Herman Whitfield III: A Tribute

Herman and I entered the Cleveland Institute of Music for our graduate studies at the same time. We became friends almost immediately because we shared a love for composition as well as performance. Near the end of our first year of grad school, he invited me to play a song cycle he composed for voice, guitar, and string sextet based on the poem "Donal Og" by Lady Augusta Gregory. If my memory serves me well, we premiered the work on degree recital by the singer Caroline Kuehn. You may hear the entire work below.

I.
II.
III.
IV.
V.
VI.

Herman was an amazing pianist, so full of feeling and grandeur, but what an amazing pianissimo he could produce. Although we were the same height, his hands were probably 50% larger than mine. He was a big guy, but even in his most passionate conversation, he was kind, respectful, and relatively soft-spoken. 

His favorite composer was Gabriel Fauré. I thought it was an odd choice at the time. When Herman first told me about his favorite composer, I said something like "I guess I enjoy his earlier works." Herman responded, "I love his late works, the later the better." I thought to myself "how can you tolerate that harmonic language?" As a cellist, my main exposure to Fauré was through the Elegie and Sicilienne. I hated to admit that Fauré also had two cello sonatas from his late period.

Herman's second master's recital had two works on it: Schubert's G-major piano sonata and his own second violin sonata. The violin sonata was in the unusual key of C# minor. I remember Herman sitting in the CIM computer lab composing the work. Sometimes that small computer lab was stuffed with 25-30 people. I think it had 15 workstations. I asked Herman how he could stand composing in such a loud environment. He told me that he was used to it from home.

He premiered the sonata with the violinist Ariel Clayton (Karas). From the first note, I was captivated. The first movement is so warm and dark, going between C# minor and D-flat major. The second movement is a graceful minuet with a scherzo middle section. The last movement is a perpetual motion with sparkling motives and repeated notes. The middle section is a peaceful chant, which is later combined with the perpetual motion at the end. The entire sonata lasts about 40 minutes.

After the concert, I told Herman that I want to play the sonata on cello. He sent me the music and we started looking for a venue to play. The concert was going to also include one of my works and Fauré's second cello sonata. I had warmed up a little to the late Fauré sound by then. This concert never materialized, but I kept Herman's work in mind. 

The following year, I had a venue and the opportunity to play Herman's sonata. I worked quite a bit with the pianist Liz De Mio so I asked her if she wanted to learn the sonata. After she kindly declined, because of the incredible difficulty of the piano part, I asked her if she would mind if I invite Herman to play half of the recital. Liz agreed to share the piano and Herman agreed to come from Indianapolis to play his sonata with me. The recital also included Chopin's Polonaise Brillante, Suk's Serenade, and Khachaturian's Concerto Rhapsody. The performance took place at Judson Manor at University Circle in August 2009. Here is the recording of the sonata from that performance.

I. Adagio melancolio, solo e distante
II. Allegro grazioso
III. Allegro ma non troppo

He said that the cello captured the essence of what he imagined better than the violin, especially in the finale. When Herman returned to Indianapolis, he told me that he began composing a cello sonata for us to play. I don't know if he ever finished the work. When I visited Indianapolis in 2013 for an audition, Herman and I got to catch up a bit. He told me that he had gotten a job in Florida and was moving there soon. We kept in touch sporadically since then. I've thought about offering Herman to make an edition of the sonata so other people could enjoy playing it.

I am very saddened to hear about Herman's death at such a young age. I hope that his memory will live on through his music. Please enjoy his other works on his YouTube channel.

2 comments

  • Malva Bee
    Malva Bee Miami
    Hello Yuriy, Thank you so much for sharing this! Herman was a gentle soul and will be present in our lives through his music.

    Hello Yuriy,
    Thank you so much for sharing this! Herman was a gentle soul and will be present in our lives through his music.

  • Aziz
    Aziz Miami
    Herman was an awesome human being, and even better musician. He had a unique take on music, style I’ve never seen before or since. I mourn a loss of a friend, and the world should mourn the loss of his talent.

    Herman was an awesome human being, and even better musician. He had a unique take on music, style I’ve never seen before or since. I mourn a loss of a friend, and the world should mourn the loss of his talent.

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