In Memoriam: Pomona College music professor Gwendolyn Lytle

An African-American female in a blue shirt smiles at the camera.
Gwendolyn Lytle, a Pomona music professor, died on Aug. 22. She was a soloist, opera performer and expert in African-American musical traditions. (Courtesy Pomona College)

Pomona College professor Gwendolyn Lytle, a 35-year veteran of the school’s music department, accomplished soloist and opera performer and expert in African-American musical traditions, died in her home Aug. 22 after a battle with liver cancer, according to a Pomona news release and the Claremont Courier obituary. She was 74.

She taught more than 650 students in both private voice lessons and courses on music history and literature, according to the release, and was the chair of Pomona’s music department for three years. 

Zachary Freiman PO ’20, a music major concentrating in vocal performance, said Lytle was the head of the voice program for his first two years at Pomona. 

“Her death was very unexpected and shocking. Professor Lytle was a giant in the department and the music community,” Freiman said via email. “We miss her dearly, and the Thatcher Music Building feels a little less complete without her.”

He praised Lytle’s teaching style. 

“One time, after a student recital, professor Lytle literally backed me into a corner outside Lyman Hall to admonish me in her loving, tough, sincere and somewhat humorous way for my lack of explosively enunciated consonants in an otherwise satisfactory performance,” Freiman said. “I promised that, from then on, she’d be able to hear my D’s and T’s in the very last row of the hall.”

Michael Alvis PO ’20, a voice student in Lytle’s studio for three years, echoed Freiman’s comments.

“Professor Lytle’s teaching allowed me to refine my vocal technique and become a more sensitive and dedicated musician who paid as much attention to the meaning and text of the works I sang as to the literal notes, rhythms and dynamics that lay on the score,” Alvis said via email. 

He described Lytle as a constant friend and mentor to him who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the lives and music of many composers in both the Western classical tradition and in African-American music.

“Professor Lytle’s voice was invariably warm, welcoming and understanding, and she was always willing to talk during our lessons together, regardless of the subject,” Alvis said. “I will always remember her openness and dedication to being a superlative teacher and mentor and an exceptional human being.”

Another student also remembered her fondly. 

“Her impact will reach way beyond just her students. She was such a large support system for me,” Cherise Higgins PO ’21, who took voice lessons with Lytle for two years, said via message. “I am still in denial, but I will always love her.”

Music department chair Eric Lindholm said his favorite memory of Lytle was from when he first started at Pomona in November 1995, when she was the soloist in his first program as orchestra conductor. Lytle sang “Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson” by Aaron Copland.

“It was delightful to begin my career here with such a major collaboration, and she sang the songs so beautifully that we decided to revisit the piece in 2013,” Lindholm said via email.

Lytle began performing at age nine as the daughter of a church organist, and went on to receive a master’s degree in music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, according to the news release. She was a lecturer in music at UC Riverside for 10 years before coming to Pomona in 1985. 

Lytle also chaired the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies and was an active member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, according to the Courier. She was a resident of Claremont and a longtime member of Pilgrim Congregational Church in Pomona, the Courier said. 

Pomona’s Celliola concert Sept. 15 was dedicated to Lytle, and performers paused to recognize her death, according to Freiman. Lytle’s successor, professor Melissa Givens, sang a piece written by professor Thomas Flaherty for Lytle to start the concert.

The Pomona College Music Department is establishing the Gwendolyn Lytle Scholarship Fund for talented, in-need students studying music and is accepting donations in her honor, according to the news release.

Lytle is survived by her brothers, Henry Lytle and Cecil Lytle and his wife Betty, her sister Florence Lassiter and her nieces and nephews, according to the Courier.

A memorial will be held Dec. 14 at 11 a.m. in Bridges Hall of Music, Lindholm said.

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