To the grandeur and splendor of opera and its expensive production costs, W. Newell Hendricks brought music he conceived and composed while living a normal, simple life.
“The word ‘normal’ contains the word ‘moral,’ ” he wrote about choosing “Normal” as the title for his memoir. “I think it’s normal to be moral, and in a way that’s what the book is about: my attempt to live a moral life. I pursued my individual idealism through composing music and found ways to survive without having to give my autonomy over to either the government or the private sector.”
That meant resisting the constraints of a conventional career. He was a founder of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and counted three operas and an oratorio among the major compositions he produced during years he worked outside the mainstream of Boston’s music scene.
“I’ve had various part-time jobs, but the only way to write a piece this big is to keep away from other employment,” Mr. Hendricks told the Globe in 1993, just before performances began for “Ascona,” his opera that drew inspiration from a pre-World War I experimental community in Switzerland that was a precursor to the later 20th-century counterculture.
“Fortunately, I’m good at not spending money,” he said. “And writing operas is the thing I do best.”
Long involved with the Back Bay’s Church of the Covenant, he traveled more than 20 times to its Nicaraguan sister community, Dulce Nombre de Jesus. Accompanied by 16 relatives, he paid a final visit at the end of January when an aggressive form of prostate cancer had spread to his bones. Mr. Hendricks, who lived in North Cambridge for many years, died at home April 3. He was 72.
“I was born with gifts and abilities that might have allowed me to pursue a variety of professional careers. I was also born with the unwillingness to live my life limited by the expectations placed on people in these careers,” he wrote on his blog, “The life of a Normal Man.”
Early on, he taught music theory at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he received a master’s in musical composition partway through a quarter-century academic route that began with California’s community colleges and ended with a doctorate from Boston University.
“Newell thought composers shouldn’t be tied down to a university, which made them conform to academic standards. He was not into that. He was not into conforming,” said his wife, Barbara Englesberg, a violinist and teacher who also helped found Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. “He had just a great sense of self and didn’t try to go with the norm.”
Mr. Hendricks had been the sexton, music director, and organist at various times with the Church of the Covenant, but composing music was paramount, as was getting down on paper in his final years the many stories he often told about his life.
“I wrote most of the stories in my head walking around — about two every month,” he said on his blog, discussing his book. “Writing these stories was such a good way for me to process the reality that my life was coming to an end. It was also wonderful for me to go back to a daily routine I had developed in my years as a composer — spending most of the day wandering around thinking and then in the afternoon and evening, writing down what I had come up with.”
William Newell Hendricks was one of three children born to George Hendricks, a civil engineer who worked on construction of the Los Angeles freeway system, and the former Louise Davis, who taught second grade. George grew up on a farm, played saxophone, and built the family’s home in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb.
Mr. Hendricks inherited his father’s musical abilities and do-it-yourself approach, but was not a natural classroom student. He flunked out of college engineering courses before graduating from California State University Fresno. During the 1960s, he lived on two communes, dodged nine draft induction notices, and hitchhiked prolifically before pursuing a master’s in music at Santa Barbara, where he camped out near campus during part of his studies, stashing his sleeping bag under a eucalyptus tree before heading to school.
While there he met Barbara Englesberg. A couple for 45 years, they married in 1978 and lived in Baltimore while she studied at Peabody Conservatory before ending up in Boston, where each received a music doctorate from Boston University. Mr. Hendricks also studied at Princeton Theological Seminary.
In 1980, he conducted a violin concerto he had written for his wife, who performed the concert with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. Three years later, Globe critic Richard Dyer praised the “great skill” Mr. Hendricks brought to composing the oratorio “El Salvador.” Dyer called the score Mr. Hendricks wrote for “The Cell,” the 1988 opera he created with librettist Karen Henry, “sensitive, inventive, and charged with theatrical vitality.” In 1993, Dyer said their opera “Ascona” included “music that lodges in the memory, and music you want to hear again.”
As a collaborator, Mr. Hendricks “was someone whose head and heart were very connected,” said Henry, who added that he was precise and articulate about how he matched music with words, and why. As a friend, she said, “he just had a presence about him that encouraged people to confide in him. He expressed ultimate respect for people.”
A counterpoint to composing was his work with Church of the Covenant, which he served as a deacon, council member, and congregation president.
“He was very purposeful in everything he did and it really did come from his relationship with the Bible,” said his older daughter, Anna, a dance teacher in Gill, who founded Great Falls Creative Movement.
“I think of him as someone who could do anything,” she added. “He didn’t believe in buying things or asking other people to do things for him, so he could figure out how to do anything himself and do it without any of the traditional methods.”
Mr. Hendricks sewed her prom dresses, built houses, and hiked with only a topographical map for a guide. He preferred to walk or ride a bicycle, even if his destination was in Western Massachusetts.
His younger daughter, Clara of Watertown, the children’s librarian at Wellesley Free Library, is archiving his music.
“He wanted to make his music available to the public,” his wife said. “He did not want to ever copyright anything. He wanted to just give and share.”
The family is planning a celebration of the life and music of Mr. Hendricks, who in addition to his wife and daughters leaves his sister, Ann Woolcott of Portland, Ore., and two granddaughters.
Mr. Hendricks, who in the past few years liked to do some of his writing at Davis Square’s Diesel Cafe, had “this knack of making anyone comfortable,” his wife said. “Because he had a musical ear, he would automatically, subconsciously, take on their way of speaking. It just happened, in the same way that he had this empathy.”
Diagnosed with cancer in 2010, “he decided a couple of years ago to ask as little of other people around him as possible and not complain,” Anna said. “That was a gift he felt he could give people, what he could do when he could hardly do anything: make their jobs easier for them.”
In November, facing the limitations of illness, he posted a poem about the things he could still do, such as sit or lie down, which included the lines:
Lying down, I can pray, thinking of all those I know
With love in my heart.
Sitting or lying, I can make sure there are no unsaid wordsBryan Marquard
can be reached at email@example.com.