Soprano Bethany Beardslee
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Bethany Beardslee (born December 25,
1925) is an American soprano particularly noted for her collaborations with
major 20th-century composers, such as Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, George Perle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and
her performances of great contemporary classical music by Arnold Schoenberg,
Alban Berg, Anton Webern. Her legacy amongst midcentury composers was as
a "composer's singer"—for her commitment to the highest art of new music.
Milton Babbitt said of her "She manages to learn music no one else in the
world can. She can work, work, work." In a 1961 interview for Newsweek, Beardslee
flaunted her unflinching repertoire and disdain for commercialism: "I don't
think in terms of the public... Music is for the musicians. If the public
wants to come along and study it, fine. I don't go and try to tell a scientist
his business because I don't know anything about it. Music is just the same
way. Music is not entertainment."
Beardslee was born in Lansing, Michigan. She trained first in the Music Department
of Michigan State College, where she received her B.M. (cum laude), and later
did post-graduate work at the Juilliard School. She trained with Louise Zemlinsky
(wife of Alexander Zemlinsky). She received an honorary doctorate from Princeton
University in 1978, an honorary Ph.D. from the New School for Music Philadelphia,
PA in 1984, and from the New England Conservatory in 1994.
Her first husband, the French conductor Jacques-Louis Monod, whom she married
in 1951, introduced her to the basic vocal repertoire of the Second Viennese
School. Together they toured the United States through the 1950s and gave
recitals of this literature combined with basic Lieder. Monod's influence
brought Beardslee onto the path that would become her career in contemporary
In 1956, she married the composer Godfrey Winham, a pioneer in the research
of computer music of the period. They have two children, Baird and Christopher
Winham. Godfrey Winham died in 1975.
She retired officially in 1984, though she performed a number of times in
the decade that followed. Her final public performance was 1993 at the Weill
Recital Hall in New York City. About that performance, Alex Ross wrote in
The New York Times that "the legendary soprano Bethany Beardslee-Winham,
now well into her sixties, remains a compelling interpreter of new music."
In retirement, she was president of APNM (Association for the Publication
of New Music) and produced a number of CDs of her own performances, as well
as the compositions of her late husband Godfrey Winham, and her friend Arlene
Her virtuosity is displayed in many recordings of music of the Second Viennese
School as well as works written for her, notably Milton Babbitt's Philomel. During the 1950s, she performed
world premieres and made historic recordings of music of the Second Viennese
In 1962 she was given the American Composers Alliance Laurel Leaf Award for
"distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging American music."
Beardslee's recording with Robert Craft of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire"
(Columbia Records, 1961) was a milestone in 20th-century music. It was the
first recording of the piece that used the sprechstimme in the way that Schoenberg
had conceived the piece. Craft, who conducted it, said to Beardslee that
"your performance is the first that anyone can listen to beginning to end
with total pleasure and belief in the spreschstimme medium. You have made
a permanent document." It was also the recording used by Glen Tetley when
he choreographed Pierrot Lunaire. In 1977-78, Rudolf Nureyev, dancing Tetley's
choreography to Beardslee's live performances, appeared together in New York,
Los Angeles, and Paris. Beardslee went on to perform "Pierrot" over fifty
times in the US and abroad.
-- Names which are links (both
in this box and in the text below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this
In June of 1995, Beardslee was back in Chicago for a visit, and we met at
the studios of WNIB, Classical 97. Naturally, I asked quite a bit about
the new music scores she had sung, but we also talked of traditional works.
While setting up, we were speaking about new versions and new stagings of
operas . . . . . . .
I think that there are some stagings that do work. I saw a staging
of Götterdämmerung that
von Karajan did. It was very successful, but it was done in a very
abstract way. I think with Peter Sellars, he gets too close to the
bone. He really changes the time of Mozart, and brings it into the
modern times. I don’t really approve of that. I still like to
see it in its time —
Figaro should be eighteenth
Bruce Duffie: How
much pushing and pulling can you do of stage direction, and the follow up
question would be how much pushing and pulling can be done of the actual
Bethany: I’m really
a purist, I guess, so not too much! I think we should try and
stay as much as we can in the composer’s head. Wagner built Bayreuth.
He conceived of Bayreuth with the idea that a lyric soprano could sing Isolde
if she had the stamina to do the long amounts of singing that occur in that
role. That’s really what’s sometimes the hard part.
BD: Lilli Lehmann was fond of saying that singing
Norma was even worse than singing
three of the Wagner roles, so maybe Wagner needed a Norma for it.
and Traviata, too. It’s not
easy. Violetta is a big role.
BD: And Violetta
needs something different for each of the three acts.
Bethany: I’ve always
thought it would be wonderful to hear Butterfly done with a change of vocal
quality that would occur. She would be first a very bright, young,
girlish sound, and then as the opera develops, by the time she gets to the
scene where she commits suicide, the voice would take on all kinds of tragic
vocal qualities. But no one has ever done it, as far as I know.
BD: You mean vocally
different in timbre. You could do that because she’s oriental, and
Orientals pick up a very high and bright quality of their language which
lends itself to that. But that’s just an idea off the top of my head.
In the past three years I’ve been teaching, and I have learned that there
are many different types of voice qualities that the singer can use.
BD: Have you been
teaching voice, or stagecraft?
BD: Maybe you should
become a stage director.
Bethany: I think
that’s beyond me because you really have to have a sense of all the different
aspects, including a sense of acting and so forth. That would be impossible
for me. You don’t just jump into these things, although some singers
do, like Scotto, who
is now beginning to stage things, but she’s had a tremendous wealth of singing
on the stage, and she’s an extremely serious musician, and a very intelligent
musician. I think she will make a good stage director.
BD: Did you do
much opera in your career, or was it mostly concerts?
Bethany: No, mostly
concerts. I did a lot of chamber music and a lot of recitals and orchestra
BD: Was that satisfying
to be on the stage as yourself rather than as Butterfly or as Traviata or
it’s different, isn’t it? It’s a whole different feeling. I think
it would be wonderful to be an opera singer. It’s the dimension that
I’ve missed, although I have sung opera but not in the sense of the big time.
BD: You know the
various ways that composers are writing for the voice now. Will those
ways work well on the opera stage or are those much more suited for concerts
Bethany: Now we’re
getting into compositional styles of various composers. Had you someone
the ones that you’ve sung, but you’ve had such a range of composers and such
a range of styles.
Bethany: Not really.
When I began singing, I devoted practically all of my work to the Viennese
School and to young American composers that were then the serious composers
of the ‘50s. Most of my work has been really involved with chamber
pieces and new song cycles, and things like that. But at the time I
started, no one was doing contemporary music much, so I sort of had the field
to myself. This was in New York in 1950. I think the first piece
I sang was by Ben Weber. I met a wonderful musician who I married,
and we worked together as a duo. We used to tour and do whole concerts
of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern songs.
BD: Did the audience
Bethany: It was
mostly for college audiences and New York audiences, who are very much involved
in the mainstream which was Schoenberg and Copland and Hindemith. They
were the big ‘father figures’ that people like Elliott Carter and Milton
Babbitt and Earl Kim and
a lot of them were following, and who had a really, what I feel is almost
missing for the young composer today. They had real father figures
who were in the mainstream of serious composition. Stravinsky was alive
at that time, too.
BD: Is there any
way of getting back to this, or have we lost this?
Bethany: It’s lost. There’s so much fragmentation
now. Developmental music is such that it does not mean what it did
BD: Back then was
it meaning one kind of direction, and now it means scatter-shot?
Bethany: Yes, yes.
Now there are so many different styles and mediums. There’s all kinds
of music being written now. I think we’re going through a big transitional
period, and eventually it will come around. We may have a whole new
rebirth of tonality for all we know. Maybe a new system will emerge,
or computer music will be the common idiom.
BD: Will that be
a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?
Bethany: Just a
thing. One thing we can always count on is that things are always changing!
BD: But the more
things change, the more things stay the same!
Bethany: Now wait
BD: Plus ça change, plus c’est
la même chose!
[The more things change, the more they stay the same.]
Bethany: Oh, yes,
BD: I just wondered
if that was the other side of that coin?
Bethany: I don’t
know, but I think the next hundred years are going to be very interesting
in many, many ways with the big field of technology that’s now really becoming
part of our society.
BD: I wonder if
we will lose the humanity in it?
what they say. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Oh, gaze into your crystal ball!
I tell you something. I feel now like an antique. When I see
the young composers and all the things that are going on with the music scene,
I really feel that I’m part of the past. Although people come up to
me still and say, “I remember you when I heard you
do such and such,” I still feel that I’m part of the
past. We’re moving on.
BD: But you are
part of a glorious past!
Bethany: Oh yes.
I had a wonderful career.
BD: Does it please
you that at least some of this glorious past is going to live perhaps forever
Bethany: It’s my
only archive I have left. I’ve had a wonderful career. This is
just my own philosophy as a performer, that the greatest thing you can do
as a performer is to be part of the music of your time. It was always
that way before up until Mahler. Someone like Joan Sutherland,
who I admire very much, to me is an oddity because she, as a musical personality,
revived this whole school of opera singing. She was totally immersed
in that, and she never, ever ventured out of it, whereas performers really
up until then were always caught in the new pieces that were being premiered,
and were part of it. So in a way I always felt that I was not the odd-ball,
although the singers told me I was an odd-ball. I always thought that
I wasn’t the odd-ball, but that they were the odd-balls because they were
specializing in Rossini or Verdi.
BD: What if, a
hundred and fifty years from now, someone was to revive all of the music
that you sang, and sing that exclusively?
Bethany: Why not!
It could be. Yes! I’m sure that’s going to happen. I worry
a great deal about what I call the continuation and the support for the orchestra
and the opera house because they really are nineteenth century antiques in
a way. It’s only because we have tremendous access to FM stations
— like your own — and CDs. The technology
is helping to keep them going, but they really are playing so little of the
music that’s been written right now, that if they die that’ll be why.
In Europe there’s more support for the music of today.
* * *
BD: We’re talking
about singers, both wonderful and perhaps not so wonderful. Without
naming names, are we getting wonderful singers coming along today?
Bethany: One of
the problems that I’m hearing a lot in singing today is that the singers
aren’t using their ears enough. I used to work unaccompanied, and I
work slowly. I hear a lot of what I call ‘fast-learn’. They are
put under such an amount of pressure that they don’t have the time they used
to have to prepare things. Especially once the singers makes names
for themselves, the stress of flying and not staying in one place long enough
also takes a toll.
BD: So the career
itself just becomes too much to do?
Bethany: Yes, but
there are certain things that I don’t hear in singing which I would like
to hear more of, and that’s because I’m hearing a lot of singers do the literature
that I did of the Viennese School. I have certain reservations about
those recordings that I’ve heard because of the fact that a lot of the dynamics
that Berg wrote in some of his music are not observed. When you sing
some of this music, there’s the sense of tuning — where
you really tune intervals — so that harmonically they
really are so musical and so part of the phrase that it sounds like classical
music. You do that intuitively when you sing classical music just because
those are the systems that are part of you and you know them so well.
But that’s not always true when you get into atonal music, and when you get
into twelve-tone you should sing it just like you do Schubert and Mozart.
But they don’t. They sing pitches. You’ll find this is quite
true also with people who have absolute pitch. They don’t tune because
if you have good relative pitch, you hear a pitch as leading to another pitch.
BD: Part of a line?
and all pitches are either leading to or resting or going to or coming from.
You always have that in music because nothing stands still. It’s hard
to explain, but that’s one thing I don’t hear in the singers. Even
when they’re doing classical music, I don’t hear that as much as I’d like
to. But that’s something I worked in and thought about a great deal.
BD: Is it maybe
that the singers are so happy to be able to get each pitch accurately but
then they figure that’s the end rather than that being the beginning?
It’s gray singing. They don’t really believe in the pitch that they’re
singing. They approximate, and you can tell. When you have really
learned a piece of modern music, when you know it really so well and you
know the instrumental parts as well because you’ve heard it so many times
and you’ve rehearsed it many, many times, then you begin to sing it musically.
But it takes a lot of rehearsal, and what opera house can afford rehearsals?
They are very expensive.
BD: But for a concert,
do you not have the rehearsal time in the studio?
Bethany: I always
demanded that, and I was very fortunate. I worked with a lot of wonderful
freelance players in New York and also here in Chicago where I sang many,
many times. I worked with wonderful conductors like Ralph Shapey, and
they worked over and over something until they really played it like music.
And that’s the only way you can do it with new music — you
have to give it time. You have to really believe it. When you
walk out on stage, you’ve done it so many times that you own it. That’s
the way I used to feel about the music that I worked on.
BD: Again, without
mentioning specific names, were there pieces perhaps that you worked on and
felt you couldn’t own so you didn’t perform them?
Bethany: No, never.
BD: You always
made the piece your own every time?
yes. And the interesting thing is I like to work unaccompanied.
The reason I did that was because you must always recheck the line and always
make sure that it’s absolutely true. That’s why you must use your ear
all the time as a singer. You can’t work with just pianists all the
time. You can’t always have a rehearsal pianist right there because
you have to be able to work where the ear is so aware of what you’re singing,
because we hear ourselves differently than instrumentalists. We hear
ourselves by the bones of our face often when we’re singing. We have
to have a third ear unless we really are listening very carefully, and we
don’t often have a good coach to correct those pitches.
BD: Why can’t the
composer shake the performers by the lapels to get them to do it right, or
do it with feeling, or simply get into it?
they’re so happy just to have the performance. They’re so grateful.
Some composers are that way. I have worked with wonderful composers
who did not let a single thing go by, and I admire that.
* * *
BD: Coming back
to the idea of stretching a little bit, when the composer gives you the piece
of music, must you perform it exactly as he has written it, or do you bring
something of yourself to it and make it a collaborative effort?
Bethany: You always bring something of yourself
to it. That’s the one thing that’s so wonderful about the human voice.
You have your own timbre, and it’s uniquely yours. No one has your
sound, so as far as your gift, your artistry, that’s a unique talent.
All those things. I’ve always told my students, even when they’re working
on a Schubert song, once the work is over, then you’ve got to feel as though
when you perform that song it’s the first time you’ve done it, and that spontaneity
has to be there. It has to be as though the whole thing was just spatial,
and this music was absolutely for the first time coming from you. It
has to have that spontaneity. That makes for great performances and
the listener feels that. He receives that spontaneity and that sense
of it’s being right. He feels that’s musical, that’s the way it should
BD: And it’s the
only way that should go?
well, no. There are many, many good interpreters of any Beethoven Piano Sonata that bring their own unique
performance, but it has to have those qualities. That’s what I mean.
Even though, maybe as a very strong listener or a very strong professional
musician you may disagree, but still its certain qualities and spontaneity
and truthfulness come from a performer. You must respect that.
BD: Is this maybe
what we’re missing now — we don’t have enough performers
performing the same new pieces to get these different ideas and different
spontaneities? Every singer sings Schubert Lieder but not every singer
is singing Milton Babbitt pieces or even Schoenberg pieces.
that’s true. What I’m talking about is a universal thing that I just
feel applies to all music. My philosophy has always been that it doesn’t
matter from what period it comes as long as it’s a good piece of music, and
is a piece that you believe in. That’s important. I’ve sung with
the New York Pro Musica. I’ve done Monteverdi and all the different styles
of music. I’ve done Schubert songs and I’ve done the Viennese School.
I’ve done music of today. I regard now Webern, Schoenberg and Stravinsky
as classics. They’re in the repertoire, so we can’t talk about them
as being contemporary anymore. As long as you are always doing a good
piece of music, you have so much going for you.
BD: What is it
that makes a piece of music good?
Bethany: I don’t
know, but there are things that come through. It’s such a hard question
to answer why certain pieces come through, because there are many composers
who are forgotten. Bach was forgotten and rediscovered by Mendelssohn,
and I think that’s true of Nikos Skalkottas, who was a Greek composer.
He’s been forgotten and I hope he’s going to come back. They’re beginning
to play his music more and more. He studied with Schoenberg, went back
to Greece, put his music in an drawer and wouldn’t talk about twelve-tone
music because no one understood that in the War years. He died when
he was about 45. I believe very strongly in developmental music, whether
it be twelve-tone or atonal or something else. Maybe that’s what I’ve
always felt — that whatever I am singing is a piece
in which you really have a theme or a motive that has been worked and developed.
Maybe that’s what I mean by a good piece of music — a
theme or a motive which has been taken and used in variation form.
Things like that. The same concepts that really applied in much of
Schoenberg have been applied in tonality, even though they were working in
a different system. Those things are always there.
BD: Regarding music
or composers being forgotten... Are we throwing in a joker today because
in order to get a performance all we have to do is pull a piece of
plastic off the shelf and put it into a machine?
BD: Might that change the dynamics since people
can listen to these without having to be part of a massed audience for a
live, one-shot performance?
Of course a lot is preserved today, and a lot second-rate music will be preserved,
too. I don’t know. Still, though, in the final analysis there
is a good chance that the better composers will be the ones who are ultimately
being played the most. It always has been that way. Of course
now we have technology to preserve things in a much better way.
BD: Who should
be the judge of what gets preserved — is it the public,
the composer, the performers, the critics, who?
Bethany: The music
itself. Look at Bartók! He died without really having
been played that much, and then there was a big renaissance for Bartók
in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. There are different types of composers,
too. There are composers who really get out there and hustle and get
their music played, and then there are many composers who won’t do that.
It’s been that way ever since the beginning of time in music. Some
are better businessmen than others.
BD: But we never
seem to get the right balance of brilliant composers and brilliant businessmen
together in one person.
Bethany: I know.
It’s a strange thing. I guess you could run that parallel in painting
as well. If van Gogh ever knew what his paintings were being sold for
today... [Both laugh]
BD: Would he be
appalled or would be pleased?
Bethany: I think
he’d be pleased, and now he’s getting the recognition that he wanted.
It’s so sad though that in the creative process so many people don’t get
the recognition they want at the time while they’re alive.
BD: I just wonder
if the recognition then goes too much toward the monetary recognition, rather
than the artistic recognition.
I don’t think we’d get quite that parallel in music compared to what’s happened
in the world of painting. That’s really a freakish thing that’s happened
just in our century.
BD: A painting
is something that unique and it’s there. Music is something we can
all have and take with us.
exactly. So it’s different.
BD: Then let me
ask you, what is the purpose of music?
Bethany: To raise
you to another level of humanity. A human being who has had the experience
of all the great composers gives himself a quality of life that is on another
level than just eating and sleeping. For me it’s almost like a religion,
and I think religion serves the same purpose to a lot of people that music
serves to musicians. A lot of musicians have the feeling when they
hear a great piece of music that they’re on a spiritual level.
* * *
BD: Tell me about
working with conductors. You say mostly you like to sing unaccompanied...
Bethany: Oh no,
I work unaccompanied when I’m preparing a piece. I work without always
having a piano playing my part. I always worked alone and learned my
line. I would go to the rehearsal knowing my line if it was, say, a
piece for instruments.
BD: What about
pieces with piano?
Bethany: I always
worked with the same pianist for quite a few years. His name was Bob Helps. He was
also a composer. We worked a lot on our programs, but I would always
have the music worked out.
BD: Your other
big accompanist was Earl Kim, another composer. You sought out composers
who were pianists.
Bethany: Earl worked
with me very early on. I lived in Princeton and Earl was teaching there
at the University, and he loved the songs of Schubert. We did do some
performances of Die Schöne Müllerin
together. That was the only time he served as my accompanist.
He really was much more of a coach for me. I would come with my music
worked out, and he would then take me through and show me things. He
was invaluable in the ‘60s when he was living there, then he left and went
to Harvard. We’re still very, very close friends.
BD: Tell me the
specific problems of working with voice and tape, because the tape then becomes
that’s a good question. You feel rhythm differently. For one
thing, since there is no variation at all in the accompaniment you feel rhythm
in spaces of time. It’s hard to verbalize. When you’re working
with a tape, after you’ve done it many, many times there’s this sense of
the synchronization with the tape that takes place inside you. It’s
not something that you’d beat; it’s something that you feel, these time-frames
with that tape.
BD: So it would
be completely wrong to have a click track in your ear?
Bethany: I would
put on the click track when I learned Vision
and Prayer, which was the first electronic piece I ever did, but then
I threw it away. It didn’t help. It was really much better to
just work with the tape itself, and to feel this sense of time, which is
totally different than when you’re working with humans and you’re actually
aware of beats and holding that rhythm together.
BD: Is there a
humanity to the electronics?
Bethany: It’s different.
I don’t think you can say that; it’s just different. It’s totally valid
in its own way, and to compare it to music that’s written for conventional
instruments is like talking about the harpsichord and the piano.
BD: Is there a
parallel with singers who should sing a recital with a harpsichord and also
with the piano, to singers should sing with an ensemble and also with electronics?
Bethany: Why not?
BD: You did quite
a bit of work with Milton Babbitt. Tell me about him.
was one of the first composers that I knew in New York when I left Juilliard,
and again working with Jacques Monod. Milton wrote a song cycle for
us, which is a classic now, called Du,
and we performed it many, many times. We were a voice-piano duo.
We called ourselves a duo because Jacques played completely from memory.
Milton has been almost like a surrogate father to me. I’ve known him
for all my singing career, and of course he’s written a lot of music for
me as well.
BD: When you asked
him to write a piece for you, did you give him any advice, or did you just
say, “Write me a piece?”
Bethany: No, it
didn’t work out that way. I did commission Milton to write Philomel because I received a Ford Foundation
grant. Otherwise those pieces were written in conjunction with where
he was coming from at the moment. For instance Vision and Prayer was his first piece
with voice and the RCA synthesizer, which was the big thing he was involved
in the ‘60s. Remember that piece goes back to ’61. It’s almost
one of the very first historically. Then he got involved in working
the use of phonemes, so he wrote Phonemena.
Then he also wrote a piece for me called Songs and Words, which was based on bits
of speech but all worked into a very big virtuosic vocal line. It’s
as difficult to sing as any Rossini aria, such as Non più mesta.
BD: As rewarding,
her head] Hmmm, hmmm! Yes, he understands the soprano voice.
It’s interesting. People asked how am I learning those pieces, but
Milton is very easy to sing because he uses a preponderance of fifths, fourths,
thirds, and sixths. He writes a very tonal-orientated line. Now
Webern, on the other hand, is very difficult to learn because he has a preponderance
of sevenths, ninths, and augmented fourths, and it’s very hard to learn.
You really have to work a much longer time to get that vocal line into your
BD: Does it do
your heart good now to hear Milton’s music sung by others?
Bethany: Yes, I
think it’s wonderful. I hope the tradition goes on. Every singer
hopes that. I’m sure Peter Pears would be terribly upset if the music
of Britten stopped with his demise. I hope to hear a lot of Babbitt
sung before mine.
BD: Another composer
you worked with was Ralph Shapey.
Bethany: Yes, and
it was very interesting because at the time that Milton wrote Songs and Words, Ralph wrote a piece
called Incantations, which used
totally different phonemes and was working the voice in a very melismatic
way. One section was all pure humming, with just soft, soft timpani
accompaniment. Fabulous! It was just mesmerizing to hear that.
I often play Ralph’s piece when I do workshops and give young singers examples
of the new vocal techniques that composers have used — such
as Sprechstimme, the use of phoneme
syllables, taking texts totally out of a piece like a vocalise, only a very
highly sophisticated vocalise in which all of the phonemes of vowels and
the consonants are put into a very sophisticated vocal line. Also another
vocal technique is singing with tape, because some wonderful things have
been done in that field. You can talk about some of the vocal effects
that singers have used, like in some of the music of Berio such as Circles. Those vocal texts have
always been around. We hear it in ethnic music, cantorial music, but
when I say a valid vocal technique, I mean something that could be used for
a whole body of music. You could really write a lot of pieces like
Pierrot Lunaire, or you could write
a lot of pieces like Phonemena.
Part of Babbitt’s identification with Phonemena is that he loves jazz
and he loved Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing. He wanted to sort of write
a scat singing piece.
BD: Did you sing
some of the works of Earl Kim?
Bethany: Yes, when
Earl was teaching at Princeton I did several of his pieces. Then when
he left and went to Harvard, and we lost contact for a while. But one
beautiful singer, Benita Valente, has done a great deal of Earl’s music.
BD: And now the
torch is also being passed to Dawn Upshaw.
BD: Are you pleased
with her and what’s she doing?
Bethany: Yes, yes.
Dawn’s a beautiful singer, a wonderful musician. She also is getting
stretched, though. Do you know what I mean? They get so busy
that sometimes they need to just take a year off and retool, rest the voice,
rethink things. It’s very hard because they’re in big demand when they
are hot issues, so to speak, in the music market, and believe it or not,
music is an economical show-biz market. It’s just I hate to say it.
BD: During your
career did you try to keep the business separate from the art?
Bethany: Yes, I was very fortunate. My husband
was well-to-do, and so I thought of myself as a subsidized singer.
BD: You were your
Bethany: In a way,
yes, in the sense that I could be selective. He also was a composer.
BD: Did you sing
some of his music?
Bethany: I did.
His name was Godfrey Winham, and unfortunately he died at the age of 39.
He was doing a lot of major pioneering work in computer music. He wrote
some of the first music programs that were used by the universities way back
in the ‘60s. He died in ’75. He worked with Jim Morando, and
people at Bell Labs. He was working on voice synthesis when he died.
He was actually taking my voice and making samples of it when he died, hoping
to write computer music that would have the voice in it synthesized.
He was way ahead of his time. So I’ve known some interesting men!
BD: Are there any
female composers that you’ve worked with?
Bethany: Yes, Arlene
Zallman is one. I know a lot of female composers, but the one person
I’ve sung the most is Arlene Zallman. [Arlene Zallman (September 9, 1934 – November 25,
2006) was born in Philadelphia
and graduated from the Juilliard School of Music. She received a Master’s
Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied composition
with Vincent Persichetti
and George Crumb. In
1959 she received a two-year Fulbright Scholarship to Florence, Italy, to
study with Luigi Dallapiccola. She held positions on the faculty of the Oberlin
College Conservatory of Music and Yale University and then became a professor
of composition at Wellesley, Massachusetts in in 1976. She received the Marion
S. Freschl Award for Vocal Composition, and awards from Meet the Composer,
the Mellon Foundation, the Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities,
and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her Three Songs from Quasimodo won awards from
both the National Endowment for the Arts and the International Society for
Contemporary Music.] I like the music very much of
Shulamit Ran, who I believe is here at the University of Chicago.
She was composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, and now she’s becoming
composer-in-residence at Lyric Opera.
Bethany: I know
her music. I also like very much Ellen Zwilich and Joan Tower. There
aren’t that many, though it seems, but there’s quite a few. Of course
I’ve sung Ruth Crawford Seeger, but she is one of the composers who are not
living. Even Nadia Boulanger I’ve looked at. I’ve never sung
her, though, I must say.
BD: Earlier you
Bethany: I’m very much
interested in music of Skalkottas, not just his vocal music, but I would
very much like to see a whole round of the music of Skalkottas in this country.
I don’t know if that will every come about. Gunther Schuller has
finally gotten all of the Skalkottas’ manuscripts, and I believe his Morgan
Publications is coming out with them. They just finished the complete
piano works, and now they’re doing the big song cycles — sixteen
songs which I’ve sung — and that will be issued soon.
But he’s written some wonderful things. There’s a marvelous octet and
there’s a whole set of string quartets. He was very prolific with big
orchestral pieces, ballet music, music dramas and a wonderful trio set of
variations on a Greek folksong. He’s done a lot of arrangements of
folksongs for orchestra, which are played quite often in Athens. In
London he had a big following there when Hans Keller was running the BBC.
Hans promoted a lot of his music.
BD: One last question.
Is singing fun?
It’s joyful. It’s a lot of fun. If the whole human race
were allowed to sing from the time they were children straight
through to their senior years in college, and if they had lots of music,
I don’t think we would have any more war because singing is such a joyful
act. It gives the spirit such a release. When you see these big
amateur choruses, speak to any of those members, and they will say they love
it. There’s something about it. It’s a very human act and if
you’re singing the great works such as the oratorios, it’s a tremendous experience
for an amateur musician. And if everybody knew how to sight-read and
could sing all those years in school, we would have a world full of singing
instead of guns. We’re being very romantic, I guess, and idealistic.
BD: Thank you for
all of the music that you’ve given us for these many years.
I’ll come back again as a wood thrush — my favorite
bird. Listen to one someday. It’s great. It’s never quite
the same. He has many, many variations, and he does some incredible
singing. It is the most interesting bird singing I’ve ever heard.
BD: I wonder if
you have it backwards — maybe
you were a wood thrush, and have come back as Bethany!
Bethany: Who knows.
Do you believe in Karma?
BD: I haven’t really
thought about it. I’ve been too busy doing what I’m doing for the musicians
and the public.
doing a wonderful thing.
To read my Interview with Ernst Krenek, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Paul Fromm, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas, click HERE.
© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in the studios of WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago on June 18, 1995. Portions (along with recordings) were
broadcast on WNIB in 1997. This transcription was made in 2014, 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.
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.