I didn’t know it at the time, but Dennis Godburn entered my life one day a little more than three decades ago when I got the mail at our house in Brookline MA. Inside a plain white envelope was a mysterious dot-matrix computer print-out on striped paper with perforated edges, and the meticulously-crafted graphic message said “You are hereby designated to represent your sector at the first annual PAN-AMERICAN CONGRESS OF SHAWMS” followed by instructions to go to the crypt of the St John the Divine cathedral at a certain time and a dark caveat: “Rauschpfeifes will NOT be admitted.” Even in the happenin days of the late 70′s this sounded pretty interesting, but it was 200 miles away so I didn’t go. By the time I did make it to one of these events, the third annual or something in 1981, I had learned that they were the creation of Dennis, his roommate Paul Wexler, and their friend David Carp, and that it consisted of about 60 early musicians crammed into a room next to the dead bishops under the sanctuary of the cathedral where Fred Renz and his Ensemble for Early Music were in residence. There were ancient instruments and controlled substances of all kinds in evidence (but no rauschpfeifes) and they produced the most terrific racket imaginable as everyone played Praetorius dances at top volume all at once. The early music scene in the city was in full flower, and by then Denny and I had become close friends.
It may be hard to believe now but at the time orchestral period-instrument concerts by American groups were taking place in the city’s major halls regularly. Aston Magna had a residency at the Met Museum; Johannes Somary was doing things at Carnegie; Concert Royal, EEM and the Mozartean Players all had series in Tully. I was getting invited down from Boston several times a month to play, and most of the time Dennis was principal bassoon, sometimes I would stay on the couch at his place on 183rd and we would drink wine and talk about reeds and life far into the night. The next year Ruth and I realized that there was more work for me in New York than in Boston so we decided to relocate, Dennis encouraged me and helped us move, around then I encouraged him to get his first real baroque bassoon. We would hang out together at Tom and Barbara Wolf’s place in DC when we were playing with the Smithsonian group, later along with Marc Schachman we formed the Amadeus Winds, we played with the Bach Ensemble, with Mostly Mozart and the Great Performers series, and in the first Boston Early Music Festival orchestra; along with Ben Harms we played the first recorders ever at the Met Opera onstage in tights and curly wigs in their production of Rinaldo; we played with Calliope and played shawm duets from the balcony when Marc and Linda Quan got married at Albert Fuller’s loft. When the Handel and Haydn orchestra went to period instruments in 1986 we were charter members and would stay together at Jim Christie and John Finney’s house. Looking back on this time it was really a golden age, there were many hundreds of concerts and dozens of recordings, but at the time it just seemed like normal life, like it would go on forever.
As so many people writing on Facebook remember, Dennis was always hilarious, fast with a quip. What I remember most about his humor was that it usually came out of his ability to put his finger on the cultural essence of any situation, often with devastating effect. He had his own names for everything and everyone—a Renaissance reed instrument of questionable stability and indeterminate pitch was a “schnozcophone,” the crypt at St John the Divine was “the Fred zone,” a tasteless rubato was a “schmuckadorus.” When Mike Willens and his wife had a baby, Mike was henceforth “Daddy-o,” when Marc became a father after that he was dubbed “Nouveau Daddy-o.” I was “Big boy,” in those days probably more for height than corpulence. We all bemoaned the onset of “Dunlop disease,” as in “mah gut dunlop oer mah belt.”
Denny was the anchor of those great wind sections we had, the guy I wanted behind me. You could just ride along on that generous sonority and perfect intonation like a cloud, it was effortless. So many memories, they keep flooding back, but a couple of the most vivid recollections have to do with the Et Incarnatus soprano solo in Mozart’s mass in C-minor. We did it twice in the same year—the first time was with Arleen Auger which was colossally inspiring; the second time was for a recording with the BEMF group. They had run out of session time and the soprano soloist was sick so we had to do it in one take, including the cadenza, with no singer. Denny laid down his part with that radiant confidence he always had, Chris Krueger and I just blended in, and we got it all—they dubbed in the solo, and that’s what’s on the record. Everyone heard the poetry in his playing, but we also felt the ferocious discipline and the determination to make it perfect that were behind it, Denny expected a high standard from colleagues but the highest from himself. It always amazed me that he could play early bassoon at that level and still be equally wonderful in his other life, with Lukes, Orpheus, etc.
Life went on, our kids grew up. For awhile Dennis, Moy and family lived around the corner from us in Piermont, there were barbecues and wine-enhanced hangouts, they were close with several of our kids, especially Kerenza who is a fellow foodie. But the scene evolved and got more fragmented, more good players came along, we weren’t always playing together. Denny found more satisfaction in modern bassoon playing than in the earlier stuff, and sold a lot of his period instruments. Then Moy got a great job in California and they moved away, I still remember bringing pizza to their place the night before the movers came. Then Ruth and I moved further upstate ourselves the following year, new chapters for both Denny and me. We kept in touch on the phone and occasionally in person when he was back in town, but never played together again. I always thought we would, somehow, somewhere, but it didn’t happen. God I miss him.