The University of Wisconsin’s legendary choral conductor Robert Fountain was born 26 December 1917 into a musical family in Niagara Falls, New York. In his childhood his mother instructed him in piano, and by the age of eight he had been introduced to the music of Bach. At the age of twelve, Fountain joined his father’s church choir and developed a passion for various musical works, Bach in particular. Sadly, about the time Fountain was ready to enroll in college, his father died. Because he had served as the church choir’s substitute conductor, it was natural for the younger Fountain to inherit leadership of the group. “The church was kind enough to keep my mother and me going,” recalled Fountain.
Fountain received his formal music training at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. He was awarded a Bachelor of Music in Voice, Master of Music in Voice Literature, and the Performer’s Certificate. During his Eastman years, Fountain studied with Arthur Fraft, Emanuel Balaban, Herman Genhart, Harold Gleason, and Burrill Philips.
After graduating from Eastman, Fountain served as a faculty member at Mount Union College, Alliance, Ohio (1942–1946), teaching voice and conducting choirs. He also taught at Ohio State University in Columbus (1946–1948) and at Brooklyn College. From 1948 until 1970, Fountain was conductor of Singing and Choral Activities at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. He conducted the Oberlin College Choir, which made annual tours of the United States and Canada, including performances at New York City’s Town Hall, Philharmonic Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and Symphony Hall in Boston. In 1964, under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department Office of Cultural Presentation, Fountain led the Oberlin Choir on an eight-week tour of the Soviet Union and Romania.
In 1965, Fountain was appointed Dean of the Conservatory and relinquished all teaching responsibilities while retaining his involvement with the choir. During his Oberlin years, Fountain took a sabbatical leave in 1954–1955 and went to Vienna, where he studied and observed the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts with Ferdinand Grossman, Hans Swarowsky, Hans Gillesburger, and Banhold Schmid. He studied privately with Frits Kuba of the Vienna State Opera. Back in the United States, he frequently studied voice with Alvira Neidlinger, 1944–1963.
In 1971, Fountain joined the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty as Director of Choral Activities, and taught for twenty-three years until his retirement in 1994. During his time at UW–Madison, not only did he dedicate himself to directing choral activities, but he also advanced the choral curriculum. It was Fountain who guided the School of Music to develop and offer both a Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting.
Fountain’s major choral achievements at UW–Madison were with the Concert Choir and the Choral Union. The Concert Choir, which consisted of about sixty-five singers, was typically considered one of the finest musical groups in the state. The choir’s repertoire spanned five centuries, including works by Sweelinck, Palestrina, J. S. Bach, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Kodaly, and countless others.
Under his direction, the Concert Choir was actively involved in annual tours. The typical tour occurred during the university’s spring break, with the choir performing every evening in different cities and often different states. During this time, the Concert Choir toured throughout the Midwest and performed with the Minnesota Orchestra. In 1973, the choir toured Venezuela at that country’s invitation. The choir toured the East Coast in 1977, performing in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York. Fountain received praise from The New York Times, which called him “one of the best — perhaps the best — college choir conductor in the nation.” Another tour took Fountain and the choir to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1985.
Under the direction of Fountain, the Choral Union, with 250 members, often performed with the UW–Madison Symphony. The group performed major choir works from Bach, including St. Matthew Passion (1980) and the Mass in B Minor (1985), as well as works by Beethoven, Honnegger, Schubert, Britten, Mozart, Mendelsshon, and Mahler.
The 1980 St. Matthew performance may be one of the most noteworthy by the Choral Union and Fountain. Normally, the choir would perform a new piece each semester, however, in order to perfect this more than three-hour-long work, he made the piece into a year-long project. To complete the entire work in one evening the concert needed to begin at 5:30 p.m., included a supper break between 7:00–8:30 and ended at 10:30 p.m. The performers, including the Choral Union singers, and the UW Symphony members, however, were not allowed to leave the Mills Concert Hall, because Fountain did not want them to get distracted by the outside world. “They will have their ‘Bach lunches’ here,” quipped Fountain. The performance was critically acclaimed by the Madison newspaper The Capital Times, which hailed the performance as “deeply poetic.”
Throughout his choral conducting career, Fountain received numerous awards. He received an Honorary Doctor of Music from Mount Union College, Alliance, Ohio, in 1964 and Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio, in 1987. In 1982 he received the Distinguished Service Medal from Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. From the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he was given the Distinguished Teaching Award and Chancellor’s Award in 1983. The following year he was named the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Senior Distinguished Research Professor by the UW Board of Regents. In 1988, he received the Alumni Achievement Award. In spite of his distinctive achievements, Fountain was so reserved about his own accomplishments that he declined to give interviews after his retirement from UW–Madison in 1994.
Two years after his retirement, Fountain’s health had failed, and on May 19, 1996, at the age of 79, he passed away in Ohio. He was survived by his wife, organist Clara Cox Fountain, a son and three grandchildren. The Wisconsin State Journal marked Fountain’s death with the headline “UW–Madison Music icon Robert Fountain, 79, dies”; adding that he was “very passionate about music, and dedicated to the singers that comprised his choirs.”
Processing the Collection
Mills Music Library is honored to house the recorded archives of Robert Fountain. Some 350 recordings in open reel and cassette formats document the history of choral music at the University from 1971 to 1994. The archives are used heavily by diverse clientele including alumni who want to hear a performance in which they participated and composers who remember Fountain’s interpretations of their works as the best they have heard.
The purpose of the project was to remaster the recordings, convert them to digital format, and create both preservation masters and working copies. The project began with the oldest and most vulnerable recordings. Open reel tapes, particularly those manufactured in the 1970s, often suffered from a failure of the magnetic medium and had to be given special attention. This included baking the tapes to restore the signals long enough to capture them onto another format. All recordings were converted from analog to digital data, given minimal editorial treatment, and recorded onto preservation masters in both compact disc and digital audio tape formats. A second compact disc was burned to serve as a working copy. Remastering activities were done in the Mills Music Library Audio Preservation Studio according to national standards and processes.
The project was funded by a Brittingham Grant.