Composer / Pianist  Douglas  Allanbrook

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Douglas Allanbrook (April 1, 1921 - January 29, 2003) was an internationally known musician and composer who had taught at St. John's College for 50 years.

During a prolific career, Allanbrook maintained an energetic series of annual solo piano and harpsichord performances. His compositions included seven symphonies, several large choral works including a Mass, four string quartets, chamber works, and two operas, Nightmare Abbey and Ethan Frome. Leading American and European orchestras and chamber groups that have performed his works include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Annapolis Brass Quintet, National Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart Philharmonic and Munich Radio Orchestra.

Born and raised in Melrose, Mass., Allanbrook began studying piano at age 8, and within two years was playing Bach, Haydn and Czerny. He composed his first symphony, On the Death of a Beautiful White Cat, as a teen-ager. After graduating from high school, Allanbrook taught music at a private girls school in Providence, R.I. He also began studying in Cambridge, Mass., with Nadia Boulanger.

Drafted into the Army in 1942, he served as an infantryman with the 88th Division in the Italian campaign. His 1998 book, See Naples: A Memoir of Love, Peace and War in Italy, published by Houghton Mifflin, recounted his wartime experiences in which his division suffered a 75 percent casualty rate.

Discharged with the rank of sergeant and decorated with a Bronze Star, he enrolled at Harvard College, where he continued to compose and studied with Walter Piston. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1948. As a Traveling Fellow of Harvard University from 1948 to 1950, he resumed his composition studies with Ms. Boulanger in Paris. He was a Fulbright Fellow from 1950 to 1952, and studied the harpsichord in Italy at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majello.

In 1952, he joined the faculty of St. John's in Annapolis. In addition to composing and performing as a harpsichordist, he taught music, Greek, French, mathematics and philosophy. At the time of his death, he was semiretired. "He was a man of the world who was very cosmopolitan," said Harvey M. Flaumenhaft, St. John's Dean and friend of 35 years. "He also played a great role in the social and cultural life of the college. He counted among his friends those who were prominent in writing, literature, and music in this country and abroad."

In addition to his work at St. John's, he taught theory and counterpoint part time at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. A 1995 article in the Harvard University Gazette described him as a "fluent composer with a sharp ear for color and a bold style that manages to be both dramatic and subtly nuanced. His music is vivid, imaginative and intensely expressive."

"Doug was an absolutely extraordinary teacher," said a former student, harpsichordist Richard Rephann of Mount Carmel, Conn., a member of the faculty of the Yale School of Music and director of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments. "I'm a different person for having studied with him."

Allanbrook, who was scheduled to give a harpsichord concert at Yale in April, continued to maintain a vigorous concert schedule. "When he played, he played with an intelligence that did not preclude passion. For Douglas, music was akin to breathing," said Elliott Zuckerman, a longtime friend who has been teaching at St. John's since 1961.

He was 6 feet tall and wore sport coats, ties and a broad-brimmed brown hat. In his book-crammed study with its black, upright Yamaha piano, on which sprawled his white cat, he read and composed. Allanbrook was a member of the board of directors of Yaddo, the distinguished artists' community in Saratoga, N.Y.

His marriages to Candida Curcio and Wye Jamison ended in divorce. Allanbrook is survived by sons Timothy Allanbrook of New York and John Vincent Allanbrook of Oakland, Calif.; a sister, Jean Burns of Exeter, N.H.; and two granddaughters.


DRAMATIC: Opera: Ethan Frome, after Edith Wharton (1950–52); Nightmare Abbey, after Thomas Love Peacock (1960–62). ORCH.: Trionfo d’Amore, overture (1949–50); Harpsichord Concerto (1950); Concert Music for Cello and Strings (1951–53); Triumph of Reason, overture (1955); Violin Concerto (1958); 7 syms. (1960, 1962, 1967, 1970, 1976, 1977, 1980); Serenade for Piano and Orch. (1982). CHAMBER: Partita for Cello (1955); 4 string quartets (1955; 1956–57; 1958; 1972); Fantasy for Violin and Piano (1956); Set of Passions for Violin and Harpsichord (1959); Game for Two for Piano and Percussion (1973); Night and Morning Music for Brass Quintet (1977); Invitation to the Sideshow for Brass Quintet (1980); Marches for the Quick and the Dead for Brass Quintet (1982); Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Cello (1984); Commencement Exercises for Brass Quintet (1985); 25 Building Blocks for Horn and Piano (1985); Seven for Seven for Brass Quintet, Piano, and Percussion (1987); String Quintet (1989). KEYBOARD: Piano: 2 sonatas (1947, 1949); Songs Without Words (1951); Bagatelles (1964); Forty Changes (1965); Preludes for All Seasons (1970); Venice Music (1974); Naples Music (1975); Transcendental Studies (1978); Night Pieces (1983–85); New American Preludes (1990). Harpsichord: Little Sonatas (1949); Fantasy for 2 Harpsichords (1963); Studies in Black and White (1971). Organ: Ricercare (1963). VOCAL: Te Deum for Chorus, Flute, Brass, Harp, 2 Pianos, and Percussion (1942); Mass for Chorus (1946); Ash Wednesday for Soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (1947); Psalms 130 and 131 for Chorus and Organ (1955); Seven Last Words for Mezzo-soprano, Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (1970); American Miscellany for Chorus (1973); English Mass for Chorus and Organ (1975); Tennyson Settings for Chorus and Brass Quintet (1984); Moon Songs for Children’s Chorus and Orch. (1986); several songs.



In April of 1987, Allanbrook was in west-suburban Chicago for the premiere of his work Moon Songs (texts of Wordsworth, Shelley, Ben Johnson) for Children's Choir and Orchestra.  The performers were the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus, directed by Lucy Ding, and the New Philharmonic (resident at the College of DuPage, about twenty-five miles west of downtown Chicago), conducted by Harold Bauer [seen in the photo above].

I arranged to drive out there for an interview, and here is what we talked about at that time . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Let me start out with a real easy question.  Where’s music going today?

Douglas Allanbrook:   It’s going in all sorts of directions.  It’s a funny question to ask nowadays, because more and more, everybody listens to all kinds of music.  Now, it’s moving a little bit away from the official university circuit in the way pieces are written by people getting doctors’ degrees... or at least they’re shrewd enough that they’re getting a doctors’ degrees for a kind of music that isn’t written for getting doctors’ degrees.  [Both laugh]  It certainly has been a certain movement towards what is called a new romanticism.  When I was young, I was brought up on Stravinsky, and what was called ‘neoclassicism’.  There is often an attempt to make music that will work for
gentlemen who like to play instruments, and people who like to listen to music.  On the other hand, there’s also other things, such an event last summer in Saratoga, when I went to hear the New York Ballet doing a Glass piece.  It was very interesting to see the summer audience for that because there’d be a lot of kids who’d suddenly cheer like mad because it’s very similar to Rock.  There’s a whole motion nowadays of minimalism, something between Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and it makes for easy listening.  I find it to be vacuous music, and after that performance a friend said, There was less there than meets the ear.  [Laughs]

BD:   Should music be easy to listen to?

Allanbrook:   One must not be a philistine in this, but it would seem to me that if people of taste and refinement don’t enjoy a piece after paying attention to it for three or four times, then probably the piece is no good.  After all, you have to be very careful because music is not a cause, like race-relations, or feeding the poor.  It’s made in the highest sense to entertain.  It’s got to work.  One can be funny about it, but after all, new pieces can clean out your ears.  Somebody who has an original sound is hearing for you, and that takes familiarity.  That’s why I said it is the criteria that people who pay attention, and people of refinement, will like.  If they don’t find it, then there’s probably something wrong.  That’s what I mean when I say it has to work.  The simplest expression of that was one of Mozart’s letters to his father.  He wrote about a new work that, ‘Everybody will like it, and the connoisseurs more’.  His tunes from Figaro were playing in the hurdy-gurdys in the street.  At the same time, there’s so much detail in the orchestration.  It isn’t about the aristocracy and perfection.

BD:   So music must exist on many levels?

Allanbrook:   That’s right.

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

Allanbrook:   I very much have the particular combination in mind when I write.  This piece that’s being here in Chicago was a very special challenge, because immediately, when you think of a children’s chorus and orchestra, you hear the sound which suggests a whole set of limits, which dictates your thinking.  You must remember what kinds of sounds this has got to match.  It’s not only a matter of not covering them, but also the nature of the sound.  You can have something to contrast enormously with them, and that is right away a limit.  It is just as if you have a string quartet.  Lots of us love to write string quartets.  It’s just something about the idea of four gentlemen used to playing with love and attention with each other.  The idea of four singing instruments like that dictates the kind of ideas you have.  These are real players that cherish their instruments.  I’m not like certain composers nowadays, because I very much like writing for real instruments.  I’ve never written for electronics.

BD:   You mentioned
‘gentlemen’.  Must a female group shy away from one of your quartets?

Allanbrook:   Oh, of course not, no, no, no!  In fact, the Colorado Quartet has played them.  They’re a good group.  No, what I mean by ‘gentlemen’, is really...

allanbrook BD:   Gentlepeople?

Allanbrook:   Yes, in the sense of people that cherish their instruments.  There is a marvelous brass quintet in my town, and they always ask for music.  Again, that’s a very special limit because brass instruments are different from strings or keyboards.  I played a lot of piano and harpsichord, so I’ve written a lot of keyboard music.  But when you write for other instruments, the difference is so much because on the piano you don’t have to
make the notes.  On brass instruments, it’s a noble difficulty in producing the notes, and the reverence you have for the way they do it.  Also, they can blend so beautifully.  Two trombones in thirds is just glorious, so the intervals themselves become so important.  Then when you get real ensemble playing, they breathe together.  On the other hand, that is a limit because composing is always doing something within limits.  Particular care is dictated by the kind of pieces you have.  I find a gesture within a piece is sometimes determined by the particular instruments you have.  I keep bringing up Mozart, but if you notice in the Quintets, when he has five instruments instead of four, as in the quartets, it’s very interesting.  Sometimes, the opening phrases become not a regular sixteen, but they suddenly spill out to this much greater canvass.  The C Major Quintet does it that way, and that’s because you’ve suddenly got the extra instrument.  There’s this availability which is suddenly bigger, and that certainly dictates a lot.

BD:   How do you decide which commissions you’ll accept, and which commissions you will decline?

Allanbrook:   [Laughs]  Well, I don’t have that many.  I try to accept any that come along.

BD:   But there must be some parameters that you would not feel like doing.
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with George Heussenstamm, and Robert Starer]

Allanbrook:   I certainly never want to do anything with artificial instruments.  I can’t hack that.

BD:   No electronics at all?

Allanbrook:   I don’t like electronics.  I’m really rather fussy that way, even when you get the motor on the vibraphone.  I can’t stand it.  I like a vibrato to be made by a singer or a fiddler himself.

BD:   Then you’re a human composer?

Allanbrook:   Right.  For me, the oldest sense of music is always present, which is the true sense, because music is built on heartbeat, and lungs, and feet.  Stravinsky would say it has to sing or dance.  That seems to be what catches one.  It’s very difficult to describe music.  Words about it are all so bad, because it isn’t necessarily happy or sad or tragic or comic.  On the other hand, it sets the pace of underpinnings, above which we may be happy or sad.  One is a little effeminate when it begins with enthusiasm, saying too much about the deep soul composer.  But to name exactly what’s there is not clear.  We mustn’t go as far as Mr. Shaffer did with Amadeus, which is nonsense.  We’re moved in time, and we are creatures in time with our heartbeat and our lungs and our feet.  As a matter of fact, it has a lot to do with pulses, after all.  This is not metronomic.  All the wind instruments are based on breath, and certainly singers are, also.  So, that’s very much a set of limits which people often forget about.  If you’re writing for the voice, it’s a certain set of limits based on the lungs.  You can always tell whether a person’s musical when they’re playing.  That’s the difficulty with playing the harpsichord, and particularly the organ, which is really quite a monster.  You have to try and imitate those gestures.  You have to articulate constantly, just as our speaking is articulated.  If I mumble along, it’s no good.  Music has to articulate in the same way.  How do you begin a piece?  It depends on what articulating instrument you’re writing for, and how they do it.  You really must like the limits in order to write for each instrument.

BD:   Do you challenge the limits?

Allanbrook:   I don’t think I’m entitled to challenge his limits.  There may be two types of composers that way.  I like living within the limits of instruments, but there are some composers who do challenge the instruments.  I think it’s gotten a little insane.  I’m a little sick of those multiphonics on the clarinet, and having a flute double-tongue, because if you make everything unusual, nothing is unusual.  That’s the great difficulty with a lot of avant-garde music.  It becomes perfectly boring because everything is unusual, hence nothing’s unusual.  You can’t have excess unless you’re normal most of the time.  It’s no fun getting drunk unless you don’t for the rest of the week.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you get drunk on music?

Allanbrook:   Of course, if one’s dedicated to it.  Composing is a very strange combination of getting terribly enthusiastic, and then the next morning having to have a very fishy eye, and seeing if it works all right.  While everybody might be able to be enthusiastic, one cannot always be that if one would be a composer.  That’s the trouble.

allanbrook BD:   Is composing fun for you?

Allanbrook:   Yes.  It’s what I can do best, and if you can actually get around to doing what you will do best, it’s great satisfaction.  It isn’t always fun, because it’s hard to get the notes right, and you have to be sure the gesture is right.

BD:   How do you know when it’s right?

Allanbrook:   Oh, you know.  When you stop writing the piece, it should be good.  It should sound exactly as you think it’s going to sound.  There should be no surprises when you hear an orchestra piece, if you know how to orchestrate.

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

Allanbrook:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s the difficult thing about notation, and I can see why a lot of people nowadays like to write for tape, or electronic music, because you can make it exactly your performance.

BD:   Do  you then cut out any chance for interpretation?

Allanbrook:   Interpretation is what it means to perform, because it’s very difficult to notate rhythm, for example.  It’s easy enough to notate with a metronome, but that gives no sense of the real feeling.  In that sense, often a performance can suddenly find a certain pace that you haven’t thought of, and maybe it will work.  It’s very hard to set exactly, and the excitement of music is having it performed fresh every time.  On a worst level, it’s like going to the circus, but there is always some element of that, the kind of tension of getting through the curve, and doing it well.  That’s the glory of the performer, because they like to do that.

BD:   Is it ever a contest between the performers and the composer, or the performers and the audience?

Allanbrook:   I would hope not so much a contest.  It’s a very peculiar thing what a public is nowadays.  We’re so used to records, and radios, that it’s too easy to hear music all the time.  The other thing is that our ears are bathed in it too much nowadays.  Because I’m a musician, the trouble is every time I hear the lousy Muzak in an elevator, I listen, and I think,
Oh, my God, the son of a bitch is dividing his strings!  Now we’re going to get this cheesy tune in the middle!  I can’t stand having music going on as background.  It always demands attention from me.

BD:   So then you’d become completely aghast if some of your music was on the Muzak tape???

Allanbrook:   I think so, yes.  It is peculiar, because it’s not clear whether necessarily all the great chamber music is designed for us to drive into town, sit in a chair, and listen to in a hall.  Some of the greatest of people’s musical experiences are often sitting with a very good musician in their house, if there is a good Steinway, when somebody plays intimately.  If you have ever heard quartets in a nice big drawing room, where they really play for you, it is very different from getting up and going to a concert hall.  But that is true of all music.  Opera has always been a spectacle.  It’s part of the spectacle to have a large house, and the excitement, and the lights, and the curtain going up.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve written several operas.  Do you enjoy writing for the theater?

Allanbrook:   I love writing for the theater.  I haven’t had too much success getting them done, but I love theater music.  If I had my druthers, I’d probably like to write operas and quartets.

BD:   Sounds like Verdi!  [Verdi spent much of 1872 and 1873 supervising productions of Aïda at Milan, Parma and Naples, effectively acting as producer, and demanding high standards and adequate rehearsal time.  During the rehearsals for the Naples production he wrote his string quartet, the only chamber music by him to survive, and the only major work in the form by an Italian of the 19th century.]

allanbrook Allanbrook:   Right.  I have written a lot of piano music, and quite a bit of harpsichord music because I play a lot. 

BD:    Are you a better composer because you are also a performer?

Allanbrook:   That helps a lot.  It’s a very good idea to play, and get the real feeling of how a phrase works, to know how it goes when you play it in public, and have the tactile way under your fingers.  It can get to be too much sometimes, but think of most of the people that write.  So many great composers were good pianists, even in recent times.  Bartók played marvelously, Debussy could play the piano, but Ravel not so much.  Beethoven was a marvelous pianist, as Mozart was a divine pianist.

BD:   Are you better at playing other people’s music because you also composer?

Allanbrook:   That might be, except with writing all the time you don’t have time to work that much on performing.  I’m not bad at it, but I never made a career of it because I’m mainly writing music.

BD:   You also do some teaching?

Allanbrook:   Yes.  My professional career was peculiar because after I’d been abroad for about five years, and had no money, I got a job teaching at a funny little college in Annapolis called St. John’s College.  In fact, a lot of the Chicago people founded that in the beginning.  So, I made my living mainly teaching Greek and Philosophy.  You don’t earn your living as a serious composer.  Who in this country makes their living writing serious music besides Mr. Copland and Mr. Menotti?  Nobody.  Maybe a few Hollywood boys, but not many.

BD:   Should composers today strive to make a living from their writing?

Allanbrook:   It would be nice, but I can’t quite see how you’d do it.  One would like to think of some ideal Hollywood where they’d use good music, and you’d have plenty of time to write your score.  Copland did a couple of scores for Hollywood.   He was famous enough that he just called the shots with The Red Pony, and a couple of the others.  He could take his time and do it, but almost nobody else that gets the time.

BD:   But this, of course, is film music.  Should there be a living to be made out of writing concert music?

Allanbrook:   It would be nice if there was, but I don’t see it happening.  As a matter of fact, there never was much in the past, either, when you think of composers making their living.  Bach would work for anyone who’d pay him, so he wrote church music.  He was in Leipzig, and he wrote court music for one of the Germany princes.  I’m not clear when people made good money.  Lully made money when he got the monopoly of the state opera.  Monteverdi, when he worked for the Duke of Gonzaga, didn’t have enough money to keep his wife in Mantua.  He had to keep her back with the in-laws in Cremona.  Then, when he got the gorgeous job in Venice, he had enough money.  Then he wrote a lot of music for the church and opera.  But in the Nineteenth century, Beethoven was clever.  He’d sell his pieces several times over, and get what he could.

BD:    [Partly in jest]  Will you write for anyone who’d pay you?

Allanbrook:   Yes, I think I would.  Sure!

BD:   If someone’s paying, do they call the shots, or are you calling the shots?

Allanbrook:   Say this piece, which is so special.  In one sense you’re calling the shots because you have to write for eighty members of an orchestra.  After all, you have to design something for that.  If nobody is commissioning anything special, we write what we feel like, but I would like to think that the music would work with regular cultivated audiences.  I don’t particularly enjoy small concerts of all contemporary music, where one has this terribly tense feeling of something academic and difficult and boring being accomplished.  Music should be a pleasure, and one of the highest pleasures.

*     *     *     *     *

:   Let’s go back to your operas just a little bit.

Allanbrook:   One is on the famous novel of Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911).  It’s a very unique novel, and a very American story.  The other opera I wrote is the opposite, really.  It’s a comic opera, on Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818).  It first caught my attention because of one marvelous scene where somebody was being hidden in a tower, who was really somebody’s disguised daughter, and so forth.  He said only Rossini could do justice to this.  It’s original, a kind of melancholy English Così Fan Tutte.  There’s a tenor who exalts himself with a study of metaphysics.  At the same time, he’s in love with his cousin who is a coloratura.  Then, a mysterious lady appears from the darkness, who studied in Germany, who’s a mezzo, and sings with a twelve-tone-ish style.  But then, of course, he falls in love with both of them, and loses them to his two best friends.  [Both laugh]  So it’s a perfect opportunity for ensembles of all kinds.

allanbrook BD:   What are the particular joys and pitfalls of writing for the operatic voice?

Allanbrook:   You’ve got to be very used to what the voice can do, and how it will work on stage.  It’s very different from writing songs, because of the need for projecting on an opera stage.  The timing of that sort of thing is terribly important.  In modern opera now, one of the peculiarities of the Twentieth century is that all the masterpieces are cul-de-sacs.  What that means is they don’t necessarily give a way to write for anyone else.  For example, the first operatic masterpiece of this century is Pelléas, which I think is incomparable, but I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.  It’s not a style, like verismo.  You really can’t have imitation.  As a matter of fact, it’s very difficult for a lot of people since Debussy, because they try that kind of ‘parlando’, which is so idiomatic to the play, with his superbly chosen sound in the orchestra.  Imitating that can be perfectly dreadful.  You have to be very careful, because otherwise one wonders why the people are singing.  There has to be both realism and a suspension reality, because there has to be moments of real song.  That’s a great trouble with a lot of modern directors of opera.  I’ve seen a poor Carmen, who was supposed to be singing the ‘Seguidilla’ while climbing up a rope ladder!  A lot of directors don’t get the idea.  They think it’s very good drama that you suddenly have to do things, when one should really hear what’s going on.  That’s a great difficulty of modern opera
is there going to be real singing, or is it just going to be ‘parlando’?

BD:   Is there a future for opera?

Allanbrook:   I would think so.  All over the country there are smallish places coming up now.  As a matter of fact, there’s more interesting stuff going on outside New York.  New York isn’t so hot anymore for new opera.  Beverly Sills is just barely keeping the New York City Opera afloat, and Mr. Levine is a good conductor, but there hasn’t been anything new of any interest there for a long time.  [Remember, this conversation took place in 1987, and much has happened since that time.]  The Midwest is full of places trying stuff.  Dominic Argento is in Minneapolis, and people are listening more to opera now.  When people are listening more on records all the time, one wonders how much that reflects in the concert hall.

BD:   Do you feel that opera, being such a theatrical experience, works well on the flat audio disc?

Allanbrook:   It depends on the opera.  Because I hate to sit for so long, Wagner is almost death on records.  All this business about music-drama really is a long symphonic poem, and the librettos aren’t worth a damn, especially if you like German, and have respect for the language.  I think it’s very often offensive, but, on the other hand, it is often glorious.  I used to be so anti-Wagner, having been brought up with Boulanger and Piston, and living in France, but I’m not any longer.  However, it’s not so theatrical.  It seems to me that Mozart must be done in the theater, and Verdi should be, too.  As a matter of fact, Pelléas, strangely enough, works beautifully in the theater when it’s well done with every gesture.

BD:    Do you feel opera works well on television?

Allanbrook:   It’s a little hard.  The trouble is, it’s not so appetizing to see a tenor singing a high note with his face close to you on the screen.  The proscenium arch doesn’t work so well when photographed.  You can sometimes do it well, especially if you are actually doing the production for television, and then can get the camera shots.  But certainly, it’s hard if you’re just shooting the regular stage.

BD:   Should opera be done in translation?

Allanbrook:   Good question.  Some students were just asking me this because we were studying The Marriage of Figaro.  They were saying we should understand the text, but it was first done in Vienna, and everybody spoke Italian.  There was the tradition of Italian opera, and Mozart also wrote ‘Singspiels’, which were in German.  It
s a question that is not easily answered.  In the Mozart comedies, you should know what the situation iswhy Cherubino is doing what he is at that moment, and who’s in where, and what some of the verbal stuff is.  A lot of companies are beginning to flash texts above the stage.

BD:   Is this a good compromise?

Allanbrook:   In Washington we do that.  It’s hard because when rendering an Italian text into English, it’s apt to get stilted.

BD:   If your operas were being done in Europe, would you want them translated into French, or German, or Italian, or Swedish?

Allanbrook:   Why not, especially a real comedy where situations involve verbal play.  That’s more important.  Maybe not all Verdi needs to be translated, because often there the situations are clear.  You can take another view of operas, which says that it doesn’t matter what you do.  You sit in your box, and you see a certain situation, and then a man sings about honor, or the lady says she is a whore, and you just enjoy the song.  [Much laughter]  That’s true of some operas.  It depends, though.  If you get late Verdi
like Otello or Falstaffwe should know the words because they have incredible meaning.  I’m not sure we need to know all the words of La Traviata, and I’d prefer not to know the words of Nabucco and some of the other Verdi works.

*     *     *     *     *

allanbrook BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear one of your new pieces?

Allanbrook:   Obviously, I hope they like it and pay attention.  The trouble is often the sound is somewhat new.  In the old days, there was always a common style, so Mozart could say the thing I just quoted to you
that everybody will like it. and the connoisseurs morebecause everybody had a certain language.  Nowadays there isn’t a really common style.  That’s why your opening question, about where music is going, is rather hard to say.  Incidentally, I think the ears are more important than whether it’s twelve-tone or any of that other stuff.  The three really original ears are Stravinsky, Debussy, and Webern.  Stravinsky heard certain things such as the disposition of sonorities.  Take the famous opening of The Symphony of Psalms, the wonderful E minor chord with the two pianos.  He obviously found that sound because he had hands like mine, big things so you could play these notes.  It’s an absolutely startlingly new sound, and always has that clarity of sound, as well as a way of taking rhythm and rhythmic cells and using them.  That exists through all his music, whether he’s later doing twelve-tone music, or the earlier music of the 20s, or anything else.  That kind of clarity, and rhythmic organization is new.  In Webern, the interesting thing is not so much the exigencies of the use of twelve-tone system, but the enormous interest in the intervals.  He knows exactly what interval goes where.  You listen to it with great attention, and realize that this concentrated music can’t last long with the other sounds.  Then, Debussy is a great architect of certain kind of sonorities, and again broke the back of ordinary rhythmic phrases that go through big rhetorical 4, 8, and 16.  Debussy said he was bothered if he heard a VI, IV, V, I cadence.  So, there was that new thing.  But again, other people were trying to imitate Debussy.  As a matter of fact, it takes enormous taste.  It’s taste carried to the nth degree, and that’s the trouble.  Everybody latched onto twelve-tone music because they thought it would be a common practice, but in my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily give a common practice any more than C major does.  You could say C major is a happy accident of six notes in the twelve-tone system, because it seems to me the aesthetic of Schoenberg is sort of Brahmsian, often, only that it’s dirty texture.  I don’t hear it well, and I don’t understand why there’s such a cult of Schoenberg.  He was probably an interesting teacher, but the music doesn’t seem to speak to most people except those who listened to Webern.  If you can study twelve-tone, you can try it.  It’s a way of making notes fresh.  You can do things backwards and forwards with it.  Then, after you’ve got twelve-tone, theres the whole movement that says you should begin putting numbers to everythingnot only the pitch parameters, but the rhythmic parameters.  One would love to have a common practice that goes together with the university habit of giving PhDs.  If you can have a modern common practice, and really learn it, and have a bright light for other people who are going to get PhDs, then you get a common practice.  It’s more academic than anything ever was in the history of music, except, perhaps, for that awful time in the Middle Ages when they were writing those horrid hockets.  They were very much by the numbers.

BD:   You talk about all of these other composers.  Do you feel that you are part of a lineage of composers?

Allanbrook:   I’m not sure, really.  I suppose my principal teachers have something to do with that, although I don’t think I sound like other people.   When I was very young, I started with Boulanger, and she never thought that she taught composition.  She was a superb music teacher, and you had to hear everything you were doing.  The best composition lesson I ever had with her was once, when I brought her a new piece I was very proud of.  She looked at it, and then she proceeded to play nothing but play the cello and bass parts for ten minutes.  They were as dull as hell, and she said I needed to think of those poor gentlemen sitting there going [imitates string players boringly sawing back and forth].  That is a lesson in the need for a little liveliness in the score.  The notes have to be right in the best sense of the notes being right, but there has to be a reason for them in the way that they play.

BD:   You had given everything to the principal violin and that was it?

Allanbrook:   That’s right, yes.  The writing sort of a muddy color downstairs.

BD:   Are you more conscious of that, even in pieces you write today?  

Allanbrook:   Oh, I think of that, sure.  When I use the world ‘gentleman’, my other teacher, Walter Piston, was a great ‘gentleman’.  His notes were never excessive, and his music lasts.  I’ve been listening to some of his symphonies and quartets again, and they are terribly musical.  He had an aristocratic ear but, it worked because he always had the Boston Symphony to play them.

BD:   How do we get the public more interested in trying new music?

Allanbrook:   Write better music!  You have to realize that it’s not a cause.  People treat it as if it were getting along with all nationalities, or eliminating disease.  It’s not!  It’s up to the music to work well.   It’s meant to be a pleasure.

BD:   Does your music work well?

Allanbrook:   I think it does, yes.  People really listen, and always like it, and are delighted to play it.

BD:   Are you basically pleased with the performances you hear of your music?

Allanbrook:   No!  Because people often don’t pay enough attention.  Many of us write a lot of chamber music nowadays because small groups do pay attention.  After all, orchestras don’t have much time to rehearse.  Even if you get an orchestral performance, unless it’s a glorious orchestra you get maybe two rehearsals and then the performance.  If it’s not one of the best orchestras, the chances are they don’t bring their parts home.  So that’s a bad time.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

Allanbrook:   Yes.  They’ve been small groups.  For example, that brass stuff was done by the Annapolis Brass Quintet, a marvelous group.  Some music I’ve played myself.  I don’t have any big orchestral recordings.  [The recording of two of his symphonies shown above was made about twenty years after this interivew.]  Orchestral recordings cost so much nowadays, that on the whole, no company is going give the money for it.

BD:   Are you the ideal interpreter of your keyboard music?

Allanbrook:   Well, I’m not bad.  [Laughs]  Leo Smit has been playing some of my music, and he does it sometimes better than me.  He plays Aaron’s music beautifully, and, of course, he’s written very nice piano music himself.


BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Allanbrook:   No, I’m not optimistic about any future.  If you’re around and teaching at a college, you get a little discouraged about the blatancy of the sound being heard all the time.  Just talking of the ordinary culture, and then the loudness overall, and the dumbness of it.  Think of Mozart compared to what you hear nowadays.  The vulgarity and the loudness make it so they’re not listening.  The dumbness of minimal music is very much like that, so I’m not particularly happy about it.  But, on the other hand, one is touched by the number of people that are listening and playing chamber music, and the certain cult of old music now.  I play the harpsichord, and that takes attention.  Certainly there’s never been a time in the history of music when some many people were listening to so much music.

BD:   Are there, perhaps, too many composers writing today?

allanbrook Allanbrook:   The trouble is people seem to think that it’s a thing you get a degree in, and if you’ve got a degree in composition, you’re a composer.  I don’t think people should be encouraged to be composers.   If they have a real urge to do it, and a real talent, then they’ll do it.  But I don’t think getting a degree in it gives you any right to think you are a composer.  You’ve got to write music of deep feeling and craft, and if you can’t do that, there’s no reason for you to do it.  I remember in the old days at Yale, Hindemith always used to get furious that everybody had taken Harmony and then thought they were a composer.  He did his best in class to discourage them, as he’d work them so hard.  But it’s a funny business, because serious composers don’t have a career in the usual way.  That’s why I’ve been bad-mouthing universities, and I shouldnt.  A lot of us have earned our livings at it.  I happen to be in this peculiar way of not having learned it in a music department.  Or, if you have an income of your own, it’s nice and you never had to teach much.  It’s lovely to have that sort of freedom.  On the other hand, sometimes you have to be a little careful of being too detached from writing at the same time for people who are going to play it, because the music’s often too complicated to listen to, and it’s more to be respected than loved.

BD:   Do you want your music to loved?

Allanbrook:   Of course!  You want it to work.  People should play it with love and affection.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it has to be new romanticism, and be lush, because it’s a time of excess nowadays.  You can see it in the realm of the ordinary orchestral repertoire.  There is this phenomenon which doesn’t speak well for the future, it seems to me, which is the enormous cult of Mahler.  Mahler seems to be a peculiar combination of great refinement of sound, and perfectly dreadful vulgarity, with no sense of length.  It seems to be rather unhappy that well-spoken conductors of the world have to be gypsies, and then they want to spend their time doing those endless excessive symphonies.  They’re exceptional in a peculiar way because they’re marvelous pieces to sit in bed and study, because the orchestration is so interesting.  There is all kinds of stuff you can learn.  But they are the epitomies of excess.  What I’m saying is that the real paradigms of a new kind of hearing are Webern, and Stravinsky, and Debussy.  Nowadays, Mahler seems to be the sea bed that people are copying, and that’s unfortunate, frankly.  The young people have gotten terribly snobbish about Tchaikovsky, for example.  Tchaikovsky is a first-rate composer, who orchestrates just as well as Mahler, and has a sense of economy.  Even in the ballets, there’s one stunning number after another.  I used to be too much of a snob to say that, but one has to note certain things like that.

BD:   What advice do you have for a young composer coming along?  [Vis-à-vis the record shown at left, see my interviews with Lou Harrison, Vincent Persichetti, and Mel Powell]

Allanbrook:   He should be a good musician, if possible.  He should play some instrument well, and know about all the others.  He should look at lots of music, and hear lots of it, and be aware of what it actually feels like in the making of it.  That’s the principal thing.  Obviously, he’s got to love music, otherwise he will have no career.  He really must be sure he wants to do that.

BD:   What advice do you have for a young performer?

Allanbrook:   Again, performers should be very good musicians.  Often, training nowadays in performance is apt to be too much immediately pushing for concerts.  There’s certain traditional ways in some of the best European conservatories.  I studied harpsichord with a marvelous man, Ruggero Gerlin, in Naples.  It was the same as a big piano school.  For two or three years you would sit in a class with two or three people who were very good, and between the three of you and the maestro you’d go through an enormous amount of the repertoire, not necessarily preparing to play a concert at the end of the year, or every six months.  Then, having been thoroughly trained and knowing the repertoire, playing it in front of difficult students, if you wanted to make a go with the concert career you had this enormous background.  The other thing is that if you have that background, a young performer should play what they really can play well.  That’s getting a bit better now.  It used to be everybody would give a concert beginning with Bach/Busoni, going through Liszt, and maybe getting as far as Prokofiev.  There’s more good sense now because the best performers play more of what they really like.  They should have a real background, and have done the Chopin Études, some Liszt, and Debussy...

BD:   And some Allanbrook?

Allanbrook:   Sure!  Why not?

BD:   You also write for harpsichord.

Allanbrook:   Yes, I’ve written quite a bit of harpsichord music.  Very few people write well for it because that’s an instrument you really have to play to get the sense of the articulation.  It’s not like the piano.

BD:   It’s more like the organ, isn’t it?

Allanbrook:   Not really, because organists aren’t very good harpsichordists.  You have to have very much a sense of articulation for that, because it’s more of a mechanical instrument than the piano to get the clarity of the sound, and the rhythmic gesture.  It’s very tricky to get that.  As a matter of fact, it’s very tricky to write good piano music.  Other instruments
a gorgeous soprano, a horn, a fiddlecan really make notes that are expressive.  Piano, after all, has to be lyrical, and it is difficult to know how to imitate this, and how the sonorities are used.  Debussy was a master of that.  Writing for piano can be a horror if it’s really percussive.  Just as with a harpsichord, you have to be very careful.  It isn’t just a spiny little thing.  [Both laugh]  Keyboard instruments have a special set of limits.  It is peculiar that the piano has been the composer’s instrument par excellence ever since the time of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann.  They all played, as did Debussy and Bartók.  It is interesting that some of the great orchestrators were also terribly good at the sonority of the piano.  Think of Debussy, who writes absolutely uniquely for the piano.  That kind of ear extends to perfection in the orchestra.

allanbrook BD:   Is that what made Mahler a particularly good at orchestration, because he was always running an orchestra?

Allanbrook:   That may have been.  He was enormously sensitive to that.  It is as if he was at the end of the epoch.  A lot of people would like think that the Twentieth century comes from the Vienna.  That’s why I was saying this about Mahler.  Webern doesn’t strike me as being like that at all.  You can say that Berg is like that sense of romanticism that’s driven to despair.

BD:   Do we have any giants of that magnitude living today?

Allanbrook:   Of Debussy or Stravinsky?  I don’t think so really, no.

BD:   Is it something that’s lost, or are we just waiting for one to appear?

Allanbrook:   Let’s hope one will appear.  It’s hard to think.  You probably listen to much more than I do.  Composers don’t necessarily listen to lots of music.

BD:   Are you aware of what’s going on in music?  Do you listen enough to keep up with things?

Allanbrook:   Oh, sure.  There are certainly some marvelous impressive things, but not a body of work that one would die for.  In all honesty, it would be hard for me to put my fingers on people that are anything like the stature of those people of the beginning of the century.  Certainly, sometimes Carter.  His earlier pieces are marvelous, and if you’re thinking of American music, some of the serious pieces of Aaron will last, especially the piano music.  One wonders whether the orchestral will last...

BD:   They’ll certainly be played for a while.

Allanbrook:   Right.  It was mainly Aaron himself doing the Third Symphony everywhere.  The big popular works are fun, but it’s a kind of pomposity that I don’t think is the genius, or the best of him.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What is next on the calendar for you?

Allanbrook:   I’m more or less retiring completely from teaching now because I’m sixty-six.  I’m just writing a piece for nobody in particular.  It’s the opposite of the children’s piece I just wrote.  It’s a big tough piece called Seven for Seven for piano and percussion and five brass players.  Then I have a feeling I will want to get back to some vocal music again.  I haven’t been writing vocal music for a while.  That’s about as far as I will commit myself.

BD:   Will getting away from the teaching give you more time for composing?

Allanbrook:   That will give me more time for composing, sure.  And I hope to get more playing done, too.  If I get big productions of the operas, I might finally go back to them again, but it’s an enormous job to begin that sort of thing.

BD:   Too enormous?

Allanbrook:   Not necessarily, but it’s a lot of work.  It’s the sort of thing you really don’t want to do unless you get some big production lined up.  Otherwise, I will continue to write songs, and piano music, and any commissions that come along maybe with orchestra.  But it is a bit disappointing trying to do orchestra music.  After all, if you think of Stravinsky, who is one of my idols, it’s rather shocking, since he’s dead, how few of his major works for orchestra are done, apart from the famous ballets.  Everybody will do The Rite of Spring, which used to be hard, but you very seldom hear the Symphony in C, or the Symphony in Three Movements, or any of those marvelous works.  So, there’s certain discouragement in that.

BD:   How can we nudge conductors into doing more?

Allanbrook:    I wonder.  A lot of people love to say that the symphony orchestra is a national gallery of masterpieces.  It’s dedicated to the old thing, and in a way, I suppose it is.  One would hope that people would write pieces that really would work.  There aren’t that many orchestral pieces since Stravinsky that really work, and engage one, that one wants to hear, if one’s going to be utterly frank.  I’m not being a Philistine saying this, but there isn’t that much terribly engaging music.  But maybe if there were more commissions...  In Baltimore, Zinman has been doing some very good stuff, and the orchestra really comes along with that.  Washington mainly get lots and lots of Shostakovich from Rostropovich.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.  

Allanbrook:   Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.  I hope I’ve made some sense.  You ask all these difficult questions.  It’s a difficult arch.  One would like it to work after one puts one’s heart’s blood and attention in it, thinking it will move people.  That’s what it’s meant to do.


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in suburban Chicago on April 27, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1991 and 1996; on WNUR in 2012 and 2015; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2012.  This transcription was made in 2020, 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.

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.