Composer / Critic  Arthur  Berger

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


berger Arthur Berger (May 15, 1912 - October 7, 2003) was an influential composer, critic and teacher for more than half a century. His early music was heavily influenced by Stravinsky and neoclassicism, while his later works were both serial and diatonic in nature. Although Berger made notable contributions to the orchestral repertory, he devoted the major share of his compositional activities to chamber and solo piano music.  He is grouped in the "Boston school" along with Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Alexei Haieff, Harold Shapero, Claudio Spies, Leonard Bernstein, Ingolf Dahl, John Lessard, and Louise Talma. (Names on this page which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD)

Born in 1912 in New York City, Berger received his musical education at New York and Harvard Universities, pursuing further studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and at the Sorbonne. In his early twenties he was a member of the Young Composers Group that revolved around Aaron Copland as its mentor. In his capacity as critic, Berger became one of the principal spokesmen of music from the United States for that period. He wrote numerous critical and analytical articles on such composers as Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland.

Berger received a number of awards and honors, including those from the Guggenheim, Fromm, Coolidge, Naumburg and Fulbright Foundations, the NEA, League of Composers, and Massachusetts Council on the Arts & Humanities. He was a fellow of both the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Berger began his teaching career in 1939 at Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1943 he became a music critic for the New York Sun and in 1946 accepted Virgil Thomson's invitation to join the New York Herald Tribune. After a decade as a full-time music reviewer in New York City, he resumed teaching in 1953 at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts during the formation of its graduate music program. After retiring from Brandeis in 1980, Berger taught at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston until 1999. His music is recorded on the CRI and New World labels, and his book Reflections of an American Composer (2002) was recently published by the University of California Press.

One of my most pleasant tasks at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago was to present programs of music and interview with composers and performers.  My sorting method was simple
I used ‘round birthdays’.  That way, when a special date and year came up, a program was prepared.  There were, of course, other reasons for doing programs, and I did not shy away from such reasons as memorials upon deaths, or promotion of upcoming live performances.  But my system also kept everything gender-blind and color-blind, and relieved me of the pressure of deciding if anyone had or had not been generally given enough (or too much) time on the air.

in March of 1987, I arranged to speak with Arthur Berger to get material for his upcoming seventh-fifth birthday celebration.  Eventually, my quarter-century at WNIB allowed for two further programs for his eightieth and eighty-fifth birthdays.  

When I called him, he had just listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Turandot, and commented to me about the singers . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let us start right there.  You worked for a time as a music critic, and you’ve done a lot of teaching, as well as a lot of composing.  How has the music scene changed over twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years?

Arthur Berger:    Oh, my!  You’re asking a very difficult question.  I’m not involved in the scene as I was before, so it might look very different to me outside, but I have a feeling things were a lot easier for composers in the old days.  Now, the absence of big figures like Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos, and a great critic by the name of Paul Rosenfeld, and patrons like Allan Morgenthau, and Claire Reis, who ran the league composers, personally did a great deal that I don’t find we have right now.  New music and new artists do need these individuals who believe very strongly in it.  Much as it is, I don’t think the government’s support right now is in any subsidies like what we had before.  As a composer this is my understanding, and I feel this is very, very strongly.  As far as performance and things like that are concerned, I don’t know.  I sometimes think that things were better in the old days [laughs] but we always say that.

berger BD:    How much of that is a myth?

AB:    Wagner singers like Melchior and Flagstad I don’t think are equaled by our talent.  I remember things like Elisabeth Schumann singing Sieglinde.  It was very unusual for her to sing in opera.  She was singing in a way where you understood all the words, and was very great specifically in the lines that one tends to get shouted nowadays.  I have these nostalgic memories of things that I find especially missing today.  A conductor like Mitropoulos loved the music he did, and did it not because he had to do the token modern work that goes now on a program.  It was there because he really loved the music even though it was not the best thing for his career.  Koussevitzky, on the other hand, was able to fight the opposition, and made a big thing out of his performances of new music, especially when he himself publicized it.  He would tell the public,
This is the greatest symphony,” when he did a Copland work.  Then the next week he did Shostakovich, and said, This is the greatest symphony of our time.  He made the audience feel that it was important, and if they didn’t like it, he did it again.  On the other hand, today we have a limitless number of small composers’ groups giving concerts.  The minute my composers get out of school here, they form a composers’ group and give public concerts.  To get performed on those things it doesn’t have the cachet that the snobbish League of Composers did in the old days at the ISCM [International Society for Contemporary Music, founded in 1922].  They were snobbish, and funded by rich people, literary people, to keep them up, it’s true.  But, on the other hand, it seemed to be an event, and right now modern music concerts tend to be a little dreary.  When you look around and see fellow composers and empty seats in halls which are kind of shabby, and publicity which is very bad...

BD:    Are there perhaps too many young composers?

AB:    Oh, many too many!  A friend of mine got the list, and there are about 35,000 composers around.  No one in his lifetime should listen to that much music!  It’s a hopeless situation in terms of the number of people there are.  It’s staggering.

BD:    Then let me ask perhaps an impossible question.  If there are so many, can there be any hope for the few true geniuses among them?

AB:    Some time ago I read an article by a scientist who said that they also had this problem of so many scientists coming up.  He said that if an Einstein discovery would come up in the reports the government received on scientists today, it might very well go unnoticed.  I do think that is very possible.  It’s sheer luck whether you have somebody with money to help promote yourself, or if you have a composer’s wife who pushes you.  It really depends on a lot of circumstances right now.  There are some people who are successful now, who deserve to be successful, but they also have things that made it possible for them to be successful.  I don’t mean that they’re undeserving; they have these other things that go along with it.  As Stravinsky said, a lot of composers right now should be satisfied with being underground.  That
s okay, I suppose.  You just do it.

BD:    Are you also saying that there are some who are not discovered who should be?

AB:    Oh, yes.  I don’t believe that a masterpiece is like a bright light that suddenly glows and is immediately noticed.  We’re constantly digging up works from the past, and they’re pretty good.

BD:    Let me ask what makes a masterpiece? 

AB:    [Laughs]  I couldn’t possibly answer that.

BD:    Then what are some of the qualities that go into it
perhaps not all of them, but some of the things you would notice about a masterpiece that do stand out?

AB:    [Thinks a moment]  I don’t mean simply honesty, but I mean integrity.  A lot of music is being written very rapidly and very sloppily.  A masterpiece is such that I think that a composer is fully aware of every detail.  I’m not a great believer in these big splotches of inspiration.  It may be interesting, but I don’t think they live as well as a work that can be looked at from every angle.  Nadia Boulanger used to say that a great work of art is like Chinese boxes that fit into one another.  You take each box out and look at how beautifully it’s been done.  The fact that some of the boxes are inside at the bottom doesn’t give a license to the person who made them to make them sloppy simply because they’re hidden away.  A masterpiece in music is a work you live with.  Stravinsky said a great work of music can be played slowly, too, and when it’s played slowly you get something out of it.  There is a right tempo for music, but to be able to relish each detail is a very important aspect for me.  It means the composer is conscious of the detail and then says,
“This is what I’m going to do.  He’s really responsible for it.  A great deal goes in there.  It’s not simple that way.  Most of us don’t look at things for themselves.  The artist is willing to look and be right there, and be in it.  That’s one of the things I did, but there are so many other things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, for whom do you write?  Do you have the audience in mind, or the performers in mind?

berger AB:    You really ask difficult questions!  [Both laugh]  One develops a kind of peer group, and the recognition of your peer group is very important to you because it’s some confirmation.  When I write, in a sense I write simply for myself.  That sounds very curious and elitist, but I want to sit there as an audience.  I want to say,
Is that something that I’m going to listen to, and listen to many times? and if I ask some of my peers to verify my judgment, it helps me to think that I have achieved my goal.  Once ten people or twenty people can get a lot out of a work, then a hundred people might.  Then if a hundred people, a thousand people ought to get it.  Now if a thousand people, why not tens of thousands?  The works really start in a small group, just as Mozart did.  He had this very elite and aristocratic group of people who were called amateurs of music, but they all played, and they realized what he was doing was very important.  They were up on it and kept abreast of what he was doing.  They weren’t behind the times, and this music now has become very popular.  Opera started at around the year 1600 by a group of sophisticated people.  Scientists and aristocrats gathered in a small group to discuss where they were going and how they would revive Greek drama.  They wrote articles which were inscrutable then, and now those kinds of pieces appear in the music magazines in which twelve-tone composers write.  This became a very popular idiom.  When you write initially, it seems to me you write on the best level, and you don’t think of it going to people who aren’t at the level of what you’re doing.  There’s no reason why everybody should like music, just as I’m not into sports.  I just don’t see the necessity for assuming that everyone is going to listen to music, and then when you write music you are not thinking of everyone.  You are thinking of an audience which is at the level of what you are doing.

BD:    So rather than having one huge audience for a piece of music, you’d rather have lots of small audiences?

AB:    It’s very flattering to have a large audience, but I don’t think that’s what I was thinking of in the first place.  However, I see the possibility of it.  Today we have the fifty pieces Virgil Thomsen says make up the Basic Program.  It’s practically pop music.  So how can an audience at that level know about the latest trends?  Maybe the Chicago audiences do.  Your Chicago Symphony is better than what we have in Boston, but how can an audience, which hasn’t heard anything of that type, be expected to be at a level to absorb what you’re doing?  It’s completely illogical to think of it that way.  On the other hand, if I really am deciding to write music for the millions, I would write pop music.  I wish I would write a pop song.  I love Rodgers and Hart, and I like Cole Porter, and Gershwin’s pop songs, but I prefer serious music.  Pop’s great music, but that is music which has been written with the idea that an awful lot of people are going to like it immediately, so it’s cast in a very familiar style.  Within that familiar style, there must be some inspiration which gave it a fresh turn.  But I’m not doing that.  I can’t do that.  Maybe I would like to, but it’s a different type of thing.  So to require us in the so-called serious music world to come up to that standard is completely irrational.

BD:    Then let me ask a balance question.  In serious music
your own or otherswhere it the balance between artistic achievement and entertainment?

AB:    Entertainment is consumed, and I don’t think we really are writing a consumer item.  With a popular song, after a while you’ve eaten it up, and you
re tired of it, and you’ve got to do something else.  So I don’t think the thing we’re doing is to be consumed.  There are degrees.  I have written some lighter pieces because in that medium at one time I thought it was more accessible.  I realize that, and I’ve written music which is a little more difficult.  It’s more difficult now, but it may not be more difficult in twenty-five or fifty years.  There are limits, and I don’t deny that there are large and small audiences.  But I really don’t think it’s entertainment.  If it becomes entertainment when you know it very well, you can relax to it.  When I listen to Turandot, I listen in quite a different way from when I listen to, say, Stockhausen or Elliott Carter, or Schoenberg.

BD:    But did Puccini expect you to listen differently than you would listen to Schoenberg?

AB:    I don’t know.  I’d imagine he was more concerned about reaching the larger public, yes, but I do think they are different things.  We tend to level everything down.  The audience is not a unified audience.  There’s not one audience; there are many audiences, and we lose track of that.  There are different occasions, and you can get tired of something.  You’ve heard it too much, or you’re tired and you don’t want to concentrate so hard, so you listen to something else.  We get the idea that there is a single audience out there.  Our critics write for the newspapers.  I was critic for many years, and I tried not to, but they assume that there is just one audience.  There’s more than that one audience.  There are many audiences.  I wish we had support for small audiences.  I am surprised they exist because there’s no support for them.  There should be support for small audiences, just as the scientists have their small groups of people where they can test things before they go out to the public.  We should have something like in Vienna in Schoenberg’s time, where they had private concerts.  There are many audiences, and we lose sight of that.  There’s always this pressure on us to write for that one audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned being a music critic.  How has music criticism changed?  It is as good as it was when you were writing, or just different?

AB:    On the level of Virgil Thomson, Lawrence Gilman, and Paul Rosenfeld, I can’t think of anybody.  Sometimes Andrew Porter on the New Yorker comes up to that level, but he’s so involved in the history of opera that I sometimes get inpatient with reading all that kind of thing about opera.  I’m not familiar with your Chicago scene, but the critics are getting more space now.  They are given more attention, and they’re covering more things.  Actually Virgil Thomson and I started the business of going to various places.  Thomson said that real estate had nothing to do with musical excellence, which meant that you didn’t just go to Carnegie Hall and Town Hall, but you go to other parts of the city wherever a good concert is taking place.  They do that more regularly now.  There’s a lot of coverage.  A lot of more contemporary music is being covered now.

berger BD:    [Gently protesting]  But that statement presupposes that you’ll know beforehand what’s going to be a good concert and what’s not going to be a good concert.

AB:    When you see a certain number of new composers or groups, you assume that they’re all going to establish a reputation for themselves.  I don’t know how many you have in Chicago, but in Boston here, we have over a dozen, or maybe twenty little groups giving concerts.  So you know by the reputation they’ve made previously whether it’s worth covering.  Of course I think a lot of things are not worth covering, as a matter of fact.

BD:    But I’m looking from the other side
you might overlook something significant that you didn’t know.

AB:    Oh, yes, yes, that can be.  [Laughs]  Yes, that happens.  Not only does it happen, but it happens because you have a busy night.  I’ve been overlooked myself several times in New York because there have been so many other things going on that I haven’t been reviewed.

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who aspires to be a good music critic?

AB:    It’s useful to have a practical knowledge of music.  Having done some kind of playing is helpful.  It’s possible for somebody to be so good that he could do it without playing, but it’s useful to try to play.  He should know a lot about the history of music because he has to understand what he
s hearing.  He should have the kind of education that we assume people get when they go out to teach music.  I really think it’s as necessarily as all that.  He’s got to have all that information at the tip of his fingers, and know how the styles go.  In my day, we started another thing.  Concerts always used to have to be reviewed the next day.  We had a deadline in New York, and sometimes I had to get my review in at 11:30 PM, or 12 Midnight.  Then Virgil and I started reviewing concerts not the next day but the day after, or two days after, or three days afterthe way they do it in Europe.  Other papers seem to have followed suit, so that does give you a little chance to look up something, or verify it.  On the other hand, it means you’re going to spend a lot of time if you want to use all that time reviewing each concert, and you don’t really have that much time.  As much as I think the reviewer should look at every score and hear every rehearsal, they can’t possibly do it.  That is very bad, and it’s not their fault.  They have to review all sorts of things.  It would be fine to have a specialist of modern music, a specialist of piano music, and a specialist of vocal music, but since we dont, they’ve got to be authorities in an enormous amount of things, and they don’t have the timemuch as you say they ought tobecause they have to hear eight or ten concerts a week.  You just cannot possibly know everything about things that you’re reviewing, but you have to sound authoritative. 

BD:    [Ever the optimist]  So then perhaps we should simply have more space and more critics.

AB:    Space I don’t know, but more critics doing specialist aspects would be tricky.  Take Harold Schonberg (1915-2003) at The New York Times, and Donal Henihan (1921-2012), who used to be in Chicago and now is at the Times.  Why should those people who hate new music go and write about it?  It’s obvious that they hate the music, yet they keep going and reviewing it.  Does that make any sense?

BD:    The papers should probably get someone who at least enjoys some of it. 

AB:    Maybe enjoys it, but at least knows something about it.

BD:    But a critic shouldn’t be a cheerleader, should he?

AB:    No, he shouldn’t be a cheerleader, but if you want to buy a new refrigerator, you ought to find out from somebody who knows about a refrigerator.  You’ve got Consumer Reports to look it up.  You don’t want somebody who comes in off the street.  I know the newspapers are always after that.  They say,
We just want you to do the average man, the layman’s point of view, but I just don’t see that.  It’s possible that you don’t realize the value of something until it’s pointed out to you, or until you’re with it a long time.  Let’s say the critic is knowledgeable and knows this piece is good.  Others may not know it until ten years from now, but he’s quicker to get it. 

BD:    But with a refrigerator, that’s a product that someone can go out and buy today, or go out and buy tomorrow, but with a concert it is there and then it is gone.

AB:    That’s unfortunate because I’ve given rave reviews to things, and then come back in the next years and it’s been an empty house.  The only thing that’s possible is if the person pays fifteen or twenty thousand dollars a year for promotions.  The agent can take that review, do something with it, like send it out all the places and really promote on that basis.  But if you just get a review in the paper, it doesn’t make or break people, it really doesn’t.  There was a story about pianist William Kappell.  He went to his agent and said,
What am I going to do?  I’ve got these twelve awful reviews.  The agent told him, “You’re okay.  You’re booked up for sixty concerts next year.  I think it’s exaggerated.  A great review could be useful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to make or break people. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to ask about the whole business of recordings.  Is the impact of the tremendous amount of music available on flat plastic a good thing for either the public or the performer? 

berger AB:    Oh, I think it’s marvelous.  Recording has been a very great thing.   The unfortunate thing about recording is that pieces don’t get recorded until they’ve made a success in concert, and for a composer who wants to get something recorded, it’s not likely that they can record a work that’s never been played.  But it
s good to be able to have the music where you can listen to it all the time.  I dont mean just as backgroundthough I guess there’s nothing we can do about thatbut the idea that you can get close to it.  The idea that there’s a performance that presumably has been passed by the people who let it out is a very valuable thing.  I don’t know if this is quite your question, but for students in the university it’s good and it’s bad that they can get to know music.  But it’s not to stop them from learning how to read music, just as these new digital watches don’t show you the point on a dial.  So when you say this is quarter after twelve it doesnt describe something.  Its going out of fashion, like knowing arithmetic while having a calculator.  But I do think the inventions are tremendous.  Now we feel we’re more like a painter who does something.  The painting’s on the wall, rather than one concert which, as you were saying before, is so evanescent.  In the days when you weren’t able to record our music at a concert, we had a new piece played and all the time and the money went into a performance, and it goes in one night.  Then a composer was left with nothing to show to anybody.  I don’t know what the bad aspects of recording could be.

BD:    What about the way a piece can be recorded and then cut apart, and pieced together so that it is so absolutely perfect?

AB:    What’s wrong with that?

BD:    At some point does it not become a fraud for the public?

AB:    We used to argue about that.  Howells made a tape-loop out of a repeated note so it could be so perfect, and when Flagstad put a high C in her Tristan, and there was much, much talk.  My fellow critics talked about that, and I said that you never can judge anybody until you hear the concert.  Now what is more important
the work of art itself or the person?  So, okay, the person didn’t do it that way as an athletic feat at that particular time, but the person had enough judgment to know as a perfect work of art this record would go out and have these features.  But I know what you mean.  As a matter of fact, I made a recording once as not that great a pianist.  Then, when I was more in shape, and tape first came out, you were able to do this kind of splicing.  I made a recording around 1950 of my Second Duo for Violin and Piano with a wonderful violinist.  I put the metronome on and started, and then went so far and then stopped, and then put the metronome on again and again, and did this process.  We finished the whole thing and listened to it, and I said to the violinist, “The music isn’t really like this.  It doesn’t have the sort of elasticity it should have.  It’s too stiff.  I did not let the recording come out.  Well, I’ve heard two other recordings of that piece and neither is as good as the one I made.  You get some things and you don’t get other things.  You get a perfection of detail, and then you just have to know it if people don’t realize what to look for.  It’s possible that very good conductors and very good performers with earphones are now able to hear exactly up to the places where they splice, so they can do it so it’s like a real thing.  It’s a new technique.  On the other hand, what I dont like is what the engineers do.  Now that you might criticize.  There’s a story I got from Stravinsky when he was doing the Symphony of Psalms in Canada, and he decided he wanted this trombone to come out, and this other thing to come out.  That was his judgment, so that’s something else.  It should be the artist, of course, and that is the danger to be sure.  On the other hand, look what marvelous things the rock people do to the stuff in the control room.  It’s incredible. 

BD:    Is there any chance that we are unwittingly developing a new kind of artist
the virtuoso technician?

AB:    We were supposed to be developing that when electronic music came in, but I haven’t seen him yet.  One would have to develop such an artist to do the proper job, yes.  I don’t think it’s developing, but we ought to be developing that skill.

BD:    You’ve not written any operas?

AB:    No.  I love the voice, but first of all I write too slowly.  Second of all, it is very rare to find a librettist, to find a designer, to find somebody to do the mise en scene and direct even before you have the hopes of having it done.  There’s so much that is left to chance.  You’re not going to find the right librettist, you’re not going to find the right director, you’re not going to get a chance to do it, and to go through all that with so little possibility, I just cannot see it.  I’ve even given up writing orchestral works in the last ten or twenty years because there’s so little opportunity to have the thing performed.  I guess I’m not that much excited about the future of what I’m going to do after I’m dead.  I want results now.  I just can’t see putting all that work in and not getting it done.

BD:    So then if you had unlimited resources and a guarantee of performance you might write in different mediums than you do?

AB:    Yes, but if I had an opportunity to write an opera, it’d still be very, very hard.  Where would I find a librettist?  If someone came to me and with a lot of money and the opera company and said they’d certainly do it, I would find it hard enough to decide on poetry that I feel should be properly set.  My first wife was a singer, and I think I would have become a singer if I had had a voice, and if I could breathe properly and talk properly.  But I don’t find texts that are very often used where it’s terribly intellectual, so they aren’t singable.  You’re talking about some intellectual or philosophical point and singing it, or else, on the other hand, it is something that it so trivial, like,
Come into the kitchen, I want to tell you something.  Menotti’s operas are just one extreme.  It’s so hard to find words.  I like to use foreign languages because you’re not so conscious of the words.  Also, people singing in English tend to sing in such a way that they want to be sure you understand it.  You don’t, anyway, but that’s another point.  But the main thing about opera is that it’s so huge and it’s so questionable.  As I say, I write slowly so God knows how long it would take me.

BD:    You say opera’s so huge.  Do you feel that it works well on the television?

AB:    I do, I really do.  That is a marvelous place for opera, even though the screen is small.  I think it’s tremendous, and I have the impression that there is more on there these days.   I remember when PBS did the Wagner Ring from Bayreuth, and they did one and you had to wait two months for the next.  It’s strange to say that things are not improving because in the old days
in the 30s and 40swe complained that things were not good.  As I look back now, there are some things that seemed to be better.

BD:    They weren’t as bad as you thought?

AB:    That’s right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re composing a piece, how do you know when it’s finished?

berger AB:    I think it was the poet Paul Valery (1871-1945) who said that you just come to a point and you stop.  [An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it.]  You set out with the idea that you want to accomplish a certain number of things in the course of the piece.  Right now you don’t have the form that at one time would have given us the place to stop.  Now we door at least I do, and a lot of us do what is more like a variation form.  So you’re going around and around in dealing with the same material, and you come to a point where you feel you’ve exhausted the number of transformations that you have for this particular piece.  You also have the feeling that it’s properly balanced, and that it’s long enough in terms of being tired of what you’ve been hearing.  It comes to a point when indeed it rounds up to something that’s been there before.  I’m very, very careful about beginnings and endings.  The feeling at a beginning is that the audience is immediately taken into a piece; it really has your attention.  Then the end is convincing in terms that it really does wind down.  Or, if you want them to have a really big ending, maybe a ‘bravura’ ending, there it does have the vision of an ending.  I must say that it is a very valid question because the notion of where a thing should stop is not what it used to be right now.  Very often in a lot of music right now one could say you’re just stopping it.  If you take John Cage, it’s like wallpaper.  If a piece goes on for twenty-four hours, you can come in and go out.  So there are tendencies right now where music is additive and continuous in that way.  I’m not religious about this idea that you have to perform four movements of a work, for example.  In the old days the composers did not object to having one or two movements of their work.  The four movements gave a certain completeness, like in a concert, but that doesn’t mean you’re destroying it by not performing the whole.  I’m not so crazed if the work is continuous and the movement doesn’t end, but I don’t think it’s a terribly serious thing as far as where a work goes.  I don’t know whether it’s organic like a human being, and I may be quite insane saying that.

BD:    Do you ever go back and tamper with your scores, and revise them?

AB:    Oh, always.  I’m a terrible reviser.  I even revise things that have been recorded and published.  I always see a better way.  In a way a work is never finished.  I look at it and I always see something that can be done better.

BD:    Then what do you say to performers a hundred years from now who go back and want to perform the first version?

AB:    That I’m not so crazy about because it’s very, very likely the composer has changed his mind for a good reason, and I respect his reason.

BD:    Are you always right when you change things?

AB:    No, I’m not.  As a matter of fact, I have changed things and later looked back and wondered why I’d done it.  But nowadays you’ve got these pieces that are improvised on the spot.

BD:    That’s something different.

AB:    Well, is it so different?  If they say it is a different piece, why can’t it be slightly different each time it’s played?  That, of course, brings us to the idea of interpretation.

BD:    You’ve performed some of your works.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your works?

AB:    Oh, no, I can’t play well.  I’m not a good enough performer.  I get nervous, and I don’t have the technique.

BD:    Over the years, have you been basically pleased with the interpretations you have heard of your music?

AB:    What we’re talking about is where I am right now at my age.  I’m not as much of a stickler as I used to be, but I’m not nearly as pleased nowadays as I was in the old days.  However, there are some very, very good young performers now.  A lot of young performers will come and take to this new music very rapidly... so rapidly that I think it would be bad.  It’s frightening, really, but in the old days it was beastly to get some of the first rate performers to do it.  Now I get more or less the people who play at modern music concerts.  For example, the recording of my Septet by Weisberg and the Contemporary Chamber Players [shown above-right] is absolutely magnificent.  I don’t think it could be touched right now.  Now that’s a place where he did a lot of splicing, but he did it in a very, very skillfully.  Plus, it was recorded after they had played it a number of times via a Rockefeller.  There was one performance at the University of Chicago, and these people were supported just to do this kind of chamber music over and over again.  They travel around the world playing it.  They spend numerous hours doing it.  The main thing right now is the fact that you don’t have the money for the kind of rehearsals you used to have.  I think the Federal grants should go more for performances of concerts rather than to composers because they’re going to make a buzz.

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BD:    You did a lot of teaching.  How were you able to divide your time between teaching and composing?

AB:    Oh, it was much easier dividing time between teaching and composing than being a critic and composing.  I left criticism in order to be able to compose.  I went to Brandeis to teach, and they were very nice that way.  We had very civilized hours
two three-hour sessions a weekso they gave me the time to compose.  Some people say it’s exhausting, but I found it stimulating to have the young people around, and to keep interested in that music at the same time as I was criticizing their music.  I also criticized my own music because I was aware of what faults are there, and it helped me look at my own.  It’s much more difficult being a critic than a composer because it took a lot of time.  Also, people were playing my music and I had to review it.  Now that’s difficult.  [Both laugh]  Virgil Thomson seems to have managed that much better than I could.

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:    What advice do you have for the young composer?

AB:    They should be sure that they want to be composers.  That should be its fulfillment because I don’t think they have any hopes of much more.  It’s very chancy whether they make big, so they’ve got to love their composing enough to find its own satisfaction.  As to advice, they should study.  An all-round musical education is a very good thing.  They should play, and they should learn to conduct.  Playing the piano is most useful, but then if they want to do another instrument, that is also good.  The piano’s very useful to a composer.  I believe strongly in composing at the piano these days
not in picking out the notes the way they do in the movies, but in trying out everything because sounds are so difficult right now.  They’re so new and so complex.  Curiously enough, that great orchestral composer Wagner was one of the first to work at the piano.  Stravinsky worked at the piano.  The idea of sounds which are so new, and you use them in new registers and new complexes and new dissonant combination.  You cannot conceive them the way you did.  In the old days, we could conceive the sounds of tonic and dominant and so on from what we learned from books.  Now you have to try it out, and so being a pianist is very helpful.  Being a conductor is also very good now because you can conduct your own works, which I never learned to do.  I strongly advise it. 

BD:    Is this one of the advantages the electronic composers have
that they’re constantly hearing their ideas?

AB:    It certainly is an advantage, except that electronic music has not come along the way we’d hoped.  It’s so full of clichés and things that they found twenty-five years ago.  There are just very few people who have been able to make something of it.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Are you saying that we should not look for new clichés?

AB:    No!  [Both laugh]  But the composers should go through the old-fashioned theory to see how the old composers did it, because if you do it the old way, then you know what it is to do a composition of any sort.  You then know what it means.  A lot of composers right now don’t feel their music in time.  That’s why doing a little performing is helpful for them.  They can see it at the drawing board and figure it out, so they’re not aware of what it would be when it’s actually sounding.  Music exists in time because you have to have the feel of it
the feel of what time is, and the feel of how things evolve and come across in actual time.  Performing gives them a feeling for that.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

berger AB:    No!  It’s a very difficult time now.  [Pauses a moment]  I really don’t know.  There was an article by John Rockwell in The New York Times, putting forward the theory that the intellectual-modernist view of music was over.  He said that Serialism is at an end, Modern Music is at an end, and the New Romanticism is here.  We’ve got to write music which sounds like Berlioz or Rachmaninoff or Brahms now.  So I wrote an article [published in the Boston Review, February, 1987] called Is There a Post-Modern Music?  I tried to make the case, first of all, that these romantic revivals happen from time to time over the period, and it isn’t new in any case.  What’s the use of a work in which you appropriate the music you already have?  We have enough romantic works that we have no time to listen to.  Who needs more of them?  Insofar as Serialism is concerned, I compare it what happened around 1900 and the first decade of this century.  In 1600, when monody first came in after polyphony, monody took a century and a half to develop into Haydn and Mozart.  Serialism might take another century or so before it develops into something.  It is something that we have to nurture, but there are signs that people don’t want to nurture it.  They want something new.  So the reason I’m not optimistic is I’m worried about what will happen if they’re so impatient that they can’t wait for something new.  They will destroy something, and just destroy the whole thing to bring it to an end.  After all, music doesn’t have to be an art where Serialist music goes on forever.  Perhaps it won’t.  There wasn’t much music before, let’s say, 1200 AD, or 1500 AD.   Maybe our new style isn’t for all times.

BD:    Perhaps it’ll be replaced by something else?

AB:    That’s right, it could be.  I don’t know, but it’s about the period.  It’s very doubtful about what’s going on now.  It’s very hard for composers to know which way to go because if they do the Serialist thing they’re impatient.  They feel this way because there was so much novelty in the century, so many dogmas which rose and then were knocked down in the course of a few years.  So they feel you have to knock it down and start a new one.  But I think if we have patience to nurture this, maybe Serialism will produce music which will be accessible to a larger public.  Who knows?  It isn’t now, and I don’t think anyone should fool themselves about it.  I can’t simply say the public doesn’t want to understand this music.  The public really is not aware of this music yet. 

BD:    Then should we bring the public along, or change the compositional techniques?

AB:    They haven’t been given a chance.  How many serial works do you hear on your symphony programs?

BD:    [Sadly]  Not a whole lot.

AB:    How can they possibly know what the music is like if they don’t listen to it? 

BD:    [With mock horror]  Are you saying that anything familiar is necessarily good???

AB:    [Laughs]  No, of course not.  On the other hand, familiarity is very, very important.  It seems to me some of the things that we like about the masterpieces of the past include their familiarity.  If you get familiar with some of these newer works, you’d be surprised how you feel at home with them.  You can’t possibly feel at home with something you have had no experience with, and that you’ve hardly been giving any attention to.  People want things to jump out at them, and, coming back to what we were talking about before, they want to be able to hear things at the level of latest pop song.  But it’s not that kind of music.  It wasn’t conceived from that point of view.  It was conceived to live a long time, not to jump out and be consumed quickly.  You’ve got to be willing to give the time to it, and it will repay you.  This all sounds like preaching...

BD:    No, no, no, it’s the viewpoint of an experienced musician, and this is what I’m looking for. 

AB:    People always ask me how is it that I wrote this C major music, and how can I think anything of that now when I write this more advanced stuff.  My music is not organized twelve-tone serial music now.  It’s much freer.  The idiom you write has to be something you feel is right at the time, and at the time, that was right.  Basically I was doing some of the same things in that music as I’m doing now.  It’s as if I was painting figures and houses then, and now I’ve taken out the figures and the houses, and am doing something more abstract.  I’m still doing the other things that were there all the time, except if you look a portrait and you look at it just for the likeness, you’re not seeing the portrait.  When one listens to my early music
which is tunefulif you go out whistling tunes, you realize that’s not the subject of it.  The subject is what’s behind it and what I’ve done with these tunes.

BD:    But you don’t want to disown the earlier pieces, do you?

AB:    No, not at all.  As a matter of fact, I wish I could write that way now.  I’m nostalgic about it.  It would be lovely be able to write tunes, but something about it just isn’t right.  I couldn’t do anything fresh in that style now, whereas at that time I could.  It would be too used up for me right now.  A lot people in the art world think you take a new style because it’s the style and you have to do that for the public.  No, it’s for the artist, because if you take something which is not right for you, or which is used up, you don’t get inside yourself.  It’s all on the surface.  It’s like you have always got the grooves.  Your hands are brought into the grooves.  You’re not doing it yourself.  It’s not from your inside.  You’ve got struggle with it, and if a thing comes too easy, or is too familiar to you, it won’t do that.  So there’ll be struggle with something slightly challenging, and then something will come out of it.

BD:    I hope that we have a lot more from your pen.

AB:    [Laughs]

BD:    I assume you’re still working now?

AB:    Yes.  I’m still torn between writing articles and writing music.  I just finished this article, and I’m doing a review of a Prokofiev book for the New York Review.  So that takes time away from composing.  But I love both of those activities.

BD:    You’ve got a 75th birthday coming up very soon, so let me be the first to congratulate you on that.

AB:    Oh, thank you.  I am facing it with trepidation.  It will certainly be the last quarter of my century.

BD:    Thank you for spending the hour with me.

AB:    That’s great, Bruce.  Fine, yes.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on March 28, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB about six weeks later, and again in 1992 and 1997.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  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.