Donald Wilkins, the longtime organist, choirmaster and educator who made contributions to the music world from Paris to Pittsburgh, died Monday near his summer home in Ligonier.
The 89-year-old’s death followed what his daughter, Isabelle, described as his ideal weekend: a retreat to the country with his family, where he mowed grass, played with his grandchildren and looked forward to a fall term teaching the organ to students at Carnegie Mellon University.
An indefatigable musician, Mr. Wilkins of Shadyside worked as organist and choirmaster of Calvary Episcopal Church, conductor of the Bach Choir and choral director at Duquesne University. He left the latter post in 1967 for one at CMU, where he recently celebrated teaching 100 consecutive semesters. A frequent organist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he also performed on concert tours in some of Europe’s holiest places, including the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette music critic Robert Croan described Mr. Wilkins as one of the most “urbane, sophisticated musicians on Pittsburgh’s musical scene” and recalled his organ recitals, especially his annual performances of the Bach Passions as conductor of the Pittsburgh Oratorio Society.
“He exuded music from every pore, but he was also a witty raconteur and a kind human being, qualities that enhanced his musical interpretations in subtle but noticeable ways,” Mr. Croan said.
Former student and lifelong friend Dane Skroupa said he uses Mr. Wilkins’ organ and choir technique “every time I make music,” as organist and choir director at Beaver United Methodist and as former choir director at Mars Area High School.
“His complete knowledge and mastery of music made him a national treasure,” he said. “I am forever blessed to have had the opportunity to study with him. ... I only hope and pray that I am one-fourth the musician and gentleman that he was.”
Denis Colwell, head of CMU’s School of Music, said that although his colleague’s training was second to none, he also had great gifts, including a preternatural ability to transpose music on the fly.
“He had a musical memory that’s so rare I might have run into it once or twice in my lifetime,” Mr. Colwell said.
Mr. Wilkins gave up classroom instruction a few years ago but continued to teach organ to individual students, including, Mr. Colwell noted, the occasional non-major.
Born in his mother’s home in Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood in 1925, Mr. Wilkins developed a passion for music in his youth as a choirboy and student of Calvary Episcopal organist Harvey Gaul, his mentor.
At 16, he graduated from Peabody High School and enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. Two years later, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and served three years before returning to Carnegie Tech to earn his bachelor’s degree in music.
After graduation, he moved to France to attend the Paris Conservatory, where he studied under renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger. While there, he also met Colette Jousse, who would become his wife.
Before leaving Europe, he studied orchestral conducting at Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, and returned to earn his master’s degree at Harvard University, where he studied with Walter Piston.
In Pittsburgh, Mr. Wilkins also served as organist at Temple Sinai, Fox Chapel Presbyterian and East Liberty Presbyterian.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilkins is survived by a sister, Audrey Mertz of Sacramento, Calif.; a brother, Robert Wilkins of Chapel Hill, N.C.; a son, Mark Wilkins of McCandless; daughters Isabelle Wilkins of Oakland, Catherine Wilkins of Juneau, Alaska, and Laura Stuker of Sterling, Va.; and grandchildren Sam and Ben Levenback, Max Stuker, and Nancy and Renee Wilkins.
Visitation will be 5 to 8 p.m. today at John A. Freyvogel Sons Inc. in Oakland. A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Calvary Episcopal Church with a reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Calvary Episcopal Church Music Fund.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944.