To the Williams community,
I am writing to share the sad news that Kenneth C. Roberts Jr., the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Music, Emeritus, passed away on Monday, May 10.
Ken joined the faculty in 1962 and, over the course of 40 years, guided generations of Williams students to deepen their appreciation and understanding of music history and live performance. A specialist in European and American music history, he helped fill the college’s music collection with books, scores and recordings. He founded and for 25 years led Williams’ Service of Lessons and Carols—based on the service from King’s College, Cambridge—a holiday tradition to this day. And he used Winter Study and other opportunities to arrange student trips to operas and symphonies in Boston, New York and Montreal.
Early in his career, Ken spent a sabbatical year with his wife Anne Roberts in Germany on a German Exchange Service (DAAD) Graduate Scholarship (which he’d postponed to take the job at Williams). He became director of Chapel Music and Glee Club, transforming them in 1967 into the Chamber Singers and Choral Society. After years of partnerships with area colleges to combine women’s voices with the all-male groups, he expanded the Choral Society’s repertoire after the college adopted coeducation in 1970. In his 25 years as the groups’ conductor, he led students on tours of the Eastern U.S., Ontario and Quebec, German-speaking Europe and Spain.
He regularly contributed articles to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the journal of the Music Library Association’s Notes, and other publications, in addition to authoring A Checklist of 20th-century Choral Music for Male Voices, part of the Detroit studies in music bibliography. Ken was a college representative to the New England Music Library Association and served as an officer during the late 1970s.
A gifted performer on piano and organ, Ken was the founding pianist of the Williams Trio. He performed with Music in the Round chamber music series and as an accompanist for many college events; he often served as organist-choirmaster for the First Congregational Church and St. John’s Parish, Williamstown; and he served as the musical director for College Chapel and chair of the music department.
Ken also served as an adviser to many orchestras and was a guest conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic Choir and the Swedish Radio Choir in Stockholm. He taught American Music in a seminar for teachers of English as a foreign language in European high schools. He had a special affinity for Berlin, which he called his “second home, with its fantastically rich musical life, unlike any other city in the world,” and visited often after the fall of East Germany and the Berlin Wall, particularly after his retirement in 2002.
Ken was raised in Norristown, Pa., eventually settling in Bennington, Vt. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music in 1961 and 1962, respectively, and a Ph.D. in musicology in 1965, all from the University of Michigan, where he taught before joining the Williams faculty. His son Keith Roberts ’94 said of Ken’s long career at Williams, “He was a teacher. … He was not training professional musicians; he was training engineers, doctors, lawyers, professors and other professionals to appreciate and understand music so that they could enjoy that as a passion throughout their lives.”
Ken is survived by his sons Kevin and Keith Roberts; his wife, Margaret Roberts; and five grandchildren. His ashes will be buried in the Williams College Cemetery next to his son Craig (Kenneth C. Roberts III), who preceded him in death. A graveside service will take place at a later date.
Our deepest condolences go out to Ken’s family, colleagues and friends.
Maud S. Mandel
Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies