October 1992

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Corning's Memorable Maestro

Charles C. Corwin



Robert F. McNamara

Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4, Ch. 5


Corning, New York, between 1898 and 1954, had in succession two notable community-minded music educators. Not many cities of 17,000 population have been equally blessed.

The first was John C. Bostelmann. In 1898 he inaugurated the Corning Conservatory of Music in the Opera House Block. There, for the next two decades, he and his family and associates trained many young local people in instrumental music, and trained them well.

When the Conservatory ceased to function in 1918, a second musical promoter was already on hand and prepared to carry the torch still farther. He was Charles C. Corwin, organist and choir director of Corning's Christ Episcopal Church since 1914. From 1914 to the 1950s he would engage in an ever-broadening crusade to acquaint Corningites with good music and with the joy of making it.

In 1958, four years after Mr. Corwin's death, Christ Church dedicated its remodeled choir room to his memory. A hand-tinted photograph of him, seated at the organ in choir dress, was hung on the wall, and below it a framed citation. During the dedication, Mr. W. Hanford Curtiss, prominent local executive and parishioner, read this citation, which he had been asked to compose. It praised the late organist not only for his contribution to parish worship but also for "his work with community choral groups, his direction of the music department of District Nine schools, and his founding and development of the Philharmonic Orchestra."

Even that was an understatement of what Corwin had accomplished in Corning. The purpose of this biographical sketch by an old friend is to remind people of the Corning area how much they owe to Charles Corwin's cultural influence.

Chapter One

Corwin Comes to Corning

Charles Condit Corwin was not a native of Corning. He was born in East Orange, New Jersey, on August 27, 1883, the son of Francis N. W. and Elizabeth Condit Corwin. Founder of this old Jersey family was one Mathias Corwin, who emigrated from England in 1638. Mathias' descendants would display a fine sense of patriotism and community service. Charles's great-grandfather William was a veteran of both the French-and-Indian War and the American Revolution, and later served as a representative in the New Jersey Legislature. The family was traditionally Episcopalian, Francis Corwin being one of the vestrymen of Christ Church, East Orange. Young Charles grew up, therefore, a staunch Republican, and a devout Christian well acquainted with the rites and music of conservative Episcopal use.

Some of Charles's forebears had gone into medicine. Charles himself found melodies more engaging than maladies. He joined the parish choir at age eight, and before long was appointed its treble soloist. A New Jersey newspaper, commenting on a recital given by this choir in the 1890s. had particular praise for the "clear voice and exceptional diction" of its boy vocalist.

Recognizing their son's fondness for music, his parents saw to it that he received instruction in piano and in organ. With a self-discipline that was already characteristic, Charles applied himself so well to mastering the instruments that when he was only 20, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, also in East Orange, invited him to become its organist and choirmaster.

At one point in his brief stint at St. Andrew's, Choirmaster Corwin had to give an audition to an East Orange woman who had studied voice in New York City and now sought a position as soloist. Her name was Ena Hampton, and her background was similar to that of Charles. Ena not only won the choir job; she also won the heart of the choir director. Married in 1908, Charles and Ena Corwin were to form an effective musical team. They complemented each other nicely as persons and as musicians. While they shared each other's musical ideals, his earnestness was counterbalanced by her hilarious sense of humor.

In 1905, Mr. Corwin accepted the flattering invitation to become organist and choir conductor at a larger New Jersey Episcopal parish, Grace Church in Newark. By 1914 he had apparently acquired such good repute that the rector of Christ Church in Corning, New York, came knocking at his door. Pleased with the invitation to play the organ and direct the choir of the Corning church, Charles informed the vestry of his consent. Thereupon the vestrymen voted him in. It seems that vestryman Alanson B. Houghton had a predominant part in choosing Corwin. Houghton was then president of the Corning Glass Works, Corning's largest industry. (Later on he would be a member of Congress, and then U. S. Ambassador to Germany and to the Court of St. James.) Thereafter Charles held Mr. Houghton in grateful esteem.

Organist Corwin arrived in Coring to assume his duties on February 23, 1914. Ena and their very young son William joined him not long afterward. According to plans, Charles, in addition to his church duties, opened a studio for private instruction in piano, organ and voice. His first studio was a rented suite in the Cain-Bernkopf building at 27-33 West Market Street. In 1920, after having lived in three temporary residences, he purchased the Alfred Gamman house at 10 East First Street, a few rods west of Christ Church. The Gamman house had a one-story wing that had served as a summer kitchen, semidetached and with its own entrance. In due time, he converted this wing into a permanent music studio.

Ena Corwin's role as mother and housewife did not prevent her from continuing a part-time musical career. She was for some years a soloist in the choir of Christ Church, and later director of the quartets of the First Presbyterian and the First Baptist churches. In 1939 she composed and staged a children's operetta "Little Red Riding Hood." Voluntary musical organizations could count on her ready support, as we shall see.

© 1992, Robert F. McNamara
Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4, Ch. 5
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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