Evelyn Lohoefer De Boeck, who composed for children and dance, dies at 92


Evelyn Lohoefer De Boeck, who composed “Come and See the Peppermint Tree,” a whimsical suit of music for children, shown in 1964. (Family Photo)
July 26, 2014

When she was 7, Evelyn Hurwitz participated in a piano recital in her native North Carolina. Her stage fright, however, proved to be so overwhelming that she fled from the keyboard after playing just a few notes.

She never quite overcame her fear of performing in public, but in later years Evelyn Lohoefer De Boeck, as she became known, was able to channel her love of music into a long career as a composer and accompanist.

She accompanied dance groups throughout her life and worked alongside such pioneers of modern dance as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. After settling in Washington around 1950, she became associated with Erika Thimey’s Children’s Dance Theatre, where she began to write music for young people.

“I don’t know if children’s interest in the songs proves that I’m a child at heart,” Mrs. De Boeck told The Washington Post in 1960, “or that children’s capacity is greater than people realize. Everything is fresher to them and everything is possible.”

She wrote and recorded her best-known composition, “Come and See the Peppermint Tree,” in 1959 under her name at the time, Evelyn D. Lohoefer. Despite its challenging, sometimes dissonant style, the lighthearted “Peppermint Tree” became a minor musical classic for children on the short-lived Washington Records label. It resembled the jazzy, slightly offbeat music Bob Dorough and other musicians would create for “Sesame Street” more than a decade later.

The 25 tunes on the “Peppermint Tree” album are a journey through the whimsical and comic and constitute “the most charming record designed for children that has appeared in many a moon,” New York Times critic Herbert Mitgang wrote in 1960. “If you can’t imagine a ‘cool’ disk for very young elementary school children, then hear this. . . . It is sophisticated and naive at the same time — and that takes some doing.”

Mitgang praised Mrs. De Boeck for her “sparking lyrics, jumpy tunes and sound effects” and her “ability to write little folk songs, tone poems and nonsense stuff that all add up to a wonderful show for children.”

Mrs. De Boeck died June 16 at her home in Washington at 92. She had complications from a broken leg, said a great-niece, April Land.

In the 1960 interview with The Post, Mrs. De Boeck explained the origin of “Come and See the Peppermint Tree.” The lyrics for one tune, “My Shoes Went Walking,” came to her after she slipped off her shoes while sitting on a park bench: “My shoes went walking without my feet. My shoes went walking down the street. One went this way, one went that. And three days later, they met over there.”

Other songs were drawn from a child’s view of everyday life: “Moon on a sliding board, sparkles all around. . . . Imagine the delight of a moon playing in the yard at night.”

Mrs. De Boeck played piano on the recording, accompanied by the celebrated jazz and bossa nova guitarist Charlie Byrd. The singer and narrator was Donald McKayle, who was better known as a dancer.

In his 2002 autobiography, “Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life,” McKayle said he and Mrs. De Boeck got to know each other while working together in a summer dance program at Connecticut College in the 1950s.

“Evelyn accompanied my morning technique class,” McKayle wrote, “sometimes abandoning the keyboard and going under the lid of the baby grand, beating the strings with mallets or strumming and plucking them with her fingers as she sang vocalise or wielded a rattle. We immediately befriended each other and spent hours outside of the class talking, singing, and making music together.”

Evelyn Dean Hurwitz was born Dec. 28, 1921, in Clinton, N.C., where her parents ran a store. They were the only Jewish family in the town.

Mrs. De Boeck was a 1942 graduate of what was then called the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and later studied composition at New York’s Juilliard School and with private tutors.

Her first marriage, to Richard Lohoefer, ended in divorce. Her second husband, Alexis De Boeck, was a Belgian-born painter who worked for many years as a logistics coordinator at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington. He died in 1994 after 32 years of marriage. There are no immediate survivors.

For years, Mrs. De Boeck was a staff pianist with the American Dance Festival, a summer training program for dancers that was located in Connecticut at the time. She worked with choreographers and made several recordings used for dancers’ rhythmic training.

Mrs. De Boeck wrote many other works for dance, including a score for choreographer Pola Nirenska and a work based on T.S. Eliot’s verse drama “Murder in the Cathedral.” Despite her childhood stage fright, she continued to perform her compositions at the piano in recitals with the Maryland Dance Ensemble as recently as 2011.

Her many nieces and nephews remembered Mrs. De Boeck for her exotic, bohemian dress and her natural kinship with children. She recorded a second album of children’s music, “Sometime — Anytime,” and in the early 1970s re-released “Come and See the Peppermint Tree” on a private record label.

“To watch children anywhere of any kind is a constant delight,” Mrs. De Boeck told The Post in 1960. “I’ve always consciously watched them dancing, moving, playing games — and I thought if they made me smile, I could make them smile.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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