Memento Mori: Composer Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000)



What follows is a memory of Bernhard Heiden (pictured), noted German composer and pianist, who spent a great portion of his working life in Bloomington as a theory and composition professor at Indiana University (1946-1981).

It’s worth noting that Bernhard had a connection to early music.

He was the first to organize concerts of early repertoire at I.U. not long after becoming a professor, decades before the formation of the Early Music Institute (of which he had a hand in bringing its founder, Thomas Binkley, to Bloomington).

He also had a lifelong association with the recorder that began as a composition student under Paul Hindemith. Bernhard, a trained clarinetist, easily learned the recorder at Hindemith’s insistence, among numerous other instruments. As well, he was one of three performers, along with the composer and (possibly) Harald Genzmer, in the first radio broadcast of Hindemith’s Trio for Recorders (1932).

Years later, he taught at Camp Treetops (Lake Placid, New York, 1947-1953 and 1955-60) where he arranged and composed recorder music for the campers.

Bernhard wrote a concerto for recorder and orchestra in 1987 for Eva Legêne, Dutch recorder virtuosa, I.U. colleague, and long-time friend. He later composed a second work for Eva entitled Prelude, Theme, and Variations (1994).

Next to the piano, he also played the harpsichord, an instrument he owned and, unfortunately, for which he left very few compositions.

Ten years ago this month, Bernhard Heiden passed away just a few months shy of his ninetieth birthday. I spent the better part of his final two years as an assistant to him and his wife, Cola, both housebound and in need of care.

It was my job to do the shopping (market and otherwise).

I have to say, it wasn’t easy to be around an elderly couple who were fading away (even if there was little history and personal connection between us). But I stuck it out because I imagined myself going through the same process with my parents. It was a challenge, a learning experience, and something I’m very glad I did.

Sometime in the first year, during the summer, Cola died, which left Bernhard to be taken care of by assistants (myself included), a hospice worker, and a multitude of friends who loved him and visited often.

Bernhard was fragile, to say the least, and rarely left his bed in the last few months. During that time I remember asking if I could photograph him. Thankfully, he said yes.

[Updated on 05/06/2010:]

The slide show below contains the photos I took of Bernhard and the house as they appeared a month before his passing. I have included my photos along with many vintage photos of him, Cola, and the two of them together—all taken by various photographers, mostly anonymous, over a period of at least seven decades. Interspersed are interior and exterior house photos of mine.

There are a couple of extras, as well, including two lovely poems in Bernhard’s hand, a photo with him as part of a clarinet quartet accompanying Paul Hindemith, and another with the I.U. Jacobs School of Music in the background.

(After hitting play, make sure to click on the bottom right-hand button of the window in order to view the photos in full-screen mode.)

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  • Joanne Filkins

    I came across your slide show while searching for any further information on Bernhard Heiden. My D.M.A. dissertation was on his music featuring the horn, and I am trying to extract an article for publication in commemoration of his hundredth birthday. I visited the Heidens at their home in Bloomington in the late 1980s and they came down here to Lexington, KY for a horn workshop featuring his horn music in the early 1990s. The photos are very interesting. I had not seen pictures of them in their younger days before. It's wonderful that you were able to take care of them in their last years since they didn't have any children. From their obituaries the causes of their deaths were never clear, but of course they were both quite elderly and from what you write it sounds as if they both had long illnesses. They were still quite active when I saw them in the 80s and early 90s. Thanks for sharing your photos.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I'm glad you liked the photos.