Dr. Jan Bach - Composer of concerto for steelpan and orchestra - Obituary

December 11, 1937 - October 30, 2020

Global - The first concerto ever written for steelpan and orchestra was written by Dr. Jan Bach.

Listen and watch Jan Bach’s Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra

Dr. Jan Bach
Dr. Jan Bach

Jan (Morris) Bach, 82, composer, educator, French Hornist, pianist, cartoonist, father, and grandfather. Born December 11, 1937, in Fairbury, Illinois, he died at his home in DeKalb, Illinois, on October 30, 2020.

Jan (no relation to Johann Sebastian) earned international renown as a composer. He wrote music for virtually every live medium of vocal and instrumental performance, often for specific performers and ensembles. His music has been recognized with numerous composition awards and grants since 1957 when, at the age of nineteen, he won the BMI Student Composers first prize. His opera The Student of Salamanca was produced by Beverly Sills as the winner of the 1980 New York City Opera competition. Six of his compositions were recommended for the Pulitzer Prize in music; a CD featuring one of his works was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2018. Other awards have included first prize at the First International Brass Congress in Montreux, Switzerland, and first prize in the Nebraska Sinfonia chamber orchestra competition. In 2007, the Music Library Association called him “one of America’s somewhat hidden treasures.” While his music is certainly serious, he often found a way to sneak in a musical joke here or there. Musicians worldwide have found his music both incredibly challenging to learn and incredibly enjoyable to perform.

Jan studied at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, receiving the Doctor of Musical Arts in Composition in 1971. His composition teachers included Aaron Copland and Thea Musgrave. He was a fixture in Northern Illinois University’s School of Music. Originally hired to teach French Horn, he taught music theory and composition there from 1966 to 2004. Over this period, he received the Excellence in Teaching Award (1978) and a Presidential Research Professorship grant (1982), and was nominated six times for the national CASE Professor of the Year award. He also played French Horn with the DeKalb Municipal Band for three decades. Prior to joining the NIU faculty, he taught for one year at the University of Tampa, Florida, and played in the orchestras of Tampa and St. Petersburg. He also served his country by playing associate first horn in the U.S. Army Band from 1962 to 1965, including, notably, playing for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

His artistic talent also extended to drawing. As a child, he knew he was gifted in both music and art, and he made the conscious decision to choose the first as a career and the second as a hobby. He became skilled in drawing caricatures and created countless images featuring family, colleagues, musicians, and politicians. His work was seen on everything from concert posters and greeting cards to T-shirts and his younger daughter’s wedding invitation. The son of a woodworker, Jan also dabbled in other media. As a young man, the hand-crafted Halloween costume he made for his brother was disqualified from a contest because the judges assumed Jan’s creation was store-bought. When his older daughter was young, he built her a puppet theater from wood and papier-mâché; earlier this year, he used moldable plastic to create a Bach coat of arms for his front door. Jan owned a 3-D camera – quite a conversation piece – and painstakingly mounted his own photo slides. He also was a skilled calligrapher and preferred to use a fountain pen over ballpoint whenever possible. He carried a miniature appointment book in his shirtfront pocket to record his activities using only Blackwing pencils.

Once described as having a “quiet, low-keyed personality” in a New York Times opera review, Jan was known to his friends and family as a talker. He could find something in common with every postal carrier, grocery clerk, ticket taker, or train conductor. He delighted in telling stories about his army band days, his travels, and his family. He was also forever collecting: old time radio episodes (on reel-to-reel tape, then cassette, then eventually CD and digital formats), movies (both Hollywood and home), frog figurines (Michigan J. Frog being a particular favorite), and the latest technology (including everything from a 3D television to an electronic baby grand piano).

Many of Jan’s biographies list him as being born in Forrest, Illinois, which is incorrect, but he did this purposely to give credit to the tiny town where he was raised. It was his ambition to make a name for himself in the world, and later get to see it. As an adult, he traveled throughout Europe and Japan, and even got to visit Machu Picchu, Peru, which was a lifelong dream.

He was a proud father of two and grandfather of three. He was a generous gift-giver and he bragged about his family’s activities and accomplishments to anyone who would listen.

Jan is survived and remembered by his former wife, Dalia Bach; two daughters, Dawn Bach (E. Rawlings Thurman) of Downers Grove, Illinois, and Eva (Bach) Engelhard (Eric Engelhard) of Kent, Washington; grandchildren Zachary Thurman, Marlo Thurman, and Elsa Engelhard; sister Gaylon Gwin of LaPine, Alabama; brother Eric (Rick) Bach of Bloomington, Illinois; and many nieces and nephews and their children.

A scholarship fund has been established in his memory through Northern Illinois University. To contribute, please visit the NIU Foundation website and click “donate now.”

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