Helmut J. Roehrig established the music department at Xavier University, founded a chorus devoted to performing sacred masterpieces and was an accomplished organist. Music was his passion, but he never wanted accolades. Instead, said his friends and family members, it was his way of giving back.
“He brought out the best in everyone that he dealt with in any way,” said his wife of 54 years, Mary Evelyn Roehrig of Hyde Park. “Especially with people who never knew they could sing. They seemed to appreciate his striving for excellence, and he put his whole heart and soul into everything he did.”
Dr. Roehrig died on Nov. 6 at his home following a lengthy illness. He was 85.
Dr. Roehrig was born in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1932. In 1959, he traveled to Covington, KY, to become organist of St. Aloysius Church (now merged with Mother of God parish). He continued working there until he was able to pay back the parish for his ship fare, his wife said.
In the ‘60s, he began serving as organist for St. Gertrude Church in Madeira, where he met his wife, a teacher at the church’s school. About 20 years ago, he became organist and music director at Christ the King Church in Mount Lookout.
Dr. Roehrig began his academic career at Our Lady of Cincinnati College. The all-female Catholic college was the predecessor of Edgecliff College, which was purchased by Xavier University in 1980.
He chaired the Music Department at Edgecliff College and Xavier University from 1981 to 1998. During his tenure, he was also the director of choral activities and professor of organ. Dr. Roehrig twice traveled with the concert choir and the vocal chamber ensemble to Europe, performing concerts in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria.
“Helmut’s commitment to the poetry and integrity of music was second to none. His engagement with the students, the department, the university and the community was pure, clear and unyielding,” said Kaleel Skeirik, professor of music at Xavier. “Equally matched, interwoven, and inspired (were) his wonderful interpretations of music with his compassionate advising and teaching of students, whom he always challenged to be their best.
“He oversaw the music department’s transition from Edgecliff College to Xavier University and made sure these were established upon a firm foundation. Many students have gone on following his baton to make significant achievements in the field. He planted seeds of care, excellence, and beautiful music in Cincinnati. These now grow and contribute mightily to the character of our community.”
In 1965, Dr. Roehrig established Musica Sacra, a non-denominational chorus he led for 49 years. The tradition of performing sacred masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart as they were originally intended with orchestral accompaniment had virtually disappeared, and he saw the need for a revival.
The 60-member chorus’ first concert in 1966 featured motets, church sonatas and Mozart’s Coronation Mass. He was proud that he was able to present three concerts per year, free to the public, using the original orchestration performed by all-professional musicians.
“There was no Catholic church where you could hear a Haydn Mass or a Mozart Mass. … I wanted to do these works in a space for which they were intended – not in Music Hall, not in a concert hall or at CCM,” said Dr. Roerhig in a 2014 interview.
He cherished a letter written in 1969 by former Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Max Rudolf, who praised the choral leader for his “skillful and inspiring leadership” and for reviving a tradition “which used to flourish in former times, but, regrettably, had been lost.”
During his tenure, he led the chorus on two tours to the historic churches of Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. A favorite stop was his parish church where he once sang in the boy choir, in Kiedrich, in the Rhinegau region of Germany.
Kimberly Colangelo, a Xavier alumnus and a member of Musica Sacra, toured with both of Dr. Roehrig’s groups, including a performance at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
The choral conductor was not only a perfectionist, but also a “force of nature,” Colangelo said.
“He introduced me to composers and music that could transcend the bonds of humanity, time and religion. He taught my soul to sing. He taught me to join it with other voices and took me to places where it could soar,” she said. “Who would I be were it not for him? So many of us can ask this question. So many of us would be less of who we are, were it not for his influence.”
Dr. Roehrig graduated from the Institut für Kirchenmusik in Mainz and from the Staatliche Hochschule für Music in Frankfurt, Germany. He earned a Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University.
Besides his wife, Dr. Roehrig is survived by sons Michael of Hyde Park, Helmut (Stavra) of Mount Lookout, and Karl (Leslie) of Sycamore Township, a daughter Theresa Roehrig of Hyde Park, five grandchildren and many family members in Germany.
Services have been held. Memorials may be sent to the Dr. Helmut J. Roehrig Music Scholarship Fund at Xavier University, 3800 Victory Pkwy., 45207.