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Sheveloff Bids BU Farewell

From prelude to postlude, 45 years as dynamic music professor, provocateur

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Soon-to-retire CFA Professor Joel Sheveloff says J. S. Bach is “our Shakespeare, our Pushkin, the greatest mind ever to write music.” Photo by Fred Sway

Here are a few of the things soon-to-retire Joel Sheveloff hates: the U.S. Supreme Court, cell phones, the shrinking academic year, Googling as a substitute for book research, and wrong-way cyclists who play chicken with his car on Commonwealth Avenue. These are some things the blustery, Falstaffian College of Fine Arts professor of music, musicology, and ethnomusicology loves: Bach (J. S., not his offspring), Scarlatti, Brahms, Finns, Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Siena, Italy, and most of all, his students.

This summer’s postlude to Sheveloff’s 45-year BU career ends on a poignant note — his very last lecture on the eternally misunderstood composer Johannes Brahms, whose work, jokes Sheveloff, it has been his “misfortune” to teach. Facing rows of empty desks on a nonteaching day in his second floor classroom in Mugar Memorial Library on a May afternoon, he reflects on nearly half a century as not just a teacher, but a thorn in the side of the administration and a beloved but incorrigible nudge. With his gravelly, Mailer-esque voice and old-fashioned suspenders, Sheveloff has a way of wresting control of a room and holding forth on just about anything. He may grouse about everything from his department’s curriculum to the traffic on the BU Bridge, but if he criticizes his students at all, it is with affectionate bemusement. He likes them.

They like him back: “I was in Dr. Sheveloff’s class in 1973, and I remember him to this day as one of those rare people who inspire your life on all levels,” writes an alum on Ratemyprofessors.com. “Of course his knowledge is awesome,” writes a student, “but what makes Dr. Shev one of the best is his insight. He understands the paradoxes of the human condition and how music expresses the full range of this experience.” And from another student: “Professor Sheveloff is hilarious. He makes each lecture immensely enjoyable by joking, dancing around, and just creating a pleasant class atmosphere.”

“I’m obsessing about my failures,” declares Sheveloff as he launches into a career retrospective. “This is something the college treats as frivolous, but I take it very seriously.” It turns out he is referring to a matter utterly unrelated to music or to teaching. He’s fuming about cyclists. “They ride on the sidewalk or right into traffic,” he huffs. “I have never killed one, but four times I’ve had accidents where they hit my car and go flying off their bikes … the University says they can’t do anything about it. It’s been my major complaint in the last 25 years.”

That isn’t exactly true. All of Sheveloff’s complaints are major, from whether BU’s orchestra and choir directors should be full-time (they are now, he says, thanks to him) to an increase in course credits from three to four (“they make the candy bar smaller and charge you more for it”) to what he believes is the pandemic misinterpretation of Bach’s Musical Offering.

“I fought them all and lost,” he says of his attempts to revamp the music curriculum. “They (his colleagues) think I’m an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.” He admits to a childhood of trying to emulate idol Humphrey Bogart by donning a fedora and “calling everybody sweetheart.”

In fact, if Sheveloff, who has a fondness for circa 1940 lyrics, had a theme song, it would be Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” His passion for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, the Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Rogers and Hart songbooks are part of what fueled his friendship with John Daverio (CFA’75,’76, GRS’83), a CFA music professor and renowned Schumann expert, who drowned in the Charles River in 2003, at the age of 48. The loss devastated Sheveloff, who spoke in a eulogy for Daverio of how “for more than a quarter of a century, John and I discussed issues, shared intimacies, and otherwise interacted by employing strategically placed song lines in our dialogue. We both enjoyed finding relevant lines — this game belonged to the two of us.”

In 2004 Sheveloff earned the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the University’s highest teaching honor. With characteristic bluster he speaks of how he’s “a legend” in South Korea, where many of his international students have returned home to share stories of how hard he drove them. (He’s been known to add an hour to class descriptions to weed out students who aren’t sufficiently serious about the course matter.) Like a flesh-and-blood incarnation of a Philip Roth character, he refers to himself only as “Sheveloff.” Although he speaks and lectures on an eclectic range of musical subjects, his scholarly focus has been the work of Domenico Scarlatti, Modest Mussorgsky, and Igor Stravinsky. He’s devoted years of study to arcane fields of meter, analytical methodologies, and text setting as well as the confounding Musical Offering, a piece he refers to as “Bach’s DaVinci Code.” When it comes to J. S. Bach, Sheveloff serves up a feast of superlatives. Bach, he asserts, is “our Shakespeare, our Pushkin, the greatest mind ever to write music.”

As he expounds on a quirky meter in a passage from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the Pathetique, an assistant pops her head in the room to tell Sheveloff he has a phone call from his wife, whom he refers to as “She who must be obeyed.” He’s been married 48 years. “Feels like 75,” he says.

“Joel Sheveloff is an icon at CFA,” says Walt Meissner (CFA’81), CFA dean ad interim. “His long and illustrious career has had an impact on practically every student and colleague who has crossed his path. We treasure his dedication to his students and passion for teaching. There won’t be a day that goes by that we won’t miss his irreverent personality, wry sense of humor, and legendary tales filling the halls of CFA.”

“I suspect Joel knows what color socks Stravinsky was wearing when he conceived the Rite of Spring,” a colleague wrote in support of Sheveloff’s Metcalf in 2004. “Yet he wields his knowledge not as a club to intimidate, but as an invitation to explore and experience wonders of which students and faculty are ignorant.” Wilbur Fulbright, a CFA professor emeritus of music, extols Sheveloff’s “charm and wit,” calling him “a remarkable man” and a “wise and generous collaborator in the growth and development of the school of music.”

Sheveloff graduated from the City University of New York, Queens College, then earned a master’s and a doctorate from Brandeis University. His numerous articles in publications such as the Musical Quarterly, Musica Poetica, and Critical Inquiry range in subject from the whole-tone scale before Debussy to the music of Mozart, Ravel, Scarlatti, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Stravinsky, and more.

What will the professor do now? “The first thing will be to write a book,” says Sheveloff, who developed and taught more than 50 courses during his time at BU, on subjects as diverse as medieval keyboard compositions and music in the former Soviet Union. He’s keeping the book’s topic under wraps, saying only that it will be “a big book.”

As he prepares for his coda, Sheveloff leaves a world dramatically different from the one he entered. Where they once scrawled in spiral notebooks, students now sit in class tapping away at laptops. “Students think they can get anything they need from Google,” he says, an arm swiping the air in the universal sign for oy vey. “My colleagues are concerned about kids sitting in class e-mailing and looking at Facebook. In my class I say, go ahead — I’m not your mother.”

Will he miss his students? “Oh, yes, terribly,” says Sheveloff. “I’m very proud. My students have spoiled me rotten.”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

8 Comments

8 Comments on Sheveloff Bids BU Farewell

  • Anonymous on 06.17.2010 at 8:46 am

    Great story. You really captured him!

  • Jonathan Cohen on 10.04.2010 at 12:09 pm

    contacting Joel Sheveloff

    Hello!

    l found an arrangement of Till Eulenspiegel for 2 clarinets dedicated to Leon Russianoff. l believe Joel Sheveloff arranged this piece in 1956, and it ended up in my grandfather’s music collection. l’d really like to contact Dr. Sheveloff to ask him questions about this piece, so if anyone knows how l could reach him, l’d really appreciate it!

    Thank you,
    Jonathan

    • David sprung on 07.08.2016 at 12:54 am

      Joel and I attended Queens College together in the ’50s. We weren’t really buddies but we did ‘”hang out’ together. He loved playing duets with me, he on the clarinet, me on the horn. I remember vividly when he turned up one day with that arrangement of Till for two clarinets. At the time I thought, how bizarre. I always thought he did it just to show me could. We never saw one another after graduation, but I was sorry to hear of his passing.

  • Sallie Gordon on 03.11.2011 at 5:23 pm

    Laughing Fondly

    I appreciate this portrait and am right back in the classroom in the early 70’s in the “Mozart and Haydn” class. I cowered in the back, but when he coached a recital piece and heard me sing with intelligence and fire we began to appreciate each other in a whole new way. I actually think of him often, which means he affected my life profoundly. Here’s to life! Thank you Sheveloff! Eternal thanks.

  • Chris Darwin Frigon on 10.19.2011 at 6:56 pm

    Excellent Article

    Sheveloff, the talented, consummate musical mind with inspirational words of wisdom that stand the test of time. His classes were always an exciting joy. Thank you Dr. Sheveloff.

  • KLM on 12.02.2011 at 2:33 pm

    What – no mention of penguins??
    Every year around the holidays I remember Dr. Sheveloff’s hysterical lecture on the unfortunate syllables emphasized in Handel’s Messiah. “All we like sheep, oh yes we do..” and of course, “FORE!! Unto us as son is born…” The work has never been the same – and it isn’t the only one.

  • Linda on 08.05.2013 at 5:18 pm

    I went to SFA at BU from 1965-1969, majoring in voice. Joel Sheveloff was one of the professors I remember well, because he was one of the very good ones. His lectures were always interesting, animated and he managed to make music history come alive(not an easy task). I don’t think I ever missed one of his classes, which frankly, were a joy to attend. I still think of him every time I hear the “fake” waltz in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony (a tidbit I learned from his Russian Music Class)!

  • Ana Neves and Vasco Gouveia on 04.24.2014 at 2:25 pm

    We went to SFA from 1993-95 and among the fondest memories are the unique Dr. Sheveloff`s classes. He taught his Bach as though on stage, always full of life and a boisterous sense of humor.
    Fantastic teacher and a huge human being.

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