In Remembrance of James Niblock
A prolific composer, violinist and conductor whose administrative leadership left an indelible mark on the College of Music.
Longtime Michigan State University College of Music professor and department chair James Niblock died peacefully at his home on January 3, 2018. Dr. Niblock served as professor of composition and violin from 1948 to 1978 and as chair of the then- Department of Music at MSU from 1963-1978. His impact on MSU music will be felt for decades to come.
Dr. Niblock, a prolific composer, introduced the study of electronic music and jazz studies at MSU, created a Juilliard Quartet residency (during which time he arranged the MSU Fight Song for the Quartet), and expanded the music facilities during his tenure with the construction of the Music Practice Building.
Dr. Niblock was a founding member of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and served as the Camp board’s vice-president from 1966 until his death; he was both the oldest and the longest-serving member of the board. He wrote many works for various Blue Lake ensembles, and conducted instrumental performances and operas each summer through his 99th year. In his retirement from MSU, he continued his active musical life as composer, conductor, teacher, player of chamber music, and concert attendee. He and his late wife Helen were a highly-sought-after violin-viola duo and gave generously of their time and talent to the community.
“I’ve enjoyed immensely all the years I spent at Michigan State, including my retirement years because I continued musical activity after I retired,” Dr. Niblock said during a special program produced by WKAR’s Jody Knol in the fall of 2017.
Ever the team player, Dr. Niblock credited others for his success at MSU. “I’ve always had a great faculty, some of whom I hired,” he said, “and it’s made it really a great pleasure for me to be a department chair here, on the faculty here, and to know all these people.”
Among those he helped bring to MSU are violinist Walter Verdehr, clarinetist Elsa Ludewig Verdehr, composer Jere Hutcheson, conductor Leon Gregorian, and pianist Ralph Votapek. The Verdehrs, Hutcheson and Gregorian gathered with Dr. Niblock last fall for the WKAR interview special. On October 30, 2017, Walter Verdehr organized a special concert to honor Dr. Niblock on the occasion of his 100th birthday.
“Jim Niblock was a great friend to Walter and me. He wrote a number of works for the Verdehr Trio – a whole CD full in fact – plus Double Concertos for violin and clarinet with orchestra,” Elsa Verdehr recalled. “His pieces were always audience-friendly, and he wrote wonderful, beautiful melodies which inspired you to try to do them justice. He was an amazing combination of composer, teacher, performer, and conductor. In addition to his music, he accomplished much as an administrator, and during his middle years he even flew a plane and piloted a boat that he navigated in the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan.”
“He did things right in his life, up to his peaceful death” Walter Verdehr added. “As chairman of the Music Department he maneuvered the building of the Music Practice Building as well as bringing the Juilliard Quartet to MSU for ten years for a three-times-per-year residency. In every way, Jim Niblock left quite an amazing legacy. He was the renaissance man of our music school.”
Dr. Niblock, born in Scappoose, Oregon, on November 1, 1917, studied violin with notable performers such as Franck Eichenlaub of Portland, Oregon, Jascha Brodsky of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Josef Gingold in Colorado Springs. He began composing near the end of his four-year stint in the United States Army during the Second World War, after which he studied music composition with Roy Harris and Paul Hindemith.
While at MSU, in addition to his administrative leadership, Dr. Niblock taught theory and composition and performed in the Beaumont String Quartet. He was also Concertmaster of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Of his more than 150 major compositions, 100 have been published and frequently performed. He continued to compose, conduct, and perform during his retirement. According to his online biography, his compositions since 2000 included three operas, three double concertos for violin, clarinet, and orchestra, several short pieces for solo instruments, and numerous choral settings of verse by Medieval and modern poets.
Dr. Niblock earned his bachelor’s degree from Washington State University, a master of arts from Colorado College, and his doctorate from the University of Iowa.
In 2006, Dr. Niblock was honored at MSU with the first Distinguished Emeritus Faculty Award for his continuing work in fine arts education.
“The College of Music is grateful to have had this esteemed violinist and composer in the MSU Music family for so many years,” said College of Music Dean James Forger. “It is a privilege to carry his vision forward and continue to enhance what the College of Music offers its students, alumni and patrons. Jim Niblock’s legacy here is strong.”
Details on a memorial event for Niblock in the summer are forthcoming.