Whatever happened to Denis Morel?

Nov 29, 2009

From the fall of 1975 to the spring of 1977 I studied piano with Denis Morel, who basically was the piano faculty at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. My studies with him coincided with his entire tenure at the small liberal arts college. How he ended up there I have no idea. Morel made reference several times to having studied with Jakob Gimpel, who according to online sources had been teaching at California State University at Northridge since 1971. MacMurray may have been Morel’s first college-level teaching job, he must have still been in his 20’s at the time, so he’d be nearly 60 now. He was always just “Mr. Morel”, he did not have a PhD at the time.

I’m not sure where Morel was from originally, one would think he must have been from the general southern California area to end up at Northridge, but maybe not. He said something once about having to save up money to get a lesson with Gimpel once in a while, so it would seem he still made it back to southern California on occasion, which would make sense if he had family there. We talked one time about his preference for college football vs. mine for pro football, he said he liked the lack of perfection at the college level, that any play could affect the outcome of the game. He referred to either his high school or college team as having a defensive line consisting of four guys with last names beginning with I, C, B, M, which came to be known as their ICBM defense.

Since I was only 13 at the time I started lessons with Morel, my dad usually drove me to lessons in Jacksonville. Morel was frequently late, or behind schedule, not unusual for piano teachers. His studio was I think on the top floor at the end of a narrow, dark, paneled hallway, next to the “music library”, which was basically a tiny room filled with records. The music library might have been only slightly smaller than his studio, there were two pianos in the room, facing each other from opposite corners, with enough space between them to walk through. There were piles of music everywhere, there must have been a desk, too, although I don’t specifically remember it. Dad would usually just sit at the bench of the other piano with nothing to do while I had my lesson. In the winter time, the windows were covered with plastic to keep the drafts out, and on breezy days the plastic would snap in and out loudly and randomly. Having grown up in a new house I’d never seen that before. The building, like the music department, has long since been demolished.

Morel had a scruffy beard that was only an inch or so wide, extending from ear to ear around his chin like elongated sideburns, with no mustache. In colder weather I remember him wearing some sort of cape that tied around the neck. He was living somewhere fairly close by, within walking distance, and was supposedly married to this girl whose name I don’t remember, but the one time I saw her, Dad picked up on the fact that when we were introduced she didn’t have the same last name.

It was during this time that I really started getting into classical music, which wasn’t easy to do in central Illinois in the mid-70’s. While I was working on the Mendelssohn Variations, he ordered an LP of Alicia de Laroccha performing it, picking out her recording from the Schwann catalog based on her reputation, but after listening to it he gave it to me, saying “I like the way you play it better.” I also discovered public radio, but the closest station was in Peoria, and didn’t come in very well or very consistently. One December they were doing a “Beethoven’s birthday bash”, playing a couple of days of Beethoven continuously, culminating in the 9th symphony. I already had some familiarity with the 5th and 9th symphonies from records, and would conduct along with the radio performance. Dad mentioned this to Morel, who said maybe I was going to end up as a conductor. I think as a Christmas present one year he gave me an LP of Gimpel playing Schumann.

Morel played a couple of faculty recitals while at MacMurray. I came across the programs recently. One thing I specifically remember him playing for me in his studio at the end of a lesson was Au Bord d’Une Source. He showed me once how he took a wad of paper or cardboard and shoved it between the block and the lowest key on the piano in his studio, to shift the action to the right as though the soft pedal were always down, so that he would have to play out more and build up his sound. He also claimed if he didn’t break at least one string a year while practicing then he was doing something wrong. He made reference once to how he didn’t like to loan out music to people, saying when that happened, “I can’t sleep nights, I pace the floor.”

He advocated for me to have a grand piano to practice on. Unbeknownst to me or Mom, Dad responded to an ad in the paper and bought a 6’ Kranich & Bach grand from a guy in Springfield. The guy thought the piano was 30 or 40 years old. When Dad told me about it we drove over there to check it out, although it was a bit of a formality since he’d already agreed to buy it. I could tell as soon as I touched the keys that the piano was in rough shape. Unfortunately it never did end up being much of a help for practicing, the piano tuner figured out from the serial number that the piano was more like 75 years old. Hammers kept breaking and had to be hand-made from some place in the UK, so it would go months at a time without being played because keys just didn’t work. Not only that, the piano was in the living room, and we didn’t have a separate family room, so it was hard to practice around tv watching and everything else that went on there.

When Morel told me he was leaving MacMurray after two years, I was devastated. I remember asking him “What’s wrong with Jacksonville?” (admittedly a very naive question) and his response was “What’s right with it?” I expect he wanted to get out of that one-horse town, not to mention a liberal arts college whose music department was on its last legs and would be shut down entirely only a few years after his departure.

Some time after he had left for his new position at Hastings College in Nebraska, I sent Morel a letter, now in high school and filling him in on my further studies with Dr. Ralph Robbins, a retired professor who had been his predecessor at MacMurray for decades (and before that at Hastings College c. 1930, which had something to do with helping Morel get the job there). I must have mentioned also my participation in community theater, as when he wrote back he said he had gotten a letter from someone claiming to be me, and yet regaling all the outgoing stuff I was doing, using the phrase “ludicrous, of course”. I don’t know if there was more than one letter or not (I probably still have them somewhere), I had also told him about playing for William Browning at the American Conservatory in Chicago (which seems like it would have been after freshman year, but I don’t remember exactly), he thought I meant John Browning, who was still loosely affiliated with Northwestern at the time, of whom he said “you should jump at the chance to study with him, even though rumor has it he’s of persuasion B”.

Dr. Robbins also kept in touch with him, and at some point not more than a year or so later he heard from someone else at the school that Morel had resigned under dubious circumstances. Dr. R tried to contact him through calls and letters but none were ever answered. To this day, 30 years later, I have no idea what ever became of Morel, it would seem that he never held another college teaching job, or else he changed his name.

Interestingly, as my enthusiasm for playing and practicing has been rekindled since 2002 or so, I’ve revisited several of the pieces that I studied during those two years, including Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses and Schumann’s Kinderszenen. All my teachers had some influence on me of course, but my studies with Morel came at the most important crossroads of my piano-playing career, where I had basically “outgrown” my first teacher but didn’t realize how much more there was to learn. Morel’s approach was to focus on technique, including a lot of scales and exercises, which I’d never had to do much before, and also to pick apart seemingly simple works (like the Schumann, or even simpler like the well-known Clementi Sonatina in C) to show just how much detail in a piece needed to be considered and brought out, beyond just the notes. As far as I know I was his only private student during his stay in Jacksonville, certainly the only one my age.

So on the off chance someone with more information does a Google search, or the man himself is still out there somewhere, I’ve put together this little remembrance to see if it elicits any feedback from the blogosphere. It would be interesting to hear from others who studied with him, and even better to find out whatever happened to him. It remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of central Illinois classical music history.

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