The Class of 1953 lost perhaps its most intellectually and artistically gifted member when Bill Youngren died suddenly just after Thanksgiving. For seven years he had lived with a never-diagnosed neurological disorder that affected his speech and balance, but until six months or so ago, he was still reading, listening to music, and writing music reviews.
William Thomas Harvey Youngren grew up in Evanston, IL, one of a number of graduates of Evanston Township High School who, through the wisdom of Dean Eugene Wilson, came to Amherst in the fall of 1949. Speaking of his Evanston years, Bill’s older daughter, Erica, said, “I think he fled as soon as he could. He applied to only one college, Amherst, sight unseen, and came east.” As a freshman, he was notable for his command of German and for the extraordinary range and variety of his musical skills, which included a familiarity with the works of Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. He had spent a summer at the famous Interlochen Music Camp, and as an eighteen year old, he could play the tuba or sousaphone, string bass, guitar, and, most strikingly, the piano. He was also adept at orchestrating and would later arrange pieces for the DQ.
Many classmates, like myself, discovered Youngren in the basement of James Hall where just about every night of the week he would be practicing and enlarging his repertoire of New Orleans jazz classics, most prominently, for this fascinated listener, “The Pearls” as played in the style of the master, Jelly Roll Morton. He soon fell in with Ed Bonoff on drums, and together they recorded a number of memorable sides beginning in 1950. Bill was invited to join the Delta Five, then playing at Booth’s Inn in Belchertown and, in subsequent years, the Sportsman’s Club on the river in Hadley. The energy, the beat, the inexhaustible fertility of invention his playing showed—even as an undergraduate—was astonishing. During the summers of 1951 and ’52, with other members of the Delta Five, he played his way across the Atlantic on student ships, then across Europe at American army and air force bases. The group’s other members included Amherst’s John Bucher (trumpet), Joe Benge (drums), and your humble servant who took charge of the piano when sweet music was called for, while Youngren switched to guitar. When it was jazz time, Pritchard, alas, had to fake his way on guitar.
In his junior year at Amherst, Bill’s literary life took an upswing when he began to study Greek and became an English major. Later at Harvard, where he entered the PhD program in English, he continued his Greek, adding to it Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and eventually Sanskrit. He wrote his dissertation on the undervalued eighteenth-century poet George Crabbe, then took a job teaching English at MIT, where he audited Noam Chomsky’s classes in linguistics. Bill’s first book, Semantics, Linguistics, and Criticism (1972), was strongly influenced by his reading of philosophers and aestheticians; his mind could be strongly theoretical in its bent, but as a teacher, he always emphasized the concrete there-ness of particular poems, essays, and musical compositions.
Bill’s first marriage, to Mary Ann Miller, ended in divorce. After three years of teaching at Smith College, where he met and then married Virginia Rotan, he moved back to the Boston area and as professor of English and musicology, began his thirty years of teaching at Boston College (he retired in 2001). He and Virginia had two children, Erica and Valerie; his stepson, Austin Richards, graduated from Amherst in 1989. Their West Newton house contained high-grade audio equipment and an enormous collection of records, reel-to-reel tapes, and later, CDs, which he played at top volume. (Erica Youngren recalls that you could feel the house shake when Bill jacked up the sound.) For many years he wrote essays on music for the Atlantic Monthly and reviewed countless discs in the musical review Fanfare. At Fanfare, he was in charge not only of recordings of Richard Wagner (his writings on Wagner alone would make up a large book) but also of John Philip Sousa—after all Youngren began as a sousaphone player—and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach.
The last named composer would provide him with the topic of a second PhD dissertation, this one undertaken in the music department at Brandeis Univ. He had applied to Harvard, who informed him that it was their policy to award a candidate only a single PhD. Both Bill (English and music) and Virginia (English and clinical psychology) would end up possessing double doctorates, a condition not usually essential to a happy marriage. (We thought of them each as Doctor Doctor.) His dissertation later published by Scarecrow Press, C.P.E. Bach and the Rebirth of the Strophic Song, weighed in at just under 1,000 pages and is acknowledged by authorities in the field to be the best book on the subject in English, thoroughly informed by a command of Germanic scholarship as well as by Bill’s highly developed musical ear.
Youngren was no Mr. Nice Guy. He had an edge, a wicked sense of humor. He was also an excellent cook and a stylish dresser, and had a penchant for making up lyrics and limericks, usually of the ribald variety. He may or may not have been the author of the limerick he sent me on a postcard in 1964 that identified itself as from Wordsworth’s The Prelude and ran as follows:
There was a young man from the coast
Who had an affair with a ghost;
In the midst of a spasm
Said that ectoplasm,
“I think I can feel it—almost!
He is survived by his wife Virginia; three children, Austin, Erica and Valerie; children-in-law Victoria Charters and Craig Abruzzo; and grandchildren Owen Youngren and Bix Youngren—the latter named of course for the great trumpet player Bill Youngren wrote unforgettably about in one of his essays.
—William H. Pritchard ’53