Lawrence emerita organist and professor Miriam Clapp Duncan passes away at 83

Professor Emerita of Music Miriam Clapp Duncan passed away last Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although officially retired in 1985, Ms. Duncan remained involved with Lawrence.
Steve Blodgett

Professor Emerita of Music Miriam Clapp Duncan passed away last Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although officially retired in 1985, Ms. Duncan remained involved with Lawrence. (

is text was originally written by Steve Blodgett as an Office of Public Affairs notice for the Lawrence University website. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

Miriam Clapp Duncan, former university organist and professor emerita of music, died on Friday, May 9, in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the age of 83.

Professor Duncan officially retired as chair of the organ department in 1985, after a distinguished 36-year teaching career at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music. In addition to her role as university organist, she served as an organist at several Fox Valley area churches, including the First Presbyterian Church in Neenah and All Saints Episcopal Church in Appleton.

Despite being in retirement, she continued to take on organ and harpsichord private students and returned to the stage of Memorial Chapel many times, filling in as university organist for such events as the Maya Angelou convocation in 1997.

Professor Duncan received the Bachelor of Music degree (with distinction) from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago in 1942 and the master’s degree from the same institution in 1947. She pursued additional study at the Vienna Academy, Cornell University, and the Organ Institute of Massachusetts. A master at the harpsichord as well, she studied with Gustav Leonhardt, whom she met by accident in a cafe in Vienna following World War II.

An instructor at Wheaton College from 1945 to 1947, she joined the Lawrence faculty in 1949 as a part-time instructor and continued in that capacity until 1964, when her appointment was made full-time. Her husband, Clyde Duncan, served as a professor of piano and composition in the Conservatory.

A founding member and later dean of the Northeastern Wisconsin Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, Duncan received the college’s Excellence in Teaching Award at the 135th commencement in 1984. In presenting the award, President Richard Warch noted that Duncan was “among the first American organists to comprehend not only the revolution in performance practice that has taken place in the organ world, but also the broader applications of that revolution.”

One of the achievements of which she was most proud was the purchase and installation of the Brombaugh organ in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Duncan began her campaign to get a new tracker organ for the Chapel in 1967. Her “tracker backer” campaign was so widely known that the phrase was subsequently added to the organ profession’s lexicon. Coining the original phrase, Duncan and her students sold “tracker backer” buttons for $1 each at conventions nationwide. Her persistence ultimately paid off and the $600,000 Brombaugh Opus 33 tracker organ was finally installed in the Chapel in 1995.

Known to her students as Mother Duncan, she had an enormous following of loyal students and alumni. An organ recital celebrating her 80th birthday was held in the Chapel on October 8, 1999. Organized by Tom Froehlich, a 1974 Lawrence graduate who studied organ under Duncan and was the long-time organist at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, the commemorative concert featured some of Duncan’s favorite works by Bach, Buxtehude, and others, played on the then new Brombaugh tracker organ.

Professor Duncan is survived by a daughter, Anne Duncan-Welke, and a son, Jonathan Byrd Duncan. She was preceded in death by her husband, Clyde.