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Thursday, April 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Verrall, composer, teacher

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The musical legacy of composer John Verrall, who taught composition and music theory at the University of Washington for 25 years, was constrained only by his humility.

"He knew his own worth but did not want to capitalize on it," said John Kunz, a friend for more than 30 years. "This was a quiet man who could relax because he knew what he had done."

Mr. Verrall died of congestive heart failure at his Laurelhurst home Sunday at age 92.

With his death, the Verrall catalog of symphonies and concertos could become accessible to classical-music lovers beyond the circle of composers, musicians and students who have revered his talents for years.

William Bolcom, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1988 and studied under Mr. Verrall, wants the world to become acquainted with Verrall scores through a retrospective on compact disc, said Robin McCabe, director of the UW School of Music.

Born in Iowa, Mr. Verrall experienced his musical baptism at the piano at a young age. At 12, a brush with greatness set him on his career course. He attended a concert by Rachmaninoff and was allowed to meet the Russian composer. The youngster handed the master a musical score he had written.

"Rachmaninoff was so impressed that he contacted some senior people at the University of Chicago and that led to him being able to take correspondence lessons in musical composition," Kunz said.

Mr. Verrall obtained a bachelor's degree in music from the Minneapolis College of Music in 1929 and a bachelor of arts from the University of Minnesota in 1934. One of his first jobs was as an usher during performances of the Minneapolis Symphony, which permitted him to attend each concert.

Dmitri Mitropolous, the legendary conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony, took an interest in Mr. Verrall, and the orchestra performed his compositions. Kunz said Mitropolous pledged to Mr. Verrall that the symphony would perform anything he wrote.

Vilem Sokol, a UW music professor emeritus and former conductor of the Seattle Youth Symphony, said Mr. Verrall liked to regale his colleagues with stories about Mitropolous.

"He said he would give Mitropolous one of his scores and he would leaf through it page by page, spending about five or 10 seconds on each page," Sokol recalled. "Then when Mitropolous got to the end, he would say, `Jack, back on page 34 the tuba was in the wrong register' or something like that."

Mr. Verrall charmed people not only through his music, but also his winning personality, Sokol said.

"It really says something that his compositions appealed to someone like Mitropolous, who was always promoting very contemporary works," he said. "Jack's works had a contemporary feel to them, but they were in no way ultracontemporary."

Mr. Verrall studied under American composer Aaron Copland in New York at the Berkshire Music Center; Composer Leonard Bernstein was a classmate at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. After serving in World War II, Mr. Verrall worked in New York as the music editor for G. Schirmer, which publishes classical compositions. It was a plum job for an aspiring composer.

"As far as I know, he never used his position there to spread his own music," said Bela Siki, a UW music professor emeritus.

Mr. Verrall accepted a position on the UW faculty in 1948. He retired in 1973. He received various honors along the way, including a D.H. Lawrence Fellowship in 1964. During that year, he lived in Lawrence's former home in Taos, N.M..

As a teacher, he was well-liked by students, said McCabe, the UW School of Music director, who was a UW undergraduate during Mr. Verrall's tenure.

"He was passionately committed to music," she said. "He lived and breathed music. That kind of teacher is just naturally inspiring. And his modest sense of self was endearing, especially to young people."

His students, she said, "emerged with a great understanding in the way lines move and breathe in musical composition."

Mr. Verrall was asked to compose a choral symphony as part of the Washington Centennial celebration in 1989. The subject of the piece was Chief Joseph, and it was performed at Whitman College in Walla Walla and New York's Carnegie Hall.

It was his final major composition.

Mr.Verrall, preceded in death by his wife, Margaret, last year, is survived by an older brother in Mississippi. No public memorial service will be held.

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com.

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