Composer / Pianist  Josef  Alexander

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


When setting up an interview, the details usually work themselves out quickly and easily.  Josef Alexander (1907-1992) was a bit more particular about deciding whether or not to do it, so I am presenting on this webpage two conversations
— the first from mid-February of 1987, and the second from six weeks later.  The preliminary one shows how the arrangements were made, and the second is the actual interview. 

alexander Prior to the first call, I had sent him a written request, and after we spoke he sent a typewritten response (shown at right) and also included a copy of an upcoming program which featured his latest piece being given its world premiere [shown later on this webpage].  After that, when we corresponded he sent me hand-written letters, perhaps indicative of a warm and personal feeling.

As always in my website presentations, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Here is part of the first exchange . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You mentioned that you don’t enjoy having things broadcast on your birthday?

Josef Alexander:    Not really, no!  I find that there’s too much chat connected with that in respect of the fact that nobody’s concerned about anything until somebody has a birthday.  Then suddenly they wake up!

BD:    Let me assure you that we just simply use birthdays as a convenient scheduling device.  It’s not a case where we wouldn’t schedule your music otherwise, and we certainly will schedule your music at other points.

JA:    I’m very honored and flattered to hear that!  You understand, or you can sympathize with the way I feel about these things.

BD:    Oh, sure.  There have been a number other composers whom I’ve talked to over the years that have said they really don’t care for birthday celebrations because that’s all they get.

JA:    [Laughs]  That sounds very familiar, and it’s particularly true of American composers.  The thing is that they make ceremonies of that and pull out all the stops, and they don’t mean anything, really, from my point of view.

BD:    Let me assure you that I do what I can for contemporary composers, and especially American composers.  I’m the only one at the station who does that.  I find the composers, and make arrangements to speak with them and do programs.  Once I get to the interview, then I drop other pieces of their music into our regular schedule.

JA:    That’s wonderful!  I trust you will find the material I’ll send interesting and exciting.

BD:    The one piece which I have heard was very short, but it held my attention.

JA:    Thank you very much.   That was the Incantation?

BD:    Right.

JA:    There are four Incantations which were premiered here about three years ago, and what happens with all those things is that a publisher takes the material on, and singles out one, and the others go by the board.  I had a marvelous cellist who did all four, so that’s relatively secure from the standpoint that it was done.  But it is very interesting to know that publishers sometimes select what they want in a volume. This was that you heard is in a 2 LP set of new music for piano that was put out by RCA.

Robert Helps in a 20th Century compendium "New Music for the Piano: 24 Contemporary Composers," Ingolf Dahl's Fanfares (1958), Arthur Berger's Two Episodes (1933), Kent Kennan's Two Preludes (1951), Samuel Adler's Capriccio (1954), Hall Overton's Polarities No. 1 (1958), Milton Babbit's Partitions (1957), Miriam Gideon's Piano Suite No. 3 (1951), Sol Berkowitz's Syncopations (1958), Ben Weber's Humoreske op. 49 (1958), Leo Kraft's Allegro Giocoso (1957), Paul A. Pisk's Nocturnal Interlude (undated), Mel Powell's Etude (1957), Morton Gould's Rag-Blues-Rag (undated), Vivian Fine's Sinfonia and Fugato (undated), Alan Hovhaness' Allegro on a Pakistan Little Tune op. 104 No. 6 (1952), George Perle's Six Preludes op. 20B (1946), Norman Cazden's Sonata op. 53 No.3 (1950), Joseph Prostakoff's Two Bagatelles (undated), Ernst Bacon's The Pig Town Fling (undated), Helps's Image (1957), Mark Brunswick's Six Bagatelles (1958), Earl Kim's Two Bagatelles (1950/1948), and Josef Alexander's Incantation (1964).

Underwritten by The Abbey Whiteside Foundation. Cover art is by Sid Maurer. Glossy full-size 10-page booklet with extensive notes on all composers and works featured herein, written by Joseph Prostakoff. 

The RCA LP was originally issued in 1966, and later re-issued on CRI in 1971. When it was re-mastered and issued on a CRI CD in 2001, the works by Berger, Kraft, and Fine were omitted.

BD:    Besides the problems and joys and perils of being an American composer, I would like to explore how much you get involved in the business of it, etc.

JA:    Well, you see, Mr. Duffie, I’m very much interested in it.  Perhaps a conversation can be arranged, but I don’t know about doing it on the telephone.  This is an intimacy that we have between us, but when it’s aired, sometimes it doesn’t come out that way.

alexander BD:    [At this point I explained just a bit more about the details of my programs, and how they are put together for broadcast.]  I like to chat with the composer for about an hour, and depending on the sound quality of the phone connection, I either use portions of the tape, or I transcribe comments from it and read them myself.  I then select (usually) three works, and besides introducing each piece, I put some of the interview material in between, for a program that runs about ninety minutes in all. 

JA:    [Obviously pleased]  Well, that’s very good.  We should be able to set this up now that I hear your voice and hear your attitude, but I don’t want it on any birthday-business!  I want it on in respect of merit of the music and not because anyone reaches a certain age at any time!

BD:    I understand.

JA:    Another thing, Mr. Duffie.  The reason I sent you the flyer on this program that I have coming up in Carnegie Hall is that it is significant in many respects, particularly for the American composer.  For too long, the American composer has suffered at the expense of the European composer.  We give them all our money, and when it comes to the performance of American music abroad, there’s very little of it, whereas there’s a great deal of foreign music that is performed here.  I pointed that out when I was a Fulbright composer to Finland many years ago.  I was asked to be a Fulbright composer by the State Department.  People asked me why I went to Finland, and I said the State Department informed me that Finland was the only place that wanted a composer.  [Both laugh]  In other words, I didn’t select the country.  The country selected me, and the fact was that’s why they wanted a composer.  My music was played there, and I conducted and I performed, but the thing is they’ve gone right back to playing only Finnish music, not only in their country but this country as well. 
I was very fortunate to have been the last American to have an interview with Sibelius, which is very, very interesting because not many people could get it.  One of his daughters helped to arrange it, and I was able to see him at his home.  It was a great honor, a great joy, and a great privilege.  As it happened, Mitropoulos had just played a work of mine with the New York Philharmonic, and on the same program was the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Heifetz.  When I spoke to Sibelius about the fact that Mitropoulos and Heifetz had done such a magnificent job, he said to me, That’s enough about my music!  Now tell me, how did they do your music?

BD:    He was much more interested in that!

JA:    Yes.  I pointed that out to the Sibelius Society, of which I was a member for many years.  They give me all the information about the Finnish music and Finnish people who are coming here to play, and nothing about American music.  I pointed out to them a long time ago that that’s not what Sibelius would have wanted.  There this is a peculiar kind of national chauvinism.

BD:    Right, but we need to get more American chauvinism on our own programs.

JA:    That’s it!  I also sent you a flyer [shown at right], not because of the fact that I have a piece on the program, but the significance of the performance in the respect of the fact that it will stand up or you fall with all the composers of the past and present, irrespective of nationality.

BD:    Right.  You’re on with Beethoven, and the Brahms Handel Variations, and Chopin Ballades.

JA:    My point is that American music arrives only when an artist chooses it and exposes himself to where he chooses an American work to be played with all these other works.

BD:    We need to encourage more performers to do that.  It’s so rare that we get someone like Koussevitzky that will take such trouble.

JA:    Yes, Koussevitzky took the trouble because he did know the other literature well!

BD:    In our own time it seems like there are very few who do that.  Michael Tilson Thomas has done a lot, and also Leonard Slatkin.  They seem to be championing American music.

JA:    Yes.  Golschman also did a lot of my work with the St. Louis Symphony and the Denver Symphony.


Vladimir Golschmann was born in Paris on December 16, 1893. He studied violin at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and was a notable advocate of the music of the composers known as Les Six. In Paris, he had his own concert series, the Concerts Golschmann, which began in 1919. He became the director of music activities at the Sorbonne, at the behest of the French government. Golschmann also conducted performances at the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.

In the United States, Golschmann was the music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1931 to 1958, their longest-serving music director. His initial contract was for 3 years, and the successive contracts were renewed yearly. For the last three years of his tenure, he was named conductor emeritus, during their search for a successor music director. He remained in the US, becoming a citizen in 1957. In his later years, Golschmann also worked with the orchestras of Tulsa and Denver. He died in New York City on March 1,1972.

These are all very interesting points, but the American composer can survive, and will survive, only when he is programmed with all the other composers.  The pianist, Ana Maria Trenchi di Bottazzi, is magnificent because she’s putting as much time into my work as she has in the Brahms Handel Variations.

BD:    That’s good.  I’m glad that she’s taking the trouble to do your music!

JA:    That’s right, and she hopes to do it in South America and Europe, and record them eventually.

BD:    That’s very encouraging.

JA:    It is encouraging, and very exciting.  Another thing that’s exciting to me is that kids all over the country call me up and tell me that they’re doing my music.

BD:    Oh, in schools?


JA:    In schools, yes.  Now, Mr. Duffie, I appreciate you calling.

BD:    Oh, it’s quite all right.

JA:    I’ll send you the material, and then we’ll take it from there.

BD:    When the recordings come, I will give you another buzz, and we can set up a date for the interview.

JA:    Wonderful, but I do it only on the strength that no birthdays get mentioned, but the music is mentioned for the sake of what it is.

BD:    I’m perfectly willing to program it that way.  I’ll just do a regular program on you with the interview material, but we won’t mention the birthday.

JA:    I appreciate that very much indeed.  Thank you for the privilege of talking with you.  I think we feel exactly the same about music!

BD:    I think so, too.

The material soon arrived in the mail, and about six weeks later (at the end of March, 1987) we spoke again, this time as a formal interview . . . . .

JA:    Hello?

BD:    Mr. Alexander?

alexander JA:    Yes!

BD:    This is Bruce Duffie in Chicago.

JA:    Oh, yes, Mr. Duffie, how are you?

BD:    Fine.  How are you?

JA:    Fine.  I see that you’re exactly on time!

BD:    [Laughs]  Radio people tend to watch the clock.

JA:    One has to, yes.

BD:    This is a good time for our chat?

JA:    Yes, it’s nice talking with you again.

BD:    I’ve enjoyed listening to your recordings very much.

JA:    Oh, good.  I’m glad you did.  I hope that they’ll be very successful on the air.

BD:    You’re both composer and pianist.  Are you a better composer because you’re also a pianist?

JA:    In a way I am because having played, I
m aware of the sensitivity of various instruments, and the sensitivity of the performer as against the composer.  When the composer has a special virtuosity upon an instrument or instruments, he applies himself quite differently than he does if he has had no experience with the intricacies and the beauty of the instrument(s).

BD:    When you’re performing other people’s music, do you perform that differently because you are yourself a composer also?

JA:    Exactly!  What is interesting is that when I perform or conduct my own music, I approach it as I would without being the composer.  In other words, I look at it purely objectively.

BD:    As through it were a fresh score?

JA:    Exactly.

BD:    Are you ever surprised by what you find?

JA:    One is at the time, but I must say that I’ve been very fortunate because I haven’t been terribly surprised by what I hear in my ear before hearing it is played by the orchestra, or the chamber ensemble, or the soloist.  In other words, fortunately I have a pretty good ear, and I can visualize and hear the sounds before they’re produced.  There’s an unusual sensitivity for which I am wonderfully grateful.

BD:    Are you perhaps surprised when you come back to a piece after twenty or thirty years?

JA:    To a great extent, that’s why I stopped performing as much as I did.  As a performer, when you came back to a work you may change, but you don’t change that much, whereas as a composer you always grow.  It is very interesting and very exciting because a pianist, or any performer, no matter what he brings new to a work, is always is limited by the fact that he repeated the same thing again and again, whereas the composer always looks for new ideas and new channels.

BD:    That’s an interesting perspective.

JA:    I may not be correct, but it’s my perspective.

BD:    You’ve performed quite a number of your own works.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your compositions?

JA:    That I can’t say because I’ve heard many people do my compositions.  I have been very fortunate in that respect because the performers who do my work are most grateful for the fact that I am around, and they are most grateful for the fact that I bring a new insight into the music, which they would take many years to learn.

BD:    So you enjoy working with the performers on their interpretation?

JA:    Oh, yes.  I’ve been very happy in that the performers enjoy working with me.  There are some insights that a composer can give to a performer which would take that performer many more months of practice and insight to do.

BD:    Do the performers ever find things in your scores that you didn’t know were there?

JA:    Not too much, but sometimes they do find wrong notes!  [Both laugh]  One hears the music in advance, and your ear is quicker than your eye, which is very interesting from the standpoint of musical creativity.  I can hear something before I put it down on paper, and in putting it down, sometimes I gloss over the sight of it because I hear it already.  So a sharp or flat might get left out, but I already hear it.  Then the performer does find it.  He indicates to me that it’s a wrong note.

BD:    So you make the correction?

JA:    I make the correction, that’s right, because I’m ahead of myself with creativity.

BD:    Are you generally a fast worker?

JA:    It all depends on the instrument for which I’m working, and the combination.  I must say I am a fast worker, and I’m very, very happy when I reach that point of creativity when the music more or less writes itself.  Sometimes a person asks me how long it took me to write this work.  I think back, and I don’t know.  I can’t tell, but more or less the music wrote by itself.  Now the thing is, it doesn’t write by itself until I get to that point at which it begins to take over.  That is a point which you must reach by arduous thinking and labor.

BD:    Does it ever become like Frankenstein
s monster and run amok?

JA:    No, no, fortunately it hasn’t become that, and I’m very, very happy for that.  I always say that creativity in our society is an insanity, and it’s an insanity because I don’t think our society really is geared to create.  I don’t think the society really cares or wants very much from the contemporary composer or contemporary artist. 


BD:    Why not?

JA:    Musically we’re living more in the past than we have in any time in history.  If you look at the program of the various orchestras throughout this country
and in Europe, alsoyou find that conductors are inclined to perform or play the same music over again.  So it’s another Schubert work, and now they’ve reached the stage where it’s another Mahler.

BD:    Is there any way to correct this?

JA:    There is a way to correct it, but it’s a rather arduous task.  Koussevitzky had a good idea when he first came to Boston.  It’s very good to program a contemporary work in each program, and say that upon first hearing some people may not like it.  However, those who are in the audience are invited to stay after the program to listen to the work a second time.  That’s why Koussevitzky was so successful in playing contemporary music and getting an audience for it.

BD:    Did many people stay for the second hearing?

JA:    Not everybody did but, but by the same token, those who really were more broad in mind stayed, and found they liked some things about it, and didn’t like some things about it, and maybe they saw why!  This is why I think it is something which we should do.  Furthermore, I don’t think any orchestra in this country should get any kind of government support, or any support from foundations, unless they contract to have a contemporary work at least once a week, or once every other week.

BD:    So on the thirty-week subscription, you should get at least fifteen news pieces?

JA:    Absolutely!  Now there’s a problem in the performance of a contemporary work, especially by an orchestra.  A chamber ensemble is dedicated a little bit more than the orchestra, and they will go over a piece again and again because they are giving of their time and energy.  Whereas with an orchestra, giving of the time and energy is a contractual experience.  A new work requires many hours of rehearsal, and only Mitropoulos or Monteux often paid for the extra rehearsals out of their own pocket, which not many people know.

BD:    No, I was unaware of that completely.  So how can we get other conductors to do more contemporary music on their programs?

JA:    I would say to tell them there’d be no money for their orchestras unless they do these contemporary works.  Let them choose the contemporary works, but you see what I’m driving at?  You can’t force upon a conductor what he must choose because sometimes he likes a work and sometimes he doesn’t.  But all right, Mr. So and So.  The orchestra needs money, and we’ll give you the grant if you fulfill these necessary obligations.  If you don’t, I’m going to give that money to some other orchestra.

BD:    Do you think that would work?

JA:    [Laughs]  It has to be tried.  [Huge mischievous laugh]  So let’s try it!  What I feel badly about is the fact that here we are nearly at the end of the twentieth century, and we’re still playing the works of the so-called ‘masters’, which is all right with me provided you schedule a work that’s contemporary.  Also, if I may say, it should be an American work, because in Europe the orchestras are supported by the government but they do their own music.  Then when they come here, they do their own music, and our orchestras should recognize the fact that they should really do the work of American composers.  Our audiences want the works of American composers. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now you mentioned about the orchestras only playing the music of the ‘old masters’.  Are there some contemporary composers who write on that level today?

JA:    You mean writing in the old style?

BD:    No, whose level of inspiration is the same as Beethoven or Mahler?

JA:    The level of inspiration may be, but the music that comes out may not be.  In Mahler’s day and in Beethoven’s day, there were a lot of people who didn’t like their music, but they continued to write it irrespective of the critics or the audience.

BD:    Then they’re in good company because the public today is not liking the new music, either.

JA:    That’s the point.  The point is give it a chance!  You don’t have to like something in order to appreciate it.  For instance, I don’t mention many specific contemporary composers.  I’m not critical of any of them, but there’s a lot of music I like less than others.  By the same token, I respect that composer for what he has to offer, for what he has to say.  Liking goes beyond merely just a passing glance.  Once you hear something and become involved in it, it grows on you.

BD:    In serious music, where should the balance be between art and enjoyment?

JA:    Music is to be enjoyed, frankly, and any composer who feels that he’s writing in a vacuum, or writing on Cloud Nine, and writes only because he wants to write that way, is making a mistake.  However, he can’t alter his composition because of an audience or a critic liking it or not liking it.  In other words, one can’t climb on the bandwagon of contemporary taste.  Some composers climb on that ‘minimalism’ bandwagon, which is the great thing today, just as so-called ‘atonality’ was thirty years ago.  I don’t believe anyone should climb on that bandwagon because temporarily it may be successful at that time.  Everybody should write according to his own convictions.  I hope that people like my music.  I would be lying to myself if I would walk off in a cloud and say I don’t care whether they like it or not.  Seriously, you hope that your music will be enjoyed and liked.

[From a website called "Past Daily" which includes the audio of this excerpt]

Joseph Alexander – Williamsburg Suite (2 movements) 1943 – NBC Radio orchestra, Henri Nosco, cond. Oct. 19, 1944 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –

The music of Josef Alexander this weekend. An American composer, who was also an educator and spent much of his teaching career in the Music Department at Brooklyn College. He was a prolific composer, yet very little of his large output has been heard much, if at all these days.

This piece, the Williamsburg Suite, comes from 1943 and this radio performance of two movements from that suite; Bruton Parish Church and Raleigh Tavern are the world premier performances, via this weekly radio show Music of The New World from NBC from October 19, 1944.

As was the case with much of the music from this period, between the Depression and World War 2, it had an inherent focus on Americana. In this case, it’s a musical depiction of Williamsburg Virginia, one of the early settlements during Colonial days prior to the American Revolution.

And like so many of the WPA paintings and murals, The Williamsburg Suite was the musical equivalent to one of those murals; spacious and mythic – a portrayal of struggles and triumphs against a landscape of colorful and evocative tone pictures. The music of Josef Alexander has been characterized as steering a middle course between conventional tonality and dissonant modernism.

Because we were in the middle of World War 2, music and programs of this sort were considered morale boosts; instilling a sense of patriotism of our country at war – and pieces like The Williamsburg Suite filled the bill.

Sadly, because this was the world premier of this work, only two pieces were performed. If the remaining movements were performed on another episode, it’s hard to tell. I don’t think this piece was recorded commercially and, as I said before, much of Josef Alexander’s work has been forgotten and is seldom played.

At just a little over 6 minutes, you get a taste of what Josef Alexander’s music was about – not earth-shattering, nor was it saccharine sweet, but a sample of what American Classical music was doing during the War. The NBC Radio Orchestra was conducted by Henri Nosco, who frequently conducted music for this series, as well as many other programs for NBC at the time.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, for whom do you write?  Whom do you have in mind?

JA:    That’s a good question.  It’s awfully hard for me to say.  To tell you the truth, I’m really writing because I have to write.  It’s a driven force from within.  I have to write because I have to write.  Then somewhere in my mind I think perhaps there’s a good performer around who may like this work.  I don’t disassociate myself from the performer.  Sometimes you’re fortunate, and you get a commission where the performance is guaranteed.  That that’s very good, too.  For instance, last year I was commissioned by Stanley Drucker, who is the first clarinetist in the New York Philharmonic.  So I had to write a work for him and his wife, that is two clarinets and piano.

BD:    Interesting combination!

JA:    It’s a very interesting combination, and a challenge, too, because there are not too many works of that nature.  His wife is a marvelous clarinetist, so there already you two clarinetists, and they have a very excellent pianist out there on Long Island.  At the time, I was considered a Long Island composer, because for many summers that’s where I do a great deal of my creation.  So I was invited to be on that program of Long Island composers.  The pianist happened to be a student of mine up at the college many years ago.  So it was a wonderful combination, and most inspiring.  That’s very good when you’re writing for a group that asks you to write for them.  Otherwise you go out begging after you do the work.

BD:    Was this work for two B-Flat clarinets, or did you include a different member of the family?

JA:    Two B-Flat clarinets.  I love the A clarinet.  It has a soft, feminine quality, but I think the B-Flat has a much more earthy quality.

BD:    I just wondered if maybe a middle movement utilized the alto or bass clarinet.

JA:    No.  The alto clarinet is a different instrument.  They all have extensions, so it doesn’t matter very much.  It’s a case in point but, I just had a new work performed which I hope to have recorded.  It
’s a work for soprano saxophone, cello, piano and two percussion players.  I had in mind the B-Flat soprano sax.  I also wrote it for publications so that a clarinetist can play it, too.  There are very high notes which are very difficult to get on the soprano sax, but I had in mind the brass-like quality that one finds on the sax.  I had a very good saxophonist who was able to get all those high notes beautifully, with wonderful clarity, which was great because I heard them that way.  But the thing is that we’re inspired by the instrument for which we write.

BD:    Talking about recordings, you say there’s a hope that this new piece will get recorded?

JA:    That’s right.

BD:    Is it significant when contemporary pieces do get recorded?

JA:    Oh, that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s very difficult because the record firms now find it difficult to sell contemporary music, just as the publishers find it difficult to sell the scores, and that problem is something which is difficult to solve.  There are young people who are interested.  Schools of music and conservatories are interested in contemporary music, and it’s always gratifying to me when I get an unexpected call from somebody out in Minnesota, or somebody near the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to say that they have my music and they intend to perform it.  It’s very interesting that somehow or other they get it at sales, and they’re excited by it.  What happens is that the music publishing companies have been absorbed by other companies to a point where some music publishing firms, for instance, are run by Coca Cola.  Why should Coca Cola be interested selling music?

BD:    Only for the bottom line.

JA:    That’s the point.  The point is money, and there’s no money in classical music.  There never was.

BD:    Should there be?

JA:    To tell you the truth, it’s a question of give and take.  For instance, take the music of Brahms.  There was another man whose music sold more than Brahms, so the music company invested in this other composer because they made money on him, and with the little bit of money they had left over they published Brahms.  That’s what happens with the publishing firms.  These days they publish the jazz stuff, and then if they have anything left over they publish the classical music.  They never expect to make any money on the classical.  At least they feel a sense of dedication.  We have to go back to old days of the trade business.  Just as the great stores began by having people selling all their needles and threads and fabric from a horse and cart, now a salesman has to go out and stop at the various libraries and sell them all this music because the students out there want it.

BD:    But should each individual composer then have to get out with his horse and carriage and do it, or should there be a small consortium of composers?

JA:    The publisher has to do that because the composer has no time for that.  However, there are many, many modern composers who have established their own publishing firms.  They get a little bit of money here and there from some publishing societies.  Now the great problem is that they see their music in relatively good print but then the problem is how are they going to get it out?  It still has to be sold.  You have the gratification of seeing your music published, but it’s like a vanity press, which is sad.  I think the problem can be solved, however, it’s going to take a long time to do it.

BD:    Which is more important for you
— to have your music published, or have your music recorded?

JA:    It is more important for me is have it performed, and then recorded.  [Both laugh]  The most important thing for me is to have it performed.  If it’s recorded, so much the better.  It’s a tremendous problem now.  There are not so many firms interested in recording new music, and the amount of money spent in recording is really astronomical. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I see you done some teaching of music.

JA:    Yes, my whole life has been involved with the teaching.  That’s how I make a living.  There’s hardly a composer today in this country
and probably abroadwho doesn’t have to teach.

BD:    Do you teach just composition, or also theory?

JA:    Composition.  It is serious composition, so theory is part of composition.  I also teach piano.

BD:    Is composition something that really can be taught, or must it be innate with each young composer?

JA:    There are different schools of thought in that respect.  My feeling is that essentially even performing can’t be taught, but it can be directed.  The teacher is only the one who can direct you positively or negatively.  That’s why Bartók never taught composition because he felt that you can’t teach someone how to compose.  But I think Bartók was mistaken in this respect.  You may not be able to teach someone how to compose, but you may be there to inspire them, or lead them, or show them the way.  For instance, if a young composer gets trapped in a certain passage, you sit down and write that passage out, and by means of that you open up a new concept for the student.  It’s the same way for performance.  So although composition can’t be taught, you can inspire one who has the talent to go on and do the work very successfully.

BD:    Are you encouraged by the music that you see?

JA:    Oh, yes.  I’m encouraged, and I try to encourage the young composers.  But by the same token, I’m very realistic about it, and point out that he shouldn’t expect to make a living on this.  He must prepare himself to use some other means of survival, such as being an editor.  I know of some composers who drive taxis, which is sad.

BD:    Are there, perhaps, too many young composers coming along today?

JA:    Now that’s another problem.  I would say there are too many because with the world of synthesizers, it’s easy to be a composer.  You don’t need to know very much. You just sit down at this machine and you compose.  The machine composes for you, which is wonderful!

BD:    Is the machine creating, or is the machine just responding to the creator’s efforts?

JA:    It’s responding to the creator’s efforts, but it can camouflage those efforts, and make it sound much better than it really is!  [Both laugh]  It’s Catch 21, as it were.  You have the machine, and the machine can get some magnificent sounds.  All you do is put your hand on a couple of chords, press a button, and the whole thing come back.  If you want violin-like sounds, you press another button.  If you want trumpet-like sounds, you press another button!

BD:    So it’s a shortcut?

JA:    Oh, sure!  It’s a shortcut because immediately it gives you what you may not really hear.  To really hear music requires a long-time acquaintance with it, and when I say
hear it, I mean not necessarily performed. 

BD:    You hear it in your head?

JA:    In your head, that’s right.  You hear the instrumentation.  An example might be my Gitanjali [by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Song Offerings1973] for soprano, harpsichord, and about thirty-odd percussion instruments.  When I wrote that, no combination of that nature had been tried with the voice, but I heard all the instruments.  In fact, I’m very happy to report the fact that not one note was changed.  Everything came out as I hoped it would, as I heard it.  I recall having shown the score to a colleague, and he asked, “How’s this voice going to sound?  Then I heard how it did sound, which is very interesting and very exciting.  But that’s what make a composer’s life exciting.

tagore Rabindranath Tagore, also written Ravīndranātha Thākura (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941), was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its "profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse", he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Sometimes referred to as "the Bard of Bengal", Tagore's poetic songs were viewed as spiritual and mercurial; however, his "elegant prose and magical poetry" remain largely unknown outside Bengal.

A Pirali Brahmin from Calcutta with ancestral gentry roots in Jessore, Tagore wrote poetry as an eight-year-old. At the age of sixteen, he released his first substantial poems under the pseudonym Bhānusiṃha ("Sun Lion"), which were seized upon by literary authorities as long-lost classics. By 1877 he graduated to his first short stories and dramas, published under his real name. As a humanist, universalist internationalist, and ardent anti-nationalist, he denounced the British Raj and advocated independence from Britain. As an exponent of the Bengal Renaissance, he advanced a vast canon that comprised paintings, sketches and doodles, hundreds of texts, and some two thousand songs; his legacy endures also in the institution he founded, Visva-Bharati University.

Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to topics political and personal. Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced) and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) are his best-known works, and his verse, short stories, and novels were acclaimed—or panned—for their lyricism, colloquialism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. His compositions were chosen by two nations as national anthems: India's Jana Gana Mana and Bangladesh's Amar Shonar Bangla. The Sri Lankan national anthem was inspired by his work

BD:    Is composing fun?

JA:    Yes.  For me it is!  It’s not laborious, not at all.  It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not without hard work.

BD:    When you’re presented with a number of commissions, how do you decide which ones you’ll accept and which ones you’ll decline?

JA:    I wish that were the case.  I wish I had that many.  I wish I had a choice, which I don’t have.  However, I have declined some, and said,
“No, that’s not for me.

BD:    So how do you decide that you will not accept it?

JA:    First of all, if there’s no promise of a performance.  I’ve got to have a performance, because in a promise of a performance, then it’s absolute, and then the musicians are dedicated.  You can’t pay them for their dedication, whereas if they pay you, say, $500, and don’t perform it, then you feel as if you’ve been betrayed.  The performance is more important than the money.  Now perhaps I’m crazy...

BD:    [Interjecting]  No, not a bit!

JA:    ...but for me, the performance is far more significant.

BD:    That’s the real meaning of music.

JA:    Of course, that’s why we write
to have it performed.  Then we hope that it’s going to be liked.  I’m not discouraged when it isn’t liked.  Sometimes people like it, and sometimes they damn it with faint praise.  They say, “That’s interesting!’  [Both laugh]  But that’s the world I’ve come to accept.  I know what’s going on in their heads when they say, That music is interesting!

BD:    They don’t know what to make of it!

JA:    That’s right!  It’s a very convenient word.

BD:    I’ve tried to drive it out of my own vocabulary!

JA:    [Laughs]  So have I!  It has no significance for me anyway.  All the aspects of creativity are very exciting to me, so when you ask if it is fun to write, yes, it is fun, but it’s fun when it’s running by itself.  That’s the greatest fun.  That is the point when you achieve all that is really significant as far as creativity is concerned.  You’re controlling it, but by the same token you don’t have to think about the writing.  You just control the idea.

BD:    How do you know when the composition is done?

JA:    When I reach the end!  [Both laugh]  I think you probably mean how do you know it’s the utmost of what you can say?

BD:    Yes, and how do you know when to quit tinkering with it?

JA:    There’s usually a time limit.  The time limit is one that you impose upon on yourself, or there’s a time limit in the end of the material you have, and it becomes instinct. 

BD:    Do you ever go back and re-tinker with the works?

JA:    I’ve done that very rarely.  Fortunately I’ve been lucky in that respect.  I haven’t had to go back and tinker with things.  I tinker with each work while it’s being created.  There’s more that’s rejected than is put down.  It isn’t a question of erasing, as much as it is not putting it down to begin with.  So there is that kind of tinkering, but at the same time, you know pretty well when you’ve reached that point of conclusion, which is very, very interesting.  I’ve never thought of it.  Now you’re asking questions which I never thought of before.

BD:    So then there are old versions and new versions of any works?

JA:    Not as far as I’m concerned.  I was talking to a young guitarist the other day, Eliot Fisk.  We had a very, very lovely talk, and he’s done a lot of transcriptions.  He wrote an article for Chamber Music magazine on transcriptions, which was very interesting because he pointed out that Beethoven wrote some transcriptions for a string combination, and things of that sort.  I pointed out that perhaps Beethoven did that because he was called on to do it.  But the point is there are many modern composers who make transcriptions.  They write something, and then they make a transcription of it for a chamber group, or they take a chamber piece and make a transcription for orchestra, which is perfectly all right as far as they’re concerned.  I can’t see that because when I write for orchestra, I conceive of it for orchestra, and when I write a work for a chamber combination, I conceive of it for that specific combination.  I can’t take a string quartet and change that into a wind quartet because I hear it quite differently, whereas some composers can do that.  To me it’s the sound of the instruments that is inspiring, not only the notes themselves or the manipulation of notes.  It’s the sound quality of the instrument that is inspiring, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In the recordings that you sent, there are several works for percussion.  What’s the big interest in percussion for you?

JA:    [Laughs]  That’s a very interesting story.  Not all my works have percussion in them, but to my way of thinking, percussion is the last family to be accepted into today’s musical thinking.  At one time, people used to say that a violin and piano is a terrible combination!  They used to prefer the harpsichord or clavichord.  That’s different, the harpsichord and violin, but the piano was too forceful an instrument as against the violin or the cello.  Over a period of years, we find that this is not true because the pianist adjusts to the qualities of the violin, or the string player adjusts his playing to suit the piano.  What has happened over a period of years is that little by little the wind instruments have been accepted, and then finally the brass instruments have been accepted.  I’ve written a great deal for brass.  I have a sonata for horn and piano that has been done widely, but the thing is that at one time to think of a sonata for French horn and piano would have been considered illogical.  But by the same token, they sound well together.  Over a period of years, brass instruments have been accepted so we have brass ensembles now, and people go and hear brass ensembles because there’s a beauty in the brass sound.  So there again, a trumpet player can play with a hard sound or he can play with a very flexible wonderfully velvety sound.  Rather than a trumpet sound, I sometimes choose a cornet.  I have a work for cornet, marimba and guitar, and that’s an unusual combination.  People ask me why I didn’t write it for the trumpet, and I tell them it’s a different instrument with a different quality.  The point is that the brass, over a period of time, has been accepted.  So now we come to the percussion!  From my point of view, any percussionist who can play any kind of instrument
not necessarily the keyboard percussion instruments which require a kind of touch, but the timpani or the cymbalsapproaches the instrument with flexibility of his wrists and fingers.  He plays the instrument with a certain kind of quality which he finds very acceptable, and which he enjoys as a virtuoso on the instrument.  Now everyone treats the percussion section as a virtuoso section, also.  A timpani will sound different from one to another timpanist.  Even if he uses the same kind of stick, it will sound different because he gives to it a certain approach.  It’s like playing the piano.  If you play the piano, when I speak of caressing the keys, years ago people used to think I was crazy.  But you really caress the keys of a piano, as the string player caresses the string with his finger.  He also caresses the instrument through the bow.  There is also such a thing as caressing a wind instrument with the way which you use your tongue.  The same holds true with the brass.  Now we come to the percussion.  You caress it with the stick and the way in which you approach the instrument itself.  It’s very interesting!  You can also use the cello bow now on the cymbals, and you get a different sound from when you strike it.  This is the age we’re living in now, which is marvelous.  So I say that there’s wonderful opportunity for percussion instruments.  They are of our time.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music
not just the percussion, but all of them?

JA:    Yes, yes, I’m very, very happy with them.  All the artists involved worked very hard, and did a very good job.

BD:    You mentioned in your first letter that you are the conductor of Songs for Eve.  Why are you not listed as such on the label or the record jacket?


JA:    I was listed well enough on the record, so it would be pushing it too far, and I said it was perfectly all right.  I don’t mind, but I have conducted my work very successfully. 

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But it’s significant to know that you are the conductor of this recording.

JA:    I am a conductor, yes, but it is more significant to know that there are fifteen songs published, but only thirteen were recorded.  That’s because the soprano, Evelyn Mandac, came to the wrong studio.  She had to take a taxi, and it took her twenty minutes to get down to the other studio.  So we had to cut two movements out of it.

BD:    So it’s only because of a lack of studio time?

JA:    That’s right!  She came too late to have time for the rehearsal!  People don’t realize all these things.

BD:    For a recording, which is supposed to be a permanent document, wouldn’t it have been better to wait to issue the record until you could have got a little more studio time for the two extras songs?

JA:    Not really because studio time is paid for by the hour, by the second, and also the instrumentalists can only play a certain amount of time.  They’re all contracted for three hours, so when she came twenty minutes late, she put a dent in the whole recording.  You can’t just ask them to hang on for another twenty minutes
which I would have liked very much!  Somebody else wants to use the studio, and then you have to pay more for the use of the studio.  It becomes too complex financially and too complex emotionally.  When you walk into a studio and you record, all the musicians are really at the height of tension.

BD:    Is it a good tension or a bad tension?

JA:    It’s a wonderful tension, but it’s tension, and at the end of the time, they’ve had it, and so have you!  So if you extend it, you’re going to create quite a different atmosphere.  Sometimes it’s done and sometimes it has to be done.  If you have unlimited sums of money, you could have everyone come back for another hour the next day, but then the mood has changed.

BD:    So to insert those two songs from another session would do injustice to the thirteen that are there?

JA:    That’s right.  Musicians are able to take more time to prepare, and as far as movies are concerned, so much goes onto the cutting room floor, as they say.  It’s the same way with recording.  You have time for Take 1, Take 2, Take 3, and then you go on.  Digital recording now is quite different because it’s more difficult to insert various sections, but you hear the various takes, and you reject them one after the other.  But you can’t take them indefinitely until you finally have a good one.  What happens is when you edit the whole thing, sometimes there are just five seconds of a certain section that aren’t quite good on the fifth take, so you have to go back to the first take with those five seconds which are perfect.

BD:    Is there any chance that the record then becomes too perfect by selecting all these perfect pieces?

JA:    That’s a great problem, and that’s why often records sound much better than concert performance, because they’ve been edited well, and they’ve been processed well.

BD:    Too well?

JA:    It all depends on how you look at our time, how you look at things now.  Classical music is nothing compared to what they do in pop music.  There they have structures and layers.  When they’re building a rhythm, they put in a lot of synthetic rhythms that go in there.  That’s what happens if it’s layered, but this is part of our time.  So we get right back to whether something is better or worse.  I prefer the concert hall rather than any recording.

BD:    But you’re pleased that some of your piece have been recorded?

JA:    I’m pleased.  In fact, I’d like to see everything of mine recorded, because that’s how it gets around.  It’s part of our time, part of our system, and with better electronic recording devises, you add to it to a point where digital sound is marvelous.


See my interview with Max Lifchitz

BD:    It seems like you want the recordings to open the door to live performances, rather than the recordings being an end-all in themselves.

JA:    That’s right.  Some people don’t have the time, so when you send a work to a conductor, most often if you have a recording, he wants the recording.  Why?  Because he may have good visual-hearing capacity, but it’s better for him to get the immediate impression.  That way he doesn
t have to take all the time to study the score and read the score effectively.  So if you have a tape of it, or a record of it, is very much in your favor.  I don’t have recordings, but I have tapes of some of my symphonies, and when I send a score out, the conductor usually asks for the tape, which is not perfect.

BD:    But it is a performance?

JA:    That’s right, it’s a performance.  It’s a quickie, as it were, and he gets a chance to listen to it.

BD:    Even if the performance has been rehearsed and honed, you still think of it as a quickie?

JA:    [In a mock-hushed tone]  I’m going to tell you something, Mr. Duffie.  It’s been rehearsed, but never adequately!  [Both laugh]  Not every first performance of a work is adequately rehearsed, even when there’s a chamber group.  When you get a chamber group, at the first performance they do it well.  After they’ve put in an enormous amount of time, they’d be very happy and they’d be gratified.  However, if they do it a second and third time, it’s better.

BD:    It’s harder to get a second performance than a first?

JA:    Yes, it is, especially in our society.

BD:    Maybe you should set up an orchestra to do only second performances.

JA:    Well, that’s a good idea!  [Laughs]  We
ll let people like you work on that.  That’s a brilliant idea!  The second performance is far more important than the first performance, yet you’d be amazed how many conductors only want the first performance.  If they can’t get a first performance, they won’t do a work.

BD:    Why?

JA:     Because there’s a certain kind of artistic gratification.  It’s also a personal gratification.

BD:    Prestige?

JA:    Yes, prestige to be able to say they performed it historically for the first time.

BD:    But then they don’t care if it comes back again?

JA:    It’s out of their hands.  It’s a very exciting field, and it’s sometimes disturbing, but you learn to live with it and accept the possibilities.

BD:    Is it wrong for the public or conductors to look for masterpieces in every piece they see for the first time?

JA:    I think so.  The important thing is not look for a masterpiece, but to have them be convinced that it’s worth doing.  That’s the important thing.  If it’s worth doing, that’s wonderful.  Nobody knows what’s going to be a masterpiece.  It takes a lot of time to judge whether the thing’s a masterpiece, and what may be a masterpiece today is no longer a masterpiece tomorrow.  For instance, Hindemith was, in his day, a great composer and a wonderful guy too.  One felt that here was a perfection itself, yet now people no longer look upon this as perfection.  It’s perfection as far as creativity is concerned, yes, but not as far as inspiration is concerned, which is quite different.  What is a masterpiece?  We don’t know.  Certainly in Mozart’s day, they weren’t thinking of masterpieces.  They were just trying to get a performance to eke a living out.


BD:    What advice do you have for the young composer who’s struggling today?

JA:    I say go ahead and compose.  Go ahead and try it, but be sure you’re not writing because you’re going to make money out of it.  It’s no money at all.  I try to discourage people who I feel don’t have enough talent
— not by saying they don’t have enough talent, but by telling them to go ahead and do the best they can, and then send it around and get some reactions from various publishers, or from various music performing societies.  Let them find out for themselves.  I do not tell them they have great talent, and I do not tell them they have no talent if they have a certain measure of talent.  I wouldn’t discourage them and tell them they can’t make it.  They should try it as best they can.  That’s the only way.  There are many schools that encourage people to get diplomas irrespective of their talent, and that’s one thing I don’t encourage.  I encourage people who have talent to go ahead and try, and make it worthwhile.  Otherwise, I suggest that if they have some other interest to pursue it.  You’re not discouraging; you just find out what is in the grasp of the person.  What we lose sight of today is our sense of perfection.  Most people, when they have their son or daughter study music, have an inner hope that they’re going to be a great artist.  That was in the past.  Right now they should feel more that they’re going to have a son or daughter making music.  Not as a profession, but chamber music is one of the best means of having fun in any society, and that should be most encouraged.  You don’t have to be a great fiddler or you don’t have to be a great cellist.  You can bang on any instrument.  What difference does it make as long as you have fun playing together!  Play as well as you possibly can, but don’t worry about hitting all the right notes.  That’s not important.  As long as you keep in time, then you have fun!  That’s what music is all about, and that’s what it should be about.  It should be about having fun.  That happened in Mozart’s time and in other periods, but now we’ve become too specialized and too concerned with being perfect.

BD:    It sounds like you’ve had a great deal of fun making music in your life time.

JA:    Oh, yes, yes, yes.  I have in performance, but that’s where you have all the fun.  What I call ‘horsing around’ with it.  This is the beauty of all music
not really being the great artist because it’s a great challenge.  That’s very difficult.  When you have to fulfill expectations, and you have to play fairly constantly in the year, there’s some joy in it.  But by the same token, often there is certain kind of pressure.  When you play chamber music, you ‘horse around’ and have a lot of fun.  That’s when you really have a great deal of excitement, and I would recommend that students today play and have fun and make music together, not necessarily being Juilliard candidates.

BD:    This has been a fascinating hour talking with you.  Thank you so very much.

JA:    Is it an hour already?  It’s been wonderful talking with you.  I very much appreciate your interest.  I feel as if we’ve become very friendly!

BD:    I feel so, too!

JA:    My feeling is that I actually know you, which is wonderful.  Thanks very much.  Wonderful talking with you!

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded on the telephone on February 14 and March 28, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and again in 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.