William H. Scheide ’36 turned 100 on Jan. 6, 2014. In the century since his birth, Scheide has established himself as an international leader in the music community and has spread his passion for music, particularly that of Johann Sebastian Bach, philanthropy and scholarship all over the world.
Best-known as one of the most famous Bach enthusiasts in the music world, Scheide founded the Bach Aria Group in the 1940s, an unprecedented ensemble that brought some of Bach’s rarest masterpieces to audiences everywhere.
Among his many contributions to the University, his principal legacy is the Scheide Library, one of the most valuable rare books collections in the world. Begun by his grandfather and expanded by Scheide and his father, the family still owns the collection but houses it in Firestone Library, where it is accessible to scholars. On his 90th birthday, Scheide announced that he would bequeath the collection to the University upon his death.
Throughout his life, Scheide has used his inherited fortune to support many philanthropic causes, particularly civil rights issues. He was one of the primary funders of the landmark 1954 lawsuit Brown v. Board of Education that ended public school segregation.
He now resides in Princeton, N.J., with his wife, Judith Scheide.
A childhood that taught him passion and principle
Exactly one century ago in Philadelphia, Pa., Scheide was born to pianist John Hinsdale Scheide, Class of 1896, and Harriet Hurd, a singer and social worker. After being introduced to the piano at age six, Scheide has spread a passion for music throughout the globe.
Scheide was born into a wealthy family. His grandfather, William T. Scheide, met John D. Rockefeller just as he was shifting careers from telegraph operator to oil prospector and became the national manager of pipelines for Standard Oil. Scheide’s father also worked for Standard Oil until he contracted tuberculosis and had to stop working. Scheide grew up attending Princeton Reunions with his father, according to Judith Scheide.
Scheide attended a private school in Connecticut, which at the time did not require tuition, because his father wanted him to grow up with people who weren’t wealthy, said Scheide’s wife. While at the Loomis Chaffee School, Scheide was captain of the school’s soccer team.
Since the University had no music department at the time, Scheide majored in history. One of his favorite professors, however, was Roy Welsh, who came to the University in 1934 from Smith College to teach two undergraduate music courses, according to the Princeton Companion. One of his favorite memories was pounding on Professor Welsh’s door and waking him up to listen to jazz musician Benny Goodman, whose music Scheide adored. Welsh found the music “absolutely diabolical,” Scheide said.
Overall, however, Scheide felt very lonely at the University. Many of his friends were part of the work-study program during the Great Depression, but Scheide’s fortune allowed him to skip the program, his wife explained. He often felt excluded by the bond students in the work-study program shared.
Scheide wrote music criticism for The Daily Princetonian and often attended concerts in Philadelphia and New York, according to Scheide’s wife. He was a member of Terrace Club.
Scheide recalled the day when Albert Einstein showed up by surprise at an astronomy lecture at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning. The famous German scientist was in the midst of explaining relativity when Scheide walked into the lecture room a few minutes late.
Scheide’s senior thesis, “Adaptations of Christianity to Chinese Culture,” discussed the pervasive Christian influences that Jesuit missionaries had brought into Chinese culture centuries earlier. His advisor was Lynn Townsend White, Jr., the father of current Wilson School professor, Lynn T. White III.
The summer after graduating, Scheide took a trip to Germany with his classmate Alan Walker ’36. He said that the trip seemed only natural, since he had studied German, as well as Greek and Latin, for four years. Scheide recalled how disturbing and ominous it felt to participate in the custom of greeting nearly everyone with the salute “Heil Hitler.”
“I could feel it,” said Scheide of Hitler’s power already taking root in that unstable country.
Returning home, Scheide spent nearly a year studying the family’s financial history, his wife explained. In the fall of 1937, he began studying music as a graduate student at Columbia University. His master’s thesis, which explored Bach’s music in the first century after his death, showed that he was already particularly interested in Bach’s work.
He met his first wife, Lorna Riggs Scheide, at the International House of New York and married her shortly after in 1940, according to Judith Scheide.
After completing his master’s degree in 1940, Scheide took a teaching position at Cornell University. Scheide and other assistant professors submitted a petition protesting an associate professor appointee whom they believed was unqualified, said Scheide’s wife. In response, the university fired all who had signed the petition.
Scheide’s termination deeply upset his parents. Scheide recalls how his pastor urged him to apologize for the sake of his career — which Scheide insisted would amount to betraying his colleagues, who, unlike him, did not have the resources to go without a job.
“That’s not the way you brought me up. I’m not going to do that,” he said he told his parents.
Scheide was the first American published in the Bach-Jahrbuch, one of the world’s most respected Bach literary periodicals, according to the American Bach Society. At the age of 28, Scheide saw both his father’s death and the birth of his first child. He and his wife returned home to their enormous inheritance, said Judith Scheide.
Bringing Bach to the masses
Scheide’s enchantment with Bach’s cantatas inspired him to found the Bach Aria Group, an ensemble whose mission was bringing Bach’s lesser-known music to the public. He first discovered his love for Bach as he pored over the incredibly rare compilation of Bach’s complete scores his father bought him during his college years.
“It wasn’t that he’d heard them played, but he played them in his mind,” Judith Scheide explained. “And they were beautiful, and he wanted the world to see them.”
In a little house in Vermont, Scheide proceeded to gather the finest performing artists in the world and began experimenting with Bach’s music. The group began with four singers and five instrumentalists, including an oboist, flutist, cellist, violinist and pianist, according to Yehudi Wyner, composer and keyboarding artist who has served as artistic director of the group since 1968.
According to Judith Scheide, Scheide used the piano rather than the harpsichord out of practicality, since pianos were much more accessible and had the ability to amplify in large auditoriums.
Scheide became one of the most influential authorities on the music and history of Bach. During that time, the Bach Aria Group performed at concerts, published numerous broadcasts and recordings and ascended to the international spotlight. When the group failed to cover its expenses, Scheide often funded it out of his own pocket.
“I knew about him when I was even younger than you,” said music professor emeritus Paul Lansky, who retired recently. “I used to go to the Bach Aria group when I was in high school and college. It was a really amazing experience, with some of the finest performing artists in the world. Yeah, it was very influential.”
Scheide served as the group’s manager, keeping track of every performance beginning in 1946. He also ensured that the group played on the radio every Sunday morning for 15 minutes, according to Judith Scheide. They played throughout the United States at colleges, high schools and community auditoriums and toured internationally.
Scheide’s laborious work for the group included thousands of hours of photocopying and Scotch-Taping scores containing the individual part for each player, as Bach’s arias and cantatas were particularly rare at the time and only accessible through Scheide’s own Bach collection, said Wyner.
If a bar of music taped to a player’s score ever fell off, Scheide always knew the exact piece to which it belonged, down to the very measure, said Wyner. “He did it out of conviction, relentlessly persistent, and covered hundreds of pieces this way.”
Scheide engaged some of the world’s finest singers to perform with the group. He still possesses recordings of the only times that certain renowned singers ever sang the repertoire Scheide had designed, according to Teri Towe ’70, a Bach scholar and close friend to the Scheide family. He recalled buying an LP record from the Bach Aria Group when he was 10 years old in a department store.
Marian Anderson, one of the most famous contraltos of the 20th century, as well as a figure of the civil rights movement, was one of these renowned singers. Anderson was forbidden from singing at Constitution Hall in 1939 because she was African-American. Towe recalled that Scheide himself had no patience for racial discrimination, insisting that selections of Bach’s music suited her voice.
“Bach wrote that for her,” Scheide said, according to Towe.
The group’s members changed frequently and were not always in perfect cooperation. Scheide sometimes felt compelled to fire singers, including famous performers such as Eileen Farrell and Jan Peerce, for coming unprepared to practice out of overconfidence in their abilities, according to Scheide’s wife. Scheide refused to let big egos get in the way of their work, unable to overlook the delay that their carelessness caused the group, said Mrs. Scheide.
When Scheide himself left the group after 34 years in 1980, the Bach Aria Group lost a great director whom they respected immensely, Wyner said. “They absolutely trusted him,” he explained. “If there was a question about doctrinal things or a question about musical text, they would go to him and he would have an answer.”
Increasing the renown of Bach’s little-known works was Scheide’s proudest achievement, according to Scheide’s wife and Towe.
“There is no one who has done more in the world, and the United States particularly, to open the door to the fantastic cathedral that is the vocal music of Johann Sebastian Bach,” Towe said.
Scheide’s impact extended far beyond classical music fans. Throughout his career, he became acquainted with artists of all kinds. “This included jazz performers who became enchanted with Bach’s vocal music,” his wife explained.
Scheide, however, never overlooked the importance of encouraging other, younger scholars around him to study Bach, said Dr. Robin Leaver, former president of the American Bach Society. Leaver and Scheide first met in a little tea room in Oxford, England, a meeting that Scheide himself had telephoned to set up after Leaver, only a young scholar at the time, had published a book on Bach. Leaver said, “He was this well-established person spending time with me and encouraging me to continue my work and research into Bach’s music. It was a turning point for me. I owe him a great debt because of the way he sought me out and encouraged me.”
A private collection, a treasure to scholars
After leaving the Bach Aria Group, Scheide then turned his attention and passion to enriching the rare books collection his grandfather had started. The Scheide Library, founded in 1964 and currently located in Firestone Library, is considered one of the finest and most valuable collections in the world, according to University Librarian Karin Trainer.
His love for books was only natural considering his father’s and grandfather’s own passions. Scheide’s grandfather, William T. Scheide, began collecting rare books in his early retirement. Scheide’s father compiled and organized their private family collection, his wife said.
In 1959, Scheide allowed the collection to be transported to Firestone Library and has added hundreds of items to it throughout his lifetime. He completed their collection of the first four printed editions of the Bible in 2002, making the Scheide Library the first collection to possess all four in 150 years, The New York Times reported.
Other incredibly valuable items in the collection are autographed manuscripts by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, a 14th-century Magna Carta, a first edition of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and letters by Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, according to Trainer. Other items include first editions of the original editions of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” an ancient blood-letting calendar and many slavery-era posters.
“He continues to be active in his 99th year, and I expect him to be very active in his 100th year. He knows when to be bold, and he knows when to hold back,” Trainer said just a few days before Scheide’s birthday.
The library exceeds the rest of the rare book collections at the University in importance, and it is the only private library housed in a university in the United States. The collection has been invaluable to the University’s scholars, Trainer said.
“These are not just rare dusty items that are of no academic interest. These are things that are really tied into the academic work here and that he makes available to any student, faculty member or visiting researcher.”
A lifetime of giving back
Scheide’s philanthropy has included generous donations to the University, particularly the music department.
“He’s given us great advice throughout the years, with us at various landmarks in our own growth cycle as a major music department. We could always count on him for … both expertise and philanthropic support,” Scott Burnham, the current Scheide professor of music history, said.
In 1997, Scheide was a substantial primary funder for the reconstruction of the Woolworth Music Center. His contributions have added the Scheide Music Library, which was renamed the Mendel Music Library several years later, and endowed a professorship of music history, Burnham said.
However, according to Burnham, the centagenarian never sought attention for his generosity — a humility apparent when Scheide himself petitioned to have the library renamed after one of Princeton’s great Bach scholars, Archer Mendel.
“Bill’s not out to make a splash, to say, ‘This is me, Bill Scheide. I’m doing this.’ He’s quite the reverse. He will do things and will remain in the background very often,” Leaver said.
Music and rare books never fail to bring out the child in Scheide, said Burnham. “He’s always very boyishly excited. You can tell he’s totally in his element.”
Scheide was by no means one to be pushed around, said Burnham. “He’s very sharp and funny and on point. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s a direct, plain speaker. A bracing presence, you might say.”
Scheide also donated the Scheide Caldwell House, which houses various cultural studies programs. He has also donated to the Princeton Theological Seminary and Westminster Choir College.
Former University President Shirley Tilghman praised Scheide’s legacy of support for scholarship of the humanities at Princeton. “I think he has an enormous curiosity about both the world of rare books and the world of music. He has retained that kind of vibrant intellectual interest in the world around him,” she said.
Scheide’s legacy has not been limited to scholarship and the arts. He recalled being asked by Thurgood Marshall, then a young chief counsel for the NAACP and later the first African-American Supreme Court justice, to help in the battle for civil rights. Scheide answered the call: He was one of the primary funders in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit and has supported the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund throughout his life.
“He had great respect for human beings, even if he seemed to be impatient with them sometimes,” Wyner remembered.
Scheide became a member of the NAACP’s national committee. He remains an emeritus member and the principal funder of the organization. He donated around $200,000 to hire poll-watchers on the lookout for race discrimination at the Florida polls in 2008 and donates generously to various causes all over the world, said Mrs. Scheide.
When asked the reason behind his passion for civil rights, Scheide said it was “the principle of freedom.” He has always felt strongly that the wealthy have a responsibility to society, particularly in their taxes, his wife explained.
He avidly supports affirmative action. “Bill feels that there should be some equalization of opportunity. He’s very much for helping the downtrodden,” his wife said.
The Scheides have donated to the alumni community as well, hosting yearly parties after University Reunions each year at their house.
“It was a wonderful place to go on Saturday night after the P-Rade,” said Elayne Eberhardt, honorary member of the Class of 1937 and reunion chair of her husband’s class. “It was just beautiful. You wouldn’t believe they had everything outside, tables, a bar, and this is all on them. Wonderful food and the Princeton band would come and play. There would be quite a crowd there.”
Having separated from his first wife, Riggs Scheide, in 1966, Scheide remarried Gertrude Corbin in 1971 until she died in 2002. Judith Scheide first met Scheide and his second wife in 1984, while she was working at the University as associate director of campaign relations. She retained the position until transferring to the Annual Giving office in 1989. She often interacted with the Scheides and began working for Scheide in 2000. In 2003, they were married.
A passionate Presbyterian, Scheide’s personal and scholarly interest in religion has been constant throughout his life. He has written a number of books, including “The Virgin Birth: A Proposal as to the Source of a Gospel Tradition,” published by Princeton Theological Seminary in 1995, as well as the “The Other Mary,” which remains unpublished.
“He is a religious man in the true sense,” Scheide’s wife said. “He is spiritual, but not authoritarian. He is religious in that he seeks truth. He follows the stars.”
“His greatest achievement ongoing is the millions upon millions upon millions of lives that have benefited from his compassion, his scholarship, his knowledge, his love of his fellow man, and he does not care that hardly any of these people will ever read or hear the name William H. Scheide,” Towe said.
Trainer and Eisgruber will be co-hosting a campus party Monday at noon in Chancellor Green in Scheide’s honor. A concert to celebrate his 100th birthday will be at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 25 in Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall.