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John Corley, director of Concert Band for 51 years, dies of cancer at 81

John D. Corley, director of MIT's Concert Band for 51 seasons, died of cancer on October 19 at age 81.

Mr. Corley directed the Concert Band from its inception in 1948 until his retirement last spring. During that time, he oversaw the commission of about 50 new works, developed a repertoire of more than 350 pieces and worked with more than 1,000 MIT students.

Mr. Corley received a standing ovation when he was introduced in the audience at the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences 50th anniversary concert last month. The concert featured a performance of Time Into Gold by Adrian Childs (SB 1994), commissioned by the MIT Concert Band for its 50th Anniversary Concert in May 1999 and Mr. Corley's simultaneous retirement.

"John Corley is part of the history of music at MIT," said Professor Peter Child of music and theater arts last year on the occasion of Mr. Corley's retirement. "In true MIT spirit, he always emphasized innovative and newly composed work alongside the tried and true. He gave student composers opportunities to hear and conduct their work with the band. John is loved and respected by his colleagues and students for his personal charm and exceptional moral decency."


Mr. Corley's dedication to his students -- and their devotion to him -- was apparent at his retirement concert last year, which was attended by more than 70 former students from across the country. In a tribute to Mr. Corley at that event, President Charles M. Vest referred to the generations of MIT students he had taught and mentored and "who have drawn inspiration from his guidance and enthusiasm. For half a century no one has been more devoted to the cause of music at MIT, or more beloved for his musical achievements, than John Corley."

In a tribute to Mr. Corley at his funeral service on Monday, one of his former students, Charlie Marge (SB 1984), described how Mr. Corley challenged him and other students in ways that enabled them to grow as musicians and people. "Rather than selecting music that everyone could play perfectly, he found works that pushed the limits of our abilities," said Mr. Marge. "Instead of sticking with familiar tonalities, he opened up to us a world of modern music that we didn't even know was there, and encouraged us and our audiences to be open-minded about it," he said.

"By challenging us to only play music originally written for concert band and by commissioning new works for band, he taught us a fundamental respect for composers, and enabled make a meaningful contribution that reached far beyond the MIT campus. By encouraging student leadership he gave us opportunities to grow as future leaders in life," said Mr. Marge.

At various stages in his career, Mr. Corley directed the MIT Symphony Orchestra (1955-65), founded and directed the Boston Brass Ensemble, taught conducting at the Boston Conservatory of Music, directed the Boston Conservatory's Wind Ensemble and served as music director of the Brookline Public Schools. He was a member of the New England Conservatory of Music's Board of Trustees and a member of the board of advisers at Berklee College of Music.

Mr. Corley received bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Boston University and began his career in Iceland as the youngest band leader in the United States Army, where he conducted more than 700 concerts for Allied troops. In 1993 the MIT Concert Band went on tour to Iceland, a surprise the students had arranged for him. In 1999, just prior to his retirement, Mr. Corley was presented with the Gordon Y Billard Award, presented annually to a member of the MIT faculty, non-faculty employee or one not necessarily affiliated with the Institute, for exemplary service.

The Concert Band, now under the direction of Thomas Reynolds, will perform the commissioned piece, "Corley's March" in Mr. Corley's honor at its fall concert this Sunday, Oct. 29 at 8pm in Kresge Auditorium.

Mr. Corley is survived by three sons, John D. III of Quincy, Gene of Watertown, and Bruce of Newton; three daughters, Sally of Roslindale, and Johanna and Erica, both of Newton; a brother, Robert of Zephyr Hills, FL; and four grandchildren.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 25, 2000.

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