Garnell Stuart Copeland, one of the Washington area's best-known organists and choirmasters, was fatally stabbed Thursday night in what apparently was a robbery as he entered his Capitol Hill townhouse.

According to police, Copeland, 42, organist and choirmaster at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, was about to enter his home at 920 C St. SE at about 11:15 p.m. when he was stabbed several times in the chest and abdomen.

Police said that Copeland ran a block after the attack to seek help from a friend, Ernest P. Evans, of 318 10th St. SE. Copeland reached Evans' front door, knocked once and collapsed, according to police.

Copeland was taken by ambulance to Capitol Hill Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 12:25 a.m. police said.

Dr. Brian Blackbourne, deputy D.C. medical examiner, said yesterday that the multiple stab wounds by themselves would not have caused death. He said, however, that the exertion of the victim in seeking help triggered a major loss of blood, which was the actual cause of death.

The Rev. Leslie Smith, associate rector at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, said that Copeland became the church's chief musician 10 years ago. "When he came to us he was already recognized as a brilliant organist and he maintained that reputation," he said.

Copeland, a native of the San Francisco Bay area, played frequently at organ demonstration concerts at the Kennedy Center and also had appeared at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Mrs. Everett Brooks, who operates Brooks' Valet Shop with her husband at 922 C ST. SE, said Copeland occassionally had his dry cleaning done at her shop. She said she got to know him well.

"He was the most generous and kindest person you'd ever want to meet," she said. "Winos would stop him on the street begging for a nickle or a quarter. He gave them whatever them wanted.

"I once told Mr. Copeland that he shouldn't be so generous," she said. "I told him you can't be generous with people nowadays. Folks are too money hungry."

Mrs. Brooks said that when Copeland moved into her neighborhood of restored townhouses four years ago, she took him around and introduced him to the neighbors.

"He was one of the greatest organists alive. Once he invited me to one of his recitals at the church. He gave me one of his albums. Recently he stopped in and gave me one of his pictures and told me to frame it."

Walter Ellis, another of Copeland's neighbors, said he moved to C Street 33 years ago. "This has always been a quiet neighborhood oter than a few break-ins," said Ellis, 62, "but you have that in any community -- even up on Connecticut Avenue."

Ellis said the assault on Copeland is the first such incident that Ellis can recall on the block during all his years there.

Mrs. Brooks said she last saw Copeland about 6:30 p.m. Thursday. "We had a brief blackout and Mr. Copeland came outside to see it our lights were out, too," she said.

"We joked about maybe we didn't pay our light bills and he went back inside."