Robert F. Twynham
Witness Post: Robert F. Twynham
It was 1961 and the boys were lined up for a test. Who could follow the randomly played notes on piano the best? My brother, Laurie, had an amazing musical memory and he blew it away, remembering 15 random notes in sequence. Thus started his singing career as a child in the men and boys Choir at The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, Maryland (C-MOQ for short). Our family had recently moved back to Baltimore from Philadelphia.
A few years later Laurie earned the honor of being the first boy soloists of verse one of Once in Royal David’s City. His performance was in front of a packed audience at the church. The winter evening became the very first C-MOQ Festival of Lessons and Carols Christmas Concert held at the Cathedral. In 1963 I auditioned for and was admitted into the choir; and our brother, Ned, followed one year later. Each of the Hooper boys sang that revered solo!
We all were part of those early years with Bob Twynham and the C-MOQ Men & Boys Choir. Mr. Twynham was a tough and demanding instructor, who cussed like a sailor, and had a green thumb for talent. The little Hooper sprouts were fortunate to have good “ears” to pick up the relative pitches. We learned to follow and then lead the sopranos as we picked the melodies, honed the harmony, and mastered the descants.
What was most remarkable to me about Bob Twynham was the fact that he was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. How he was able to write and perform and direct and sing, much less cope with a feisty men and boys’ choir, is still a mystery to me. I imagined him like Beethoven, feeling the sound of the piano with its legs cut off, by sensing the music through the floor. He had a gift that was indomitable.
In 1966, I distinctly recall our rehearsals with the Old St. Paul’s choir in downtown Baltimore. Through good fortune and some lucky connections, Bob Twynham had managed to get us invited to be one of two choirs to sing at the wedding ceremony of Luci Baines Johnson to Patrick Nugent. After the downtown rehearsal, we were to receive our security clearances from the FBI (a white tag on a string), and take a bus trip to Washington, DC. This was before the days of frisking everyone for weapons or going through metal detectors. When we arrived in NW Washington, the bus drove us to the National Cathedral. With white tags showing, we were politely escorted to the choir loft. We were thrilled to be there and craned our necks to get the best glimpse of the President, the bride, and the pageantry. The view from the choir loft, however, was not ideal, and we couldn’t see much of the ceremony at all. Wait for communion, we thought.
To our chagrin the security guards would not allow us to go down the center isle to receive communion. Instead a deacon came up to the loft with the sacred wafers. All was not a loss, though, because we sang our hearts out and the adults there said the music and singing were great. Our parents did not go to DC with us. They watched on television as the guests arrived and left the church. The Johnson wedding, at least the part in the Cathedral, was not to be a public spectacle. The only thing I remember hearing on the national news that night about the wedding was a quotation from Everett Dirkson, the Senate Minority Leader, who said to a reporter as he walked out of the Cathedral, “The choir sounded like angels!”
As a choir boy during the ‘60’s I liked the 90 minute afternoon rehearsals best, because they were short and sweet. I had a hard time staying focused during the longer and tedious Thursday night rehearsals. They seemed to last forever. Mr. Twynham felt the songs were always in need of “one more time” though the tough part. He was not always happy with our performances, and he seemed to have a particularly hard time listening to the basses. “Stop honking, you basses,” he would growl. The coda of the Thursday night rehearsals was the weekly rumble and semi-monthly brawls outside on the Cathedral lawn, which we celebrated to “let off steam.” Not the most reverent or angelic of displays.
Sunday masses and church holidays were fun, as we had those flowing robes (black cassocks and white surpluses), black music folders, and lots of incense. To get to the back of the church from the choir room, we had to walk through the dark basement, past the crypt, past the library, and up the stairs. We would arrive at the back of the church for our processional. The soprano descants were such fun to sing, as Mr. Twynham would let us soar. After we sang, the sound of our voices and the music would echo in the church for seven seconds, which seemed forever.
Despite the fact that he had won the Baltimore Bach concerto festival several times, Bob Twynham always said that he was not a pianist. “My wife, Eileen, is a pianist,” he asserted. “I am an organist!” And was he ever. The Sunday 11:00 am masses were followed by the extraordinary “organ blasts” by Bob, who was always playing some complicated, bombastic piece, which we would listen to in awestruck wonder. How did he get that sound from those metal pipes? I joined the weekly C-MOQ congregational crowds with spontaneously applaud after each magnum opus.
I sang first soprano for 5 years, up until 1968, when Bob moved me to alto for Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. My musical range was shrinking quickly and my voice was cracking terrible for many of the performances, to my great embarrassment. At least I wasn’t the child who dressed up like a dove, headdress and all, and had to dance down the long Cathedral main aisle and bring back an olive branch in his mouth (that was Tom Bagli).
Speaking of sweet doves, Tom Bagli recalls “the character” side of Mr. Twynham. He said to me, “I was fortunate that Bob Twynham used crummy balsa wood batons, as he regularly broke them in fits of rage as mayhem erupted from the boy sopranos. One time he stabbed me in the chest and my steroid-infused Hulk-like torso snapped the baton like a twig.” Everyone is a comic.
I did not sing in high school, which was too bad, but I had the good fortune of enjoying a’ cappella singing in college at Yale. As my voice had dropped precipitously from alto to second bass, I was able to continue to “work the pipes.” At any rate, I was thrilled to rejoin Bob Twynham and the C-MOQ men and boys’ choir as one of those honking basses in 1980’s. Singing with Erik Steingass, Don D’Ambrogi, Bill Nesbitt, Jim Mitchell, Bill Baird, and others was nearly as fun as were the performances of JS Bach, Verdi, Handel, Durufle, John Rutter, and Messiaen, not to mention the Twynham originals (“Te Deum” was one of my favorites). Bob was even “in his zone” with difficult voice chants, such as Toch’s “Geographical Fugue,” which had me mouthing world places I had never imagined before. The older I got, the more profound the Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols proved for me. Bob kept the music and readings fresh, even for church regulars, critical listeners, and Cathedral festival newbees.
Although I missed one of the high points in the history of the Cathedral and the C-MOQ choir — when they hosted and sang for Pope John Paul II — I felt fortunate to be in the choir at another important time for Bob Twynham and his wife, Eileen.
I vividly recall 1982 choir trip to New York City and Sturbridge Village, Pennsylvania, which was particularly poignant for me. I felt the trip gave me keen insights into the Twynhams, and I cherish those recollections to this day. The trip was to Brooklyn, New York, as a fundraiser for the organ at St. Barbara’s Church in the Bushwick part of the borough (see attached article). Bob lamented that he and Eileen felt they had to respond to the return call from the pastor, because, “If we don’t try to save the organ, who will?” I remember the “bombed out” neighborhood, certainly, and the Latin American host family, but I also remember walking with Eileen and Bob by some apartments adjacent to the church, taking their picture, and hearing the story of their simple early years living in that apartment and working in the parish. It sounded as if those were some of the happiest times in their lives. (Please see the recollections from P. A. Piccione below, who was a choir member during those Brooklyn years.)
I know that the early years in Brooklyn were stressful on their marriage, especially when Eileen lamented, “We couldn’t have any children, so we dove into our work.” In hindsight, though, the return fundraising trip to St. Barbara’s seemed to accent the Twynhams’ love affair with the Bushwick congregation, which had been so supportive of the young couple in the early years of their music ministry.
The “New Cathedral” in Baltimore
The conversation soon wandered to the time of “the call” about an opening for an organist and musical director at a new Cathedral, just being completed in Baltimore. It was a very exciting time of interviewing and presenting of credentials. And once chosen, the challenge was to leave their beloved congregation and moving from St. Barbara’s to C-MOQ in Maryland.
During the final rehearsal before our fund raising concert, I remember feeling very sick with a sore throat and light head. I was afraid that if I sang full voice, I would lose my voice all together. We spent the night with some Hispanic parishioners, who lived a few miles away from the church. I ate my lasagna and salad and, hoping not to infect the family, quickly retired to bed and sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I felt worse. I prayed for some relief by the end of the morning, to no avail.
At the afternoon concert, the church was nearly packed as the community members came out in full force to listen, to honor Bob Twynham, to contribute, and to pray. My personal prayer was to avoid passing out. The aspirin and Sucrets lozenges I ate were not helping my head or throat any, so, after some musical warm-ups and soft croaking, I felt I had a choice: either “sit this one out” or just “let go.” I decided to let go.
Bob Twynham’s musical organ overture was marvelous, as he was in one of his inspired moods. There was even a trumpet player, who came to the choir loft to play with us. When it came time for us to sing, I looked up from my sheet music and sang. The words and sounds that came from my mouth were not my own, and I was immediately overcome with amazement and tears. I felt as if, like St. Francis of Assisi, God were using me as an instrument for His purposes. My singing became all about the Twynhams and the music and the organ fund; God would not let a trivial cold or flu symptoms get in the way of His work. With Him, anything is possible. Those tears ran down my face and the supporting bass sound came forth. It was an out-of-body experience. In retrospect the trip to St. Barbara’s proved to be one of the most powerful and profound religious experiences of my life. I have never forgotten it.
St. Barbara’s Church, Brooklyn, NY
My wife, Tracy, and I called on Bob Twynham, in the spring of 1984, when we were engaged. We asked him to play the organ music at our wedding, which was at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore. Bob did a marvelous job playing the pieces we had helped us pick out from Bach and Purcell and Rutter. Bob also accompanied the trumpeter, singers and spouses we had recruited from my singing group to perform. Bob admitted to me later that he hated playing at the Shrine, because “the organ is dreadful.” It was a beautiful wedding, if I don’t say so myself, and the organ and music sounded great to us.
In the fall of 1986, when Tracy and I had returned to Baltimore from Connecticut and my graduate school at Yale, Bob and Eileen invited us to a Nuptial Mass at the Cathedral followed by a reception at their home in Bolton Hill. They were holding the Eucharistic service in the Lady Chapel, in the west end of the church. The occasion was their 25th wedding anniversary. The Twynhams had gathered a small group of couples together to celebrate their marriage covenant in their favorite part of the Cathedral. Tracy and I were so very pleased to be included, as it was a tearful time for us, wondering if we would have 23 more years together, and if we would be surrounded by friends on that joyous occasion.
The Lady Chapel Altar Piece, C-MOQ
I had not known how important the Lady Chapel was to the Twynhams, and their lives as artists and musicians, until I went to the C-MOQ website to see the memorial notes on Bob Twynham.
The notes read as follows:
Bob’s wife, Eileen, is herself an accomplished musician. She drew poetic inspiration from the Marian images in the walls and windows of the Lady Chapel at the Cathedral. Eileen expanded these metaphors in five poems using historical documents about Mary. Bob set these five poems to music. Her English texts are juxtaposed with the Latin text of the Magnificat in what is termed a macaronic text. The result is amazing. The first five movements are titled after the names for Mary that are found in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen: Mystical Rose (Rosa Mystica), Morning Star (Stella Matutina), Refuge of Sinners (Refugium Peccatorum), Mirror of Justice (Speculum Justitiae) and Ivory Tower (Turris Eburnea). The sixth and final movement, Glory Be to the Father (Gloria Patri), is a joyous explosion of organ and choral mastery that typically leads the audience to a standing ovation.
The Lady Chapel
I have loved music and singing for most of my life. And I tribute Bob Twynham for being the Hooper family gardener. He was the one who early on was planting the seeds, watering the early roots, watching the stem, tending the leaves, pruning the suckers, and nurturing the fruit with my brothers and me. He has been my musical inspiration to me. He was a vitally important influence in my life for over 50 years.
Bob Twynham died on March 23, 2011. He was 80 years old. Twynham had been the musical director and choir master at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for nearly 40 years.
I miss him dearly.
St. Barbara Catholic Church
138 Bleecker Street at Central Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11221
The Roman Catholic parish of St. Barbara was established in 1893 to serve German immigrants, many of whom worked in the breweries in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. Bishop McDonnell dedicated the first church on Thanksgiving Day, 1893. It is said that the church was named for Barbara Epping, the wife of local brewer Leopold Epping. Over the years, the congregation has evolved to serve Italians and now Latin Americans who have displaced the original German population in the neighborhood.
Ground was broken in 1907 for the present church, designed in the Spanish Baroque style by Helmle & Huberty, and the church was opened in 1910. Noted for its 175-foot high cream-colored spires — which the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects has described as “wedding-cake icing: edible” — the elaborate exterior includes a beautiful dome. Inside, the church interior is filled with statuary, carvings, frescoes and more than 25 stained glass windows.
I want to add to these recollections of an amazing and wonderful man and musician.
I remember Bob Twynham, i.e. “Mr. Twynham,” to me and my choir mates, but he was “Bob” to my dad and mom. I am 65 years old now, but my memories of him are still vivid. I was a prepubescent boy, and I sang first soprano for Mr. Twynham at the Church of St. Barbara in Brooklyn, New York, for several years. He was a spectacular choirmaster, organist and conductor. He taught me so much about music. In the same choir, my brother, 4 years older than I, sang alto, and my father, with his deep sonorous voice, was a baritone. They spoke admiringly of him all the time, and that admiration made me want to join the choir.
One day, when I was an 8 year old 3rd grader at St. Barbara’s Elementary School, I saw Mr. Twynham in the hallway. I bravely introduced myself. I asked him if I could join the choir. He replied that I could try out only after I had reached the 4th grade, less than a year away. I auditioned and was accepted into the choir.
It was a magnificent experience singing for Mr. Twynham and hearing him play on the big organ. He had a wonderful singing voice, too, and I used to love hearing him sing “Te Deum Laudamus” at high mass, or “Lux Aeterna” at funeral masses (for which I served as an altar boy). Miss Antonietta “Toni” Giabardo was his soloist, and she had a near operatic voice. His playing and her singing were awesome. And, my Lord, when he pulled the stops out of that organ, he made that big church shake with his powerful music. Some organists, when they do that, sound as though they are sitting on the keys, a cacophony of so many notes running together. Not Mr. Twynham. All of his notes were cleanly articulated and enunciated. His fingers could fly across those keys.
As a choirmaster he was very demanding — a perfectionist — and could frequently lose his temper if we were not performing up to his vision. One night at practice with the beginners, he spent a lot of time explaining musical notes and how they ranged from A to G. We were all nodding our assent, as though we understood, until he called on me and asked me what note came after G. I replied sheepishly, “H?” “NO!” he screamed, “it’s A, A!!“. Another time, he got so angry at the adult men, who were the basses and baritones, that he picked up all his papers from the piano and threw them all the way across the room, screaming “no, No!” He actually kicked me out of choir once, because I was horsing around with Joe Palminteri and George Sciascia. Days later, I went back and pleaded to be re-instated. He relented and let me back in, but only if I promised to behave. I felt bad that I had let him down, but he still forgave me. He really loved the sound of boys and boys’ choir, and we got the feeling he was not as well disposed towards girls’ choir.
Bob Twynham and my dad, Pat Piccione, were great friends. Years later dad told me that Mr. T. was deaf in one ear, or nearly so. You would never have known it by the way he played or led practice. Sundays, 10:30 a.m. solemn high mass brought out the entire choir, men, boys, and girls — earthshaking but solemn music. After mass, many of the men and my dad, and often their wives, and Mr. Twynham and his wife, Eileen, would go to breakfast at a restaurant and soda fountain across the street on Central Avenue. I still remember them sitting at a big table, talking and laughing. I think the Twynhams lived nearby. I remember Mrs. Twynham — I didn’t know she was his wife then, but dad explained later (I was only in 4th grade at the time). She was at nearly every rehearsal. She often wore a suit with jacket and matching skirt, white blouse, and she invariably carried a leather pocketbook with long strap draped over her left shoulder (funny the things you remember).
Then there was the time we sang “The Messiah” in concert, probably around 1960 or 1961, given as a benefit concert for the church. Oh my! It was a very special performance, including chorus, soloists, and full orchestra. Under Mr. Twynham’s direction, our choir had developed a wonderful reputation across Brooklyn for its high quality singing. We practiced for months. Mr. T. was so well connected to the musical world in New York that he was able to assemble an entire orchestra of professional concert musicians, who volunteered their talents for charity. The musicians and choir rehearsed separately until the final rehearsals in church. We gave the performance with the choir and orchestra seated in the great sanctuary to a packed audience. “For unto us a child is born. . . ,” did the church resound with glorious music.
St. Barbara is a big church, one of the largest in Brooklyn, and acoustically pretty spectacular. They even tried to record the concert for commercial release, but the sound equipment failed, and we were all disappointed in the poor recording, Mr. Twynham, especially.
Then the word came that Mr. Twynham was leaving for an assignment in Baltimore. We were crushed — devastated actually (who would lead us now?), and yet at the same time, we were immensely proud because he was going to a cathedral, the newly built Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. It was a great step up for him, and so in keeping with his immense talents.
A few years later, we learned that he had been selected to play and conduct the choir at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC for the wedding of Luci Bird Johnson, the president’s daughter. Did we beam with pride! And yet we still lamented our loss, even 5 years later.
After Mr. Twynham left St. Barbara’s, we never sounded the same. My father had quit the choir, and my brother had graduated. Mr. Parker was our next choirmaster. A decent organist, but he did not have the skill of Mr. Twynham, and we lost our cohesion. The boy sopranos no longer sounded like an angelic choir, and he never invoked Twynham’s discipline. Where Twynham had all the sections of the choir stand in their proper groups, boys to the left of the organ, girls to the right, first sopranos down front, second sopranos behind them, followed by altos and tenors, then the bases and baritones at the rear (under the big pipes of the organ), Mr. Parker insisted all the boys and girls had to crowd around him at the organ, regardless of their voices and with the bases and baritones right behind. No, no — not the same. It was never the same again. Mr. Twynham was gone.
That same year, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs (supposedly). The worlds of music for me and baseball for every fan had changed forever.
God bless you, Mr. T., Bob Twynham, “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.” I will never forget you.
— P. A. Piccione
The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
5200 N Charles St
Baltimore, MD 21210
In October 1954, ground was broken for the new Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Dedicated in 1959, the contemporary Gothic structure was made possible by the late Thomas J. O’Neill (1849-1919) in a bequest.
But the Cathedral and the Archdiocese are more than historic relics — they are for everyone, a living, growing entity of the Universal Church. Today, more than two hundred years after its founding, the Archdiocese has over one-half million Catholics and over 250 active Diocesan Priests.
Under the leadership of Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien, the premier see enjoys a position of importance in the American Church as a leading center of ecumenical, social and civic progress, along with being one of the prime locations for priestly formation in the United States.