AW 1958 stok   yankee lake choirschool AW 96

by Richard Wyton

The Rowboat

In 1958 my father purchased a cottage on Yankee Lake, a man-made reservoir in upstate New York about 90 minutes by car from New York City.  It was a simple place with a wood stove for heat, a hand pump for water and an outhouse for life’s other necessities. On weekends (24 hours in an organist’s life) and vacations this little house served as a refuge from the pressures of his work as organist/ choirmaster at the Cathedral and headmaster of its choir school.  On several occasions he referred to it as "solace in the midst of woe".

The thing he loved most about Yankee Lake was its serenity – being full of tree stumps there were no motor boats.  Dad quickly realized it was an ideal setting in which to compose music.  The house came with a wooden boat which he would row about a quarter mile to an island.  After tying off to a tree stump he would work for an hour or two with a sombrero on his head, manuscript paper and pencil in hand.

Wooden boats require extensive maintenance to remain usable. With increasing frequency, the water that seaped between its planks had to be bailed using a saucepan.  Finally, around 1962, the old wood boat was burned and replaced with one made of aluminum.  This is where he wrote virtually all his compositions until the house was finally sold in 1976.

It is surprising to many that dad never composed at a piano – it was all done in his head.  During the summer he would check his work weekly when he returned to the city to play Sunday services. I vividly remember sitting around the supper table one hot and humid August evening in 1965. Dad taught us, and we sang along, the opening bars of “The Vision of Isaiah.” He was particularly excited about this piece, and “conducted” us with great enthusiasm. Those who know this piece are aware of its harmonic complexity.  Works that followed became increasingly complicated in his regard, and around 1968 he bought an upright piano to keep at the lake house.  On it he could check his work after returning from the island, as well as practice daily keyboard exercises.

Dad lived a life full of joy in all that he did.  But I think he was happiest in the simplest of settings – writing music in a rowboat, tied to a stump in the middle of a lake.