James Harrison, Music Professor and Piano Lover, Dies at 84

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

The piano was at the center of James Harrison’s life.

For his classes in music theory at Hunter College in Manhattan, he did a great deal of teaching while sitting at it, playing musical excerpts as he explained the inner workings of harmony and counterpoint.

A Steinway grand piano was the centerpiece of Mr. Harrison’s home in Palisades, N.J. He turned a commodious room with strikingly tall ceilings into an inviting, acoustically lively space. He hosted regular informal performances there, inviting instrumentalists and singers to make music for gatherings of 20 or so friends.

Mr. Harrison died on May 24 at a rehabilitation facility in Cresskill, N.J., of complications of Covid-19, his daughter, Laura Harrison, said. He was 84.

James Stanley Harrison was born on Aug. 29, 1935, in St. Louis to Stanley Leonard Harrison, a physician, and Garnet (Toalson) Harrison, who worked as an administrative assistant in her husband’s practice.

An exceptional student who excelled at football and soccer at John Burroughs School, he then attended Harvard College, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in music in 1957. He continued his training under the renowned musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. There he met Marina Biaggi de Blasys, a gifted Italian pianist and another Boulanger student. They married in 1961.

Mr. Harrison was invited to teach at Fontainebleau. He and his wife lived for several years in France and in Switzerland, where Mr. Harrison was an apprentice to the influential German conductor Hermann Scherchen.

Mr. Harrison had originally intended to become an orchestra conductor. But, encouraged by Boulanger, he followed her path and became a teacher of music theory and counterpoint. His time at Hunter College began in 1969 and lasted nearly three decades; it included stints as chair of the music department and dean of arts and humanities.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Harrison is survived by his wife; a son, Phil; a sister, Sue Rodgers; and three grandchildren.

Mrs. Harrison grew up near Genoa in her family’s splendid villa, which has been turned into the grounds of a residential fellowship program for the arts and humanities run by the Bogliasco Foundation, which Mr. Harrison co-founded in 1991. He became its director after retiring from Hunter College. His daughter now runs it.

In a 2011 interview with RAI, the Italian broadcaster, Mr. Harrison spoke of the foundation’s role. “If, for example, a philosopher from Israel and an Australian composer can become friends through a daily exchange of ideas,” he said, “we feel we are doing something important for global culture.”

At an award ceremony for the foundation in 2007, Mr. Harrison described the study center as a paradise “where time seems to stand still, and the creativity of our fellows is boundless.”


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