Tribute to Don Franklin

by Sara Franklin Rollfinke and Christopher Franklin

Don Franklin

1939 — 2020

Photo of Don Franklin

A renowned Baroque musicologist, Don Franklin was Professor of Music, Emeritus, at the University of Pittsburgh, having taught there from 1970 until his retirement in 2009. His four decades in academia included visiting professorships at Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, Germany; University of Louisville; Indiana University, Bloomington; and University of Augsburg, Germany.

Don was born in Willmar, Minnesota, where he was fondly remembered as the youngest-ever trumpet player to play taps on Memorial Day at the Willmar Cemetery and as a brilliant pianist, who performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the high school orchestra. Decades later, Don and his family returned to their roots, when they purchased a summer cabin on Eagle Lake, just north of Willmar. The cabin ‘in Lake Wobegon’ became a cherished annual vacation site for children, cousins, and grandchildren over the years.

After attending North Park College in Chicago for two years, Don completed his B.A. at the University of Minnesota. He then went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from Stanford University. It was at Stanford that Don began conducting the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, an experience which shaped the rest of his career. Along the way, he studied harpsichord with Dutch keyboardist Gustav Leonhardt, a pioneer in the movement to perform music on period instruments.

Don was a rare breed of musicologist, not only an internationally respected scholar, but an accomplished and dynamic performer and conductor. When he first arrived at Pitt, Don assumed leadership of the Heinz Chapel Choir; his five years as director were marked by a dramatic expansion of the repertoire and the HCC’s first-ever international tour, which included performances in England, France, and Italy. In 1991, Don, along with friend and colleague John Goldsmith, founded Bach and the Baroque, a popular concert series which ran for sixteen years and featured a period instrument ensemble. In that time, Don conducted over 40 works of J. S. Bach, including 30 cantatas and a number of Bach’s longer choral works, including masses, passions, and the Christmas Oratorio. Don’s vast knowledge of baroque music informed his careful selection of repertoire for concert programs. In addition, his understanding of the influence of dance on style and tempo continually informed his conducting. A frequent collaborator with Chatham Baroque, he conducted performances of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion in 2011 and Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in 2016.

Don served two six-year terms as Chair of the Music Department at Pitt and helped solidify the program’s reputation for top-notch scholarly research. He served as President of the American Bach Society for four years and was a founding editor for Bach Perspectives. Among his many awards and honors were several international fellowships. None meant more to him than when a group of his former graduate students, along with Bach scholars around the country, published Compositional Choices and Meaning in the Vocal Music of J.S. Bach in 2018, a volume of essays, collected as a tribute to Don’s half-century as a ‘prominent leader in American Bach studies.’ Always a devoted graduate advisor, Don was celebrated in the publication’s foreword for his ‘encouragement, guidance, and insight—all of it communicated with skill, knowledge, experience, and grace.’ His doctoral students have been granted positions as professors and researchers around the world.

He continued to do scholarly research until his final months. Don’s many publications focused not only on matters involving tempo, proportion, and dimension in the music of J.S. Bach, but also compositional procedure and musico-theological structure in late 18th century liturgical music. He presented papers regularly at Baroque Music conferences throughout North America, Great Britain, and Germany.

Don was preceded in death by his beloved wife of 60 years, Joan (Bloomquist) Franklin, who passed away just four months earlier. He was also preceded by two sisters, Sheryl Swanson, and Susan Fulton. He is survived by his children, Sara (Brian) Rollfinke of Timonium, Maryland, and Christopher (Rossella Bevacqua) Franklin of Lucca, Italy; his five grandchildren Max, Luke, Leonardo, Marcello, and Leyla, and his sister Judith Lifton, of Cleveland, Ohio.