Walter R. Boelke
Music engraver and publisher Walter R. Boelke died in Hudson, New York near his home in Hillsdale on January 25, 1987, a few days following his 82nd birthday.
If ever there was a no-nonsense type, Walter Boelke personified it. He was a worker with ideals, a man with deep convictions and passionate enthusiasms. He always sensed that his most telling contribution to the causes in which he believed would have to come not from lofty abstractions or the good offices of others, but from his own down-to-earth efforts. In the Berlin of the early 20th century he learned the music engraving trade that was to be the basis for his life's work.
He came to America in 1925, working at first in Cincinnati before moving to New York to join the firm of Carl Fischer. Inc. and subsequently to become chief engraver for G. Schirmer, Inc. As an old German socialist, he identified himself with the dawning of a new day in which power and might would be used in the public service. Among the people he most admired were those of equally strong beliefs about their world, and with the talent to express those beliefs in unique ways: artists in general and composers in particular. With these people he liked to discuss and sometimes debate. He enjoyed differences in viewpoints, never taking personally any opinion that differed from his. "Shake hands," he'd say at the end of particularly intense dialogues, even when his adversary was on the other end of the long-distance wire.
In founding his own publishing company, BoelkeBomart, Inc. (and soon thereafter a sister company, Mobart Music Publications, Inc.), Boelke was able to put his craftsmanship and a major part of his savings at the service of those who were looking for a sympathetic music publisher with a proven affinity for contemporary music. Among the first to entrust works to him was Arnold Schoenberg. The two men had met when Schocnberg visited Schirmers and toured the venerable plant with its engravers' room. In 1949, Boelke heard about a Connecticut composer who hadn't written a note in years but whose music was colorfully original. Charles Ives happily assigned Central Park in the Dark. Hallowe'en and The Pond to the enthusiastic fledgling publisher. Many years later. Boelke recalled: "There were plenty more. I probably could have had more, but I did all the engraving myself and I didn't want to ask for more than I knew I'd be able to produce."
It was this intensely practical aspect of Boelke, an admixture of humility and self-reliant ambition, which chararacterized him to those who knew him. When he was told that he was to be interviewed for a magazine profile, his immediate response was both selfdeprecating and humorous: "I am not important. I have neither a university degree nor money. I am merely living my dreams which are based on a Schnapsidee (a German colloquialism for an impractical, somewhat harebrained notion)."
But he was neither impractical nor harebrained. What he was was enthusiastic and totally committed to music, and most particularly to contemporary music and musicians. Living on his hill in the rolling countryside of Columbia County near the Massachusetts line, he reached out to those who loved what he loved. He shared his late wife's interest in the visual arts painting and sculpture were Margot Boelke's specialty and his son Walter Jr. is chairman of the art department at Western Connecticut State College. Accordingly, a sizable part of the sprawling house in Hillsdale, dubbed Gallery One, was given over to public functions: to art exhibits, concerts, lectures. Many of the local people may not have known all the things Boelke did, but there was hardly anyone around who didn't know him and who wasn't attracted to his idiosyncratic charm. On the day following his death, the Columbia County Independent carried not only an obituary but also an editorial entitled "A Principled Man":
All of us who used to encounter Walter Boelke pursuing his daily rounds in his blue VW Rabbit will miss the special spot of color he brought to the day. Bringing wider audiences to art and especial ly music was his love as well as his vocation. His old-time leftist socialist sentiments were never far from hand, but he used them more to make people plumb their own beliefs than to change them. He could be gruff and impatient with those he suspected of not dealing with essentials, but he always had a moment to flirt with the ladies, no matter their age, or his for that matter. He was a principled man who always knew where he stood and who loved standing with you to talk about it.
And of course his consummate craftsmanship. Composers felt proud to have their works engraved by this old master of a technique that has all but vanished. Among the names in the catalogue he put together one finds those of Milton Babbitt, Miriam Gideon, Leon Kirchner, George Perle, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and many others. Throughout his life, Boelke championed the music of younger composers, too, and his publishing roster also contains such names as Andrew Frank, Paul Lansky, Fred Lerdahl, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Always the realist, Boelke took steps to assure his catalogue's continuity. As he approached the age of 80, he appointed his son as president and made sure that the continued administration and distribution of his copyrights were effectively looked after. Only then did he lay down his engraver's tools and take on the role of the interested senior advisor.
The hills of Hillsdale are just a little less magical this spring, one of their spicier flavors no longer here. Shake hands, Walter...