mr. E. Power Biggs. Biggs played on the splendid baroque-type organ that the parish had installed just a few months before. The interaction of this virtuoso recitalist with the well-directed Philharmonic made of the event, as the Leader put it, a truly memorable eulogy: "a tribute not only to a distinguished musician but to one of the kindest and most lovable of men."
I suppose that we all take words of praise in the media with a grain of salt. Journalists must generalize. Since Mr. Corwin particularized and personalized in training others, we can learn far more about him through his musicians. Fortunately, there still remain, out of the 300 who played in the Corwin orchestra, several who can bear witness to the man and his methods. Let us hear the testimony of five of these instrumentalists.
Witness No. 1 is Nicholas Bacalles, already mentioned as the youngest player invited by Corwin to join the original Philharmonic. A violin pupil of Bostelmann alumnus Clarence Aldam, he would graduate from C.F.A. in 1937. When he joined the "Civic Orchestra," he writes, "a whole new world opened for me, that of classical music. It became an important part of my life." The Corwins, he continues, made a great contribution to Corning's musical culture. Charles was "a sincere man, dedicated to his profession, a good conductor."
Mr. Bacalles continued to play with the ensemble under the dynamic direction of Theo Hollenbach. Only in 1985 did he retire, when severe arthritis of the left shoulder made it impossible to hold his violin. He is the only charter instrumentalist of the Philharmonic who still resides in Corning.
Witness No. 2 is cellist Janet Jones (Mrs. F. Eugene) Diehl, an Academy graduate of the class of 1935, and now a citizen of Sun City Center in Florida.
Janet's first performance with the Corning and Painted Post Civic Orchestra was in the concert of December 16, 1934. Looking back on Mr. Corwin both as a choral and an orchestral director, she says, "He taught all of us precision and perfection in music. I wasn't that good at the cello, but he had a quality of endurance that kept us striving to do our best up to the final crescendo! He never settled for less. I would that my grandchildren could know a musical experience as inspiring as Charles Corwin contributed to us."
Witness No. 3 is Helen Sweet (Mrs Kenneth) Cowles. A 1940 graduate of Wellsboro High School and a violin pupil of Wellsboro's Arthur Lofgren, Helen moved to Corning and joined the Philharmonic in 1943. Though awed at first by the tall, thin, vibrant Maestro Corwin, she soon found that he was the most friendly and inspiring of leaders.
Mrs. Cowles is now entering her forty-ninth season in the first violin section of the Corning orchestra, the only surviving member to have played under all three of its conductors. She marvels at the way the Philharmonic has matured over the past four decades, attracting as regular players able instrumentalists from Elmira, Ithaca and elsewhere in western New York, and from Mansfield in Pennsylvania. Nor is the ensemble intimidated by intricate musical compositions. Indeed, today's Junior Philharmonic is able to execute with skill musical scores that would have petrified the Corwin Symphony.
This development in no wise diminishes Charles's accomplishments. His successors have built well, but upon his foundation.
Witness No. 4 is Ruth Anne Smyth (Mrs. Bernard) Reagan. A graduate of Northside High School (1947), she is today a musically active resident of Marcellus, New York. As a child she took piano lessons; moved on to organ; switched to French horn; and won her college degree as a music major. She considers the five years spent in the Corning Philharmonic to be her fondest memory. "It was the greatest experience of my life: to be in the middle of that wonderful group." She praises in particular the artistic competence of Mr. Corwin. "He not only really knew every note of music which each instrumentalist played, but knew how to get the best out of everyone." In later years Ruth Anne would play French horn with the Syracuse University orchestra, the Syracuse Symphony, and other midstate ensembles, but never, she declares, under a conductor superior to Charles Corwin. Precise, "austere but kindly," he was, in her opinion, "an outstanding human being, and tremendously talented." "We were very lucky to know him!
Our fifth and last witness is Helen Austin (Mrs. Camp F.) Tinnin, now of Aurora, near Denver, Colorado.
Helen is an alumna of Corning Free Academy, Class of 1930, and an alumna of Mr. Corwin's studio from grade school on. He started her off with private piano lessons, and later on introduced her to pipe organ. When she entered high school he kept her busy as an accompanist. Then he cajoled her into playing string bass in the C.F.A. orchestra. When he organized the Civic Orchestra in 1933, he chose her as a charter member for the bass viol section. She also played in the Elmira Symphony from 1927 to 1937. After moving west, she was a member for 38 years of the (Antonia) Brico Symphony Orchestra. Still making music today, Mrs. Tinnin is the principal bassist of the Aurora Symphony Orchestra.
In 1988 Helen Tinnin wrote back to columnist Dick Peer of the Corning Leader some charming recollections of her strict but effective music master, the "most unforgettable character" that she had ever known. "In a reserved way," Peer quoted her on Corwin, "he was outgoing and even chivalrous…a gentleman of the old school, one who put honor ahead of money." What amazed her was that "he was always able to draw more music from a group of nonprofessionals than some conductors can produce from a union orchestra." "He filled his life," she wrote, "with a wide variety of music activities, all of them benefiting individuals and groups with whom he came into contact." For all these reasons, Mrs. Tinnin concluded, Charles Corwin deserves the title "Corning's Mister Music."
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Having reviewed the Corning career of Mr. Corwin and heard the testimonies of these five disciples who knew him well, we must now tie all the threads together.
While Charles was himself an able instrumentalist, his particular talent was that of a musical catalyst and educator. Knowing his own limitations, he permitted himself no national or statewide ambitions. But perceiving the Corning district to be musically educable, he chose that as his focus. As a painter of miniatures strives for perfect detail within a small compass, so Mr. Corwin strove to promote, within a small community, music of the noblest character. Inevitably, of course, his musical influence was felt beyond the limits of Corning and Painted Post: in Addison and Bath, where his Philharmonic performed; in Hornell, where for several years he directed a choral group; and, of course, in Elmira, where he served as church organist.
Corwin's labors at Christ Church in Corning were no doubt excellent, but by nature limited in scope. On the other hand, his post in the public school system furnished him a welcome opportunity to indoctrinate youngsters in tasteful music. The Civic Music Association appealed to him as a means of communicating that same love of music to local adults; a cultural endowment that elevated the mind as it moved the heart.
But Charles Corwin was happiest when he was leading others in the production of beautiful melodies. In the Musical Art Society, yes; but most of all in the Philharmonic Symphony, the initiative of his ripe years and surely his greatest bequest to the community.
Solidly established by its first director, and expanded under those who followed him, the Philharmonic remains vigorously active. Its third and present conductor, Professor Marietta N. Cheng of Colgate University, succeeded Maestro Ted Hollenbach in 1986. When she arrived in Corning to assume her duties, Professor Cheng was impressed, indeed amazed, by the loyal support that the community gave to the Philharmonic Symphony Society. In a letter written to the present biographer early in 1992, when the Philharmonic was planning an extended annual schedule, Maestra Cheng did not hesitate to say, in all modesty, "I believe we offer fully professional concerts in terms of quality."
The Corning Philharmonic Symphony is indeed a notable legacy, and the heirs should recall with gratitude the musician who bequeathed it. May I lead the way then, by saluting Corning's memorable maestro, the late Charles Condit Corwin—that musical motivator who delighted to initial himself (upbeat, of course):
© 1993, Robert F. McNamara
The writer is deeply grateful to all who have assisted him in preparing this short biography, especially the following: Nicholas Bacalles; Lee Baldwin; Sturges F. Cary; Marietta N. Cheng; the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society; William H. Corwin; Helen S. Cowles; Janet J. Diehl, Ruth B. Doyle; Shirley K. Griffin; Lois S. Janes; B. Joan Lecuona; Thea Mishia; Mary C. Poland; Ruth Anne S. Reagan; Sibley Music Library (Eastman School of Music); Virginia Stevens; Helen A. Tinnin; William Warfield; and Helen T. Werner.