Composer / Pianist  Ernst  Bacon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ernst Bacon, a Composer Known For Echoing America, Dies at 91

Published: March 18, 1990 in The New York Times

Ernst Bacon, a prolific composer, pianist, conductor and teacher whose career spanned more than six decades, died of heart failure on Friday at his home in Orinda, Calif. He was 91 years old.

Mr. Bacon, whose work was regarded by critics as having a distinctly American sound, composed two symphonies, two piano concertos and two operas. But the bulk of his compositions consisted of orchestral suites and chamber music. He also wrote more than 70 settings of Emily Dickinson poems as well as many more of poems by A. E. Housman and Walt Whitman.

Mr. Bacon wrote several books, among them ''Words on Music'' (Greenwood) and ''Notes on the Piano'' (University of Washington Press), both published more than 25 years ago and still in print.

Born in Chicago, he studied at the Lewis Institute of Northwestern University and received a master's degree from the University of California. He studied with Ernest Bloch, Karl Weigl and Eugene Goosens, among others.

He toured as a concert pianist in this country and Europe before joining the faculty of the Eastman School of Music and becoming assistant conductor of the Rochester Opera Company.

In 1928 he went to the West Coast and founded a Bach festival in Carmel, Calif. He was also a supervising conductor in the Federal Music Project in San Francisco.

From 1928 to 1945 Mr. Bacon was dean of the School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and director of the New Spartanburg Festival. He was director of the Syracuse University School of Music from 1945 to 1947 and stayed on as composer-in-residence for several years.

Three years ago, when he was 88 years old and nearly blind, Mr. Bacon composed a sonata for viola. He continued to compose and to write about music until shortly before his death. He was also an avid hiker.

He is survived by his fourth wife, the former Ellen Wendt, whom he married in 1972; two daughters, Marga Farrell of Cambridge, England, and Madeline Salocks of Walnut Creek, Calif.; three sons, Joseph, of Fairfax, Calif., Arthur, of Danville, Calif., and David, of Orinda; a sister, Madi, of Berkeley, Calif.; 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

What you are about to read is one of several interviews I have done with musicians who were born in the Nineteenth Century.  My guest with the earliest birth-date (March 10, 1892) was soprano Dame Eva Turner.  However, composer John Donald Robb, though three months younger than Turner was nearly two years older at the time of our conversation.  Hence, a clarification is needed when I am asked who my oldest guest was!  Next in birth-order would be composer Paul Amadeus Pisk (May 16, 1893), followed by composer/pianist Leo Ornstein (December 2, 1893), and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky (April 27, 1894).  Then comes mezzo-soprano Sonia Sharnova (May 2, 1896), composer/critic Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896), and composer Vittorio Rieti (January 28, 1898).  The order continues with the one whose thoughts are presented on this webpage, Ernst Bacon (May 26, 1898), followed by composer Marcel Dick (August 28, 1898), conductor Werner Janssen (June 1, 1899), and composer Alfred Eisenstein (November 14, 1899).  The remaining four are composer Elinor Remick Warren (February 23, 1900), composer Otto Luening (June 15, 1900) [about whom Bacon speaks highly], composer Ernst Krenek (August 23, 1900), and finally publisher Hans Heinsheimer (September 25, 1900).  [Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]

Bacon was a remarkable character, having done so many interesting things during his lifetime.  His recollections reflect both the successes and struggles that went along with making music and being an administrator for much of the Twentieth Century.

At the end of 1986, he agreed to speak with me on the telephone.  He was candid with his responses and held nothing back in terms of the ideas and inquiries.

Here is that encounter . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You started out studying at Northwestern with Peter Christian Lutkin (1858-1931)?

Ernst Bacon:    I was in Lutkin’s class for counterpoint.  He was a good teacher but I can’t call myself very much of a student.  I was not a music major.  I thought of majoring in math, but I majored in German because I speak very good German.  They had a wonderful man there, George Kern, who gave some courses on Goethe and others that I very much wanted to attend.  I had three very pleasant years there, and I did my fourth year at the University of Chicago.  But I never got my degree because I foolishly left three credits short of a bachelor degree.  Many years later I decided I must have some kind of degree, so when I was living out here (in California) I inquired about it, and they said since I’d been away more than ten years I’d have to put in a year there to get those three credits.  I said I couldn’t do that, and they very liberally suggested I put all my credits together and  simply apply them into a masters degree, which I got with great ease.  So that’s all I have.

BD:    I noticed you later studied with Bloch (1880-1959) and Eugene Goosens (1893-1962).

EB:    That was many, many years later.  I wasn’t actually a pupil of his.  I had been on the staff at the Eastman School for two years, and was an assistant conductor with the Rochester Opera Company.

BD:    At what point did you decide to get out of math or get out of German?

EB:    Math was just an idea; I never was actually a major.  At the University of Chicago I was majoring in history because they had a famous history department, and I knew some of the professors.

BD:    At what point did you get back into music?

gunnEB:    I wasn’t a professional musician really until I was well into my twenties.  I was even doubting at that time between two or three different careers.  I was vaguely interested in physics, and I had some leaning towards medicine
my father being a doctorbut not very serious thought about it, and I wasn’t confident that I had the talent to be a musician.  The one thing that nobody told me is that you never find out until you actually put a stake in!  It was the fact that I really didn’t begin to be a professional musician until I got my first job.  I studied music in Vienna for a year and half, but even then I considered myself not much better than an amateur.

BD:    Is that when Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) comes into the picture?

EB:    That’s right, Franz Schmidt.  But that was again just a few lessons.  He was a remarkable musician, but my main teacher in Vienna was Karl Weigl (1881-1949) who came to New York later.  He was a very good teacher and a good composer.  I took three or four lessons with Richard Robert (1861-1924), who was the teacher of Rudolf Serkin.  He was an old man and he was sick, and I don’t think that he needed money.  He was not very happy over what I did, I don’t think.  I also had a few lessons over there with an old lady called Malwine Brée (1861-1937), who was one of Leschetizki’s (1830-1915) assistants, but that didn’t go on very long.  My main piano teacher was actually Alexander Raab (1882-1958).  He lived for years in Chicago.  He was a very good friend of our family, a delightful person and a very good musician, but he never wanted to concertize.  He only wanted to teach.   He was a man who could have concertized.  Before that, I had a man who was quite interesting, who moved to Washington, and that was Glenn Dillard Gunn (1874-1963).  He was quite a strong-willed person, and he founded an occasional orchestra which he called the American Symphony in Chicago.  They did new works by Americans and had annual contests for piano.  He was very patriotic in his view.  He thought that the Americans should come into the fore more.

BD:    Do you share that view?

EB:    Oh indeed I did, and I still do.  I think he was much too open and he did things sometimes that I thought were a  little wounding, and I wouldn’t take that.  I have a great admiration of the Europeans here
the good ones — the only objection I have is when Americans are replaced by mediocre people who are from abroad.   But I’m all in favor of having great people from anywhere.  For me, Toscanini or Stokowski or people like that have force, and I’m not chauvinistic by any means.  But there is still a good deal of that condescension left towards Americans.  In some ways I think the Americans have partly themselves to blame, especially the composers.  They write such intricate and sometimes unpalatable music that the general opinion gets around that they’re not very pleasant to listen to.  So conductors and others shy away from everything native, not realizing  that there are all kinds of people creating.

BD:    How can we overcome this problem?

EB:    Slowly we are.  I’m not in favor of contests and awards that are only for Americans.  American awards are in some ways admission of inferiority.  If we were confident of ourselves we would not have to limit them like that, and to some extent this business of nationality is imitated abroad, but not so markedly.  After being in Vienna, when I came back to this country, I was so disturbed by the noise and bustle of New York that I often felt I wanted to go back to Austria where I’d studied.  I wrote to one or two conductors that I’d met over there
no less than Bruno Walter, and Franz Schalk (1863-1931) who had the Vienna Philharmonic — to ask if there was any possibility of getting into a minor position at an opera house and step up the ladder.  They both wrote very nice letters back and said they’d like to do something for me but they have such few places and they felt it was right to reserve them for their own countrymen.  Of course I agreed with them, but at that time we were not treated the same way in our own country by any means.  So I welcomed the opportunity in Rochester, which was perhaps the one place in America that opened its doors to native people.  That was a remarkable thing.  George Eastman, who was at that time one of the wealthiest people in America, had some interest in music.  He built his big theater and endowed the school and a great deal more.  He thought there should be something a little like the Met on a small scale up in Rochester.  So Albert Coates (1882-1953), the English conductor who was at the time was handling the Rochester Philharmonic, said there was a man who wanted to have an American opera company with Americans and Canadians to do operas in English.  There had been occasions where we’ve had opera in English but not a regular company.  Eastman was persuaded and he set aside a certain sum of money for three or four years.  The man’s name was Vladimir Rosing (1890-1963).  He was a Russian who didn’t even speak English too well.  It was, actually, very poor English, but he had that idea, and so that was attached to the Eastman School.

BD:    What years are we talking about?

EB:    That was the middle 1920s.

BD:    I just wondered if there was any correlation because at that same time there was an American Opera Company started here in Chicago with Otto Luening.

EB:    [Laughs]  That’s the same!  In fact it was myself who brought Luening to Rochester.  Luening and I are very good friends.  The so-called American Opera Company was the offshoot of the Rochester Company.  Eastman supported it, but he had the businessman idea that any venture which receives subsidy for four or five years should be able to stand on its own two feet.  Of course no opera company ever stood on its own feet financially, so the company was finally handled by somebody else. 

With George Eastman's backing, Vladimir Rosing envisioned professionally training a group of young American singers and turning them into a national repertory company, performing opera across the United States in easy-to-understand English translations. He did that with the help of enthusiastic artists and benefactors.

The group of artists that came to work with Rosing in Rochester included Eugene Goossens, Albert Coates, Rouben Mamoulian, Nicolas Slonimsky, Otto Luening, Ernst Bacon, Emanuel Balaban, Paul Horgan, Anna Duncan, and Martha Graham. An initial group of 20 singers was chosen from across the United States and given full scholarships.

In November 1924, after a year of gestation and training, the Rochester American Opera Company was announced. It made a tour of Western Canada in January 1926. Performances in Rochester and Chautauqua followed. Mary Garden was so impressed with the group that she came to sing Carmen with the company in February 1927 at the Eastman School's intimate Kilbourn Hall.

carmen 1925

The opera company strictly adhered to a non-star policy, developing instead a unity of ensemble whereby a singer might have a leading role one night and a supporting role the next.

At the invitation of the Theatre Guild, the Rochester American Opera Company made its New York debut in April 1927, giving a full week of performances at the Guild Theatre with Eugene Goossens conducting

A committee of wealthy and influential backers was formed to help take the company to the next level. Summer 1927 was spent rehearsing in Magnolia, Massachusetts, for the fall season and performing at Leslie Buswell's private theater at his nearby mansion, Stillington Hall. In December 1927, the newly christened American Opera Company performed for President and Mrs. Coolidge and 150 members of Congress at Washington D.C.'s Poli's Theater.

During January and February 1928, the American Opera Company brought seven weeks of opera to Broadway at New York's Gallo Theater. Robert Edmond Jones contributed set designs.

National tours followed for the next two years, but the stock market crash of 1929 caused bookings for the 1930 season to dematerialize. The group earned an official endorsement from President Herbert Hoover, who called for it to become "a permanent national institution", but as the country sank into the Great Depression the company was forced to disband.

Some ‘angel’ came along and financed it for a while, and that was called the American Opera Company, and I left the place.  I had nothing to do with it, but I knew the singers and I think the main conductor of it was Emanuel Balaban and Eugene Goosens was our chief of this thing... British conductor, a wonderful man.

BD:    Part of a family of musicians, as I remember.

EB:    Yes he was, but he was a very fine conductor, particularly in opera.  He was my boss, and nobody could have wished for a better.  Rosing was a little difficult to work with because he didn’t read music well, and he learned his operas by listening to rehearsals instead of learning them from a score.  But he had one saving grace, and that is that he had talent.  Eventually after much pain and anguish and delay, some beautiful productions came out which were really his doing.  At one time, we even had a week’s run of the theater in New York, which was a single honor at that time for our company.

BD:    Do you remember what you put on in that week?

EB:    Yes, I think we put on Figaro and Seraglio of Mozart, and possibly La Bohème and Martha.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But these were European operas rather than American.


EB:    Oh, there weren’t any American operas.  There wasn’t much to be had.  We did an opera called The Sunset Trail by Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946).  It was a rather funny work that attempted to have the Indian way in it, but it was rather naïve.  We hadn’t gotten around to writing our own operas yet.  I hadn’t written any and nobody else had.  The first really notable one was probably The Emperor Jones [by Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964), premièred 1933], and Porgy and Bess [Gershwin, 1934], which is certainly one of the better ones, if not the best.  My own A Tree on the Plains came in the 40s.  So we had nothing to offer from America that was very, very useable.

BD:    So then it was an American opera company doing European operas in English?

EB:    That’s right.  We were doing them in English, and the singers were all Americans with quite a few Canadians.  There were some remarkably good singers, but they were semi-students at the Eastman School with the kind of double thing.  They were really paid, they were on scholarships, as they called it, but the scholarships were very handsome.  They were enough to live on, and they gave their services in addition to being in these operas.   They gave their services to the Eastman Theatre.  And the Eastman Theatre had very magnificent spectacles with the field of movies.  It was probably the most elaborate thing next to Radio City in New York - and probably better. [Bruce laughs]  And these spectacles were directed by no less than Rouben Mamoulian.  Rouben became a famous director in Hollywood years later.  He directed the first performance of Porgy, the play by DuBose Heyward.  Eastman put a great deal into that theater, and unfortunately Rochester didn’t respond as well as he’d hoped.  It came at a time when people preferred to go to the gritty Fox Theater which was nearby.  It was quite vulgar in comparison.

BD:    What were they doing there?

EB:    The usual tripe... Well they had some good things, of course, but usually just big movie spectacles.  The kind of thing that you’d see at any big movie house.  But Eastman had really good properties, a remarkable thing, but Rochester wasn’t ready for it.  Not enough people came.

BD:    How long did you stay there?

EB:    I only stayed there two years, then I came out to San Francisco and attached myself to the conservatory, which was a small affair at that time.  It was just a couple of houses, and Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was the director.  He didn’t have much trouble with me.  The business management of it was handled by two ladies who were very glad to carry out his wishes as far as possible in the budget, and he was essentially the artistic director.  I attended a couple of his classes but I was never really a student of his.  I had a great respect for him.  He’s a composer that deserves far more recognition today than seems to be the case.  The Concerto Grosso that he wrote for the Cleveland Institute of Music has been played a good deal.  It’s a good work.

BD:    Schelomo is also a fine piece.

EB:    I have conducted that myself.  There are several really good cello works.

BD:    At what point did you get involved with the WPA?

baconEB:    That was in about 1934 or 35.  That was a very interesting thing, and the man who deserves the greatest credit for founding it was Roosevelt’s right-hand man, Harry Hopkins (1890-1946).  He was a man about whom something should be said because I don’t think any president in this century has had an adviser as close to him and as decent a person as Hopkins was.  At first they just instituted the dole to get people money outright that were starving or needed it badly.  This was the very opposite thing to what Herbert Hoover had done.  Hoover’s policy was to leap up to big industries, thinking that would create a great deal of new employment, but it didn’t work that way.  In fact the big industries were mostly shutting down.  Roosevelt took the other course, and brought out the relief by giving away shoals of money.  Hopkins introduced this.  He said that people were demoralized when they received money to do nothing, so he created what they call the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The idea was to pay people for doing work in what had been their profession or occupation, regardless of whether they were carpenters or office workers or anything else.  I was put in charge of the Federal Music Project in San Francisco.

BD:    You wound up with performers and composers under your direction?

EB:    Yes, and we of course opened the doors to any talent here.  There was no such thing as reputation or publicity having anything to do with it.  Any person who had the stuff could be a soloist or have something done.  There wasn’t much reputation running around.  The same was true with what was called the Federal Theater, which was the serious side of WPA. 

BD:    Was there any opera done, or was it just concerts?

EB:    There were concerts, but I myself, in collaboration with two other members of this thing, wrote a musical comedy called Take Your Choice, which we produced and ran for about two weeks.  That was very successful, but we never really had time to do an opera.  We never got around to it, but we did do a good deal with chorus.  We had a large chorus.  The orchestra was about 75 to 80 pieces.  I was in charge of the orchestra, and there was a man called Giulio Silva who had the chorus of about 85 people, and we had a band of roughly say 60 or 70 pieces.  We also had a pretty large school that was for Indian people, and we had a copy and arranging project.  People were working on scores.

BD:    Did the WPA last up until the War?

EB:    Not to the War, but until employment came back.  The War industry began first.  They began to make tanks and planes, and all kinds of things.

BD:    What happened to the musicians as the WPA was folding up?

EB:    There were two kinds of musicians in this thing.  There were the old-timers who had been with the Symphony who were a little beyond their best years and had probably been retired, and there were the younger people out of the conservatories and from the studios, many of whom were good players.  Some of them went into the Symphony and others stayed around or got into other regions or other orchestras.  I don’t know.  I have not traced them down very much.  And of course the choristers, well, you never know where they go!  Such a thing as professional choruses were almost unknown in those days.  I think the only professional chorus in America was Schola Cantorum in New York

BD:    What about the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera?  Wasn’t that a professional chorus?

EB:    Oh yes, I guess so.  I’d forgotten about them.  But Chicago didn’t have much opera at that time.  We did have an off-season opera here.  We used the opera house when the Symphony wasn’t in session, but that meant that opera had to be in the Fall, and had to clear out when the orchestra was working there.  But now of course there’s a special hall for the orchestra.  Well, after a couple of years doing this work, we really got along wonderfully.  But have you ever heard of getting fired because you do a thing too well instead of the opposite?  [Both laugh]

BD:    Not usually, no!

EB:    Well, that’s what happened to me.  I got fired!  But of course it was all very complicated because there was a rollercoaster which had more loops than I could explain in a minute.  One of them was, as I later discovered, was the old conductor of the Symphony – Alfred Hertz (1872-1942).  He had been retired for years, and his successor was at first Basil Cameron (1884-1975) and then Issay Dobrowen (1891-1953), who was a very talented man but a lazy dog.  He didn’t do much work, but he certainly had talent.  But then they got Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), a Frenchman, who actually was great and everybody liked him.  But Hertz couldn’t stand not having an orchestra.  He was on the National Advisory Committee of WPA, and he wanted my job.  I had the only other orchestra there which was comparable to the Symphony, and I found out later that he was in on the politics that finally eased me out.  I don’t think I could have done it without his help, but of course there were other people involved in that who couldn’t have done it alone.  There was a stage director, a woman who had never been a musician in her life.  I think she was basketball coach in some seminary, but she was made director for the whole State of California, and she was my superior.  I got along all right with her as long as she had a superior herself.  We had a man in charge of eleven Western States who was a Czechoslovak by the name of David Bruno Usher.  He was a very educated person and a sympathetic fellow, and he kept her in tow.  But for some reason, and I never found out what, he was no longer in charge of the Western States.  They offered me that position but that was an administrative job.  That’s not a job to make music by, flying around from one place to another, so I turned it down.  But that placed me under the authority of this woman, and she was sure a horrid person if there ever was one.  She was playing politics, and wanted to move in with her cohorts into San Francisco, which was strictly illegal.  But somehow she got her way.  I never got the entire story straight.  Nicolai Sokoloff (1886-1965) was the National Director. 



Nikolai Sokoloff (28 May 1886 – 25 September 1965) was a Russian-American conductor and violinist. He was born in Kiev, and studied music at Yale. From 1916 to 1917 he was musical director of the San Francisco People's Philharmonic Orchestra, where he insisted on including women in his orchestra and paying them the same as men. Sokoloff was the founding conductor and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1918 where he remained until 1932. Between 1935 and 1938 he directed the Federal Music Project, a New Deal program that employed musicians to perform and educate the public about music. From 1938 to 1941 he directed the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. When he was a conductor he gave a violin to then nine-year-old violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin.

The present Sokoloff, Vladimir ‘Billy’ (1913-1997) is a very nice fellow.  He is in the faculty at the Curtis Institute, and is a very good pianist.  He is the nephew of the former conductor.  Nikolai Sokolov was the one who made the plans of the WPA, and he did a very good job.  He laid it out well, but he was a very vain man, and certainly not a very good musician.  We got on all right, but somehow somebody must have poisoned his mind against me.  I never could understand why because I had no altercations at all with him.  I only know after I was out of my job, I was in New York looking for something, and in the front row of the Metropolitan I saw him there at an opera performance.  I really didn’t know whether he had anything to do with this whole thing (even though I suspected he did), but I felt I must go up and greet him as if nothing had happened.  But the moment he saw me, he turned away and made a quick exit.  So I knew he was behind it.

BD:    That’s too bad.

EB:    I learnt later from other people who had been in the project in New York and in Chicago, that they had heard similar things.  So I decided I’d write a new symphony, which I did.  I wrote my Second Symphony in a very short time, and it is one of my best works.  Then I ran out of money, and when finally I had nothing to do around San Francisco I came to New York looking for something.  I found that there were more opportunities in the East than here in the West.  I got a temporary position as acting professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.  It was a very nice place, New England-like.  It was a boys college [became coeducational in 1978].  Its music department consisted of one person, but the boys were very nice, and I kept that for the semester.  After that I was approached by Converse College in Spartanburg South Carolina, where I never thought I’d go to the South.  I wasn’t particularly interested, and thought that it must be a rather lazy place.  But was persuaded to go down there, and to my great surprise I found this little college in this small town, where they had an auditorium with some 1,800 seats, and six studios with Steinway pianos, and 30 or 40 practice rooms.

BD:    My goodness!

EB:    There wasn’t one university in that year that had as good equipment as that little college.  That was the doing of my predecessor there, who wasn’t much of an artist, but he was certainly good at the business side.  He had certainly equipped that place very well, and I found quite a few good people on the faculty.  So I took the job.  I also found it possible to bring in quite a number of remarkably gifted students.  It’s no exaggeration to say that within a couple of years we had probably the best music school in any college in the United States.  We were getting students from Texas, Louisiana, everywhere.  We built a festival there and I insisted that it be purely local.  They had had an old festival which, in pre-war days, consisted of the New York Symphony coming down there with Walter Damrosch (1862-1950) and various expensive soloists and spending a lot of money.  I said I would have nothing to do with that kind of thing.  We would have a festival here for the South and around here.  Even though I was a ‘damn Yankee’, I said I would raise the Confederate flag while I’m there, and they liked that.  We had a wonderful festival.  I also founded the Bach Festival in Carmel in 1935.  They don’t acknowledge that now, and they don’t need to, of course.  But at that one in Spartanburg, interestingly enough, we got the New York press interested and had astonishingly large reviews in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune and others.  We did operas down there.

BD:    Were the operas done in English, or in the original languages?

EB:    Oh, in English, of course.  Everything was done in English with local people.  We’d have college members, or people around town or in the vicinity.  We had a couple of colleges nearby.  Black Mountain College had some interesting musicians, and then there was College of Greenville, South Carolina, and some people came up from capital of Columbia.



To read my Interview with Vincent Persichetti, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Morton Gould, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin, click HERE.

BD:    Now all this time were you also still composing?

EB:    Not very much.  I really liked administration.  Working with people was a very interesting thing to do, and I couldn’t really do a great deal of composing. I did write what they call a ‘music play’, together with Paul Horgan [Death, Mr. President].  Horgan’s one of our great writers.  That’s the only thing of any large dimension that I wrote down there.  You’ve heard of the ‘administrator’s headache’?  Well, I invented the name ‘the new administrator’s headache’, which is much worse!  To sit under a person who was a jack-ass, like so many deans are, I found I mostly didn’t have to listen to that stuff to see what’s going on!  I don’t mind that kind of thing, and it’s an interesting project to try to be in charge and a good colleague with everybody, and at the same time keep a certain control in hand and not seem to be imperious about it, and make people like you.  But of course the boss is usually in danger of being rather stormed behind his back.  [Laughs]  I don’t think I was, but there’ll always be a couple.  But the atmosphere was very nice down there.  The town had gotten along with the college, and the big mistake I made was to give that up and go to Syracuse.

BD:    Why was that a mistake?

EB:    That’s a big school, an old school, and I thought I must go into bigger things and get nearer to New York City.  But that was like walking into a den of vipers!  It was a really poisonous atmosphere, almost. 

BD:    But you stayed there for many years?

EB:    I did.  I had the foolish idea that I was strong enough to correct those things.  But you can’t correct it alone, and I found out that I had no allies up there to work with.  The trustees were chosen by the President instead of the opposite.  I couldn’t move the den, and the President was there and he called himself Chancellor.  He was practically addicted, and he was always conveniently out of town when anyone had to see him about everything.  And his subordinates were crashing mediocrities.

BD:    When you were there, you were professor of music history?

baconEB:    I was made the Director of the School of Music.  I wouldn’t have taken anything less than that job, but the previous professor had neglected the school entirely.  It was in a dreadful shape.  I didn’t realize how bad it was.  He was not interested.  He was practically letting his secretary run it.

BD:    So then you spent most of your time on administrative duties?

EB:    I had to when I didn’t have proper help.  I wasn’t given enough secretarial help, and I was under the dean who was supposed to oversee all the three schools, including the arts school, which was quite a large school, the school of architecture, and the school of music.  I don’t understand where architecture and music have anything in common.  This man was supposed to be an architect, but I don’t think he ever built a garage!  He had been wished on the University by Columbia... you know where you recommend a man so as to get rid of him by speaking well of him and letting the other people fix them!  Anyhow, he was a impossible person, and my hands were tied.

BD:    How were the students at that time?

EB:    We had some very good students.  One of the agreeable sides of the time was that it was just in ‘45 when the veterans were just coming home from the War.  Every one of these people that had been in the services was so glad to be back in peacetime and in a place of study and work, that they were the nicest people to deal with.  They were polite and hard working.  We had our share of rough kids who came from wealthy families in New York who probably tried to get them into Harvard and Yale and couldn’t get in, so they came to Syracuse.  We got along with them, but their manners were nothing to brag about.  But looking around the Berkeley campus now, I don’t think they’re so wonderful either!

BD:    How have students changed in forty years?

EB:    Of course they have changed, haven’t they?  As a matter of fact, they manage better today than they did twenty years ago, or even fifteen or twelve.

BD:    Let me modify the question a little bit.  How is the teaching of music changed over forty years?

EB:    Well, that’s an interesting question.   There is much more emphasis on job-getting.  When I came to Syracuse, there wasn’t very much talk about whether you would get a job outside.  You were supposed to learn music, and that would take care of itself.   However, the music education department did stress the fact that the department almost guaranteed a job, and it was true that they practically did guarantee a well-paying job.

BD:    Was the job within their own ranks or elsewhere?

EB:    No, not within their own ranks.  Their graduates would become assistant principals in intermediate schools, and sometimes in high schools.  In a few years, they might be principal.  Even if they’d be teachers they’d be getting good incomes.  They were doing pretty well, but some of the best talents didn’t get their start in life because they didn’t have the particular credentials that the State required they have.  You might have the finest pianist in the place, and if you didn’t have certain credentials you couldn’t teach in a kindergarten.  That’s still true today, but now there are not that many people studying music in the colleges just for music’s sake for the sake of the culture.  There are some, of course.

BD:    So you think there is a decline in interest?

EB:    There was a time when credits and degrees meant a great deal.  You couldn’t get into any place very good without a doctorate of some sort, or a master’s degree at least.  Now it doesn’t matter at all.  I have a daughter who has a doctorate from Stanford, which is one of the best universities out there, and she had a very hard time getting into anything.  This has changed a great deal.  However, in the meantime, the private teaching business has come up.  Lots of people are taking private lessons, in fact much more than before.  Fifteen years ago they were inclined to go a college for these lessons because they wanted the credit along with it.  Now they see that the credit doesn’t do them much good, and they just take them.  If they want to learn the piano or violin, they take lessons.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

EB:    Well!  [He kind of laughs]  I’m not as optimistic as... it’s a hard word.  I have an affirmative outlook.  I would never discourage a person who really wants to make music, or even be a musician.  I would say be prepared for the fact that it’s a hard profession to make a living in and to get ahead in because it’s a very over-crowded profession.  The whole point is that actually you’re not doing what is called a ‘useful thing’. 

BD:    Should music be ‘useful’?

hayesEB:    No, I’m not saying it should!  Nowadays, everybody’s looking for ‘utility’.  If a man learns how to do plumbing, which he can learn in half a year, he’s going to get a job and make a living, whereas it may take him ten years to become a good violinist and he may get into an orchestra.  I know so many good musicians right out here in California
and the same would be true in Chicagothat ought to be given public appearances, and are not.  I’ve approached the public broadcasting people about this.  They have given us some very good things naturally, especially those British movies and so forth, and some very good documentaries.  But they’re giving us an awful lot of tripe at the same time.  Some of those rock bands that we’ve had are really sleazy.  They’re not even worth the time.  If they gave us some very first rate jazz, we might enjoy that, but not this stuff which is practically just an invitation to drugs and crimes.  We’re paying for these things, and I haven’t seen them once engage anyone of this kind.  I could name right off-hand two dozen people here in the Bay Areawhich is now the fifth largest population area in the countrythat could play wonderfully on the piano, the violin, the cello, and would delight audiences.  Why don’t they give them an opportunity?  But they were just closed to the suggestion.  They just do nothing about it, and this is a public broadcasting and you’re expected to contribute to it.  I told them they’re not doing their stuff!  Probably it’s the same elsewhere.  I’m not against them doing popular music, in fact I like some popular music, but where do the other people come in?  Another thing is the concert management.  Starting back as much as thirty years ago, it was all centralized in New York.  It used to be that Chicago had an impresario who would circulate artists from Chicago and the mid-West through an area that included Minneapolis, Cincinnati, all over the middle-West.  There was a man in Los Angeles who did the same kind of thing, and, I dare say, there might have been others in other cities.  This has all disappeared.  Concert managers today may be decent people, but they are the agents of one or two big managements in New York.  For a long time it’s practically been of monopoly, or rather a duopolya double monopolyand very hard to get in.  They take away most of the profits, anyway.  You may not know this, but two of the greatest artists in the world gave up tours because they figured by the time the managements had taken their fees and had paid for all the advertising, there would be nothing left.  These two were no less than Ferruccio Busoni, one of the greatest pianists, and Pablo Casals, the cellist.  A third one was the greatest black singer we had, Roland Hayes, the tenor.  He gave up touring for the same reason.

BD:    But this is quite a number of years ago.

EB:    I know, but it would be the same today.  The trouble is that these communities here don’t stand on their own.  I make the comparison sometimes to Germany.  Now Germany has a number of music centers, notably Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, West Berlin, Stuttgart... those are the leading centers.  Every one of those towns is pretty much autonomous.  They have their own publishers, recording companies that publish records, and managements.  Of course in Austria there’s Vienna, and they’re not dependent upon Berlin.  But here we don’t have that kind of thing.  San Francisco has nothing.  We have no publishing now.  Same in the literature world, there’s no publisher out here, and there’s no magazine that has national circulation.  There’s nothing out here.  We’re certainly not inferior to Chicago or New York, and there is certainly nothing in Minneapolis and in Cincinnati and other cities.  It’s all in New York.  Even Boston doesn’t have what used to have, though it still has some.

BD:    Is there any solution to this problem?

EB:    Decentralization is a difficult thing to achieve because the whole tendency is the opposite way.  It’s all getting more and more centralized.  I published music with a number of people.  One of my first publishers was called Associated Music, formerly Universal Edition in Vienna, later with offices in New York.  Then they were bought up by Schirmer, and now Schirmer has been bought up by Macmillan.  What’s coming next?  Who’s going to buy out Macmillan?  Is it going to be the Pentagon, or General Motors?  [Laughing]  Is Mr. Weinberger going to decide what’s good music?  [Caspar Weinberger was U.S. Secretary of Defense when this interview took place.]  It’s depressing.  The only thing that could stem this tide would be the universities, and they are not unified under one.  Columbia University does not run this country.  The University of Chicago is quite an independent school, and so is Stanford and so is Harvard, but they don’t depend on each other.  They interchange of course, but if these people would have their own circuits of arts and establish something really worthwhile...  There was a beginning made years ago along that line of the, in fact I took part in that.  A very, very able man ran it, but that’s gone under now.

BD:    Was that a publishing firm?

EB:    They weren’t publishing, but they were circulating artists around.  They were paying them much less than the standard that the big managers were, but what you got paid you kept yourself.  They didn’t take anything out on advertisements and in management fees.   It was called the Association of American Colleges.  They had an arts program.  It was located in New York, but it was national in scope and they would circulate.  They had a few famous people on their lists who were disappointed and washed-up with managers.  And of course some of the managers are outright crooks.  [Laugh]  They’d rather get less money and have better circumstances.

BD:    I hear this quite a bit from singers, that managements are not particularly concerned with their vocal careers.  They want to get as much money out of them as fast as they can.

EB:    Well, yes.  It’s the same thing.  It’s in everything, in every business, publishing of books or publishing music.  If they can’t make a buck overnight, they think it’s no good.  If we went by that, then all the great poets we had in the nineteenth century would have starved and be unknown.  Walt Whitman had to publish Leaves of Grass by his own earnings.  Emily Dickinson was never published at all!  And Herman Melville for twenty years, was totally ignored by publishers.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us move to your compositions.  You won the Pulitzer Prize...

EB:    [Interrupting]  That was in 1932, and was for my first symphony.  This is not listed in the Almanac, which only lists Pulitzer Prizes from 1943 onwards.  The first one was William Schuman, but this was not quite the same.  When I was told about this, I was told by the chairman of the committee that I won the Pulitzer Prize but it was called Pulitzer Fellowship.  But it was circulated around the country as the Pulitzer Prize, and when I came out here to San Francisco, everybody said I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, and I said I suppose I have.  It’s not exactly called that, and so I’m always a little embarrassed about it because they might say that it isn’t listed as such.  But it had the same intention, and two or three other musicians are in the same boat as myself.

BD:    Is the Pulitzer Prize something that you should strive to win when you’re writing a piece of music?

EB:    Oh, I don’t think so.  I think that should just come as an acknowledgment.  It’s like in any other form.  It’s a prize, in fact it’s one of the best prizes in America, but it isn’t remotely comparable to the Nobel Prize, or anything like that.  But there’s no more a coveted prize in America that I know of.  I was given an award by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which in some ways was a greater distinction, but that isn’t the kind of thing you can write for.  You don’t want to talk about it.  I won three Guggenheim fellowships, but you don’t go telling people about that.

BD:    Why not?

EB:    What’s there to tell?  If somebody wants an official biography in which I have to state everything, I put it down, but it’s nothing to brag about.  In fact, a lot of these things are somewhat misdirected often, and you’re not even proud to have it.  You see some oaf getting something like that, and you don’t want to be in the same company!  It reminds me that I proposed Virgil Thomson for an honorary doctorate at Syracuse because apart from his rather strange music he is certainly a brilliant writer and very sparkling fellow.  They accepted my proposal, and when he came to Syracuse to receive his doctorate, who should be on the stage with him receiving another one but Elizabeth Arden!

baconBD:    The cosmetics queen?

EB:    Yes!  I heard from Otto Luening that Thomson was ripped all over the place when he got back to New York,
You and Elizabeth Arden!  It caused him a lot of real annoyance.  It wouldn’t bother me.  It just shows you how cheap those things can be.  Somebody expected the woman to give them big money.  I don’t know if she ever did, but they hoped she would.

BD:    Now you’re known primarily as a composer of songs.

EB:    I’m best known that way because very few composers write songs.

BD:    What attracted you to the songs?  Was it the poetry?

EB:    Partly, but also the fact that I love singing.  I can’t sing myself, but I worked a lot with singers when I had my first job as an opera coach in Rochester.  And I love good singing.  I don’t mean to say that I don’t like violin playing or cello, or anything like that, but I’m very fond of singing.

BD:    Is good singing today as good as the good singing forty or fifty years ago?

EB:    I think probably it is, but people don’t become as famous because there’s so many of them.  This is true in every branch of music.  There are so many excellent people that there’s no room for anybody to become great.

BD:    Are there too many?

EB:    There are too many, yes.  I mean, there’s no single personality today like Paderewski was in his day.  He was a lordly person, a Rachmaninoff.  The last of them that had a little bit of that might be Horowitz or maybe Artur Rubinstein, but even they don’t have the tremendous stature in the public eye that Paderewski had.  I’m not meaning to belittle them at all.  I admire them both, but the point is we don’t want greatness any more in the arts than we do in politics.   Look at all the mediocrity that we put into high office nowadays.

BD:    Tell me about some of your songs.  When you write for the voice, do you write for a specific voice or do you write for the voice in your inner ear?

EB:    I’ve never thought about a specific voice.  You asked me how I get into song writing, and there’s very little poetry that appeals to me, but when it does, it appeals to me strongly.  The two poets that appeal most to me
and long before they were exploited by other composersare Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.  I must have written forty or fifty songs to Emily Dickson before any other composer even knew about her.  When I first ran across that book of poems of hers, it was like a miner finding a bonanza.  I just thought these are such wonderful poems.  They are so truly feminine, so penetrating, so poignant at times.  Walt Whitman is at the opposite end.  Here’s a man who speaks with sort of a Biblical grandeur.  That appeals to me, too, but of course, he’s a great poet.  There are the other poets that I’ve set, and actually I started writing songs mainly to German poets because I immersed myself in the German song literature at one time.  I went through hundreds and hundreds of songs by Schubert, and Brahms, and Schumann, Beethoven.  They are all wonderful!

BD:    Do you feel that you are the continuation on these shores of the German Lied?

EB:    In a way I do, yes.  As a matter of fact, I became so steeped in these that I could hardly think of using English.  I speak fluent German so I began to write songs in German with German texts.  After I while I thought this won’t do.  After all I’m not a German, and I began to think of what there was in English.  In my foolish way I looked around many of the English poets that were famous, and they weren’t the right thing.  There’s nothing for a song writer in Milton or in Browning or Pope, and not even very much in Shakespeare!  But when I encountered A. E. Housman, I began to think there’s somebody that should have some music.  I thought that way about some of the quite modest poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, but it wasn’t until I discovered Emily Dickinson that I really found someone
’s whose work I could bury myself in.  Later on I began to see that the poem must be the kind of thing that has a musical quality, but it’s not too much music itself.  I remember trying to write music to Edgar Allan Poe.  Well, you can’t!  Poe was so musical that he wrote music himself when he wrote these poems like The Bells, or The Raven.  They are music.  You can’t just add anything at all.

BD:    So your music then would be superfluous?

EB:    Yes, and I don’t want to write superfluous music!

BD:    You’ve also written a couple of operas.  Are your operas similar to your songs?

EB:    Oh yes, in a way they are.  I got interested very much in folksong, and there were two people who influenced me most of all.  One was Carl Sandburg.  I got to know him quite well, and I spent many hours listening to him sing with a guitar.  I went to his American Songbag.  Then the other one was a man who put me onto the Negro Spirituals, and that was Roland Hayes, the great tenor.  Later I got to know other folklores who were actually more widely versed in the folksong.  I ran across books about the Appalachians songs by Cecil Sharp.  They appealed to me very much, and I made many, many settings of some of these, by the hundreds, I guess.  So of course, that kind of thing has tripped into my music too.  That was true, to some extent, with Bartók.  He was a great student of Hungarian and Romanian folk music.  It’s also true of Brahms and Liszt.  Liszt was engaged not to the ‘Magyar’ music, but with the gypsy music.  And of course, the Spaniards have always done folk music, including  composers like De Falla, and Albeniz.  They all are deeply steeped in Spanish folk music.


BD:    So then you really feel a sense of continuity with composers from all over the world?

EB:    Oh yes... well I can’t say the Orient.  I can feel interest in Japanese and Chinese music, but it had no effect on me at all.  African drums can be fascinating, but you get too much of that right here now!  I’m getting rather tired of all this black singing and drums.  There’s nothing racial about it; it’s just too much, that’s all.   But nevertheless we all have a great deal of fine music to look back on, and especially to some rather remote corners.  For instance, I found some remarkable music down in what’s called the Sea Island in Georgia.  That isn’t well-known. 

BD:    Let me ask a philosophical question.  Should music be art or entertainment?

EB:    Well, why make it
or?  Why not have it both?  Modern composers have forgotten music should also entertain.  Most of my colleagues, the so-called serious composers of America, have forgotten that there should be some entertainment in music.  There’s plenty of entertainment in Mozart and in Beethoven.  They’re full of it!

BD:    Then where is the balance?

EB:    It varies.  Take a comedy like the Fledermaus of Strauss.  It’s a marvelous piece, but in fact it took generations for opera houses to put it on.  They felt it’s really a musical comedy, not for serious opera houses.  Today there’s not an opera house that wouldn’t put that on gladly.  Actually it should be done in a smaller place.  I remember being told as a boy that Carmen of Bizet was not a serious opera.  I couldn’t imagine a better work than Carmen.  It
’s one of the best operas ever written!

BD:    Let me ask you about your operas.  One book calls these works ‘operas’, and another book calls them ‘musical plays’.

baconEB:    If you mean A Tree on the Plains, I think the term ‘music play’ is a more correct one because if I call it an opera, then people expect a pretty elaborate set-up.  They expect a large orchestra and continual singing, usually.  For instance, a recent opera that’s just come out by an American is Goya by Menotti.  This is a very elaborate concern, and there’s singing going on and the orchestra goes on.  It’s quite a well-written work.  The music is not music that I particularly enjoy hearing by itself, but he sets text beautifully.  He’s written the text himself, and he has a great gift for putting the right music to the right words.  But that is really an opera.  In comparison, my A Tree on the Plains has quite a bit of spoken dialogue, and a small orchestra, and the numbers are strung along separately, like in Carmen.  It’s not just Wagner’s idea of a continuous thing that never stops.  You do go from one thing to another one, and people know there is a separation, but it doesn’t bother them.  What people also expect is a degree of passion and excitement, the extremities of emotion. They’re used to Verdi or Wagner who both go to the very limits of emotion sometimes, whereas this thing of mine does not.  In that sense it’s much more American.  It has some warmth in it, it has some humor in it, but it never goes to the limits.  As a matter of fact, when the director of the theater in New York heard it, she said that with a little modification she could put it on on Broadway.

BD:    Would you rather it be done at the Met or on Broadway?

EB:    Well, neither one exactly.  If it were done, it would need something special.  It’s not really meant for bigger places such as the Met.  It ought to be done as part of a smaller season.  The right place would be that opera house that Beverly Sills runs, the New York City Opera.  That’s much smaller, isn’t it?  That’d be the right place for it if they got some good singers for it.  The singing part is easy.  That’s another thing, there’s no difficulty.  It doesn’t take any great voices.  I wrote it as a college opera!  I was commissioned by the League of Composers.  The thing they said to write an opera that can be done by a university or a good college.  So there’s nothing in there that a good advanced student can’t do.  It’s not the kind of thing that takes great professionals.  Some singers may shy away from it.  After all, there’s quite a bit of Mozart’s music in his operas which can be done by people who aren’t so developed.

BD:    Another opera of yours is A Drumlin Legend.

EB:    That’s a children’s opera.  That’s a children’s story.  We did it at Columbia University, and it was badly received.  It should never have been done there.  I advised against it, but they wanted it, and dressed it up with ballet and all kinds of stuff.  It really should be done in a nice, small place.  It’s for kids!  I’ve written a musical comedy which could go on Broadway, but by this time it would be a period piece because it was written during the Depression.  This could be a great hit on Broadway if it were properly done.   It was big hit around here.  Even though I
’m an old man, I still have enough ideas.  If I could find a dramatist, somebody with a sense of humor, I mean real wit and invention for the stage, I’d like to do a musical comedy right now which would be a political satire.  I’d love to do it, and I could do it very well, but I don’t know anybody like that to write the text.

BD:    You would not want to undertake the book yourself?

EB:    I don’t think I could.  I could do some of it, certain lyrics in it, but I’ve never written a play or done anything like that.  I’ve written most things, but not that.

BD:    This sounds like something you should contact Mark Russell (1932 -  ) about.

EB:    Mark Russell?  Well, he’s pretty good.  The one that I think is even better is not so well-known, and that is Tom Lehrer (1928 -  ).

BD:    Oh, I remember him.  He was very popular in the ‘60s.

EB:    I think he’s better than Mark Russell – not that I don’t like Russell.   In fact, Russell rather imitates Lehrer, I think.  But Lehrer was brilliant.  I think he’s on the faculty at Santa Cruz?   He’s a mathematician.  He might be somebody.  I never thought about him.

BD:    Maybe contact him about doing a political satire.

EB:    We have a chap out here who writes for the Chronicle every day.  He writes fables.  His name is Art Hoppe (1925-2000).  He
’s a brilliant fellow.  I might get in touch with him, but these people are always so busy with their jobs.

BD:    You have a few published books, though.  One is Notes on the Piano.

EB:    Well, actually Notes on the Piano is not just about the piano.  It’s about music in a large sense too.  I just go out into the piano.  Of course, they were written over twenty years ago, but they’re pretty much what I think today.  Some things have changed, but nothing very much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume that you are still composing?

baconEB:    Oh, yes.  I’m just writing a viola sonata.  I just finished a trio, which will be done in February.  I get these commissions from time to time.

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

EB:    Well...  [Ho-hums a bit]  Some of them!  I had a good performance of an Elegy in Memory of Ansel Adams.  He was a good friend of mine,  and the San Jose Symphony played it.  They’re a very good orchestra.  They’re one of our three orchestras around here, and they did it well.  Then they did a Requiem of mine, which they also did well.  They had a good conductor, George Cleve.  It’s not as good as the San Francisco Symphony, which is quite first class.  I won’t say it’s as good as the Chicago Symphony, which hardly has an equal anywhere.  Today, the only people that can dispute first place in Chicago would be either Philadelphia or Boston.  I don’t know of any other, unless it might be in London.  Chicago is a wonderful orchestra.  It’s one of the greatest orchestras, and they’ve got a good conductor too.  Solti is all right.  He’s got crazy gestures, but I don’t care.  He makes music!  I’m not in very good standing with the orchestra people or the opera people here.  They don’t seem to be interested in me.  They think I’m a chauvinist for American stuff.  They’re all for Europeans first.  I’m not at all.  I’m all for excellence wherever it comes from.  I think it’s something of a disgrace that San Francisco has never permitted an American to even compete for the job of conductor.  I don’t say that they should have given it to an American, but they should allow the Americans a chance.  [Note: The Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt was the Music Director when this interview took place in 1986.  He was succeeded in 1995 by the American Michael Tilson Thomas.]  We have a Symphony in Oakland which is now bankrupt, but they have a conductor who is one of the best American conductors in the business, named Richard Buckley.  I would place him right alongside any of the conductors going strong in any of our orchestras.  He is superb, and yet he wouldn’t have a tinker’s chance of anything like San Francisco or Philadelphia, or anything like that.  I’ve heard performances of his that would hold up against anybody.  But this is the per se.   Our patrons always like someone from far away.

BD:    Who’s running San Francisco now?

EB:    We have a very good conductor here, Herbert Blomstedt.  He’s a good man.  He’s American born, but lived most of his early life in Sweden.  He studied in Europe, but he’s a good man.  I don’t want to run him down.  He’s an honest musician, very dedicated to his job.

BD:    Let me ask one last philosophical question.  What should be the ultimate purpose of music?

EB:    [Laughs and thinks a moment]  Oh, it’s a very hard thing to say.  I think it should just be.  That’s almost like asking me what the ultimate purpose of life is.  It is like love, like anything.  It has to be!  I don’t see how I can define that.  I like what Einstein said... in society there is democracy, in art there is aristocracy!  In other words, only seek quality for the best part.  This idea of democracy in music is ridiculous.  We need only the best, but in our social life we have to treat everybody in the same way and be considerate.  That’s a different thing, and people get those things mixed up.  We ought to be able to say the same thing in politics.  Thomas Jefferson said,
“The purpose of a republican government as conceived by our Constitution is for the populace to elect a superior man whom I would call a natural aristocrat.  By that he meant not by birth, but by quality; a man of superior mind and character.  Lincoln was a natural aristocrat.

BD:    And we should look for that in music?

EB:    Yes, we should look for that in music.  Our Founding Fathers were almost unparalleled in history as a group of great gentlemen, honest, good people.

BD:    Well, you have been a very wonderful gentleman to me this afternoon, speaking about your music and philosophy.

EB:    It was a pleasure.


A couple of months after this interview was posted, I received the following e-mail . . . . .

Dear Bruce Duffie,

A few days ago I was looking for a piano/vocal score of my husband's (Ernst Bacon's) children's opera, "A Drumlin Legend" and came across your 1986 interview with him.  What a delight!  Reading his words, it was easy to imagine hearing him speak them.  There were quite a few details about his life that I had either forgotten or never knew, plus a few things I know I never heard before, such as the wonderful story of Virgil Thomson and Elizabeth Arden sharing the stage to receive an honorary doctorate. 

There's an important, personal part of his life from those early years that he left out.  When he was studying composing in Vienna in his 20's, he had a few lessons with Eusebius Mandychewski, who was a close friend of Brahms, and fell in love with his daughter, Vicki.  They became engaged and intended to live in America, repeating the history of Ernst's midWestern father and Viennese mother.  However, just before they were to leave together, Vicki's mother suddenly died, and she decided to stay and look after her elderly father - so Ernst returned home alone, and instead of becoming his wife, Vicki became his lifelong Muse   She remained the Ideal, and his four wives (of whom I was the last) found it hard to measure up to her.  In his last years Ernst sometimes said that Vicki had been the "most important woman" of his life.  I wish I could have met her; and sometime I hope someone will translate the letters she wrote to him in those early years.    

I met Ernst on a Sierra Club trip in Kings Canyon in the summer of 1968.  He was a widower of 70, and I was an elementary school vocal music teacher of 26, living in Cambridge, MA.  We corresponded for a year and visited back and forth a couple of times, and in 1969 I resigned from my teaching job in Concord and moved to Berkeley, hoping to marry this remarkable man.  My old friends thought I was crazy, but I told them that "I'd rather have 10 minutes of sunset than 10 hours of ordinary daylight."  Since he lived to be 91, we actually had two decades together and even had a son, David, born when Ernst was 74.  David now lives in Denver and has 3 children, who are Ernst's grandchildren, the oldest of whom, at age 7, is 110 years younger than Ernst!  Knowing I would probably outlive Ernie, I vaguely thought I would move back East and teach piano part-time, while promoting his music the rest of the time.  It turned out as I had imagined, and since 1992 I've been living in Syracuse, where Ernst left such a legend of himself at the University.

One of the pillars of the musical community here is Neva Pilgrim, and I enjoyed reading your interview of her, as well.  She once told me that reading one of
Ernst's books, in which he pleaded for more recognition of living composers, influenced her in establishing the Society for New Music.  In conjunction with
another local music organization, Civic Morning Musicals, she organized a 90th birthday celebration for Ernst in 1989, and it was at that event that I first
visited Syracuse and later realized it would be a good place for me to relocate as Ernst's widow.  Occasionally the SNM programs a Bacon piece, even though he is no longer "living."  Recently Neva narrated a tragic piece for clarinet, cello, and piano with a Whitman text, "Come up from the Fields, Father."  Of course she has sung and taught some of Ernst's many art songs, and for the past few years she has been an important committee member for the CMM vocal competition, which now offers an  "Ernst Bacon Prize" for the best performance of an American art song.

Speaking of Whitman and art songs, I wonder if you have a copy of the CD, "Fond Affection," featuring 25 Bacon art songs - 15 for soprano and 10 for baritone. William Sharp sings the latter, including many by Whitman.  In her book, "A Singer's Guide to American Art Song," Victoria Villamil wrote:  " his settings of Walt Whitman, Bacon perfectly matches the amplitude, mystery, vision, and challenging exuberance of the grand poet, who in his free-wheeling celebration of America, the common man, life, and the unknown, was surely Bacon's soul mate."

I hope more of Ernst's 19 Whitman songs will be sung during the upcoming Whitman bicentennial in 2019.  My main focus right now is his short oratorio, "By Blue Ontario," with Whitman texts sung by SATB Chorus and mezzo and baritone solos.  The Ernst Bacon Society ( paid to have the full score engraved, and I'm looking for a grant to have the vocal/piano score also engraved.  I need to get busy finding conductors and orchestras that would be interested in programming this work.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

If you don't have a copy of "Fond Affection" and also of "Forgotten Americans," on which Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish recorded the eloquent cello/piano work, "A Life" (written in memory  of one of Ernst's sons, who died in an accident at age 26) - I'd be happy to send you copies of them.  Maybe in your radio broadcasts you can help to remind the world of this "Forgotten American" from time to time!

Thank you again for your wonderful interviews.  There are quite a few of them that I want to read!

Best wishes,
Ellen Bacon

Naturally, I wrote back immediately to thank her for the message.  I also asked if she would permit me to include her letter with the interview, and she was most gracious to allow me do so.  She also gave me a few small corrections and suggestions to the text (which have been made), and fixed the caption of the photo with Carl Sandburg. . . . . .

Dear Bruce,

Thanks so much for your kind reply.  I'm happy to give permission to add whatever you want from my letter to the EB interview.

I love reading biographies, especially of musicians, and your interviews are a terrific resource for more than a century of them.  I'll start with some people that
were closest to Ernst - Otto Luening, who was like a brother to him, often calling him on the phone at 2 a.m. EST for a merry chat;  Don Martino, whose first
composition teacher was Ernst and who kept Ernst's picture on his mantle to the end of his life; and Carlisle Floyd, whose first composition teacher also was Ernst.

I remember when Jake Heggie came to our house at age 16 to study composition with Ernie.  I would come home in the late afternoon, bedraggled after a stressful day of teaching, and there would be this fresh-faced young Jake, such a very nice person.  Before he discovered his homosexuality, he was married to Johana Harris, the widow of Roy Harris.  She was his piano teacher, and the age gap between them was even wider than the 44 years between Ernst and me.  They later separated, but remained friends until the end of her life.  The two of them played a four-hand piece of Bach at the memorial service of John Edmunds.  It was the most profound and eloquent playing I've ever heard.  I've always loved the story of his trying to make a living as a cab driver and having the incredible luck to chauffeur Fredericka von Stade, who then sang his songs and became a kind of fairy godmother.

I'm so glad to have discovered this treasure-trove of musical biographies and will tell others about them.

Many thanks -
Ellen Bacon

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on December 13, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1988, and again in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.