By Donald Rosenberg
Plain Dealer Music Critic

To musicians, Dennis Eberhard was Cleveland’s composer laureate. To Russian concertgoers, he was an extraordinary artist whose music communicated profound compassion.

To his younger brother, Bruce, he was a hero who faced physical disability and financial hardship with tremendous courage. To kids in the Collinwood neighborhood where he grew up, he was “Sticks,” a little guy with a big smile who walked with crutches.

Eberhard was in his prime as a composer when he died May 25 at age 61. He was just beginning to conceptualize a concerto for Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen and CityMusic. He was excited about participating in an innovative fund-raising project that would allow people to purchase one or more measures of a work he had been commissioned to write for the Cleveland Chamber Symphony.

He was composing a set of five poetic pieces for Russian pianist Halida Dinova. He was revising a concerto he had completed 20 years ago for Australian harpist Alice Giles. He was transferring some of his older scores into a new computer notation program.

Like Schubert, Eberhard did not live to hear some of his best music performed. Like Bartok, he left this earth with his bags full of music. Like Mozart, he died penniless.

“As composers go, he was the real McCoy,” said Niki Houghton, a Cleveland composer who studied with Eberhard at Kent State University. “He was a big personality and a great human being.”

Born in 1943 to a Cleveland policeman and his second wife, Eberhard was an athletic child who could “run like the wind and climb trees like a monkey,” he told Laura Paglin, the Cleveland Heights filmmaker who made a beautiful documentary about his stressful but triumphant trip to Russia three years ago for the premiere performance of his piano concerto, “Shadow of the Swan.”

Until he was stricken with polio at age 9, Eberhard took no interest in music.

Considered a miracle child because he survived three different strains of polio, he spent two weeks in an iron lung and more than a year in Cleveland hospitals. When he returned home, he started piano lessons and taught himself to write music. At 13, his first string quartet was performed by members of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Although Eberhard used advanced techniques in his mature works, he started with the harmonic language of Beethoven and Schubert.

“Even in those conservative styles, there was always a kind of energy and force to his music,” said Kentucky composer Phil Koplow, a longtime Eberhard friend and colleague.

Struggling artist had fierce determination.

Eberhard opened his ears to 20th-century idioms during his undergraduate years at Kent State. As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, he learned from John Cage and Lejaren Hiller in the school’s Experimental Music Studio. In 1973, he traveled to Poland for two years of creative work that culminated in performances at the Warsaw Autumn, the renowned international festival of contemporary music.

My first meeting with Eberhard happened shortly after he returned from Europe, where he had competed in an international competition in the Netherlands and won a fellowship for a year’s residency at the American Academy in Rome. I heard one of his chamber pieces performed at Tanglewood’s Fromm Festival, and then chatted with him about music in Warsaw and Cleveland.

Not until an official interview in 1982 did I learn about Eberhard’s childhood illness, his brief marriage and his fierce determination to make a living as a composer. At the time, he was struggling to make ends meet, and he could not afford to attend Cleveland Orchestra concerts.

Seven years later, he received the first of two commissions from the orchestra. Music director Christoph von Dohnanyi led the premieres of Eberhard’s “Bells of Elsinore” and “Crooked River Oracle.” The latter work, commissioned to mark Cleveland’s bicentennial, was typically dark and intense. To celebrate the composer’s passion for the Cleveland Indians, however, he sneaked in a subtle reference to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Orchestral commissions also came from the Cincinnati Symphony, the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony and PAND (Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament), which premiered “Prometheus Wept,” an elegiac tone poem commemorating the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The wondrous sonorities he creates in an orchestra were unique among national and international composers,” said Gino Rafaelli, retired Cleveland Orchestra violinist and president of PAND.

Besides playing Eberhard’s orchestral music, Rafaelli gave 10 performances of “The Bird of Four Hundred Voices,” a virtuoso work Eberhard wrote for violin and orchestra, then arranged for violin and piano. Mark George, Rafaelli’s keyboard partner, described Eberhard as a “terrific talent” whose intelligence, humor and positive spirit came through in his music.

In recent years, Eberhard’s style took a lyrical turn. In “To Catch the Light,” the work he considered his masterpiece, he reflects the influence of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder.” Scored for boy choir and chamber orchestra, the emotional piece gives musical voice to poems written by ill or grieving children.

‘He still has a story to tell.’

“Dennis’ music is very deep in dramatic content,” said pianist Dinova. “He knows how to express the meaning of something through music. He suffered a lot throughout his life. His music reflected that suffering. His pieces always have poetic titles.”

“Shadow of the Swan,” the piano concerto Eberhard composed for Dinova, memorializes victims of the Russian submarine Kursk. In liner notes for the Naxos recording, the composer wrote, “We live, we die and yet we remain alive in the memories of those we have touched.”

Eberhard touched thousands of people through his music and his life. Fiercely independent, he supported himself through commissions, royalties and private teaching. Before the advent of computer notation, he copied scores for other composers. More recently, he worked with Services for Independent Living as transitional education director, and he served as a Big Brother to a teen with disabilities.

“There are so many little stories of how he helped people without fanfare,” said Cheryl Gorham, operations manager of LEAP (Linking Employment Abilities and Potential). “He was one of the most unselfish people I knew. I think he will be living on through his music. He still has a story to tell.”

To ensure that his music is preserved and performed, friends are seeking an archive for his scores, possibly at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where Eberhard once taught. To carry on the composer’s legacy, Eberhard’s family has requested contributions to the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, which is refashioning its commissioning project as a tribute to the composer.

“Important things were coming to fruition for him after many years of hard work,” said Peter Laki, former program annotator of the Cleveland Orchestra. “He was very prolific. He was working to the last minute. We will do something to prevent his music from being forgotten.”