Robert Gordon Batt
By Roy Campbell, with contributions from Marie Cahill, Elizabeth Cahill, and Gerald Batt
I first met Robert when we were both living in Montréal in the late 1970’s. I remember the choir I was singing with at the time, St Mathias’ Westmount, visited St. John the Divine Church in Verdun where Robert was the organist. He was very particular about how a certain Anglican chant was to be sung. Already he had formed a clear understanding of appropriateness in the context of musical style.
Shortly after moving to Vancouver in 1994, I met Robert again, this time through his best friend and lifelong business partner, Marie Cahill. Robert, Marie and I subsequently partnered to create Shaughnessy Heights Music School in 2004 where he taught music theory.
Although born in Newfoundland, Robert grew up in Montréal where he developed his deep love of music, attaining his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from McGill University and a PhD in musicology from the UBC. Although he played clarinet and piano in his youth, in his mid-teens Robert finally discovered the organ and he was hooked for life. His brother Gerry remembers Robert building electronic devices of many kinds when he was young, the best known of these being his audio system, built when he was in high school and which he lovingly used up to the time of his passing. He also spent many happy hours with his family on vacation in Cape Cod, Newfoundland, on Québec farms and in Montréal’s Eastern Townships.
It was during these years at McGill that Robert met some of his lifelong friends; his future wife and business partner Marie and two fraternity friends Rick Chodolak and Rick Phillips. He performed in a number of Montréal churches, including St. Joseph’s Oratory, and in Vancouver at Holy Rosary Cathedral, St Helen’s Anglican and most recently at St. Peter’s Estonian Lutheran Church. Under Prof. John Grew’s guidance, he also performed at the International Bach Festival in Leipzig, Germany in 1976.
I was initially surprised to discover that one of Robert’s other great passions in life was his love of nature and the outdoors. How many musician types, especially ones with PhD’s, does one know who regularly gets outside and hikes – not many, I can assure you. Robert hiked mountains and star gazed across this country from Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park to Vermont’s Green Mountains to British Columbia’s West Coast Trail to Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. Robert and I used to go hiking together every so often. The first time we went hiking, we did the Grouse Grind. He was shocked that I was wearing running shoes instead of proper hiking boots. He spent time explaining why it was important to wear the proper footwear and clothing for serious hiking – and Robert was serious about hiking. If something was worth doing, it was worth doing well was his philosophy. Apart from being able to enjoy the beauty of nature and the obvious health benefits, I believe Robert was drawn to hiking because he saw it as a kind of great equalizer. Even though it attracted people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, the one thing shared by all hikers was the physical act of moving through nature, mostly in silence, and at one’s own pace -not too dissimilar to attending a concert where the shared listening experience of many makes for a more profound experience for each and everyone.
It was Robert who suggested I join Modo, the Vancouver car-sharing organization, then in its infancy. Little did I know that anyone who sponsored a new member would get a $50 discount on their next monthly bill. Once I became a member, Robert chuckled and thanked me for helping him qualify for his $50.
I will remember Robert for how he dressed. His slight build made clothes seem to drape over him. Once he found a style or material he liked, he stuck with it. He was very fond of shirts with button-down collars. When I would ask “where did you get it” he would invariably say L. L. Beane. For those of you who don’t know, this is a well-known discount outdoor clothing store in Freeport, Maine. Robert would order on line, always the same size. He was, without a doubt, their most loyal customer!
Robert was very, very tidy and always took care of his music – it was always properly filed or put into storage. He berated me once about how scruffy my organ shoes were. His shoes, on the other hand, were invariable put back in a special carrying bag and of course, never worn outside. They were pristine in appearance – always.
Robert used to sub for me at weddings and memorial services and I was always grateful to have someone who was the ultimate professional taking my place: on time, well prepared, and extremely knowledgeable about appropriate repertoire and performance styles.
He was a member and volunteer with many organizations; The Royal Canadian College of Organists, the British Columbia Music Teachers’ Association, the Green Mountain Hikers Club of Vermont and the Washington Trails Association. He also arranged music for Pianos Galore, an organization created by the Canadian Vocal and Performing Arts Society that featured as many as eight Steinway pianos on stage at one time with two performers at each piano. Robert’s most memorable contribution was the Toccata from Widor’s Symphony V. It was an instant hit and performers loved playing it.
Robert was a quiet, sincere, genuine person who enjoyed the beauty of nature. He found solace in its serenity and solitude. Robert was all of these things, but the one quality that stood out the most was his understanding, dedication and commitment to early keyboard music. I have no doubt that many of his students who were first introduced to this wondrous music in his classes, wondrous music that still has the amazing power to transform lives over 400 years later, will be forever grateful to Robert for opening up a whole new world for them.
His greatest treasures, however, are found in the lasting friendships he formed over the years and in the satisfaction he gained in passing his love of music to his students. Though he will be sorely missed, his artistry, humility and dedication will have a profound effect on many in the years to come. It is not difficult then to look back upon his life as anything other than a gift. Robert was a man of quiet integrity, a musician of impeccable standards, and a human being of great depth. His passing is a great loss.