Passing from one voice to the next, melodies wander from generation to generation, easing effortlessly across oceans and national boundaries. Anne Dhu McLucas studied this oral tradition of tune families that travel and adapt to varied musical traditions, and their migratory nature seemed to mirror her own life, which was forever in motion, constantly changing, yet always recognizable.
After growing up in Colorado’s mountains, she emerged as a leading ethnomusicologist while teaching for nearly 25 years at places such as Harvard, Wellesley, and Boston College, where she helped found the music department. Then she became dean of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance in 1992, and was a professor there the past 10 years.
In sentences filled with staccato bursts of words, she sketched the parameters of her life in her Facebook bio. “Lots to condense into a small space,” she wrote with understatement born of a childhood that included “18 or so moves.” Having packed her decades so full there was too little space to list all the languages she spoke, it was not surprising that she condensed a swath of major events into a quick aside: “Meanwhile survived ovarian cancer, finishing a PhD, and several more jobs.”
Dr. McLucas, an avid outdoorswoman who recently opted for knee replacement surgery with a goal of “hiking and biking and skiing until I’m 90,” died Sept. 8 in Eugene, Ore. She was 71 and had been helping to plan a symposium to be held the end of this month and in October. The programs on oral traditions in music will now memorialize her life and career.
Authorities in Oregon have arraigned Johan Gillette on aggravated murder charges in the deaths of Dr. McLucas and her companion, James Gillette, 73, who was Johan’s father.
Dr. McLucas’s international reputation in ethnomusicology may have overshadowed her gifts as an instrumentalist; she was a harpsichordist and pianist who accompanied other musicians and performed with ensembles through the years.
“When I was a small child I would come down the stairs and hear her practicing harpsichord, which was the signature sound of the household,” said her son, Jacob of Arlington. “The harpsichord had its own room at our house in Newton, where it stayed and where she would practice every day.”
As an academic colleague “she was absolutely stellar,” said Marian Smith, an associate professor of music at the University of Oregon.
“She was a famous scholar, but never minded getting her hands dirty with the grunt work of academia,” Smith said. “She encouraged us constantly and inspired us with her high energy level, because there was just nothing she couldn’t do.”
Despite being an “accomplished, formidable academic,” Dr. McLucas was “disarming and open, and almost to a fault forgiving and embracing of diversity of all kinds,” said her son, who is chief executive of PRX Public Radio Exchange in Harvard Square. “She never had her warning signs up around people, which was good.”
Her older sister, Caye Dhu Geer of Durango, Colo., said it was “as if she didn’t have anger. She was tremendously quick to forgive everything, or even to deny life’s darker side. She had a truly sunny nature.”
Born in Denver, Dr. McLucas grew up in a series of Colorado communities. Her father was an administrator of government programs and for a time the family ran a ski lodge.
She went to the University of Colorado, graduating in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in Italian and German languages and literature. To those she would add other languages, including Gaelic, as she studied music from her Scottish ancestry, and Apache, which was necessary for some of her ethnomusicology research.
She took time out from language studies to get a performance certificate from Mozarteum Akademie in Salzburg, Austria. At Harvard University, she received a master’s in 1968 and a doctorate in 1975, writing her dissertation on “The Concept of Tune-Families in the British-American Folk-Song Tradition.”
An early marriage during college ended in divorce. While at Harvard, she married Dr. Edward Shapiro, a psychiatrist. They had a son and their marriage ended after 24 years.
Beginning in 1967, Dr. McLucas taught at Harvard, Boston College, and Wellesley College. Then she returned to Harvard before going back to BC, where she chaired the music department.
“She always seemed to be doing everything at once,” said Thomas Forrest Kelly, a Harvard music professor who was a graduate student with Dr. McLucas. “I see her standing with an armload of books and papers, more books and papers than any one human could carry, with individual pieces of paper coming out in all directions.”
Margarita Mazo, a professor emeritus of ethnomusicology at Ohio State University, said Dr. McLucas’s scholarship “knew no borders. It was all one field for her.”
And so it was outside academia, too.
“If something sparked her interest, she would go after it,” Mazo said, “and Anne had many, many interests in her life.”
Dr. McLucas discussed living vigorously outside the classroom in “A couple minutes with … Anne Dhu McLucas,” a video the University of Oregon posted in June.
She spoke of her plans to retire in December, and of how as a child she spent every weekend “skiing or camping or hiking, doing something with my parents.”
In Boston, the distance from mountains prompted Dr. McLucas to spend time at the ocean, but she welcomed moving to Oregon, where “you can still go out on a hike and not see another soul all day.”
She said she “took up rock climbing at the ripe old age of 50-something,” only to set it aside and concentrate on hiking when she needed replacement surgery for both knees. Outdoor activities, Dr. McLucas said, can provide a sort of cleansing experience.
“When you’re climbing up the face of a rock wall, you’re not thinking about work,” she said in the video. “You’re thinking about where your next handhold is, because otherwise you fall down. So it absolutely takes you away.”
A service will be announced for Dr. McLucas, who in addition to her son and sister leaves three grandchildren.
Devoted to her students and colleagues in and out of the classroom, Dr. McLucas “was always throwing parties,” Smith said. “If you ever had a party, you wanted Anne to be there because she made it livelier or more interesting. And she was so generous she might show up on 30 minutes’ notice with a cake.”
In an e-mail, Smith added that Dr. McLucas “was tall and slender, lively, brilliant, frank, extremely kind and generous, wickedly funny, always cheerful, and ready for action. She was much loved and is being deeply mourned here.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.