Merritt Charles Schumann
1922 - 2010
Merritt Schumann directed the choirs and taught voice at Southwestern Junior College, now Southwestern Adventist University, from 1950 to 1953. He then was chair of the music department and directed choral groups at Campion Academy in Loveland, Colorado, for 14 years, from 1953 until 1967, where he developed outstanding singers and professional sounding ensembles.
Schumann was born and raised in Colorado. A gifted singer, he was inspired to pursue music study while attending Campion Academy in Colorado. Following graduation in 1940, he enrolled as a music major at Union College. He was drafted into the army during World War II and served for three years in Europe, participating in the invasion of Normandy and other major battles.
He returned to UC following the end of the war and continued with his music study at a time when a newly constructed music building was opened and the program grew to include over 600 students, 400 of them in lessons. It was an exciting time in the music program with many fine voices, including those of Schumann, Wayne Hooper, Herbert Hohensee, Harold Lickey, Lyle Jewell, and others, all men who would achieve musical distinction after leaving the program. These voices, as well as the work of Harlyn Abel as director of the vocal-choral program in Schumann's last three years at UC, made that time a memorable experience for Schumann and other voice students.
Upon graduating from UC with honors in 1950, Schumann was hired to direct the choral program and teach voice at Southwestern Junior College, now Southwestern Adventist University, in Texas. Even though the school enrollment was mostly academy students, he was able to produce a sophisticated choral sound. He renamed the a cappella choir the Mizpah Choraliers which, under his leadership, enjoyed a reputation for excellence and set a standard in performance that subsequent directors sought to emulate.
Schumann gave a highly praised presentation of the Messiah in his final year at SJC. One of his voice students, Maurita (Bunny) Phillips (later Thornburgh), who would subsequently enjoy a distinguished international performing career, was the contralto soloist in this performance.
In 1953 his alma mater, Campion Academy, invited him to direct its choral vocal program and chair the music department. He welcomed the opportunity to return to Colorado, a region of the country he knew and regarded as home. For the next fourteen years, Schumann ran a stellar choral program that inspired the students such as Jerry Patton, later a member of the King's Heralds Quartet, and got rave reviews from audiences.
He chose his music carefully from the great choral masterpieces and worked for ultimate perfection and musical nuance. He urged the students to open their mouths and sing from the gut or solar plexus and the result was a rich resonant sound that rivaled the sound of college and university ensembles.
It was also a professionally gratifying time for him as he completed an M.Mus. in choral conducting at Northern Colorado State University, now the University of Colorado in Greeley, and spent twelve summers at Westminster Choir College, studying conducting under its founder, the legendary John Finley Williamson. He regarded the study under Williamson as the most inspirational of his career.
During his summers at WCC he was able to sing under Robert Shaw, noted choral conductor of the 20th century. While at one of these summer sessions, he introduced Bunny Phillips to Williamson and Shaw, who were impressed with her voice and predicted a great future for her, in spite of the fact that she would not be pursuing a career in opera.
When Campion Academy did not rehire him at the end of the 1967 school year, Schumann and his students were devastated. There were no stated reasons, and by all appearances the action seemed to come about because of professional jealousies and an inability on the part of school leadership to accommodate and work with an exceptional musical talent. Schumann later talked about his farewell concert:
The last concert we gave was in the old gym. The choir gave a great concert, I don't know how the kids ever made it. The tears were flowing. It was a heartbreaking experience for all of us. The kids were asking, "Where do we go now?" It really got to me then and still troubles me today when I think about it.
Schumann moved with his family to Grand Junction, Colorado, where they built and ran a nursing home. He continued to be involved in music, guest directing special groups that performed such masterpieces as Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah; conducting workshops, including two at Andrews University in Michigan; and serving as minister of music at the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Junction for many years. In 2002 he was honored with an invitation to return to Campion Academy, where he conducted a reunion choir of his former choir students during homecoming weekend.
He started the Schumann Singers in 1983, a select ensemble that became acclaimed for its sound and colorful performances. Following his retirement in 1997, the group continued with his name as a tribute to him. The group, which today is under the leadership of James Werner, continues the performance tradition followed under Schumann, presenting two concerts of classical and sacred music in the autumn and spring, as well as a Christmas concert. It also performs on occasion with the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra.
Sources: Interviews with Merritt Schumann in the fall of 2007 and January and February 2008; Publicity materials, Vita, Resume, and printed programs provided by Schumann; Online version of Glennwood Springs, Colorado, Post Independent write-up about the Schumann Singers, 6 November 2006.