Love Notes

He settled in Plattsburgh, but that didn’t stop Robert Bruce MacDougall from touring the world and spreading a message of peace through his music


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Robert Bruce MacDougall

There is an inevitability about the world that change will happen. People grow older, fads go out of style, opinions change. It is difficult to find someone who has stuck with their original principles, believes in the same core values they did decades ago, and are happier than ever with the classics. Robert Bruce MacDougall, an oboist, conductor, and composer from Plattsburgh, was one such man. Perhaps his downfall was that he only composed classical style music for his 54 years or that he never gave up on the idea of peace. Whatever it was, in 1985, Plattsburgh and the world lost a one-in-a-million man.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, MacDougall was surrounded by art and music. "There was always music in the house," says Celine MacDougall, the late Robert’s widow. Robert’s father also played violin and would join his mother every now and then for a duet, when he wasn’t working his journalism job at the New York Times. Whether it was classical, show tunes, or jazz, MacDougall was exposed to it, "but his forte was always classical," says Celine.

"There was always music in the house"

In school, MacDougall took up playing the clarinet as soon as he could, but switched to the oboe around the age of twelve. He excelled in his grade school’s band and even took to arranging some of the pieces they later played. Having arranged for a while, MacDougall would later get deep into composing, staying up late at night to enjoy the silence which served as a canvas for his compositions.

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Celine MacDougal holding Robert Bruce MacDougall's diploma from the Juilliard's School of Music

Being a Jack of all trades, MacDougall was unsure whether he wanted to pursue a degree in the arts or sciences. "it was very hard for him to decide where to go because he was equally good at everything," says Celine. Feeling as though he might have more opportunities with a science degree, MacDougall enrolled in Rutgers University in New Jersey. For the first year of his studies, he found that he did well in all of his classes except one math class. When he confronted his mother about it, she had advised him to change majors, so he did.

His new school was to be Juilliard’s School of Music where he would study performance, but also dabble a bit in conducting and composition. He did extremely well at Juilliard and seemed to have found his niche. After graduating with high honors, MacDougall enrolled in the Teacher’s College at Columbia University, then went on to begin his career as a musician, conductor, and composer.

 "Robert had the biggest urge to travel, to get out of the country," says Celine. He found a school district in Saskatchewan, Canada, which was in need of a high school conductor. Being well-fitted to the job with his new master’s degree, MacDougall moved up north.

"it was very hard for him to decide where to go, because he was equally good at everything"

During his time as a conductor for the high school, MacDougall would meet and fall in love with Celine, who had been a soprano in the chorus under his direction. "It was love at first sight," Celine remembers. It was his beautiful smile that attracted her to him in the first place, and everything followed after that. He had an obvious love of music, which was a very large part of her life, and a love for foreign languages. Being French-Canadian and speaking international French, Celine has a natural passion for learninglanguages as well. They met in 1959 and in 1960 were happily wed.

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Andrew MacDougall holding his father's framed section of the Ribbon project from 1982.

Between the time he was married and his untimely death at the age of only 54 in 1985, MacDougall had 25 years full of performances, compositions, and immeasurable experiences.

MacDougall was a part of many musical groups, be they small quartets or large orchestras. For ten years, his musical talents were lent to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra where he played first oboe. He was also a part of the Tri City Opera Orchestra out of Ithaca, New York, for about three years; the Quebec City Symphony where he occupied the first oboe chair for a time; and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra once called on him to also take the first oboe position. In addition to these large groups, MacDougall took his Plattsburgh High School band, which was under his direction for several years in and around the ‘60s, to play at the historical Montreal Expose in 1967; and was a member of a quartet called "Potpourri" for a number of years playing anything from jazz to classical music for any venue such as weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and any other type of parties that were willing to book them.

"If he was still around today, he would have written something to Obama, I’m sure"

In addition to all of these groups, MacDougall also had the privilege to play for a year across the ocean in Germany with the newly-formed Seventh Army Symphony from ‘52 to ’53. In 1953, Sam Adler was granted permission to form the Seventh Army Symphony with its headquarters in Germany. For ten years the Symphony traveled all around Europe doing live, radio, and even television performances.

During the ‘80s, MacDougall also took part in the Ribbon project. This project was thought up by Justine Merritt in 1982 and had the theme, "What I cannot bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war." People from all over the United States began sending in large pieces of cloth which were decorated with symbols or words depicting what they didn’t want lost forever just because the countries of the world couldn’t stand to get along with each other.

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Macdougall's "Promise & Fulfillment"

MacDougall designed his own piece of cloth and decorated it with the first four measures of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B-Minor. On the back of the piece was written the names of MacDougall’s children, and his own and his wife’s, and their instruments of choice, in addition to this message:

"Three hundred years ago, God gave to Johann Sebastian Bach and incomparable creative gift, which has inspired countless performers and listeners worldwide, and which it is our sacred trust to preserve in perpetuity – and, by its means, to raise our voices in supplication."

When the Ribbon was disassembled years later, MacDougall’s portion was shipped back to him and now hangs on the wall of his home in a protective frame for all to remember, reflect upon, and enjoy.

"I would love to have it performed again," says Celine, "so the children could hear it"

Also being a composer, MacDougall created several works of music in his lifetime, all of which he dedicated to someone close to him. In fact, he dedicated works to his wife and children, naturally, to his outstanding students, and even to his German host family when he was playing in the Seventh Army Symphony, among other individuals. As Andrew MacDougall says, "If he was still around today, he would have written something to Obama, I’m sure."

MacDougall may have written many small pieces, but he had two major compositions, which were also performed in Plattsburgh years ago. One was called "Promise & Fulfillment," which was a piece written for chorus and chamber orchestra. The inspiration for this piece came from three of the four seasons: Spring (promise) and Summer and Autumn (fulfillment). This piece was completed later than the other major pieces in 1979 and was performed by the Plattsburgh college.

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A ticket from the 1975 performance of "Missa Spei"

The other piece was MacDougall’s lifework, although it only took him nine months to write. "Missa Spei", or Mass of Hope, was a concert mass piece. According to Lynn Wilke, retired music educator at Peru school district, the concert mass was the big to-do. Requiring a several hundred person choir, an equally large orchestra, and an organist, concert masses "require such a large chorus and the orchestra is terribly expensive to put together." Wilke also recalls a bit of the history of the concert mass. Originally, they were performed more for the church than for the people, and according to Wilke, "people were told to sit down, shut up, and pray." Because of the large expense to organize such a mass, the church hardly performs concert masses anymore and usually goes for the religious mass, which requires only a small choir and an organ, most of the time. As an example, Wilke describes the religious mass as having a sort of "Kumbaya" feeling where everyone is happy and sings along together to all the familiar words.

"Missa Spei" was only performed in Plattsburgh once in 1975 in observance of St. John the Baptist church of Plattsburgh’s Centennial and also the Bicentennial of the United States, although it was a year early. She finds her copy to be overridden with static, which is the only copy of her husband’s major work that she owns, and "it wasn’t really a professional recording, either."

Despite the difficulty and expense of putting together a concert performance of MacDougall’s Mass of Hope, there are still some who would like to hear it again, regardless. "I would love to have it performed again," says Celine, "so the children could hear it."

Would you be interested in hearing MacDougall's "Missa Spei" performed again?