ABOUT JASPER STAMPA there was nothing prepossessing. Standing five feet five, his arms too long for his body's proportions, his face half-framed by an ill-kempt graying beard,
he was usually overlooked in a roomful of people, even in one filled by his colleagues. Those who knew him as a friend- and there were not many - reported that he collected Romanian military decorations, though they could not say why; and his students, to whom he would occasionally, if shyly, confide something personal, laughed at the news that he and his family had vacationed in Albany.
Yet Professor Stampa's forgettable looks and curious ways belied his reputation. There were a few things about this strange little man that drew students to him. It was known on campus that he was deadly serious about his own scholarship - on composers' changing use of the hemidemisemiquaver -and that he was respected elsewhere for it. He continued to wear a coat and tie when other members of the faculty had begun to sport jeans and long after dress codes for collegians had been given up as hopelessly retrograde. (To those who expressed surprise at this single mark of quaint fastidiousness, he explained, conveying his own puzzlement at their interest, that, after all,
he was of a different age and time than his students; "and, anyway, who would want to dress like them?") It was also known that, while he was a "hard marker," he was also fair to his students and made his expectations clear.
This shambling man, once in the classroom, came alive and even seemed to grow taller when standing before his students. On the opening day of his course on the history of music (a distribution requirement, which many students assumed would be easy and fun), he would enter prisely at the class's appointed hour, walk with uncharacteristic briskness to the lectern, wait gravely for stragglers to enter, then remark quietly that, because music was so wonderful and its history so fascinating, all were expected to be in their seats on time. "That's when we start listening so we can learn. Latecomers disturb others and miss what others have already heard. I'd prefer," and here he'd frown, "that if you're late you don't come to class at all." And he meant it: from time to time, he would refuse entry to a late student, never failing, however, to explain again why.
On the first day he would arrive also carrying an armful of books; and, lacing them down, he would announce that the course was intended to enable every course member to understand these works by faithfully completing every assignment. "But don't worry," he'd say; "your assignments are more readable and thinner. Yet by the end of the course, you'll be able to read and understand what's in these. It won't be easy; you'll have to work hard; and I have the usual incentives" - he would wave a grade book about- "to assist you to do so. But
I can tell you this: If you read your assignments along with me, a whole new world will open to you. You'll learn not just to listen to music but to understand what you're hearing. And there's nothing to rival that joy-at least I know of nothing. When we finish this course at the end of the year, you'll have learned about Latin motets, Haydn's quartets, the great symphonies of Brahms, and contemporary electronic compositions. And if we have time, we'll do a little work on black spirituals and contemporary jazz." Then he'd play a tape of a Gregorian chant followed by Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and begin to talk of rhythm and meter.
Jasper Stampa was not a scintillating lecturer. He stood still behind his lectere, told no jokes, did not even criticize other scholars. Yet his intentness and obvious love of music appealed to students. Something about this man's ability to talk on and on about his subject and to have something interesting to say in response to any question made them learn the subject, many of them in spite of themselves; he seemed to know everything about Western music and much about African and Asian as well. One year, the class's poorest student, expecting that his enrollment in Dr. Stampa's course would mean an easy time in a class that just listened to music, was heard saying that "the course was great. He made me understand how we got from that guy Monteverdi to heavy metal."
When not teaching, Professor Stampa was a picture of awkwardness and indecision. In his office he seemed to lose his tongue when asked about other courses or the rest of the curriculum. So out of touch with professional life was he that he could give his students few suggestions about graduate schools; and he would never join the faculty-student softball game in the spring. Yet when students came to talk with him about their term papers, he would come alive. Rising from his desk and drawing himself up to full height, he would climb his ladder and reach for a book (usually piled on a shelf near the ceiling) about some obscure court composer to illustrate a point about the development of Mozart's composing style. "Here," he would say.
"Take this wonderful book about this mediocre musician and bring it back when you think you've figured out how Mozart graduated from that style to the magnificence of Figaro." And he was known to sit with a student for an hour or two playing and replaying tapes of his favorite pieces in order to help the student understand musical structure.
When Professor Stampa retired prematurely in order to complete some further research into 64th notes and move his family to Albany as permanent residents of his long-favored city, former students honored him at a banquet at which they presented him with a just-published study of atonalism, which, they admitted, was not to their taste, although they knew he loved all twentieth-century music. The book was inscribed "To Jasper Stampa, whose knowledge of music was always unbelievable and from whom we learned, through listening and reading, as he said we would, of a whole new part of art and life."