Obituary: Seth Carlin, professor emeritus of music, 71

Professor of music was internationally renowned pianist

Seth Carlin. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)
Carlin

Seth Carlin, an internationally renowned pianist who taught at Washington University in St. Louis for 37 years, died Thursday, July 28, 2016, following a swimming accident in France. He was 71.

A prize winner at the International Busoni Competition in Bolzano, Italy, Carlin earned rave reviews for his performance on both the modern piano and its 18th-century predecessor, the fortepiano. The New York Times praised his interpretations of Mozart as “sparklingly transparent,” while his performance of the complete cycle of Schubert fortepiano sonatas was broadcast nationally by National Public Radio.

“Seth has been for many years the public face of the music department,” said Todd Decker, chair of music in Arts & Sciences. “His regular solo recitals and concert collaborations with top musicians in the region, many from the St. Louis Symphony, brought enthusiastic audiences for classical music to campus. Seth’s versatility as a keyboardist — his equal comfort playing historical and modern pianos — made Washington University a special place for piano and chamber music.

“The joy he found in making music and collaborating with others, whether other professionals or his own accomplished students, was evident in every performance,” Decker added. “As a teacher and colleague, Seth was unfailingly kind and generous to others. His musicianship and friendship will be deeply missed.”

A native of East Orange, N.J., Carlin began playing piano at age 6 and made his public debut three years later on New York public radio station WNYC. (He performed “Petite Suite,” a work written for him by the composer Gabriel Fontrier, a family friend.) As a Harvard undergraduate, Carlin initially majored in physics but took a three-year leave to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. There, he worked with pianist Jules Gentil, won a scholarship from the French government, earned his Licence de Concert and met his future wife, fellow pianist Maryse Carlin.

Returning to Harvard, Carlin switched his major to music, graduating in 1969. The following year he earned a master’s in piano from The Juilliard School, then taught at Hiram College in Ohio and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire before joining Washington University as director of the piano program in 1979.

Over the years, Carlin appeared as soloist with conductors Roger Norrington, Nicholas McGegan and Leonard Slatkin, and in recital with performers Pinchas Zukerman, James Buswell, Anner Bylsma and Malcolm Bilson. He was featured as part of the prestigious “On Original Instruments” series at New York’s Merkin Hall, and performed with the Boston Pops, the San Francisco Philharmonia Baroque, the Cambridge Society for Early Music and Toronto’s Tafelmusik, among many others.

In St. Louis, Carlin quickly emerged as a pillar of the musical community. He performed Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony and was a founding member of the university’s Eliot Trio, the most recent iteration of which also featured violinist David Halen, concertmaster for the St. Louis Symphony; and cellist Bjorn Ranheim, also with the St. Louis Symphony.

Carlin rehearses in the E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall in 2004.
Carlin rehearses in the E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall in 2004.

For Carlin, teaching and performing were deeply intertwined. “As a performer you have to have an aural or mental image of the way you want the music to go,” he told the Washington University Record in 1995. “You have to have an intellectual knowledge of how to get the music to go that way. That’s what you translate to your students. So, it’s just another form of communication.”

Carlin also performed regularly with Maryse as part of the Kingsbury Ensemble, one of the Midwest’s premier early-music ensembles. In 2005, the couple recorded “Schubert: Music for fortepiano four hands.” Though Carlin retired in May, he and Maryse were in France to perform as part of the annual “Festival de Musique Ancienne,” which they founded in 2008.

Other festival appearances include the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, Marlboro Music Festival, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Great Performers at Lincoln Center Mozart Marathon. His 1993 recording of Beethoven sonatas and bagatelles was named “Recording of the Month” by Alte Musik Actuelle magazine. Other honors include, in 1989, one of only two National Endowment for the Arts recitalist grants; and appearances on French, Swedish, Chinese and German national television and radio.

Carlin is survived by Maryse and by their two children, Tova of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Daniel (AB ’04) of Berkeley, Calif.; as well as by his brother, Elliot, and sister-in-law, Marianne Carlin of Brooklyn; stepmother Mariann Carlin, of Walnut Creek, Calif.; stepsisters Sue Oliker of Danville, Calif., and Andrea Szentirmai, of Walnut Creek; and by a large extended family.

A memorial service will be held on campus at a later date. Remembrances can be sent care of the Department of Music, Campus Box 1032, Washington University, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Mo., 63130-4899, or daniels@wustl.edu.

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