Donald Erb, 1927-2008

My undergraduate composition teacher, Donald Erb, passed away yesterday at the age of 81. He was a wonderful teacher, and wow — what a character. His office was decorated with Elvis memorabilia, not because he was an actual fan of Elvis, but because he thought Elvis was only popular because he epitomized mediocrity and the American love of mediocrity — and that warranted a mocking shrine in his studio.

Donald Erb wrote some of the ugliest, angriest music I’ve ever heard, but he was careful to never influence the style of his students. His music was terribly dissonant, but the music I wrote when I studied with him sounded like a Samuel Barber ripoff, and he helped me make it sound like a good ripoff. A teacher who teaches craft rather than creating clones is a rare teacher indeed, and Dr. Erb was the rarest of them all.

A few Erb stories…

In an interview many years ago, an executive from WCLV, the Cleveland classical music station, was asked why WCLV didn’t play more music by living composers. “Because composers today are speaking Swahili, and my listeners don’t understand Swahili,” was his response. Erb’s response? He had bumper stickers printed that read, “WCLV Sucks” — in Swahili.

Erb was always brutally, and occasionally painfully, honest, and he didn’t care whom he offended. He was once speaking to a colleague about a recent round of NEA grants, and the colleague told Erb that a certain famous female composer had been awarded $20,000 to compose a piece for an orchestra. “Her music is terrible,” was Erb’s response. “But the NEA just gave her $20 grand for a piece,” the colleague retorted. “Yeah, well that orchestra is going to get $20,000 worth of shit.”

For some inexplicable reason, every year while I was at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the school hosted a Darius Milhaud festival. (Milhaud was a French composer popular in the early-mid 1900’s.) I asked Dr. Erb at one lesson, “Dr. Erb, are you going to any of the Milhaud concerts?” I will never forget his response. “Of course not. John, Milhaud was a terrible, terrible composer. Even you are a better composer than Milhaud.”

We’ll miss you, Dr. Erb.


Andy says

Hey John,

Sorry to hear about Erb. I never met him, but it sounds like he was a real character. I wonder if any of those bumper stickers are around?


Christopher Lee says


Thank you for posting the tribute. I feel very lucky to have been one of Don's last formal students at CIM, especially at such an impressionable stage in my development. The impressions he left with all his students are valuable ones that, at least for me, continue to resonate and gain new significance even now, all these years later. Not only did he show by word and example how to compose, but he ingrained in us the sense of responsibility that comes with calling yourself an artist. I have met far too few people like him.

-Christopher Lee

Andrew Hackard says

I'm sorry to hear about your friend, John. It's very special to have someone that talented take an interest in your career, and it sounds like you both gained a lot from the relationship.

Travis Taylor says

I think in honor of Dr. Erb, we should all get bumper stickers that say “WCLV Sucks” — in Swahili.

I never knew Dr. Erb -- (you already know that), but I'm sure he'll live on in the memory of his students and the people he touched... And berated with words.


Steve says

I only met him once, when he was a guest at UNT and he did the usual guest composer seminar. This would've been 1995, so at the same time you were studying with him (but before we met). What stuck with me from his talk was his diatribe on "Disney-as-the-Great-Satan." It was unexpected and awesome.

Colin Hoell (Grandson) says

The amount of support and recognition we have received since he passed has been amazing, and on behalf of his whole family I thank you.

Wallace E. Bubalo says

Interviewer: "So you love your students?"
Don Erb: "You have to love your them. When you see them struggle and try to express themselves you have to love them. If you don't, there is something wrong with your heart."

Wallace E. Bubalo says

Interviewer: "So you love your students?"
Don Erb: "You have to love them. When you see them struggle and try to express themselves you have to love them. If you don't, there is something wrong with your heart."

Stephanie Erb says

My father was an amazing man, and his love and dedication to his students and his ideals was uncompromising. I am so thankful for the support of his students and friends. If you had ever been to a Donald Erb concert, you would know what it is like to be completely changed by hearing a piece of music. He also made us laugh until his last days. I will miss him so. We Erbs love to hear the stories from his students and friends - so keep em coming!Oh, and by the way, it was Swahili for "WCLV IS BORING".. but you get the idea...

Stephanie Erb says

PS: I would also like to add, as my Mom was just letting me know, the correct Swahili is "WCLV Kinachosha" and it was researched by my Dad's colleague and student, Gene O'Brien....

Christopher Kaufman says

Thanks for your tribute. Don wrote some of the most beautiful, passionate and colorful music I've ever heard. Every emotional timbre was covered in his work... from gentle glassy colors to powerful massive textures. There are very few who have been as tremendous a master of orchestration as Don Erb. And your right, he was a wonderful teacher. He had everyone pursuing their own vision of music. He made a very powerful impression on me, impossible to put in words. But to quote the man himself..."If I could put it in words, I'd be a poet... that's why I write music." Don Erb is one of the reasons I write music today as my full-time work. I remember when he stood up in front of seminars and said, to paraphrase..."Music should have everything... emotion, sensuality, intellect, craftsmanship, passion... and not be reduced to just one of those..." And it's also true, he was very intolerant of mediocrity.


john pitman says

I was saddened yesterday to have found out about Donald Erb`s passing. I was the victim of a house fire in Feb., 2005 and in it I lost the Donald Erb LP recordings (among a whole host of other contemporary works on LP from that era--still irks me, but oh, well). Back in March, 2008 I came across a Cleveland composers website and wrote to it asking where I might be able to find copies of those records. A month later he or his wife wrote back to me personally asking for my address to where a few copies may be sent. I did so and a short time later there arrived in my mail a box of just about every LP Donald Erb album there was. I don`t know where on earth they came from, but it took me by surprise at how kind they were to have taken time out of their days to put them together, pack them up, and ship all those LP`s to a fan. It was a very cool thing to do. I am so thankful. john

Joy Von Spain says

I was in Dr Erb's last class before retirement. I share your obvious affection for him. He was a badass. I don't know how he would feel about the music I make now, but when I was his student he always looked for content and skill over genre or style.

I especially liked when he would speak his mind in public. Once after a Cleveland Chamber Symphony concert a composer whose work was premiered that night walked up to him asking what Dr. Erb thought, perhaps expecting a compliment... instead Erb shook his head and replied, "The piece was total shit, but their performance almost held it together." I'm pretty sure he was speaking for everyone there.

Joy Von Spain says

I have passed his music around to people wherever I've lived. In a time when electronic music was beginning in America he was utilizing the instruments of the future alongside more familiar acoustic ones. In my opinion, his mastery of orchestration and writing for brass & percussion remains unrivaled in American music.

All devotees of powerful, cathartic sound - those who awaken daily to expect the Apocalypse - must listen to his orchestral works. Exciting, filled with tension & doom, sometimes with additional brass and percussion sections behind the audience, they are not for the faint of heart. He was a composer of exuberant, unbridled cacophony & noise in a time when restrained (serial, and later, neo-Romantic) music was getting the Pulitzers - and many of the commissions. An expressionist to his core, Dr. Erb had no interest in pandering to a prize committee.

He was emotional man whom I loved as if he were my own grandfather. Devastated after the Oklahoma City catastrophe in 1995, Dr. Erb wrote a beautiful and sorrowful solo violin piece. He abhorred violence and war. He had seen the effects of the nuclear bomb in person. I recall at a composition seminar he wept as he admitted to us all that his friendship with our fellow classmate, a Japanese student, had in his excellent personality, love and humor finally erased what awful effects Dr. Erb had carried with him all those decades since serving in WWII. I will never forget that day, a man in his seventies finally shedding the last remnants of a youth spent in the shadow of the war propaganda machine. He loved his students immensely.

I cried for days when he became ill over the summer after my freshman year. It might sound melodramatic, but I couldn't leave my apartment; I was worried he might not recover. I did not want to lose him - after all, we'd just met! And there were so many more things to laugh about, and good times to be had, and much more for me to learn from him. I never had another teacher I respected in the Conservatory. I miss him today.

Stan Heilbrun says

I studied with Don Erb in the late 1950s. At that time he was not the beloved elder statesman that I see described here. He was a young, adventurous composer only a few years older that I was. He pushed me to be better than I was just as he pushed himself. Funny, charming, intelligent - a superb teacher.; a much better musician than many of his his more prestigious elders on the faculty. And I learned at least as much from hearing the chances he took as a composer as I did from his excellent classes.

An anecdote: I played in a chamber piece of his at an Institute of Music student recital - the only modern piece among the usual list of Schumann, Bach, Chopin. At intermission, he asked a fellow teacher, an elderly, somewhat dotty elementary piano teacher what she thought of the concert so far. She said, "it was lovely, all except that dreadful modern piece." Don said calmly, "That was my piece." Her face fell as she said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I hope I didn't hurt your feelings." And Don, without blinking said, "Miss .... , you couldn't hurt my feelings." She, of course, didn't get it. But for the rest of us, it was all we could do to suppress our snickers.

I found this web page because I had been reminiscing about Don Erb and wanted to see just what he was doing. A few months too late to send him greetings and thanks for the formative role he played in my life.

Stan Heilbrun

John Patterson says

I too am very sad to hear of Don Erb's passing. I knew him from 4 years of dating one of his daughters and spending a great part of my formative teenage years hanging around him. What an awesome guy he was. So open and friendly..menacing sometimes..but only when it was appropriate. I saw this blog and wanted to post 2 quick memories of this great man.
I remember once he was asked to do some type of "Gospel Song"...not really sure why, but he needed to make something that sounded like genuine gospel music. Don went upstairs to the piano - I heard a few chords here and there - and not 45 minutes later he comes down with a full on killer gospel piece all done.
In another fond memory, I had just bought a cool LCD tricked out stopwatch/wristwatch (this is 1980 or so..) and decided to time one of Don's "Happenings" (which were amazing pieces). At the end of the piece, I came over all pleased with myself for timing the piece to the split was 15:34. I asked Don if he knew how long it was..he said "15:35". My jaw dropped because I could see he had no stopwatch or any other ways to measure time. "How did you know that?" I asked in astonishment. "I sat and counted it out yesterday in my office". Also I remember you could play any cluster of keys on the piano and he could identify every one.
Genius stuff no doubt and all wrapped up in a warm affable person. How often does that happen? Happy to say maybe he learned me a thing or two.
All the best to his family and everyone who knew him and loved him.
-John Patterson

Nathan Moffat says

Today we dissected and discussed Donald Erb's "Ritual Observances" in composition seminar. Apparently during the premiere an elderly couple got up to leave in the middle of the piece because it was too loud and offensive to them. So, Erb stood up in his seat and shouted across the audience, "Sit the F*** down."

He sounds like an amazing person!

In the few lessons I have had so far at CIM, my teacher is already stressing the importance of crafting my (blatantly tonal) music into its own sophisticated, tonal sound. I think what I respect the most is that he truly is concerned about teaching craft and not making miniature clones of himself. (He has been saying this as far back as my first interview.)

Long story short, thank you for your blog and everything you do. It's probably the main reason I have ended up where I am today.

Stephanie Erb says

I wanted to reply to Nathan Moffat's comment. My mom attended all of the performances of Ritual Observances, and she can guarantee that he never yelled obscenities during that, or any concert. We love that the legend of my Dad lives on, but every once in awhile we hear a story that we know is a loving exaggeration.

Mike Steele says

I was not a student of Erb's, but I was a student of Bruce Collie's. Bruce is who "Ritual Observances" was dedicated. I'll never forget when I showed up for my lesson and Jim Babor asked me "Did you hear about Bruce?" I nearly quit playing that very moment. Bruce and I had our moments because I was so poorly prepared to go into music from high school, but he ended up being one of the biggest influences on my life.

My only Erb stories are of playing "Cenotaph" with the CIM Wind Ensemble. He attended a few rehearsals and, if I recall exactly what he said, he asked me to "beat the sh*t out of that thing" when the bass drum got to FFFF. I gladly obliged.

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