Lillian E. Papkoff. Credit: H. Papkoff

Sept. 10, 1924 – Dec. 26, 2022

Lillian E. Papkoff, a longtime resident of El Cerrito and an accomplished classical pianist, passed away at the age of 98. She was preceded in death by her husband, Harold Papkoff, and is survived by her two daughters, Jacqueline and Jessica.

Lillian was born in New York City, the youngest of three children, and grew up in the St. Albans neighborhood in the borough of Queens on Long Island. From a very young age she showed significant musical talent and by her early teens was playing piano live on WNYC radio in New York City and conducting music ensembles at her high school. In 1939, at the age of 15, she performed in a joint piano recital with two other young pianists at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in NYC. This same year her father promised to buy her a grand piano if she could win the first place Gold Medal award in a NYC piano competition. With her natural talent, hard work, and perseverance, she won the gold medal and a 1939 Steinway baby grand piano became her lifelong musical companion.

After graduating from Jamaica High School in 1942, Lillian attended Queens College in New York where she studied music composition with well-known Professor Karol Rathaus and earned her bachelor’s in music in 1946. Lillian subsequently attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison for her master’s degree in music where she studied piano with renowned Norwegian pianist Gunnar Johansen, composition with Professor Cecil Burleigh, and the art of the string quartet with Rudolf Kolisch, founder of the Kolisch String Quartet and Pro Arte Quartet. She assisted professors Johansen, Kolisch and the Pro Arte Quartet in a course on Haydn and Mozart string quartets and performed with them in a faculty concert for the UWM Music Department’s Schubert Festival concert series in 1947. For her master’s thesis she composed a string quartet that was performed in Madison and New York City, as well as a violin sonata, several songs, piano and choral works. Lillian also studied sociology and developed an interest in Ethnomusicology which led her to spend a summer in Ignacio, Colorado, living with the Southern Ute Indians, studying their music traditions.

After earning her master’s degree in 1947 she received her teaching credentials, and for several years taught music and French in the public schools of New York City, and piano and music theory at the South End Music School in Boston. In 1952 she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the UC Berkeley Department of Music to study musicology with renowned scholars Manfred Bukofzer and Joseph Kerman, and was appointed the Oscar Weil Memorial Scholar in Music. At UC Berkeley she met a group of talented musical colleagues with whom she frequently performed in the Bay Area for many decades. Her solo repertoire covered a wide range from all-Scarlatti and all-Brahms solo programs, to the well-known works of Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Mozart, as well as contemporary music. Her many chamber music concerts included performances at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall in the UCB Committee for Arts & Lectures Series and the UCB Noon Concert Series with Nathan Schwartz (piano), Judith Nelson (soprano), and Elmerlee Thomas (voice), Pleasant Hill Arts Committee “Bach to Mozart” series with Edgar Jones (baritone), Diablo Valley College Committee for Arts and Lectures Concert Series with Anna Carol Dudley (soprano), the Etude Club of Berkeley with Marian Steinbergh (soprano), the Bay Area Composer’s Forum concerts, SF College for Women with Michael Chang (tenor), and Villa Montalvo Arts Center with Steven Klimowski (clarinet). She performed at the San Francisco Festival of Contemporary Music at the SF Museum of Art in the Bay Area premiere of Ernst Krenek’s  “Fibonacci Mobile” (for string quartet and piano 4-hands) with Nathan Schwartz (piano), and the Francesco Trio, conducted by Mr. Krenek. For many years she performed with well-known Bay Area vocalist, Edgar Jones (baritone), and accompanied his students in numerous concerts. Lillian taught piano privately and was an accompanist, choir director and instructor at many local colleges including the UC Berkeley Music Extension division, Diablo Valley College, and Contra Costa College where she directed and accompanied the music students in a performance of Kurt Weill’s “Down in the Valley,” a one-act American folk opera.

At UC Berkeley Lillian met her future husband, Harold Papkoff, a biochemistry Ph.D. student at the time. Lillian and Harold were married in 1953 and lived in a small rented studio/house in the hills of El Cerrito. After their two daughters were born they moved to their forever home a few blocks down the hill that had more space for everyone, including Lillian’s baby grand piano that was finally transported from NYC to California by cargo ship. Lillian and Harold enjoyed living in their house for over 60 years, raising children, gardening and entertaining family, friends & colleagues. Lillian was a wonderful dinner party host and home chef, creating many fun and memorable celebrations. She enjoyed dining out at local restaurants with family and friends, travel to faraway places and frequent car trips around the West and Southwest with Harold.

In addition to Lillian’s extensive career as a pianist, music teacher, and coach, she also became an expert in antiques and jewelry. Her personal specialty was in the art and history of hand-made beads of all kinds. She was an enthusiastic member of the Northern California Bead Society and contributed to their bi-monthly newsletter. Lillian learned the skills necessary to do the special types of knotting involved in necklace-making, collected unique antique and contemporary beads, and created her own line of self-designed necklaces that were sold at several stores in the Bay Area. Lillian had a keen sense of design and style, loved colorful clothing and always wore tasteful jewelry with matching accessories. She had a quirky sense of humor, loved her family, animals, birds, and her beloved cat Milo. She will be greatly missed by friends, family and everyone that she inspired through her music, jewelry-making, and humor.