Howard Quilling, a prolific classical composer with an international reputation who cared nearly as much about promoting the careers of emerging talents as he did about advancing his own, died unexpectedly early Friday. He was 80.
“I think he was a successful composer,” said his wife, Joyce Quilling, in an interview Friday. “He definitely was a successful human being. A lot of his students felt he inspired and helped them a great deal.”
Quilling taught music composition and theory at Bakersfield College for 25 years, retiring in 1996. Despite his long career in education, he managed to compose some 250 pieces of music in his lifetime, his wife estimated.
“I think he was pretty well pleased with his output,” she said, nothing that Quilling wrote his first piece while in high school in Napa, where he grew up.
Among the composer’s commissions was the highly regarded “From Quiet Beginnings,” written to commemorate Bakersfield’s centennial in 1998. His compositions have been recorded and performed all over the world — in the Czech Republic, Poland and in major cities throughout the country, including Los Angeles and New York. A high point of his career, his wife said, was a performance of a piano sonata at one of the world’s most prestigious venues: Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.
“He was very highly respected throughout the country,” said fellow composer and educator Doug Davis. “Probably more composers around the country knew of Howard Quilling and Bakersfield because of his efforts. And he had performances at national conferences of composers and long relationships with other groups that were similar and supported new music. They were quite aware of what he was doing here in Bakersfield.”
What he was doing, with help from his wife and Davis, was providing exposure to up-and-coming composers with a concert series he began in 1988.
“It’s hard for contemporary composers to get their music performed,” Mrs. Quilling said.
Called New Directions, the concert series was a collaboration with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, which provided a chamber group of about seven musicians to perform the selected composers’ works. As many as two concerts a year typically were scheduled, a punishing pace that forced Quilling’s decision to end the series in 2009.
“I have thought about (resuming) New Directions,” Davis said. “I’m trying to find out how. I think it will happen, that the symphony and our local musicians will come together to organize something similar to what was organized by Howard Quilling. Because without it, we are diminished.”
Born in Enid, Okla., Quilling moved to the West Coast as a boy with his family. His first instrument was the clarinet but because of his proficiency, he was asked to fill a vacancy in the oboe section.
“He sang, was a pianist, played oboe and other woodwinds,” his wife said. “The organ was his favorite instrument.”
He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California, where he met his future wife, a pianist who, though she didn’t know it at the time, had a long career ahead of her as a music teacher in the Panama-Buena Vista School District.
Quilling was armed with several advanced degrees when he accepted a teaching job in Bakersfield. While teaching and raising two boys — Gary, also a musician, and David — Quilling always managed to find time to write.
“He would sit down at the piano and an idea would be in his head and he would play around with it and get the idea worked out so that it fit what he wanted to do with it. When he started, he wasn’t always sure what it was going end up in,” Mrs. Quilling said. “He usually wrote out a piano version if it was going to be for an orchestral setting and he’d have me play it because piano was my instrument and we would talk about it.”
Davis said his friend’s work tended toward the traditional and reflected “a rich complexity of thought.”
“We all write differently,” he said. “For myself, I don’t know if the piece is going to take five hours or 1,000. When you think about it, sometimes that’s a painful process. I might be exaggerating those numbers, but I’m afraid I’m pretty close.”
The last completed Quilling composition was a piece he did for a gathering of the American Guild of Organists in Bakersfield three years ago.
“When he wrote the piece for the convention, he told me at that time, ‘That’s my last piece.’ And he was right,” his wife said. “It was.”
But in some ways, that’s fitting, she said. The church was a major focus of his life. In fact, he was at choir practice just hours before his death, said long-time friend and fellow organist Sue Wagner.
“He was his normal self last night, doing his usual thing of criticizing what a composer had done on this one anthem we were singing,” she said. “He was a good tenor. A choir becomes a little family. I can’t imagine life without him.”
Wagner was already looking ahead with dread to a task she was counting on Quilling to help her perform for Trinity Anglican, the church formed when members of St. Paul’s Episcopal broke away to start their own congregation in recent years. The congregation is meeting at St. John’s in southwest Bakersfield for now, until construction of the new church is complete. Someday, Wagner hopes, a pipe organ will be at the center of worship services at Trinity.
“I was counting on Howard to be on the organ committee again,” she said. “I feel all out there by myself now.”
Quilling suffered from diabetes and sleep apnea, though his wife did not know the cause of death Friday.
“I wonder how I’m going to get along without him,” said Mrs. Quilling of her husband of nearly 60 years. “He lived a long time, but that time comes.”
In addition to his wife and sons, Quilling is survived by four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.