Ernest G. McClain 1918 – 2014
Ernest Glenn McClain died peacefully of natural causes at his home in Washington, D.C. on April 25, 2014. Born in Massillon, Ohio on August 6, 1918, he attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Northwestern University and received his doctorate at Teacher’s College in New York. He served in the South Pacific for four years during World War II. Ernest directed the bands at Dennison University and the University of Hawaii, and performed frequently as a clarinetist in Hawaii and New York. He was a professor emeritus of Brooklyn College, and retired to an idyllic 20 years in Vermont, where, with his wife Augusta, he hosted scores of visitors and hammed it up in local community theater.
His enthusiasm for travel and adventure is exemplified by a family trip of 67 days in 1962. They camped 45 nights at most of the major national parks west of the Mississippi. A decision to hike the Grand Canyon was made spontaneously and accomplished with only water, sandwiches and sleeping bags.
Ernest’s passion for music came from his father, a self-taught violinist. As early as junior high Ernest directed bands, and as a teacher he was intense and funny.
His intellectual transformation was galvanized by the music faculty at Brooklyn College, in particular musicologist Siegmund Levarie and the extraordinary pianist and composer Ernst Levy. These two men taught him von Thimus’ Pythagoreanism; this became his key to unlocking Plato’s mathematical/musical riddles. In his books, The Pythagorean Plato: Prelude to the Song Itself; The Myth of Invariance: The Origins of the Gods, Mathematics and Music from the Rig Veda to Plato; and Meditations Through the Quran: Tonal Images in an Oral Culture, Ernest explored the idea that ancient tales and myths preserved and conveyed real numerical information about musical tuning; these were published during a decade of further collaboration with the philosopher Antonio de Nicolas. Years of collaboration with Platonist John Bremer followed. Ernest’s discovery of identical or similar numbers and parallel mathematical constructs in much of the ancient Mediterranean Basin fed growing speculation about the historical continuity of a common spiritual tradition linking the microcosm of man’s inner world to the macrocosm of his outer world. He hypothesized prime number harmonics as the key driver and shaper of historical mythology. Ernest contributed avidly to exhilarating discussions with scholars around the world, in particular with Duane Christensen, Richard Dumbrill, and others in the online discussion group BIBAL, until his last day.
He was pre-deceased by his first wife, Mignon Henley McClain, and his second wife, Augusta Davis McClain. Survivors include his three children: Ron (and Holly) McClain of Takoma Park, Maryland; John McClain (and Clarisse Shechter) of Bristol, Vermont; and Pamela McClain of Santa Fe, New Mexico; five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
After a half century of studying the brilliance of the ancients he still woke up, to his last day, believing his greatest discovery might come that day. To Ernest, life was a glorious adventure which he shared with generosity and exuberance.
Published on NYTimes.com from May 5 to May 6, 2014