Rochester, NY — Frederick Fennell, legendary founder of the Eastman Wind Ensemble and former faculty member at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, died today (Tuesday, December 7) at his home in Florida after a brief illness. He was 90 years old.
Widely regarded as the leader of the wind ensemble movement in the United States, the diminutive Fennell was a true giant at the Eastman School — and in the classical wind band music world at large — for creating the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952, which has gone on to become internationally acclaimed.
“An amazing era has come to an end,” said Eastman School Dean James Undercofler. “The entire Eastman community is deeply saddened by the death of this remarkable man.”
Born July 2, 1914, in Cleveland, Ohio, Fennell’s ties to the Eastman School run long and deep. He attended Eastman as a percussion major, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1937. He then joined the Eastman School’s conducting faculty after receiving his master’s degree in 1939. (He had also studied conducting at Tanglewood, the Interlochen National Music Camp, and the Salzburg Mozarteum.)
Fennell periodically conducted the Eastman Opera Theatre and the Eastman Chamber Orchestra, but will always be remembered as the creator of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. In 1952, encouraged by Director Howard Hanson, Fennell developed a model for wind band performance with one player to each part, a “chamber music” approach that proved there was much more to band music than Sousa marches.
“The innovation that is the Eastman Wind Ensemble was in no way radical,” he once wrote; “it simply merged from the music that led me to it.” The Ensemble’s repertory included Sousa marches, to be sure, but also works by European masters from Gabrieli and Mozart to Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and many works by American composers: Barber, Thomson, Hanson, Schuman, and many others. Starting with American Concert Band Masterpieces (1953), Fennell and the Ensemble recorded 22 albums for Mercury Records, many of them still available on CDs. In 1977, Stereo Review selected the Fennell/EWE recording of Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy as one of the “Fifty Best Recordings of the Centenary of the Phonograph.”
After he left Eastman in 1962, Fennell was associate music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, then conductor-in-residence at the University of Miami and principal guest conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy and Dallas Wind Symphony. He was appointed conductor of the Kosei Wind Orchestra in 1984.
During his lifetime, Fennell received innumerable academic and professional honors, from induction into the National Hall of Fame for Distinguished Band Directors, to induction as an Honorary Chief of the Kiowa Tribe, to induction in the Classical Music Hall of Fame. In 1992, Frederick Fennell Hall was opened in Kofu, Japan.
Fennell also received an Eastman Alumni Citation in 1977, the University of Rochester’s “Distinguished Alumnus” Award in 1981, and an honorary doctorate in music in 1988, describing him as “a man whose career and accomplishments have enhanced the School’s reputation and the place of music in our times.” He visited Eastman frequently, most recently in October, conducting the Eastman Wind Ensemble one final time on the newly renovated Eastman Theatre stage during Alumni Weekend 2004.
“Fred Fennell changed music,” said Mark Scatterday, current director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, who is dedicating tomorrow’s (Wed., Dec. 8) 8 p.m. Wind Ensemble concert to the memory of his legendary predecessor. “He was short in height, but huge in stature and character. He was the consummate professional and entertainer — and a class act in every way. He will be deeply missed, but never, ever forgotten.”
“Since the early 1950s, there can hardly be a wind performer or conductor who has not been introduced to or affected by — in some major way — the innovations of Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble approach to musicality in the wind band world,” adds Eastman Professor Emeritus Donald Hunsberger, who led the acclaimed Ensemble for 37 years (1965-2002). “He broke open the long-standing traditions of large bands with their borrowed orchestral arrangements and sought to create a new original repertoire from major composers of the day. These activities, plus his own indomitable spirit and enthusiasm for performance, made him well known to thousands of performers throughout the United States and the world.”
Fennell is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Ludwig-Fennell, and his daughter, Catherine Fennell Martensen. Funeral and memorial arrangements are not known at this time.
# # #
Note to editors: Photos of Fennell’s final appearance in October 2004 on the Eastman Theatre stage are available.