In Memoriam

The Maestro

Herb Gladstone [music 1946–80]

By John Vergin ’78

I was in Prexy when I heard the news. That it saddened me was no surprise. But the sharpness of the feeling, the pang, was unexpected.

Herb Gladstone was gone; for me that meant the loss of a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and a living link to a deep and marvelous tradition.

When I came to Reed as a freshman in 1974, Herb was already a legend, the subject of endless anecdote. Tall, lanky-thin, with gray wavy hair, he walked with a gait  sometimes shambling, sometimes energetic. His eyes, behind big glasses, were intelligent and given to humor. In dress he managed to be both natty and slightly disheveled. And the pipe, omnipresent, was always in mouth, in hand, or at its furthest remove, in pocket. The effect was thoroughly professorial.

His knowledge of music was vast, as was his grasp of other subjects, history in particular. It was imperative that one understand things in context, with perspective. He decried rote learning of dates and facts. “If you think history is irrelevant, you had better go back and think about it more.”

But his wide-ranging interests could be a classroom liability. Digression lurked at every turn. The original topic would re-emerge in the fullness of time, and one was enlightened (and often amused) by the meandering route. Some students wanted, no doubt, a more laconic approach. I, however, who learned by slow absorption, found Herb’s gentle prodding to be ideal. And curiously, the digressions often cued the memory for the key material.

In making music, the man was different. He had energy. He had flair. He had a knack for bringing disparate forces together. He corralled, charmed, and pushed until the music sang. Music flowed out of him; joy and work side by side.

I had the good fortune to dine at his famous table. I recall delicately poached sole, accompanied by a beurre blanc sauce involving peeled grapes. To a young person waking to the possibilities of fine cooking, it was revelatory. And each course was served with its proper wine, expertly chosen, and poured with a generous hand.

In those days he drove a late-60s Cadillac Coupe de Ville which boasted the most capacious trunk hitherto devised by Detroit. The trunk came in handy on Herb’s pilgrimages to San Francisco, when he would return laden with cases of fine wine.


In the fall of 1976, I took a course on Beethoven from Herb. It was a small class. Betty Booher ’78 and Steve Engel ’77 were there, and a couple of others. Herb would arrive late, rushing slowly. We would arrange ourselves sparsely around the big table in Capehart, and wait in silence while Herb filled and lit his pipe; a moment sacrosanct.

I was on shaky ground scholastically that term, and Herb knew it. To hold my interest he assigned me the task of learning and performing a Beethoven piano sonata for the class. Yes, I still had to analyze, but he knew I loved to play, and his idea worked. His was the only class I was still attending by the end of that term.

Later, I decided to abandon the life academic. Herb’s recommendation had secured me the job as organist/choir director at All Saints Episcopal up the hill—the pay was slender, but sufficient for survival.

I knew Herb in his final years at Reed. By his own admission, he was tired. He had fought a damn good fight for over three decades. And though he still enjoyed evenings with his Reed poker cronies (the “Little Brothers”), many of the younger faculty, while aware of the legend, did not know the man himself.


Herbert Ballantine Gladstone was born in 1915, in Albany, New York, an only child. Three years later the family moved to Nutley, New Jersey. At six or seven he took piano instruction from Miss Conklin, who complained of his fidgeting. By high school he was acquainted with the guitar and saxophone and formed a dance band, The Starlight Serenaders. He enjoyed athletics, especially tennis, and worked at the local tennis club for playing privileges. Colgate took him as an undergraduate, granting him a degree in literature in 1937. College friends introduced him to a wider scope of classical music. He heard Kirsten Flagstad sing Wagner in New York, beginning a lifelong love of the composer. After Colgate, he worked for two years for Standard Oil of New Jersey as an office flunky. Salary: “low.” In 1939 he entered Princeton as a graduate student, again in literature, but soon switched to music. He saw possibilities. He studied under Roger Sessions, roomed with composer Milton Babbitt, and palled around with a zany physicist named Richard Feynman.

Herb earned his MFA in 1942. His thesis on the motets of Orlando di Lasso came long before the early-music revival. Princeton kept him on as a Fellow; he met Leigh Wilson, a student at nearby Westminster Choir College. They were married in 1945. “He got me at 18,” she said. They came to Reed the next year.

Prior to Herb’s arrival in 1946, Reed had no music department. Classes were given more by chance than design. Herb developed a curriculum based on the one he knew from Princeton: appreciation, history, harmony, analysis, composition. For 14 years, he was the department. He taught all academic courses, supervised theses, led an orchestra, a chorus, and several small ensembles.

In the spring of 1947, students approached him with the notion of staging a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Their request had precedent. During the thirties and forties, students had devised a vaudeville performance dubbed The Spring Crisis that reflected their anxiety over junior quals, senior theses, and April in general. Something more grand was now wanted. Herb had never done G & S, but approached an equally fresh faculty member, Carl Johnson [drama 1947–51], and they agreed to plunge in.

Herb could not have known that this was the tip of a personal iceberg; that he would be doing G & S for the next two decades at Reed and beyond. But he found immediately that the material suited him. Gilbert’s dry sardonic wit, unique play of language, crunching ironic commentary on all strata of society; all this he enjoyed immensely. And Sullivan’s music, though often derivative, was very skillful; at its best, glorious; at its worst, well, still pretty good.

Both students and faculty were involved from the start. Professor Bill Alderson [English 1943–64] was prominent in the first production, The Pirates of Penzance, as the sergeant of police. Herb recalled that Alderson led a reprise of the policemen’s chorus, sung entirely in Latin, to the noisy appreciation of the Reed audience.

So it was Gilbert and Sullivan every spring. In December the annual Christmas concert was held in a chapel bedecked with boughs and replete with candle-bearing acolytes. These latter were usually offspring of the faculty, including Herb’s and Leigh’s young boys, Bruce and Duncan. The remainder of the year was given to Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, and Mahler, to give a short list.

Early in Herb’s tenure he instigated a monthly performance venue called Sound Experiments. These events, often presented in the old student union (before a blazing fireplace) were wildly eclectic in nature. The first was a jazz performance: from then on, it was soup to nuts. Students, faculty, and guests performed in a setting designed to encourage innovation. Student compositions were performed, sometimes overseen by Herb, sometimes not.

Following World War II, Reed’s town-and-gown relationship with Portland grew somewhat strained. President Peter Odegard [1945–48] hoped the music program would help to strengthen friendly bonds with the community. Herb’s open nature, persuasiveness, and sheer love of music did just that. He cajoled Portland Symphony players onto campus to perform and instruct. Local musicians participated in the Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and comprised the bulk of the swelling audiences. Herb oversaw the purchase of Reed’s first harpsichord—a double-manual Neupert from Germany—which was loaned extensively to Portland musicians with the proviso that “Courtesy of Reed College” appear in the program. World-class musicians (such as Marian Anderson and Pete Seeger) performed on campus. Herb served on the boards of various Portland music organizations. Suddenly Reed’s semi-permeable membrane was a bit more open with the give-and-take of musical good will.

The effect on campus was salutary. Music became a means for students and faculty to collaborate on projects that were both work and play. Herb felt strongly that Reed needed this. He was a frank admirer of the students’ academic self-reliance, their intellectual prowess. Yet he saw a role for music to teach social responsibility and help students develop loyalty to something beyond themselves.

It must have been exciting to father a department; and a luxury perhaps, in being the department. But over time, Herb began to chafe at the limitations. And he felt frustrated by Reed’s odd pose of reticence towards the performing arts.

Help began to arrive in the 1960s: James Kurtz [1961–66], Mark DeVoto [1964–68], Robert Crowley [1969–70], and Leila Birnbaum Falk [1969–2009]. Leila and Herb were the mainstays of the department for many years. She found Herb to be a most congenial colleague. In the seventies, Doug Leedy [1973–76] and Phil Kelsey [1977–79] pitched in until David Schiff [1980–] stepped up to the podium after Herb retired.