RALEIGH, N.C. -- This is a story about poetry, witchcraft and the state of Massachusetts; business, music and a native of North Carolina. It is a complicated story full of connections and coincidences that have roots dating back to the late 1600s, and about a dream to be fulfilled more than 300 years later.
The modern-day main character of this story is Richard J. Rendleman, Jr., a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By day, he teaches finance at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. He spends his evenings and free time pursuing his avocation -- composing music.
Rendleman grew up in Salisbury, N.C., and started taking piano lessons when he was five years old. Rendleman says he was composing his own music by age seven, played several instruments and, like many young men of his generation, played in a rock-and-roll band.
After working as an accountant for a year after graduating from Duke in 1971, Rendleman says he wasn't happy. "During this time I was doing a lot with my music and for the first time I was writing down the things I composed."
"It was a confusing time because I was unhappy with my work. My outlet was music and I started to wonder if it might offer me something career-wise and if I should pay more attention to it."
Rendleman decided that he needed to go back to school to either get an advanced degree in business or pursue his music. So he applied to business school and music school at the same time, but decided to take the safer bet and go into finance. It was a good choice -- Rendleman now is considered one of the foremost experts on options, futures and other derivative securities markets.
Rendleman married Nancy Sherwin in 1974, received his Ph.D. from UNC in 1976, and taught at Northwestern University before moving back to his home state to take a teaching position at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. Although his academic career was moving along, Rendleman still couldn't shake his desire to make something happen with his music. His interest in both made some in his department uncomfortable, and for that reason and others he accepted a professorship at UNC in 1983.
Although Rendleman started composing music seriously relatively late in life, at the age of 31, his works have been performed by nearly a dozen orchestras and well-known conductors across the country. He has had public radio and television performances of his work in the Carolinas, won a composing competition in 1990, has numbers on two CDs and is scheduled to have songs included on three others this year.
Rendleman is happy with those accomplishments, but he's now set his sights on a new musical goal -- getting a respected orchestra or symphony in Massachusetts to play a piece he composed that many feel could be that state's new anthem.
Enter the plot twist involving poetry and witchcraft.
In 1993, Rendleman put to music a collection of poems written by his grandfather's cousin, Margaret Proctor Wood. Proctor Wood was born in Danvers, Mass. in 1881, and lived almost all her years on a big old farm just down the hill from the home of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. She started writing poetry as a girl and continued into her late 80s. She was known throughout the region for her 50-year career teaching French, with 37 years service at the local high school.
Proctor Wood's great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was John Proctor, who was arrested and quickly hanged after he walked into court to protest the imprisonment of his wife as a witch. Proctor was the leading character in "The Crucible," and when the play was on Broadway, Proctor Wood had the chance to tell his story to some school children who were visiting her. "He was hanged right here in Salem, on Gallows Hill, in 1692," she told them. "Gee, I'll bet that made you mad," one of the kids reportedly remarked.
Fast forward to 1981 and Duke University, where Rendleman was teaching finance. After months of unsuccessful attempts to hook up with jazz artist Mary Lou Williams, Rendleman was put in contact with composer Robert Ward, who also was teaching at Duke.
"I played him a few things, and after he heard me play, he said there were about eight people in the country I might work with, including himself," Rendleman said. "I was taking piano lessons at Meredith (College) and told my piano teacher about his suggestion. My instructor said Robert Ward had won the Nobel Prize, but it turned out to be the Pulitzer Prize."
Coincidentally, the opera for which Ward won the Pulitzer was "The Crucible." And, coincidentally, Ward also has written a ballet based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter." During Rendleman's initial meeting with Ward, he recalls a story Ward told him about his own experience at the Eastman School of Music.
"Bob said out of the 30 or so composers at Eastman there were four or five who were head and shoulders above the rest, but they weren't the ones who turned out in the end to be the best. He said what distinguished the five that turned out to be good was not their talent, but their ability to work hard.
"Ward asked me that day what I'd like to be doing in ten years, and I said I'd like to be writing Broadway music. He said he thought that was possible but that I'd have to learn classical music and be willing to work hard."
Rendleman worked with Ward for a couple of years and wrote a variety of musical pieces, then slowed down when his two children were born. He moved from writing pieces strictly for piano to writing for his hometown orchestra in Salisbury, North Carolina. Other jobs came along, including two pieces he wrote for the North Carolina Symphony.
The music for Proctor Wood's poems was commissioned by Kay Lowe of Durham, a soprano and UNC music faculty member who has performed around the world. Lowe and her accompanist, Janis Dupre, held the world premiere of the poems last September in a concert presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. The two also performed the song cycle in May at a concert at the Durham Arts Council.
Many who have heard the poems performed believe that the song "Massachusetts" sounds like a state anthem. Here is a sample of the first few lines:
Rough are the waters that froth on thy coast line,
Peaceful the fields where the elm trees are drooping,
Old Massachusetts, we love and revere thee.
Rendleman says he just knows the people of Massachusetts would love his distant cousins' anthem if they could only hear it. And while he jokingly says he wishes he could use his family's witchcraft connections to make that happen, he's decided to use modern-day technology to get his music heard.
He's set up this site on the World Wide Web that will allow others to read about his family story and listen to his compositions.
Rendleman is hoping that the Internet will cast a spell on the media and generate some attention for the poems of Margaret Proctor Wood. And with that attention, ultimately catch the eye and ear of a symphony or orchestra director in Massachusetts who would be willing to put one woman's tender feelings for her home state to music.
Based on Story by Melinda S. Stubbee, 1996