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Walter Ross retires in May
Walter Ross
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Walter Ross

By Jane Ford

American writer and critic H. L. Mencken once wrote that music composition “is enormously handicapped as an art by the fact that its technique is so frightfully difficult.”

For Walter Ross, professor of music composition and theory at U.Va., composition is a game with an elaborate set of rules that need to be learned.

Ross has not only learned the rules well, he also has made it his life’s work to teach students those rules.

Ross was recognized for his contributions in the classroom in 1994-1995 with an All-University Teaching Award. No stranger to honors and awards in the music world, Ross is most proud of this recognition.

He loves the classroom. He chose teaching so he could spend his life learning and exploring.

“The students’ questions help me rethink things and explore more,” he said. “They have been a great help in my own growth as a composer.”

The classroom portion of Ross’ career will end in May, when he retires from teaching. But his influence will continue to be felt in the community and in the world.

A prolific composer, Ross has more than 140 compositions to his credit, including 18 concertos. His works have been played in more than 40 countries and across the United States. He keeps a long list of the known performances and imagines his works are performed somewhere around the world each week.

His compositions also have been included on numerous records and CDs. A recent CD release, “Three Concertos,” by MMC in Massachusetts, is devoted solely to his work. Another CD is due out soon.

Composition requires precise knowledge of musical structure and technique, which Ross has studied since he was a 17-year-old member of the community symphony orchestra in Lincoln, Neb.

“You keep in mind the analysis of music pieces you like while you are writing music,” he said.

Long before Ross puts the first note on the page, he diagrams the structure of the piece. He starts by asking questions: What is it for? How many movements? What is the emotional level? What is the length?

“It’s time architecture. I have it all planned out before I start,” he said.

Ross firmly believes that anyone who is not deaf can learn to write music, and that’s the way he teaches it. He actively involves the students in the creative process.

At the start of the semester, he tells his beginning composition students that he’ll let them in on the game. He gives them the rules for the way Haydn wrote and tells them that by the end of the semester they will be able to write a short composition in that style. And they do.

Performers, as well as students and listeners, have felt his influence. Ross has been an integral part of the cultural community both at the University and in Charlottesville.

When Ross arrived at U.Va. in 1967, he was instrumental in forming the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra and in bringing professional musicians to play alongside community and student musicians. Recruiting professionals allowed the McIntire Department of Music to offer music lessons and expand its offerings.

Over the years, he composed pieces for the University and for visiting performers and special events. The inaugurations of U.Va. presidents Frank L. Hereford Jr. and Robert M. O’Neil as well as the University’s observance of the nation’s Bicentennial were enriched by compositions he created for those celebrations.

As tribute to Ross’ contributions over the past 36 years, the orchestra, the Albemarle Ensemble and other groups have performed his compositions throughout the year.

Although Ross will miss his time with students in the classroom, he will continue to compose. In fact, to echo Mencken, it will be “frightfully difficult” for him not to compose.

“I don’t know how many years I’m behind in requests for compositions,” he said.


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