Dr. Richard W. Hillert was professor of music at Concordia from 1959 until his retirement in 1993, In 1987, in recognition of his contributions to Concordia and the church at large, he was named distinguished professor of music.
A native of Clark County, Wis., Dr. Hillert received his bachelor of science in education at Concordia in River Forest in 1951. He went on to earn a master of music degree and a doctor of music degree in composition from Northwestern University, and later attended the Berkshire School of Music, now known as the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition with Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. He received honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from Concordia University at Seward, Neb., in 2000, and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2001. In 2002, he received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Music degree from Valparaiso University.
Dr. Hillert served as teacher and music director for parishes in St. Louis, Mo. and Wausau, Wis., before returning to Concordia in 1959 as professor of music. In the early years, while teaching at Concordia, he also served parishes in Chicago and west suburban Westchester as organist and choirmaster. At Concordia, he taught music theory and composition, music literature, 20th century music, orchestration, organ and piano instruction, comparative arts and liturgical worship. He also served for a time as chair of the music department and later as coordinator of the master of church music program.
Dr. Hillert was a prolific composer of piano, organ, chamber, orchestra, cantata, concerto and choral works in addition to writing numerous articles on church music. He is perhaps best known as composer of "Holy Communion, Setting 1" in Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). The composition later appeared as a setting of the Divine Service in Lutheran Worship (1982), as well as in the recent worship books: Lutheran Service Book (2006) of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It has been said that this setting is one of the best examples of an American musical expression in the liturgy. This setting includes "Worthy Is Christ," the canticle better known as "This Is the Feast," which appears in more than 30 worship books across many denominations throughout the United States, Canada and other countries.
Dr. Hillert's compositions include liturgical music for congregation, choirs and organ, and sacred and secular concert works. A number of his compositions were written for the Concordia community, in particular those for the Kapelle, conducted by Thomas Gieschen: Cantata: May God Bestow on Us His Grace (1964), Motet for the Day of Pentecost for choir, vibraphone, and prepared electronic tape (written for the round-the-world tour in 1969), Motet for the Time of Easter for double choir, percussion, and harp (1971), and Agnus Dei for three choirs and percussion instruments (1974). His Ricercata (1961) for organ was dedicated to and first performed by his colleague Herbert Gotsch. For the 100th anniversary of Concordia in 1964, he provided the tune and setting for Henry Lettermann's text "As Moses, Lost in Sinai's Wilderness." His Passion According to St. John was first performed by the Chapel Choir, under the direction of Carl Schalk. The Alleluiatic Sequence (1980) was written for the dedication of the Chapel of Our Lord, and a setting of Evening Prayer (1984) was first sung at the Lectures in Church Music that year, and has continued to be sung on occasion at Concordia and in the Bach Cantata series at Grace Lutheran Church. His Christmas carols “From Shepherding of Stars” and “What News this Bitter Night” were written for texts by Concordia colleagues F. Samuel Janzow and Henry Lettermann respectively, and first appeared in the journal Lutheran Education.
Among his many activities, Dr. Hillert also served on the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship and was music editor for Worship Supplement (1969) and Lutheran Book of Worship. He also was assistant editor of the journal Church Music and editor of volumes 31-42 of the Concordia Hymn Prelude Series. He was a frequent writer and presenter on music, in particular 20th century church music.
In October 1984, Concordia established the Richard Hillert Award in Composition to recognize and encourage students who exhibit outstanding proficiency, talent and achievement in music composition. Established through the gifts of Dr. Hillert's former students, colleagues and friends, the award is presented at the Vi Messerli Memorial Lectures in Church Music.
Dr. Richard W. Hillert died in the Lord on Feb. 18, 2010, at age 86 after an extended illness. He is survived by his wife Gloria; children Kathryn (Mark) Brewer, Jonathan Hillert and Virginia Hillert; and five grandchildren. A funeral service, which included many of his compositions, was held on March 1, 2010 at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, Illinois.