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Helen Martens: Grebel Trailblazer

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Helen MartensThe first in a distinguished legacy of long-serving musical visionaries, Helen Martens was hired as a music professor at Grebel in 1965. Illustrating the College’s interdisciplinary focus from the beginning, the initial classes Helen taught were Music and the Fine Arts, as well as Music and Literature. Building on the success of these courses, Grebel subsequently added directing the College choir and piano instruction to her duties, plus courses in music history and music appreciation.

Before coming to Grebel, Helen completed a PhD in Music at New York’s Columbia University. She received her BA and MA at the University of Minnesota; attained an ARCT piano diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and an LRSM Licentiate from the Royal Schools of Music in England; and studied piano at Juilliard.

“In her pioneering work as a musicologist, pianist, choral director and supportive mentor, Helen laid the foundation of Grebel’s distinctive music program,” noted Music Chair Laura Gray. “The mission she embodied—to equip students in academics, performance, and ensemble work, and to engage them in searching for music’s meaning in its connections with other disciplines and society—continues to inform the direction of the music program today.”

In her desire to bring music into the lives of students of all ages, Helen founded the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir (IMCC) in Waterloo, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
Under her direction, IMCC regularly performed in southwestern Ontario, toured Pennyslvania and New York, sang at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, and won top prize in the 1978 CBC National Radio Competition for Amateur Choirs.

In addition to teaching music, Helen has written several books and published numerous articles. Her first book, Hutterite Songs, was based on her doctoral dissertation, and established her as an authority on the music of the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Grebel lore still recounts the day that Helen mentioned how “some guy” named Leonard Nimoy kept calling her about a movie he was making. After learning who Nimoy was, she eventually took the calls seriously and ended up on the movie set of Holy Matrimony as their Hutterite music and culture expert. Helen described the project as “the most gratifying, frustrating, interesting, boring, and remarkable professional experience I’ve ever had.” More recently, she published Felix Mendelssohn, Out of the Depths of his Heart in 2009 and Passion vs Duty: Felix Mendelssohn, Cecile, Jenny Lind and E.J. in 2012. These two books stem from research she began in the 1980s, translating hundreds of letters written in German gothic script.

Today, Helen lives in Winnipeg, where she celebrated her 90th birthday this past January with family and friends. She last visited Grebel in 2013 during the College’s 50th anniversary.

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