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February 16, 2017

Obituary: John L. Goldsmith

ps Goldsmith-readyThe Heinz Chapel Choir will perform during a memorial service for former director John L. Goldsmith, who died Feb. 2, 2017.

The event is set for 11 a.m. Feb. 24 in Heinz Chapel.

Goldsmith, who joined the music department faculty in 1989, directed the chapel choir for 25 years before retiring in 2014.

Goldsmith’s love and passion were for a cappella singing, said professor of music emeritus Don Franklin, who was chair of the music department when Goldsmith joined the faculty.

“He had a remarkable skill of training the ear of singers, and in doing so achieved a fine-tuned instrument” in the choir, Franklin said.

Goldsmith was chorus master and countertenor soloist for the Bach and the Baroque concert series, which he and Franklin founded in 1992. Through 2007, the ensemble presented performances of works by J.S. Bach and his contemporaries.

Goldsmith served as the music department’s undergraduate adviser for many years, said department chair Deane Root. “He worked with every single student who came through the program, advising music majors and minors on their curriculum and on their careers,” he said.

“I never heard him raise his voice, except in singing,” Root said, remembering Goldsmith as a gentle, soft-spoken supportive colleague and adviser.

“He listened to what others had to say, and also what they didn’t say — where the silences were,” Root said. “He listened in a way most people are not capable of listening. He was able to listen deeply not only to the sound but also the silences, because without silences there is no music. It’s the silences that frame it,” he said.

Renowned nationally for his abilities in training the ear, Goldsmith taught musicianship, or ear training, in which students learned to comprehend the world aurally, through the organizations and structures of music. “He was a marvelous trainer of these young minds and ears of understanding the world through those patterns,” Root said.

Goldsmith’s influence reached beyond the department as well. “Very few in the Heinz Chapel Choir were music majors, yet together they were able to make some of the most memorable and deeply affecting experiences for the whole campus,” Root said.

In a memorial posted online, Root credited Goldsmith with rebuilding the Heinz Chapel Choir’s role at Pitt. “He quickly restored it as the University’s preeminent student ensemble through superb musicianship, resulting in packed concerts and international attention for the University,” Root stated.

Goldsmith trained the choir not only to be in tune with one another, but also with the spaces in which they sang.

“He understood how space affected the music itself,” Root said. “He was particularly attuned to the spaces in Heinz Chapel,” with their varying properties and acoustics.

His ability to train the choir to be in tune with the building created a transformative experience for all. Goldsmith famously would begin holiday concerts with the choir singing from the gallery in the dark — their angelic voices emanating from the small high space in the back of the chapel. Then singers would descend the stairs and move out to sing from around the sanctuary before proceeding to the chancel.

“He had to train them to sing to the space and get them to respond. And he could hear the way the building resonated in response,” Root said.

“His understanding of the space and the ways in which music, sound and pure voices — trained by him — can lift us beyond the ordinary experiences of this life” was perhaps most powerfully demonstrated during the chancellor’s Christmas concert in 1991. Root recalled the gasps from the audience as the Heinz Chapel windows were illuminated for the first time as the choir sang Goldsmith’s arrangement of the 19th-century gospel hymn “We’ll Walk in the Light.”


Goldsmith took the a cappella choir to Europe, South America and Asia, traveling to 26 countries overall during international performance tours.

The trips, during which the choir made music in cathedrals, chapels and on hillsides, contributed to Goldsmith’s wonderful legacy, Root said. The tours were the experience of a lifetime for many of the students. “For the majority, the choir trips represented the first time they’d been away,” he said. The shared journeys fostered choir members’ strong ties with Goldsmith — known as JG — and his wife, Elaine, who would accompany the group as a chaperone.

“There was a bonding through the shared educational experience … bonding that came from traveling together for weeks at a time where they had to rely on one another,” Root said.

Goldsmith’s final tour as director took the singers to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Croatia in 2014.

Goldsmith retired with a “bucket list” of travel destinations, visiting New Zealand, Japan and Iceland with his wife. “They still had more on their list,” Root said.


A native of Westerville, Ohio, Goldsmith earned a bachelor’s degree in music education at Capital University in 1969 and a master’s degree in conducting at Westminster Choir College in 1975.

He was an alumnus of the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer and of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers.

Among many honors, in 2015 Goldsmith received the Pennsylvania American Choral Directors Association’s Elaine Brown Award for Choral Excellence, presented to an individual for outstanding lifelong work in the choral arts.


In addition to his wife, Goldsmith is survived by siblings Joan Deamer, Edwin A. Goldsmith, William C. Goldsmith and Joseph C. Goldsmith; as well as nieces and nephews.

The family requests donations be made to the Heinz Chapel Choir, Department of Music, 110 Music Building, Pittsburgh 15260 or Catholic Hospice, 2605 Nicholson Rd., Suite 3240, Sewickley 15143.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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