Greatest Hits: Stephen Sondheim’s Williams mentor

Robert BarrowOur website can have a wide reach. Sometimes we get an an avalanche of hits from around the world.

When the legendary Stephen Sondheim ’50 died, the New York Times obituary referenced Sondheim’s mentor Robert Barrow, Professor of Music at Williams.

Readers wanted more information about Barrow and they first found it on our website, by droves.

Bob Chamber’s tribute to Professor Barrow remains one of most popular articles. Even several years later, an Internet search for Professor Barrow brings up his tribute in first place.

Professor Barrow was for many years the Head of the Williams Music Department, the director of the Williams Choral Society, an accomplished composer, and a gifted teacher.

Classmate Bob Chambers majored in music at Williams, singing both in the Choral Society and the Ephlats. In 2018 he penned tribute below, which we are proud to reproduce. In 2021 he added  a separate anecdote about Barrow’s influence on Stephen Sondheim.

(please note that Bob’s tribute appears together with a separate remembrance written by Bob Cricenti.)

Robert Barrow was the finest professor I have ever had. His lessons in harmony and music theory were superb, surpassing those I subsequently received in graduate school. He once said in one of his harmony classes, “Take this down, gentlemen. It’s pure gold. You won’t find it published anywhere else.”

As a student of Ravel, Hindemith and Vaughan-Williams, he knew what he was talking about, and he could put it across with incredible clarity. As a music major, I got to know Professor Barrow a lot better over my four years, and I was privileged to see another side of him–his wonderful sense of humor–that might otherwise have escaped me. When I told him that I was in the Williams Flying Club, he said, “Well now I’ve got to tell you my experience of flying in the Alaskan bush country.” Apparently, he was in the cockpit of a ski plane, sitting next to the pilot, as the latter attempted a takeoff in a heavy snowstorm. After a few seconds of gunning it, the pilot observed that they weren’t coming up to speed properly. Mr. Barrow looked out and noticed that there was a bear scrambling around on the wing. As he told this to me, he was chortling away. Irwin Shainman was also in Barrow’s office with me, and I can still hear both professors laughing heartily at the conclusion of the tale.

I will always think of Bob Barrow as the professor who persuaded Stephen Sondheim ’50 out of the math department and into a music major. I remember Mr. Barrow saying that he went down to New York City once every year to visit “Steve.” It would have been fun to have eavesdropped on those conversations. In a TIME Magazine cover story about Sondheim many years ago, he credited his career to Professor Robert Barrow of Williams College–a fitting and deserving tribute.

Mr. Barrow was delightfully unrestrained when things went bad during a glee club rehearsal, especially if it involved a joint concert with a women’s college. I remember one day when he turned to the ladies and said, “You’re flat,” with the double-entendre registering immediately amongst the Ephs. Another day, in the Williams chapel choir area, he told us all, “You’re going to fall flat on your faces, if not in another direction.” I loved him for his candor and authenticity. We were listening to a Brahms symphony one day in class, and he got tears in his eyes as he said, “Sometimes I find it hard to believe that such people actually walked the face of the earth.” I’ve quoted him on that many times since.

In short, Robert Barrow was in a class by himself as professor, musical mind, mentor, coach and friend. It is difficult to stand before his cold gravestone in the college cemetery and contemplate his vitality, keen intellect, kindness and humor. If he had taught graduate courses, I would have stayed put in Williamstown until I had taken them all.

Bob Cricenti’s tribute

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