I just got news today, a week after the fact, of the untimely passing of my friend and colleague Barbara Gordon, Associate Professor of Music and Instructor in French at Felician University. Hired about a year before I was (2007), Barbara essentially built the university’s music department and program (including its choir) from the ground up, and was responsible for just about every major musical event–religious, classical, jazz–that took place on campus. She organized the Christmas concert as well as the musical parts of the convocation and commencement ceremonies, and virtually every concert and recital in between. Where there was high musical culture to be had at Felician–be it Adele, Bach, or Coltrane–Barbara was likely behind it.
Because Barbara and I were hired at about the same time, and had (very) roughly analogous roles at the university, we came to see eye-to-eye on university politics–starting our Felician careers with zealous enthusiasm, and ending them in exhausted semi-despair. Both of us were unapologetic humanists at a university that marketed its degree along vocational lines. Both of us chaired departments–philosophy in my case, music in hers–widely regarded as frivolous and pointless as measured by the vocational standards that prevailed throughout the university. Both of us directed programs that ran public events–conferences in my case, concerts in hers–whose precarious survival depended on that most precarious of things, growing audience attendance. Both of us fought uphill battles against the apathy of the student body, and worse still, against the callous, philistine hostility of the university’s administration.
And yet both of us managed, learning from and leaning on one another, to achieve at least a modicum of success within those constraints. We spent a fair bit of time complaining to one another about the obstacles we faced at Felician, as well as about the individual administrators responsible for putting them there. Naturally, Barbara provided the necessary civilizing elements of these conversations. Civility might well have been her middle name. It certainly wasn’t mine.
For several years, Barbara and I lived fairly close to each other, and would occasionally run into each other in public places. One of those occasions somehow sticks out in my mind. It was, if memory serves, a warm, bright day in September 2016, in Edgemont Park in Montclair. I was sitting under a tree reading epistemology when Barbara rode by on her bicycle. I normally don’t like to be interrupted while reading, but Barbara’s appearance was an exception to that rule: I was overjoyed to see her, and happy (for once) to put the book down and chat.
I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but my best guess is music–our second-favorite topic after university politics. I was, back then, in the middle of an opera-going craze, and probably could not have resisted the urge to run my half-baked thoughts about opera past someone who actually knew a thing or two about it. I’m sure Barbara listened patiently to whatever nonsense I offered up about Wagner, Beethoven, and the like, and then found a gentle way of giving me the pro bono bit of musical education my comments probably invited. Musical education was, after all, what she did. And, to use a French phrase, formations permanentes–perpetual studenthood–was, as far as Barbara was concerned, a virtue rather than a vice.
I don’t have a picture of our meeting that day, or of her; what I have are photos of the exact place we met, minutes before we met (see above). I took them without much thought, not realizing she’d be coming by–and not realizing she’d be gone so soon. The left-hand shot shows the path she biked down; the right-hand shot shows the spot where I read my book. What’s missing, alas, is Barbara herself.
As with so many untimely departures, one remembers in retrospect the conversations one should have had, but never did have when one had the chance. In all the conversations I had with her, I never asked Barbara about her scholarly and musical area of specialization, the music of Maurice Delage. Discovering his music after her passing is, I suppose, one of her posthumous gifts to me–a gift I’ll always appreciate but can never repay.
On a more personal note, I never asked Barbara what it was like, not just to be one of the few Jews on the faculty of a hyper-Catholic university, but to be the Jew whose music paradoxically gave soul to the university’s otherwise barren liturgical life. I guess I wondered if she ever felt as alienated as I did about having so much thin-gruel Catholicism crammed down her throat. Each year, admin forced us to go to the university’s graduation mass, where we endured the endless, monotonous droning of the service, with its canned prayers and soporific homilies. I can’t imagine that Barbara enjoyed any of that any more than I did.
The one thing that broke the monotony of the mass was Barbara’s music. The thrum of the guitars, the swell of the organ, the soprano lilt of Sister Maria Magdalena’s “Ave Maria”: all of them brought light and solace to what was otherwise a mass of infinite density and endless duration. It was Barbara’s music that transported us to a sacred realm of freedom and tranquility, beyond the trappings of ritual formality and the frictions of profane life . For as long as the music played, I managed once again to believe in God, and in His promises of the irrevocable, the eternal, the unconditional. It seemed an odd thing for a lapsed Muslim to think or feel. I always wondered whether, as a Jew, she felt some version of it as well.
I’ll miss Barbara’s urbane wit, her over-flowing generosity, and her unapologetic (and yet unpretentious) love of high culture. Above all, I’ll miss the smile that expressed everything she was, and the music she made, which seemed so apt an expression of her musical soul. Requiescat in pace.
Barbara Gordon is buried at King Solomon Memorial Park, Clifton, New Jersey.
PS. I received a very kind acknowledgement of this post from Barbara’s son Joshua this morning. I’m very glad Barbara’s family has seen the post. I offer them my heartfelt condolences, and hope this can be one space, among others, where we can remember Barbara’s life.
PPS. I’m happy to acknowledge this belated obituary at the Felician University website, which may or may not have been a reaction to a nasty email I sent to University Advancement, demanding acknowledgement of Barbara’s passing. As a bonus, they’ve acknowledged the passing of Carol Manigault and Jeff Shelly as well. Better late than never.