Frederic RothchildFrederic Rothchild, 1914–2002

Frederic H. Rothchild, director emeritus of applied music who inspired generations of Reedies to play music well, died at age 88 of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. Several hundred friends gathered in the Eliot Hall chapel for the February 2 memorial celebration, where music was no mere decoration; it formed the cornerstone of an afternoon of musical surprises. We heard music that Rothchild had composed; we heard a Beethoven cello sonata played by the same Reedie with whom Rothchild had once performed it; we heard a recording from the ’50s in which he played the first movement of the Liszt E-flat major concerto with the Portland Symphony Orchestra; we heard excerpts from his music columns in the Oregon Journal, where he was part-time music critic from 1953 to 1956. We also heard several of his poems read aloud, some read by him during a recent radio interview.

Fred Rothchild’s public piano performances were rare and much lauded, lending those in attendance a certain air of smugness for having “been there.” His piano students knew his playing from the way he taught: he could make the attack of even one note seem impossibly difficult but worth spending hours on. Rothchild was born in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from Lincoln High School. From 1928 to 1934 he played double bass in the Portland Junior Symphony under its first professional conductor, Jacques Gershkovitch. Although he was this sym-phony’s principal bass player, Rothchild won its annual concerto competition in 1934 playing a piano concerto.

In 1935 Rothchild was awarded a two-year scholarship to study music at the Cornish School in Seattle. In the fall of 1937 he continued his music education at the Royal Academy of Music in Brussels, Belgium, where he completed the two-year conservatory training in piano under Marcel Maas.

Rothchild’s long association with Reed College began in 1953, when he joined the staff as its first director of applied music. According to his long-time colleague Herbert Gladstone, Rothchild initiated the program of private lessons by combing the city for decent practice pianos and persuading the principals of the then Portland Symphony to teach on campus and give concerts here to benefit the music program. It was during this initial period that Prexy was converted from the president’s house into a music practice building. Soon thereafter, about 15 percent of the Reed student body was taking private music lessons. Rothchild became a member of the faculty in 1968 and retired in 1978. In 1994 he was awarded the Reed College alumni association’s Foster-Scholz Club distinguished service award.

Rothchild’s dedication to Reed extended well beyond the music program. He loved Reedies and developed easy rapport with scores of them whose friendships continued well past graduation. He served long and well on the admission committee; he could get a feeling for Reedies even on paper. Once they arrived on campus, he had an uncanny ability to recognize early on who would become academic stars and nurtured their talent often before they themselves recognized it. His interest in their overall welfare was legendary. Rothchild himself had many interests: he was an active member of the Mazamas mountaineering club; he also collected paintings, prints, sculpture, and furniture and often invited students to his home where they could enjoy them.

Rothchild was generous and also truthful; he minced no words. At the memorial celebration, countless stories were shared, encapsulated by the (overheard) anecdote told by one now middle-aged man to a fellow Reedie of the Rothchild era. It went something like this: “. . . so I played for him and he said to me, ‘You get around pretty well on that cello; now what about the music?’”

Leila Falk is professor of music at Reed College.

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Reed Magazine February 2003
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