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David Elliott (1942-2020)


David Elliott died last night after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I saw him a few hours before he died, and can say that his end came peacefully and without pain.

David was enormously important to WHRB, to the Boston classical music scene, and to many of us personally.  His leadership, his dedication, his enthusiasm, and his tireless insistence on excellence inspired generations of students and listeners alike. 

I am deeply saddened by this loss, and with the Elliott family will be coordinating with on David’s wishes for his remembrance.  Our hearts and sympathies go out to all who knew and admired David.                          James C.S. Liu

Bettina A. Norton’s article from 2017 celebrates David’s life admirably.

David Elliott, the voice of Harvard’s radio station WHRB (95.3 FM) for 58 years, is going to be featured in the station’s Spring Orgy Saturday from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. Precisely during the first four or five hours of this period, David used to oversee the broadcast of live programs from the Metropolitan Opera. After each opera, David treated the listening audience to historic recordings of opera highlights, along with insights on performance. For a while, he ran a contest in which the winner would be the fourth, or sixth, caller—a number he chose at random each week. We also heard his mellifluous, cultured voice on many advertisement and public service announcements.

Besides his many hours as DJ every week, Elliott served as president of the WHRB board of trustees. Aaron Fogelson, a senior at Harvard, is putting on the orgy to honor David, who stepped back from his many roles at WHRB) due to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, familiarly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in October 2018, noted in tributes by both Harvard Magazine  and The Harvard Gazette.

“There is much to be said about David’s 58-year career as an announcer, a mentor for students, and a pillar of Boston’s classical music community,” said Fogelson. “As one listener said, ‘David Elliott was the most important thing to happen to radio since its advent.’ While this may be a bit of hyperbole, it is easy to say he has been the most important thing to happen to Harvard Radio and possibly even, Boston radio generally. David is a great man with an enormous and loyal following that believes he deserves a bevy of public sentiments detailing his legacy.”

“David’s infectious devotion to WHRB has inspired thousands of students to excel and innovate on the listeners’ behalf,” said Jonathan Lehrich ’90, an associate dean at Boston University who was recently named the board’s new chair. “The station will continue to thrive, hearkening always to the ideals that David has exemplified.”

Footnote: My spouse, John M. Norton, HC’56, was Business Manager of WHRB in his undergraduate days, and his roommate, Cooper H. Langford, II, was Treasurer. Other WHRBies include classical music commentator Martin Bookspan, BMInt advisor, former Harvard professor Robert Levin, Tom Lehrer, Richard L Kaye (WCRB), Igor Kipnis, T’ing Pei (eldest son if I.M.), Leonard Lehrman, Don Dolloff (longtime announcer in Syracuse), and BMInt writer James Liu.

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

Elliot at home in 1986. (Sarah Zaslaw photo)

And some culled comments from the WHRB site:

“David was so versatile in terms of knowledge of music. During my many years of listening, I had gotten the impression that his expertise was limited to opera. However, a couple of years ago, during the May orgy season, he handled a 45-minute tribute segment on Frank Sinatra, to observe what (I believe) would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday. David was very well-versed in Sinatra’s voice, career and recordings, which demonstrated the vast extent of his encyclopedic knowledge.”

“The thought of not hearing David’s voice again tears me apart. He knew more about opera than anyone and he spoke of it with such elegance. No radio announcer will ever take his place in my heart.”

“All I want to say is there is no other David Elliott, period. He is a one-of-a-kind and he will be missed by all who listen to WHRB.”

“I rarely cry but when I heard what happened to David I shed many a tear. I rarely use the word love but describing how I feel about David Elliott, it’s appropriate. David’s broadcast got me through a period of my life when I could hardly leave my home. I felt alone and destroyed but David would find a way to lift me up every time. I only wish I could repay all he has done for me. Please let him know that I know hundreds who feel just as I do. There must be tens of thousands out there that David has affected like this, I just wish we could find a way to thank him.”

“The Boston classical community is already missing its guardian angel. David’s voice brought life and depth to music. David’s knowledge of music is simply unmatched. We all miss his presence on the radio dial but we feel lucky he has trained so many young music minds who will hopefully step up in his place. Tell David that he has touched as many hearts as he has ears.”

We append the 27 comments from the original posting:

27 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. WHRB’s rescue of the Met opera broadcast when WCRB went non-profit (so to speak) was a blessing because Dave Elliott would then treat us to a really great composite performance of the same music. Not only did his commentary enlighten our minds about the opera; he enabled us to sharpen our ears, our musical intelligence, comparatively, by his shrewd selections. I don’t think I could ever have learned so much just by listening to performances. I know I could never have enjoyed so many voices from the past without Dave.

    Comment by jerry — May 18, 2019 at 8:06 am | Edit This

  2. As myself an old radio hand, I was gratified to have been around in Boston during the last fifty years when two great voices and their iconic shows were on the air: David Elliott and Garrison Keillor. (Not to neglect the fine Ron Della Chiesa, who’s still with us.)

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — May 18, 2019 at 10:26 am | Edit This

  3. Warmest greetings and cheers to honor old friend David Elliott, whom I have known ever since elementary school and whose WHRB odyssey I have admired and followed for at least a few decades. It was David, in fact, who in 1953 introduced me to a work I hadn’t even known about, an opera by Mozart called _The Magic Flute_, and I have treasured the memory ever since.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — May 18, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Edit This

  4. One of the great treasures of radio, anywhere. And to think that we had him to ourselves for so long in the Boston area. I miss him already.

    Comment by Camilli — May 18, 2019 at 1:08 pm | Edit This

  5. A pillar, indeed..the historic opera recordings segments are treasured gifts.

    Comment by Bill Blake — May 18, 2019 at 3:12 pm | Edit This

  6. David Elliott has been rightfully honored today. And I was told that he followed the entire orgy. In fact, he was consulted beforehand about content, I was just told. A dear friend called me, trying to control tears, because she had sung with F.John Adams for years and is a stalwart admirer of David.

    There were many highlights of the orgy, but most cogent, perhaps, was David’s discussion before a Met production of his favorite opera, La Boheme. People might criticize Puccini’s manipulation of emotion, David said, but most operas and plays do that. And “it is a manipulation they are happy to experience.” Of the 1924 La Scala production he used, he allowed that the recording was technically old, but “the emotion is direct.” And boy! was it! It is just such insights, along with his superb pronunciation of Italian (and German) that elicits our admiration, and, dare I say, our love.

    Comment by bettina norton — May 18, 2019 at 6:56 pm | Edit This

  7. I so miss David on WHRB, especially the post Met vocal program. What a lot of work he put into that each week! And I miss hearing him on other weekly broadcasts too. I’m glad he was able to hear the tribute today. I especially liked the Sir David Willcocks interview. I look forward to continued orgies in the future.

    Comment by Kathy — May 18, 2019 at 8:47 pm | Edit This

  8. Count me as yet another writer for BMInt who was thoughtfully mentored by David Elliott as WHRB (in my case, it was 1966-70).

    David set standards for on-air accuracy, insight, and elegance that I continue to try to meet in my writings about music.

    Comment by Ralph P. Locke — May 19, 2019 at 7:42 am | Edit This

  9. It was an honor hosting last evening’s 7-hour tribute to David Elliott! Many of us who put the special together were in tears by the end. We were so touched by all those who reached out to show their support and appreciation! We received hundreds of calls and emails from people who were reminded of David’s brilliant music knowledge and incredible announcing voice. Most importantly, David listened to the show and loved everything he heard! These past few months have been very physically challenging for David but his spirits have remained high because of all the love he has received from his fans and friends!

    Comment by Aaron Fogelson — May 19, 2019 at 8:13 pm | Edit This

  10. From Milan, Prof. Robert Levin wrote:
    “Other former members: Tom Lehrer, Richard L. Kaye (WCRB), Igor Kipnis, T’ing Pei (eldest son of I.M.),Leonard Lehrman, Don Dolloff (longtime announcer in Syracuse)…”

    Comment by toni norton — May 19, 2019 at 9:30 pm | Edit This

  11. As Toni pointed out, I am one of many veterans of the WHRB Classical Music department who fell under David’s influence as undergraduates. I also did studio controls and production, and was David’s controlman for one year of his Monday night Special Concert broadcasts. A good deal of what I know about classical music, I learned under David’s tutelage and mentorship. By working as his controlman, I watched an announcing master at work, and learned the elements of his craft. And in important ways, he drove home for me the importance of doing work that is thoroughly researched and prepared, thoughtfully assembled, and carefully done with meticulous attention to detail. And those lessons have been just as invaluable in my work and my own music making as in my time at the radio station.

    It will take some time for us to assimilate the hours and days and weeks of recorded material that David assembled in a lifetime at the station, and we could easily fill a week with additional amazing stuff, but as it stands, I’m grateful to Aaron for putting this together, and giving us a glimpse of the amazing voice that was.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — May 19, 2019 at 10:12 pm | Edit This

  12. Bettina,

    A correction.

    La Boheme?


    David’s favourite opera was Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” and he especially loved the Salzburg Festival performance from 1992 with the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado.

    Photo here

    Comment by Bertrand47 — May 19, 2019 at 10:45 pm | Edit This

  13. Bettina,

    David’s favourite opera was Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” and he especially loved the Salzburg Festival performance from 1992 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado.

    Comment by Bertrand46 — May 19, 2019 at 10:48 pm | Edit This

  14. Yesterday’s WHRB tribute to David Elliott was stirring, and a powerful reminder of his longtime singular influence on Boston classical music, spanning 5+ decades. (The superb music critic Alex Ross of the New Yorker is another mentee. I myself first met Elliott when, newly transferred to a college in the area, I bought a pair of used KLH speakers from an acquaintance of his, in perhaps 1967. One aspect of Elliott’s sterling character that has gone unnoted, even as I suppose it goes without saying, is his extreme modesty, to the extent of aspiring to invisibility, except for the savvy, informed, relaxed voice on the air. You will not find David Elliott referred to in the Globe over those decades except in the briefest passing connected with this or that WHRB orgy. As a journalist, I (and I was hardly alone) repeatedly tried to get him to submit to or even participate in any form of low-keyed profile — through the 1970s while covering music at the Boston Phoenix, after that for the Herald, and the last several years, a couple of times anyway, for this site. Nogo. I appeared on air with Elliott a very few times over the years, in minor parts, for sundry special celebrations (involving Anton Heiller, Bach organ music, and consumer audio developments), and naturally it turned out that he was equally self-effacing in private, even over dinner afterward. When I visited him a couple months ago with an old classmate (and WHRB angel), he remained fully in character: ‘Nothing to do with me, everything to do with music, its fascinating personages and events.’ In today’s time of the worst excesses of vainglory in all arenas, I think David Elliott’s combination of serious modesty with important achievement stands about as remarkable as his precisely pronounced and historically smart announcing and curation.

    Comment by davidrmoran — May 20, 2019 at 12:39 am | Edit This

  15. Hats off to David Elliott! He has served our musical community superbly well.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — May 20, 2019 at 11:43 am | Edit This

    I met David when the fledgling Northeastern Records company was started- he was on the board and gave wisdom to Lynn Joiner, who accepted it- and we brought out music by Rebecca Clarke, Fanny Medelssohn Beach, Foote, Holocaust composers, and many superb Boston composers – David was a guiding foce of that whole endeavor- and as so many have expressed, he had an innate wamrth and delivery -without being pedantic or show off, he genuinely loved music, greatness, performance, and so many benefitted from him
    It is rare to have known such a selfless person

    Comment by virginia eskin — May 20, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Edit This

  16. The producers of the orgy announced on the air that it would end with La Boheme because “it is David’s favorite opera.” I will check with The Source and so inform you, Gentle Readers.

    Comment by Toni Norton — May 20, 2019 at 3:00 pm | Edit This

  17. Sorry, David, I had to be away Saturday so missed the festivities. BMI had spared my having to call you and say “David, I think you’ve had a stroke” because you were talking exactly like I did when I had had one. I have grown older with you and talked with you over the phone but never met you in person, I think. Anyways, I remember an old Irish remark/joke to this effect but I gather you’ve been one of those fortunate to hear tributes from everyone while you’re still around to enjoy them! The Met broadcast won’t be the same without you! Best wishes for the future!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 20, 2019 at 5:12 pm | Edit This

  18. A truly grateful salute to you, David. Thank you so very much.

    Comment by Holly Mockovak — May 24, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Edit This

  19. Indeed, from so many. Thank YOU.
    Bertrand, I have no control over commentary (deo gratia).

    Comment by Toni Norton — May 25, 2019 at 9:48 am | Edit This

  20. I am a contemporary of David Elliott’s. I consider him to have been one of my two closest friends at Harvard (or at the Network, aiiak). Alas! we have been in only occasional touch since those days.

    In addition to Dave’s kindness and devotion and thoroughness and humility – all honored in the above comments – and his colossal memory (as far as I can tell, he has never forgotten anything), I’d like to pay tribute to his sense of humor and playfulness. We laughed a lot together. I remember his breaking himself up on the air with a surreal weather forecast that he made up on the spot late one night. I remember our delight as we played a tape of the phrase “Ta-ta, Scroungie” backwards on the air over a recording of John Cage’s “Aria with Fonatana Mix.” (I guess you had to be there.) When I graduated in 1962, Dave presented me with a tape of hysterically funny tidbits, including the second aria of the Queen of the Night performed by Maria Galvany, the sextet from Lucia sung by Clara Cluck (from a Disney cartoon), and Dave’s wonderful interview (c. 1960) with Peter Ustinov.

    I learned about the recent Spring Orgy too late to listen. But here’s another you-had-to-be-there story from a 24-Hour Mozart Orgy long ago: I had a late-night on-air shift, during which the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K.452, showed up in the play-list I had been handed. I was never a good announcer, and I was nervous about going on the air live. I announced the piece, glancing at the play-list and then at the record jacket, by saying: “We now come to Köchel 452 – that’s Köchel 452 in both the original Köchel catalogue and in the Einsein revised version – [refers to record jacket] the Quintet in E flat for Piano and Winds, Köchel 452 [pause, then softly] …yes. The phone rang immediately. It was David Elliott, who chirped, “What was that Köchel number again?”

    Thank you, David Elliott, for your friendship and for the memories.

    Comment by Sam Sanders — May 31, 2019 at 6:49 pm | Edit This

  21. Thank you so much for this lovely notice about the David Elliott Orgy. I was at WHRB from 1987 to 1990, and I learned a vast amount about classical music and recorded history from David. He was unstintingly encouraging of my various broadcasting projects, no matter obscure or eccentric, and nudged me toward a career in classical-music criticism before it occurred to me that such a thing was possible. He began running CD reviews in the Program Guide with an eye toward cultivating our interests (Jon Lehrich, James Liu, and Doug Beck were also there at that time), and my first reviews of any kind were written under David’s aegis. I made my debut, auspiciously or not, writing about the Hyperion CD of Robert Simpson’s Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7. To put it simply: I doubt that I would have gone into classical criticism if it had not been for David and the atmosphere he created at WHRB. I owe everything to him.

    Comment by Alex Ross — June 9, 2019 at 12:41 am | Edit This

  22. That is a lovely letter, Mr. Ross. It is rare for established, well-known critics to recognize publicly the influences of their still-living mentors. I’m glad I read you in The New Yorker. In addition to being a fine critic you are a gracious man.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 10, 2019 at 9:00 am | Edit This

  23. One aspect of David’s much remarked personality is his innate generosity. Our connections run deep and long, so long that I can’t remember when we first intersected. What I do remember, and cherish with abundant fondness, is David’s willingness to support, on-air, the the concerts of The Spectrum Singers, of which I am Music Director. He regularly would offer me an interview to boost an upcoming concert, and then play an excerpt from a previous Spectrum Singers’ performance in support. No other Boston area medium was more generous in offering such meaningful advocacy. I was not alone in this. When I arrived at the WHRB studios I would often pass by another local or visiting musician who had just received similar on-air benisons from David.
    On another note, I recall David’s live on-air broadcasts of Harvard College graduation festivities, wherein he sourced from his astonishingly abundant memory bank all manner of anecdotes and nuggets of historical relevancy as he thoroughly explained the pageantry and color of a Harvard commencement. Who else would/ could do this with such aplomb and enthusiasm? Bless you, David – I deeply miss our enjoyable get-togethers…

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — June 11, 2019 at 10:27 am | Edit This


13 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you, James Liu. As for the repeat of the article, once again, I offer apologies to Alex Ross (as I have done, personally) for forgetting to mention him as a Network Alum…

    The number of comments from my article point to the esteem in which David was held. Today I am full of remembrances. I remember calling in often to answer his quizzes, and as I felt I was winning for what was probably an inordinate number of times, I changed my identity from Toni (as he knew me) to: Mrs. John M., Bettina, Principessa &c,,… And then told David that I probably should gracefully stop. However-—it was fun!

    At the time, I approached the Harvard Music Department about establishing some sort of annual award in David’s name, to honor somehow the importance of the Network.I would like to know if there are like-minded folk in this audience.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — November 13, 2020 at 5:51 pm

  2. I first met David when I was at Philips Exeter Academy, and immediately recognized him as someone I could talk to with complete freedom — a person of great value and rarity at that place, in those times. We decided to join the WHRB community at the same time, so he was equally enlightening and helpful in navigating the mysteries and funny moments of that competition. Though I never came within a country mile of his knowledge and stature in the musical world, I knew I could always count on him to share and help elucidate anything in the world that was complex, bewildering and/or funny.

    And that memory of his… at a party once, I walked by him singing (for some forgotten reason) the opening words of a Spanish song (the only ones I knew) from an old Stan Freberg bit about Christopher Columbus — “Adios muchachos companeros de me vida…” and he immediately shot back the next line from a record neither of us had heard for years: “Will you get outta here!”

    A few years later, at the time of the man’s death, he even put together a loving tribute to Spike Jones, another insane affection of my misspent youth. Now we have lost that gigantic musical storehouse, and its endlessly playful and supportive custodian. David was a real mensch and it is so painful to see him go.

    Comment by E. Brad Meyer — November 13, 2020 at 11:32 pm

  3. A cherished friend, although our contacts after the 1970s were infrequent….a major life-force in the community, his enthusiasm for Mahler and particularly for Jascha Horenstein’s conducting meshed very much with my musical tastes throughout. Very sad to hear of his passing.

    Comment by Joel Lazar — November 14, 2020 at 7:35 pm

  4. David was an old and true friend, younger than most of us, and an encouragement to all of us who love music as he did. He will be missed in Boston as long as music is.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — November 15, 2020 at 11:40 am

  5. I can only echo the above encomiums. David was director of the WHRB comp to which I applied in winter 1964/65 in the squash court at Claverly hall. David’s erudition, humor, idealism, and wit made him the patron saint of WHRB. Listening to him moderate Sunday Night at the Opera, or his rhapsodizing about his favorite pieces off the air, was inspiring and at times daunting. Upon my return to Harvard 25 years after my graduation to join the faculty, it was a delight to renew acquaintance with David, who devoted his life to WHRB, setting an example for his devoted colleagues and the greater Boston audience with whom he built a precious relationship. All of us who were touched by his warmth and his standards of achievement shall forever be in debt to him.

    Comment by Robert Levin — November 15, 2020 at 10:33 pm

  6. Over many years, my exchanges with David were invariably filled with enthusiasm, love for music, and life energy. What a remarkable life was his!

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 16, 2020 at 11:12 am

  7. I just heard on HRB that they are planning memorial programs but also, more important, that the Elliott family has asked that any contributions be made to the station. has info.

    Comment by David R. Moran — November 16, 2020 at 4:52 pm

  8. Jeremy Eichler’s obituary of David Elliott in The Boston Globe:

    Comment by Mather Pfeiffenberger — November 18, 2020 at 6:12 pm

  9. The superb tribute by Jeremy Eichler in The Boston Globe, cited above, mentions two names previously not know to me and hereby cited as WHRB “Ghosts”: Chris Wallace of Fox News and Scott Horsley of NPR.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — November 19, 2020 at 11:08 am

  10. The pronunciation of English words was of particular concern to the announcers of David’s early years at WHRB. In addition to affecting a posh English accent in the pursuit of better diction, I studied (as did David) the pronunciation tape made for us by Andrew Sihler (now a distinguished linguist emeritus at Madison). Andrew made sure that we put the emphasis on the correct syllable and lengthened our longer vowels. Names of composers and conductors were in correct linguistic order: Baaaahrtok, Bay-lah. So both David and I could do a terrific “Mstislav Rostropovich” or a perfectly Texan “Van Clah-burn.” Naturally, this absurd proficiency led us into further mischief, and one of my favorite games with David was the insightful mispronunciation of the names of world leaders.This was a strictly off-air game. Sometimes we would be boulversee by hearing that others were playing this game in public (migod, right there on the BBC: Ach-med I’m-a-dinner-jacket!). As with the amusements Sam Sanders describes, you had to be there. Lust for this thin and airy trivia consumed us all and has enriched all our subsequent seeing, hearing, and understanding, always placing us a modest distance from too-heavy-laden an emotion, too-sodden a sentiment. Dare I elevate this memory to a network “practice?” Not too daring–perhaps it lies at the root of Alex Ross’s criticism as it lay at the root of my work as a science writer and David’s as a Mentor. And it was David, of course, who carried the art of the light touch to its apotheosis in so many of his wonderful broadcasts. And although I believe I’ve spent a long penitence after graduation in learning that the world has its heavy and sodden aspects, I’m glad I was exposed to this long ago.

    Comment by Merry Maisel — November 19, 2020 at 5:51 pm

  11. other alums here; pity DE is not mentioned; will attempt a fix

    Comment by David Moran — November 19, 2020 at 7:18 pm

  12. Mr. Moran, it looks like your fix has been accepted. Thank you! It’s wholly fitting.

    Comment by Mather Pfeiffenberger — November 19, 2020 at 8:29 pm

  13. The Harvard Crimson posted an obituary for David late last evening:

    Comment by Mather Pfeiffenberger — November 24, 2020 at 1:23 pm

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