Obituary: Robert Wykes, professor emeritus of music, 95

Celebrated composer scored 'Monument to the Dream'

Renowned composer Robert Wykes, professor emeritus of music in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in St. Louis. He was 95. 

Wykes in 1978. (Photo: Washington University Archives)

Born in Aliquippa, Penn., in 1926, Wykes began playing flute at age 9 and, after winning a young artists contest as a teenager, appeared with the Pittsburgh Little Symphony. He served as a combat infantryman during World War II and then studied music theory at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, earning his master’s degree in music in 1950. Later that year, he joined the faculty at Bowling Green State University as well as the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, which would premiere his opera, “The Prankster.”

In 1952, Wykes left Bowling Green to continue his studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Shortly after earning his doctorate of musical arts in 1955, he joined the faculty at Washington University, where his students ranged from actor Robert Guillaume and jazz legend Oliver Nelson to pianist Jocy de Oliveira and composers Olly Wilson, Rhian Samuel and John Elwood Price.

A founding member of the New Music Circle in St. Louis, Wykes played flute with the St. Louis Symphony from 1963-67 and with the Studio for New Music from 1966-69. His major orchestral works were performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Orchestra of Brazil and others. In 1980, the St. Louis Symphony debuted Wykes’ “A Lyric Symphony,” which the Kennedy Center-Friedheim Competition in Washington judged one of the season’s top orchestral works. 

Wykes. (Photo: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. Copyright Chicago Maroon)

Wykes scored nearly 20 films, now part of the National Archives, for producer Charles Guggenheim. These include “Monument to the Dream” (1968), the celebrated documentary film about the building of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, which won the Mercurio d’Oro at the Venice Film Festival. Among other scores were “Time of the West” (1966); the Academy Award-winning “Robert Kennedy Remembered”(1968); and the National Gallery of Art’s “The Eye of Jefferson” (1977).

Other honors include a Paderewski prize and a newly published music award from the National Flute Association Convention, as well as commissions from the National Foundation on the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Pro Arte Orchestra and the University of Chicago, among others.

Washington University recognized Wykes with its Distinguished Faculty Award in 1976. He was named emeritus professor in 1988, and later served as composer-in-residence at California’s Djerassi Foundation and as a visiting scholar at Stanford University. In 2004, the WashU Symphony Orchestra commissioned Wykes’ “Celebration Fanfare” as part of the university’s sesquicentennial celebrations.

Wykes is survived by his wife of 71 years, Rosalyn Wykes; children Sara, Rachel and Evan (Friederike) Wykes; four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Wykes will be interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. A memorial service will be held later. Remembrances of Wykes can be left at the Lupton Chapel virtual guestbook.

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