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On the death of a giant: Dwight Gustafson

dgustafsonDwight Gustafson was a giant of a man.

You couldn’t help but look up to him–literally. Dr. Gus (as he was affectionately known) towered over most people.

But he wasn’t just a giant physically. Dwight Gustafson, who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 83, was a giant in many ways.

Dr. Gus was a giant of a musician.

When I began school at Bob Jones University in 1998, Dr. Gus was already retired from being Dean of the School of Music, a position he had held for 43 years. But thankfully (for me!), he was nowhere near truly retired. I was privileged to benefit from his direction as a tenor in several choir concerts, as a trombone player in the symphonic orchestra, and as an understudy and performer in two operas. His skills, musical insights, and energy were always both instructive and infectious.

Dr. Gus was also a giant of a composer.

His music had that unique quality of being both fresh and rooted in a great, historic tradition. During my time at BJU, I enjoyed participating in two entire concerts dedicated to the music of Dwight Gustafson, and I also heard the premiers of several of his works (one of which is posted below). His rich style, often pan-diatonic, sometimes with touches of bi-tonality or poly-harmony, was almost always built on some fine hymn tune or the folk music of Americana. This gave it its wonderful foundation in the past with a forward look to the future, and it manifested a man who had thoroughly studied and mastered his craft while developing and nurturing his own unique voice. This is a rare combination among Christian composers.

When I was working on my masters degree in musicology at Northern Illinois University, I took a Contemporary Choral Lit class in which we were assigned to do a presentation on a contemporary composer. I chose Dr. Gus. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing him for the project and hearing him say explicitly about his music what I already had observed. He told me that his Christian faith informed his musical “world,” and he described how he was always “very conscious of two things” when he composed: First, “the power, and thus the precedence of a beautiful text, which must be communicated.” Second, “the hypnotic power of the human voice, the most expressive instrument found on God’s earth. To know and use its full range of capabilities is to have a broad palate of color and expression from which to work.” It was a joy to introduce his music, and his faith, to my colleagues at NIU.

Dr. Gus was also a giant as a defender of conservative music philosophy.

By the time I took the class, Dr. Gus was no longer teaching “The Christian Musician,” a music philosophy class required of all music students and for which he was well-known. But I did benefit from several conversations with him and from others who taught in his footsteps like Paul Overly. Dr. Gus was unapologetic in his defense of the morality of music, in transcendent absolutes in the realm of aesthetics, and in a desire for artistic excellence in church music endeavors.

Most of all, Dr. Gus was a giant of a Christian.

Despite his rigorous attention to musical details, his relentless pursuit of excellence in performance, and his diligence in all he did–qualities that make many lesser men irritable and difficult to endure–Dr. Gus was always gracious, kind, loving, and often humorous. Rehearsals and conversations with him were always enriching and encouraging, without ever sacrificing quality. Again, this is a rare combination.

The last time I spoke with Dr. Gus was in the spring of 2009 when I was doing a book signing for Worship in Song at the campus store at BJU. Imagine my surprise that this giant of a man burst through the door! I still remember the overwhelming honor I felt that this man I so looked up to was there to encourage this insignificant author and thank me for writing the book.

Dwight Gustafson will certainly be missed–there are few, if any, who can fill those shoes. But his giant legacy lives on in the many students and colleagues he has impacted over so many years of ministry.

And, as is true with all the great Christian composers in the tradition of J. S. Bach, Dr. Gustafson’s legacy lives on in his wonderful music. I leave you with his own words:

I tell my students to gain all of the vocabulary of music they can–its styles, its powers–to learn the craft of choral and instrumental writing and then learn to develop their own voice–and finally in creating, as Bach always signed–Soli Deo Gloria.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.