Starling Cumberworth, Composer, 1915–1985


His students remembered him as a kind man, a “witty and astute” teacher of music theory and composition at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, where he served on the faculty for three decades before retiring in 1970. 

Starling Cumberworth’s distinctive name was inspired, it seems, by his father’s fondness for the Starling-Loving Hospital in Columbus (now part of Ohio State University’s medical school), where the elder Cumberworth and his brother had done their medical studies. 

A photograph of the founders of the Cleveland Composers Guild taken in the late ’50s preserves an image of a trim, bespectacled man with a narrow, thoughtful face and thinning hair and a mustache—the only man in the photo sporting one (these were the Eisenhower years)—a man you would not be surprised to learn goes his own way, calmly and confidently.

In the age of Milton Babbitt and the serious serialists, whose abstract and often austere music now dominated the academy, Cumberworth favored what noted Cleveland organist John Herr summarized as “highly expressive themes, clear musical forms, and modern but palatable harmonies.”

The result could be delightful, “flowing and lyrical,” “pleasing,” “beguiling”—even “striking,” as Plain Dealer critic Robert Finn wrote of one of Cumberworth’s songs in which “a sardonic view of life and death is accompanied by fragments of the ‘Dies Irae’ hymn.” A concert given by some of his musician friends in August 1985, shortly after the composer’s death at the age of 70, featured a group of songs whose very titles tell us much about Cumberworth’s predilections where subjects were concerned: “The Black Bird,” “Sleep, Child” (his sensitive setting of a touching poem by James Agee), “Dreaming at Midnight,” “The Outrage,” and Three Chinese Lyrics (“The Shadow of a Leaf,” “When the Sun Rose” and “Tiptoeing to Her Lover”).

But Cumberworth had an impish streak as well. Another of his widely performed song cycles, Two Macabre Whims, was set to the 18th-century poet Matthew Prior’s “A Reasonable Affliction” (“. . . Poor Lubin fears that he shall die; / His wife, that he may live”) and Ogden Nash’s “The Purist” (“I give you now Professor Twist, / A conscientious scientist” whose bride, “the guide informed him later, / [had] been eaten by an alligator”).

Born in Remson Corners, Ohio, in Medina County, Cumberworth had studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale, Herbert Elwell and Arthur Shepherd at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, earning his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music under Howard Hanson. He composed a good deal of chamber music, including two string quartets, piano pieces for young players, and a concert opera, Home Burial, based on a poem by Robert Frost, as well as a set of music instruction books used for many years in music schools.

In 1958, Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster Josef Gingold asked Cumberworth to write a piece for violin and piano. The result was Sonata in G, which the celebrated violinist premiered, reveling, we are told, in the “brilliant passage [writing]” of the scherzo, the plaintive melody of the slow movement, and the “intensely moving” yet “entirely accessible” effect of the concluding theme and variations (The Plain Dealer).

The list of public performance of Cumberworth’s work ran to four single-spaced pages. In 1964, he became the second composer honored by the Cleveland Arts Prize.

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •

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