Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Delvyn Case

Professor Delvyn Case, who also is a conductor and composer, works magic through music—in the classroom, in concert halls and in public libraries full of children gathered for his exploration of classical music styles and trends.

Prelude: I started taking piano lessons when I was six after going to hear a friend play a little piece in his studio recital. At the concert, a “big kid” played Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic “The Entertainer,” and I immediately knew I wanted to be a pianist. I started writing little pieces within a couple of years, but it wasn’t until high school that I decided I wanted to pursue composition as a specialty. It was Aaron Copland’s score to the ballet Rodeo that made me realize that classical music didn’t have to be “boring.” Once I heard that piece, at about age 15, I knew I wanted to be a composer.

A composer’s life: As in the past, most composers of concert music today also teach and perform, and many of us conduct ensembles as well. Unless you are Mozart, it just takes too much time to create a piece of music for it to ever efficiently provide a means of living on its own. It used to be that most composers were employed by the church or the royalty; now we are employed by universities. What hasn’t changed in 1,000 years is the fact that, until you are extremely well established (and often even afterward), you have to create most of your own opportunities: networking with colleagues, pitching projects to ensembles, promoting your own music.

Attention to details: I love working with the nitty-gritty details of music: for example, taking two melodies and figuring out how to make them work together. It reminds me of what it might be like to be a potter, slowly and painstakingly forming something beautiful out of the most basic materials. Instead of clay, we have twelve notes—the same twelve notes Bach had. And we use our skills to create something meaningful out of them. I also love the social context of musical performance. I love creating a piece of music that an ensemble of performers works on collaboratively and then presents to an audience. Composing is a solitary process, but at a live concert you get to see your creation come alive and touch many people. I feel the same way about teaching. It requires a lot of intensely focused preparation—researching, thinking, writing lectures, organizing material, but it is worth it when the material comes alive in front of students and they join me in a collaborative learning process.

Inspiration: Sometimes I am inspired by purely musical ideas: a certain sound I get in my head all of a sudden. Sometimes I’m inspired by particular performers (usually friends) or ensembles. But usually I am inspired by something extra-musical: a word, a story, or an image. Then I try to respond to it musically.

My most important project: The Prioress’s Tale, a 75-minute chamber opera inspired by Chaucer. The production, which deals with issues of inter-religious dialogue and anti-Semitism, tours throughout New England each winter, supported by institutions wishing to explore issues of interfaith dialogue and peace-making in a unique way. It’s the most important project I’ve been involved with, because it allows me to create a work of art that promotes a message of high importance to contemporary society.