Composer  Jean  Berger

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The biography above gives a concise look at the life of Jean Berger.  A more comprehensive and detailed overview can be seen at the bottom of this webpage.  In between is the conversation I was privileged to have with him in June of 1988. 

We arranged to
“meet” on the telephone, and being a radio-person, I called at precisely the agreed time . . . . .

Jean Berger:    Hello?

Bruce Duffie:    May I speak with Jean Berger?  [Uses the French pronunciation Zhawn Bair-ZHEHR]

JB:    Yes, speaking.

BD:    This is Bruce Duffie in Chicago!

JB:    Yes, Bruce, how are you?

BD:    Fine!  How are you?

JB:    You’re right on time!

BD:    Well, I try to be!  [Laughs]

JB:    Ten seconds early!

BD:    Very good.  Now’s a good time for our chat?

JB:    Yes, indeed.  I reserved time.  I was expecting your call.

BD:    Good.  I want to talk about a number of things.  I wound up with several recordings of your music.  First is the St. Olaf record with the Brazilian Psalm...

JB:    Is that the Jennings production and not the old Christiansen recording?  [See my Interview with Kenneth Jennings]

BD:    Yes, the newer one.  Did they make an old one?

JB:    Oh, way back, yes.  It goes back thirty years or so when we first had to do with one another.

BD:    What are the differences between the two recordings, if any?

JB:    At the time they did only the Alleluia, the second part.  I think Kenneth Jennings did the whole thing, did he not?

BD:    As far as I know, yes.

JB:    Then, under the direction of Olaf Christiansen, the St. Olaf Choir had a very specific kind of sound, which they no longer have.  That was Christiansen’s purpose.  He wanted that vibrato-free kind of sound, and over the years that has changed completely.

BD:    For the better or just a change?

JB:    Neither for the better nor the worse.  It’s a matter of what you’re in the business of doing.  Christiansen explained to me at the time, and everybody else has asked me the question.  He said as a Lutheran choir, their major objective had to be the performance of the music of Luther’s age and directly following, in other words sixteenth and seventeenth century highly polyphonic music.  And in order to make the polyphonic strands as audible as possible, he wanted to have a sound as free of vibrato as possible, which I thought was a very sensible thing to do.

BD:    Does that, then, not work so well for new music?

JB:    [Laughs]  Some people have felt that it has militated against it.  I never felt that it did, even when they did very highly romantic things.   I personally like this kind of objective choral sound.  I was very taken with it, but I know there were many people who felt that when they did the Brahms German Requiem, a difference in sonority would have been preferable.

bergerBD:    The Brazilian Psalm is also recorded on the Gasparo disc with a different choir.  Is that a better recording, or again just different?

JB:    I only know the one on the Gasparo recording.  The Kenneth Jennings version I haven’t heard, but off-hand I would say that the Jennings recording would have to be the better one for the very simple reason that the St. Olaf Choir is one of our most distinguished choral groups in the country, whereas Belmont College is a college I’m very excited about.  They do have a very active musical life and very fine singing.  The lady who directed it, I thought was very excellent, but it simply doesn’t have the quality that the St. Olaf Choir has.

BD:    But that is not to say you are displeased in any way with the recording?

JB:    No, no.  I am the kind of composer who can live with any number of different versions of my music.  No, no, no, it’s not that one is better than the other.  The metabolism of one director is different from that of another, and that’s simply the way they are.

BD:    You say you can live with a number of different versions.  How much interpretation do you allow in your music?  How much room is there for interpretation?

JB:    Well, this can go to an almost excessive extent.  Maybe it’ll come as a surprise to you, and I can illustrate it best by referring to a performance of a rather major work of mine called Vision of Peace, which was done by the St. Olaf Choir under Jennings’s direction.  About fifteen years ago when I was in Tucson and they were performing in Tempe at Arizona State, they asked me to come by.  Now the work starts out as a wailing women’s chorus, just ‘Ah’, or whichever vocalization you might choose.  Then the choir sets in.  Instead of doing that, I saw the St. Olaf Choir on the stage when Jennings comes up, and then the two girls at either end each pull out a flute from under the sleeves of their robes.  Instead of singing this introductory wail, they played it on the flute.  They didn’t sing it at all!  Later on, when I said hello to Jennings, I said,
What’s this thing there with the flute?  He said, I’ve always known that you were really a baroque composer, and that you would cherish the idea of somebody doing something completely different with your music! and I believe he’s right! 

BD:    So you were not displeased at all?

JB:    No, I thought it was wonderful!  I’m always open to new ideas, and if someone’s sufficiently interested in a score of mine to want to add his or her response or interpretation of it, then I’d say,
“Bully!  Sometimes it can be bad, of course.

BD:    There must be some point where you cross a line and it becomes not acceptable.

JB:    The line is crossed when an idea is used with poor taste or with poor musicianship, yes.  But with a good musician who is also an informed musician with good taste, I’m perfectly willing for that to go to almost any extent.  The one thing I do not care for is something that happened more often than I would like to think of, and that is when a conductor makes cuts in a movement.  They cut out so many measures and I don’t think you realize the composer is thinking of proportioning a piece.  This has nothing to do with inspiration, or whatever that may mean.  The proportioning, the architecture of a piece is really perhaps the most important item.  Certainly I would spend the most time on trying to devise as it as harmoniously as I know how, and then for somebody to just go ahead and cut out fifteen measures is very painful.  That I do not like.

BD:    You’d rather they would drop a whole movement if they need to?

JB:    I would rather that they dropped the whole piece in fact, yes.  I can live with somebody taking a movement from a cycling work and performing only that.  I don’t particularly cherish it, but I can see where there might be a reason for it, as we have reasons to play the first movement of a symphony.  I’d prefer the whole thing being done, but I can see the needs of a program basically not allowing the performance of the whole piece.

BD:    Are there any pieces of yours which started life as a movement and became something that would stand on its own, like the Adagio for Strings of Barber?

JB:    As a matter of fact, I won’t compare myself or anything I’ve written to that illustrious piece, but the Alleluia from the Brazilian Psalms has, in fact, become such.  I would say it is performed at least a hundred times as often as the whole piece.

BD:    But the whole piece only runs about five and a half minutes!

JB:    Yes, about six minutes, and the Alleluia runs probably about half of that, so that has been performed very, very often by itself.  In fact Olaf Christiansen literally put me on the map with the Brazilian Psalm.  I was at that time totally unknown, and in the early 50s he chose to use the Alleluia and not anything else.  Another piece I have is called A Rose Touched by the Sun’s Warm Rays.  It’s possibly my most frequently performed piece, and comes from a cycle of four pieces that is not performed very frequently as a cycle, and this particular piece has been performed thousands of times separately. 
There are four pieces in it, but it’s totally dismantled at this point.  I don’t quite realize what is happening to the music publication business at this point.  This started out at as four pieces, then the publishers decided to discontinue one of them, so it was already truncated to three.  In the meanwhile, another publisher became interested in the discarded piece, so it’s just a mess.

BD:    On the recording there are just the three, and I would assume that you would want a complete cycle?

JB:    On the recording I suggested myself that they do only the three because the fourth one is now being published elsewhere.  So it would be cumbersome to explain the cycle.  You might as well just do the three.  It’s one of these things.  You just have to accept the situation the way that it is.  For anybody except myself who functions essentially on the basis of publications and not on my personally contacting people, the situation has become very, very difficult... so much so that I run my own publishing outfit, the John Sheppard Music Press.  At this point, I’m not sending any scores elsewhere anymore.  I do it all myself.

BD:    You’ve made a success out of Sheppard Press?

JB:    It’s going, yes.  I can report that it’s going well, and not only is it doing that, but since it is immaterial to me whether it makes a lot of money or not, I can afford to publish pieces.  As I say, the regular commercial publishers simply cannot be that cavalier about money.  I can afford to do that so that I can publish pieces which predictably will not fetch large scale, but which interest me to bring to the public and which, in addition to being available, are likely to be performed in circumstances where there are no performance royalties.  Most of my choral music, when it is performed by twenty choirs, let me say, brings in not one penny of a performance royalty.

BD:    You get the fee with the sale of the copies, and that’s it?

JB:    Yes, yes, and that functions quite well, but there are no performance royalties to be derived from that.  However, the royalties which derive from the sales are so minimal that you might as well forget about them.  It’s in the royalties from  performances that you must see the source of your income.  I have a cycle for mezzo soprano, flute, viola and cello which has been performed quite frequently in these last few years in circumstances where I derive sometimes fairly substantial performance royalties.

BD:    So you don’t get any royalties from sacred works, but only from the secular works?

JB:    From the sacred works I never get any royalties when they are performed in any church circumstance.  The secular works are performed by groups that do give concerts, and then there may be performance royalties.  Let me add in all haste that in this country, quite in contrast with other countries abroad or even Canada, the copyrights of our royalties are extremely sketchy.  On principle we ought to get a performance royalty for is every radio performance.  In actual practice that is not so.

BD:    Is this where ASCAP and BMI come in?

JB:    Right.  I have been in ASCAP maybe for many, many years but ASCAP by their own admission does not do this very well.  There’s a curious case... when I heard a performance of a rather major work over a Denver radio station, I went to the extent of notifying ASCAP of the impending performance.  However, my quarterly report from ASCAP said,
“No radio broadcast!  They have a system of covering and have nothing to buzz them, so then I actually heard a performance for which I never received a penny.

BD:    That’s too bad.  Is there any way a composer can protect himself from that?

JB:    I don’t really know what can be done.  ASCAP keeps telling us that they are doing what they can, and that the coverage can simply not be total.  They have what they call the scientifically randomized system which makes me shudder!  But I’m quoting them on this.  They said,
“There’s a scientifically randomized system of coverage, and if your work falls into a period and a given radio station is covered by this system, then you will get your royalties.  If not, then you can stand on your head and have the radio station confirm it, and send them off an affidavit, it will not make any difference.

BD:    So it’s really the luck of the draw?

JB:    It’s almost Russian roulette, which is rather painful when one thinks of one what European stations can do.  I get my foreign royalties statements from ASCAP regularly every six months, and I’m sure that there’s no dishonesty involved.  I’m sure that’s the complete coverage and it’s quite impressive.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You spent many years of your life teaching.  When you were teaching, did you get enough time to compose?

JB:    Yes, yes, very definitely.  Incidentally, I never taught composition.  I had my formal training in musicology, and the only teaching I ever did, with a brief exception one semester, was always in the field of music history.

BD:    Why did you not want to teach composition?

bergerJB:    I would rather have taught music history because my academic training was in that.  I also felt much freer in forming my own views so far as contemporary idioms are concerned by not teaching composition.  For example, since you do know some of my works, with the exception of a very brief period when I was quite young and was definitely under the impact of the then new teaching of Arnold Schoenberg regarding the twelve-tone method for perhaps a year or so, I affiliated myself with that.  But then for a very precise reason, which I have to describe to you, I gave it up, and ever since I was very negative about all of that.  Now I could not very well teach composition at the university and say that in twentieth century we have met some important names like Prokofiev, Samuel Barber, and then make some fleeting reference that there was also the Viennese composer by the name of Arnold Schoenberg.  But forget about him, he doesn’t really matter!

BD:    [Laughs]  You’d dismiss him!

JB:    Yes, I personally do, and that’s my business.  I do it by myself, but if I were a professor, I simply feel that I would have to constantly defend my view, and it might very conceivably do harm to students who would like to go on with more advanced degrees.

BD:    You said you made a very conscious decision about this.  What was that specific decision?

JB:    Way back in the ‘30s, when I lived in Paris, and was affiliated with several concert agencies as a pianist, and they would call up and suggest I accompany so and so.  They might also say that tonight they were going to attend such and such a concert, and this was sort of a ‘command performance’.  We had to go when they expected an empty hall.  One particular time, about a dozen or fifteen young men and young women were all commandeered to go to the Salle Pleyel, which is sort of the Carnegie Hall of Paris, listen to we didn’t know what.  We were not interested.  We just knew we were going to clench our teeth, and the thing would come to an end and that was that.  Well, we walked into the dark hall and suddenly the spotlight was trained on a very slender black woman who sang Stormy Weather.  Then little by little the lights came one, and there was the Duke Ellington Band sitting there.  I can tell you that was an absolutely crushing impression.  We all walked all night long discussing it.  Was this not tonal music?  Of course we knew the recording, but wasn’t it new music in the atonal style.  We had been taught there wasn’t anything new to be said from the classic tonal idiom.  So ever since then, I’ve felt that my ears do not receive non-tonal music, and suddenly decided not to write any myself.

BD:    Does it please you now at the tail end of the 1980s to find tonality is coming back into fashion?

JB:    It pleases me, but I might as well tell you I’m also very smug about it!  I’ve always told my classes that they were looking at the real avant-garde.  I’m one of those ‘C major boys’ who will eventually be the new avant-garde!  [Both laugh]

BD:    So your time has come back again?

JB:    I have had a few experiences that fortified me, particularly a book by Ernest Ansermet, whose name you may remember as the great conductor of the Suisse Romande Orchestra. 

BD:    Sure.

JB:    I don’t know if the book has been translated into English.  I read it in the original French, and he talks of the foundation of music and the human consciousness.  It’s a very long and a very difficult book, and his major thesis is that the human ear cannot perceive music that is not tonal.  By tonal he includes everything from Gregorian chant to South Indian Raga.  It doesn’t have to be C major, but tonally in the sense that a targeting of melodic line toward a final tone, a final pitch.  That was so incredibly convincing that I got a good deal of courage from it.

BD:    I’m sad that you never were able to teach a number of composers to be tonal composers.

JB:    Why?

BD:    Then we’d have that many more tonal composers around!

JB:    Well, they’ll come up.  I really feel that if somebody has something to say, be that in music or in literature or in painting or what not, he or she will eventually say it.  And if it has to be done with out of the way modes of expression, he or she will nonetheless say it.  I’m convinced of that.  What I have often worried about is that within the framework of serial music, it is so damned easy to write any kind of trash, and nobody will notice, or very few people will notice the difference.

BD:    So what are some of the things that constitute greatness in music?

JB:    Oh!  [Sighs]  That’s a very difficult question to answer.  Why is a Bach work better than something by
Heinrich Kaufbar Messerschmidt?  That is so terribly difficult to answer because I cannot point to technique.  It would be very easy to come up with composers whose technique either matched or certainly came very close to the great geniuses.  I would really have no answer to that.  If one had the answer to it, it simply has to happen.  From what I have learned in this life, I think that really transcendental works happen only at the end of a relatively long period of stylistic evolution.  It would have been impossible around 1620 to write in what was the current idiom then, the equivalent of a St. Matthew Passion of some hundred years later.  The whole thing was still in a state of crystallization.  If Mozart were born in 1956 instead of 1756, he just simply would be one of the boys... maybe one of the bigger boys, but Don Giovanni could not exist now.  We have become a whole century of searching for an idiom.

BD:    Without mentioning any specific names or compositions, do you feel there is any music being written in the last fifty years that is on the level of Bach or Mozart?

JB:    When you say on the level, then this is an intangible question to answer.  Are they written as well as Bach?  Yes, I will say.  In fact I would have to say that from the point of view of compositional virtuosity, you could not outdo Schoenberg.  Do they have a survival quality?  If this is within your question, then I would have to say that the historian in me says this is irrelevant criterion to apply.  Whether a work survives or not has nothing to do with it being necessary at the time it was written.  All the respectable works, whether they eventually survive or not, were necessary.  For instance, I found it intriguing to think that when Hindemith died, the majority of his work gradually disappeared.  There are a few works, such as Mathis der Maler, which will still be played for the rest of the century, but I’m pretty sure that Hindemith will not belong to one of the great immortals.  Am I therefore taking anything away from him?   No!  He was absolutely necessary.

BD:    Is he not likely then to be rediscovered about fifty years from now?

JB:    Since you asked me a question, I would have to answer as we say ‘Sub specie aeternitatis’ [
under the aspect of eternity, or from the perspective of the eternal, an honorific expression describing what is universally and eternally true, without any reference to or dependence upon the temporal portions of reality].  We are living in an age, but we’re the only age that has manifested an interest in ‘old music’.  No other generation has known this.  We’re the only ones.

BD:    Even the Bach revival by Mendelssohn?

JB:    Let’s say that the beginning of this Romantic urge to rediscover old music started not so much with Bach but with Palestrina, and then shortly thereafter with Bach.  In a Catholic, Southern German movement and a Protestant North German movement with it at approximately 1830, we have first of all the discipline of musicology itself, which then towards the last third of the nineteenth century brought with it a desire to bring these new works the foundation off the Handel Societies and the Cecilian Societies, etc.  Then we have the twentieth century feeding on that largely because of a desperate situation of the relationship between the contemporary composer and his audience.  So it’s a real complex situation.  But prior to that, if you took the Beethoven-Schumann generation, to think that they could be interested in music more than a generation old is simply imaginable.

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

JB:    Oh, it has many.  I record on a record jacket once that the purpose of music is either for edification in the liturgical sense or to entertain.  I’m quite willing to accept that.

BD:    Then where is the balance between the edification and the entertainment?

JB:    Well, the two can meet. You can have secular events going on which are still edifying, and you can have quite entertaining Masses!  I see no reason why they should be in any way exclusive of one another.  In fact, there’s been a little bit of a problem when it comes to Haydn, for instance, or the Verdi Requiem, which so many people see as not religious.  I myself feel it as profoundly a religious work as anybody has written.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to your own music now, when you get a commission, how do you decide if you’re going to accept it or postpone it or turn it down?

JB:    Ah, yes, that is a very good question.  Here I can really be specific.  First of all, I have to know what the circumstances are and what kind of words are desired.  I’m saying what kind of words because I have had very few commissions for works other than choral.  I’m getting some now, but  the bulk of my commissions have been for choral works.  So I must, first of all, know what the purpose of it is, and then what texts are involved.  Then, if I can identify with the situation and with the texts, I can then accept the commission, provided that I can get a recording of the commissioning chorus or the soloist.  When I’m going to write for somebody I must know them minimally well.  Then the matter of fee very definitely enters.  Just recently, for instance, I turned down a major commission for a group in Lafayette, Louisiana, who were going to perform.  There was a World Fair in New Orleans a few years ago, and this group wanted me to write a major work for them.  They were talking about something like  35 or 40 minutes for a quartet of soloists, chorus and a big orchestra, on a preferably American-Indian subject.  Actually it made me cringe, which I find a little corny!  My heart’s with the Indians, believe me, but I eventually turned it down because, as I had to explain to the gentleman who called, the work of that scope in the current publishing situation is no longer viable.  No publisher would possibly touch it.  If my name were Leonard Bernstein or something like that, he might conceivably get it published, but no publisher would accept it otherwise.  They were talking about two performances, and I do not have the machinery to make other groups aware of the work.  Even assuming I could write a thing like this in, shall we say, six months, which is really almost utopian, I would have to receive payment for six months of full work.  The man wondered how much that would be and I said that I didn’t know.  I asked him how much am I worth, and he didn’t know!  I said that a former graduate student of mine teaches in Sacramento State for $35,000 a year.  He said I was worth much more than that, but I asked for $17,500, and there the conversation ended!  He had thought of about $5,000, or something like that.  [Both laugh]  I’ve not been a professor for twenty years now, but when you are composer these seemingly mundane questions take on an enormous amount of importance.

BD:    It’s whether you  eat or not!

JB:    Exactly!  In a different way, not expressed as crassly as if we must just talk about dollars, but in similar ways, Bach argued fiercely about the number of barrels of beer that he was getting!

BD:    So you turned down this composition.  Are there some pieces that you write without commission because you just feel you have to get them down on paper?

JB:    Oh yes, of course.  I would say at this phase late in life that I probably write about half of what I do because I want to write.  Then also I have invented a technology which maybe other people have used, too.  There are a number of choral directors in the country who have expressed an interest in eventually extending a major commission.  What I’ve done is to take a work I have written for what I call the staged-chorus, where there’s some dramatic action involved.  In one case, which is one of my major works in this genre, I had written perhaps about a third of it in more or less complete sketch form, and had the rest pretty well in mind so that I could show it to an informed conductor.  I went down to Texas where a friend of mine had often had mentioned the idea of a commission, and we sat down for about a few hours and went through what I had.  He said it was interesting and commissioned that work.  But he would not have commissioned me to write the work the existence of which he could not have known.

BD:    You have to get it started so he could envision it?

JB:    He could not have invented the thing.  That’s why I am a composer and he’s not.  So we met in a co-operative way.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, are you always in control of the pencil, or are there are times when that pencil is controlling you?

JB:    Yes, the latter.  You sit there with your tongue hanging out and run after it!  In fact I always like to think that the word ‘creative’ is very misplaced in the work we do, or certainly the way I work.  There’s a German word, ‘finden’ [to find], to which is supplied a prefix at the beginning ‘erfinden’, which means ‘to invent’.  Really that is much more what’s happened to me.  I ‘invent’, or ‘invenire’, to run into.  I have I have the thing already there, and I’m running with my tongue hanging out trying to catch it.  So that is really the thing I have half of the time.  And for this, over the decades I have evolved a sort of super-efficient stenography.  A movement or piece that will eventually stand on, shall we say, thirty pages, in the first draft may occupy about half a page, no more.  I will know exactly what to do with it, provided I get back to it the next day and expand it to maybe four or five pages.  I have to work very quickly, otherwise I forget!  It’s the kind of thing that would be senseless to anybody else.

BD:    When you start working, do you know how long it will take to finish the piece?

JB:    No!  I have been very fortunate because ordinarily I write very fast.  But it’s also happened that I get stuck.  Not infrequently I start and have to stop.  I wrote a Magnificat, for example, that was non-commissioned, and the text of that was on my desk for maybe eight years!  I had at least ten or more starts, always knowing right from the beginning that this was not it, until finally the format suggested itself, and from then on the writing was very fast.  But it cannot get going until it is quite conceivable.

BD:    Are you conscious of the amount of time that a performance will take as you’re composing the work?

JB:    That depends on the circumstances.  In many instances, I have to be aware because I’m told they would like to have an eleven-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece.  This is always negotiable.  When they say ten minutes, nine or eleven or twelve would do the trick.  But certainly seventy-three will not, and twenty-five will not.  So there is a concern.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece and you know that you’re on the right track and everything is going well, how do you know when you’ve finished?  How do you know when you have made all the adjustments necessary, and you should put the pen down and launch it upon the world?

JB:    I know!  [Laughs]  I always think I know, but this is not to say that sometime later I may find that I didn’t know.  At this point of my life I do an enormous amount or rewriting of pieces that I thought were okay the way they were, which I found later on either could be changed in their format, or could be used in conjunction with other pieces that they had not been planned with originally.  There’s a constant rewriting, rearranging, and fussing.

BD:    Are your final thoughts always the best?

JB:    Well, obviously I think so, but then again, give me time and it may change again!  In this context, if I may spin this for a second, the idea of the definitive work, or the idea that a work ought to be brought to its definitive version is relatively recent in history, and I would like to think that we might perhaps change our minds on that.  Take for example that which in the sixteenth century corresponded to the great symphonies of the nineteenth century, the so-called Parody Mass.  Those are works in which admittedly the composer started on the basis of one of his earlier works, or took the work of a colleague and evolved that into a different score altogether.  That was looked upon as one of the most virtuous things to do in composition.  So it may well be that this whole idea of ‘the score is gospel and thou shalt not touch it’ may very well fade out as we go on, and some other aesthetics may well prevail.

BD:    One of the reasons I bring up this whole subject of revisions is if you have different versions of the score, and different settings of the same work, a musicologist might want to perform the first version rather than the later version.  How do you feel about that?

JB:    He couldn’t because I’ve thrown them out!

BD:    None of the revisions are of published works?

JB:    Yes, but they’re usually discontinued.  I cannot touch the published work that is copyrighted.  That is strictly illegal, unless I secure the permission of the copyright holder, the publisher.  But I’m talking about works that I would say ninety-nine per cent were published at one time or another and have been discontinued.

BD:    [Pressing the matter just a bit]  But what if someone has an old copy of this score, or they dig it up in a library?

JB:    If they want to do that, there’s nothing I can do about that.

BD:    Is your judgment to be followed or is the conductor’s judgment to be followed?

JB:    By that time I’m no longer going to be around!  I couldn’t care less!  In fact I couldn’t care less right now.  If somebody finds an old score and wants to perform it like that, he most certainly has my blessing.  That’s fine if he likes it.  Let him do it.  I see no obstacle in that.

*     *     *     *     *

bergerBD:    You’ve written mostly choral works, but also some instrumental works.  I want to be sure and ask you about the concerto you wrote for harmonica.

JB:    That was in fact one of my very earliest scores.  I don’t say opus numbers, but I do have a catalogue, and I think this is perhaps No 6, so it is very much at the beginning.  I had just arrived in the United States.  I had lived in Brazil for a few years and had come with a Brazilian singer, and through the ages he introduced me to lots of people.  So right early on I met lots of people my age.  I was then in my very early 30s, and one evening one group said,
We’re going over to Larry Adler.  Why don’t you come along?  It was about Midnight and the name didn’t mean anything to me, so we went over there.  Larry was a charming host, and in the course of the evening his most astonishing feat was to play the piano with the left hand and to play the mouth organ holding it with his right hand.  He did marvelously.  He was an extraordinary musician and a very kind man.  He asked me at one point what I was doing and then he asked if I composed.  I said I’d written a few things but no, I was really a pianist.  I’d written these Brazilian piano pieces and he told me to sit down and play them.  I’m one of those musicians who can’t play anything if I don’t have the scores, and scores were a bit of a condescension on his part... he being the sort of instinctive musician.  Well I went back the next afternoon, and he was there lying on his carpet, and I played my pieces.  We had to resort to about three or four different languages to make one another understood because I didn’t speak English yet, and then he said, I want you to write a concerto for me.  Just like that!  He taught me what I needed to know about the harmonica.

BD:    Did you accept immediately?

JB:    Oh heavens, yes.  That was my first commission.  He offered me so much money that I could live on it for about eight or nine months without doing anything else.  He was a very, very generous man.  This, coupled with a few other events, made me decide that America was it.  I never went back to Brazil.  

BD:    Has he recorded this work?

JB:    No.  We are again in touch with one another.  He lives in London now, and he told me some very nice things about the piece.  He’s hoping to record it, and certainly is going to play it.  In fact in his last letter he said even if it has to be a benefit for the Ayatollah he will put it in a concert program!  [Both laugh]  He was astonishing, really.  When the score was finally done and I had made a piano reduction, I went over to his place.  There’s some ninety or a hundred measures of introduction by the orchestra, and then came the spot where he enters, and I looked at him expectantly.  He said,
Jean, I can’t read music!  Can you believe it?  He learned the whole piece, which lasts about sixteen minutes including the two cadenzas, in that afternoon.

BD:    You played it for him and he played it from hearing it?

JB:    I played it for him and he at once picked it up.  He has never forgotten it.  Yes, he is an extraordinary musician.  I feel very, very privileged to have known Larry.  It’s been one of the great encounters of my life.

BD:    I do hope it gets recorded.

JB:    He is trying.  He is looking into it.  I do have the material so that could be a major problem.  If not we will possibly find a way to make the recording.

BD:    I hope so.

JB:    Me too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is music at all political?

JB:    No, music per se is not political.  It can be used for political purposes, of course, but by itself it is neutral when it comes to that.  No music is specifically sacred or secular.  It depends what you do with it.  There are some cantatas by Bach which have both secular and sacred texts.  He used them for the church for the sacred texts, and as entertainment with the secular.

BD:    Does this influence the way you compose the piece if you know it is going to be a church work or a concert work?

JB:    Not really, no.  I’m only thinking about myself, so it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever as to the medium and the purpose of such a thing.  As an example, this particular chorus was wanting it, and it happened recently in your city at the First Chicago Temple, I think it is called, the Methodist Church right in the loop.  [It is the oldest church in Chicago, founded by Methodist circuit riders in 1831, six years before the City of Chicago was incorporated.]
  They gave me a very, very massive commission for a large work at the time of their 150th anniversary.  As we were talking about an event which, though it concerned the life of a church, was interested in the celebration of its longevity and the impact it had on Chicago society being a downtown church.  So all sorts of thoughts entered for that purpose.  Clearly it’s not to say that the music did not have a purpose and cannot be performed in another circumstance, but the circumstance very definitely dictated what I wanted to write.

BD:    Has the piece has been performed at other times and places?

JB:    So far as I know, only by that group.  In fact they took abroad last year or two years ago.  It is now published.  I published it myself only about a year ago.  It takes a little bit of time for this very major work to find other performances, but it is now circulating.  Incidentally, this is another reason why it is so important to run my own publishing.  No other publisher wanted even to look at it when I described it, and so here I have it, and I’m hoping somebody will be interested in it.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you have heard of your music over the years?

bergerJB:    Yes.  You don’t know me personally so you’ll have to take it at face value, but I get so excited about somebody wanting to do my works.  I can be the most lenient composer of them all.  I began thinking of myself as a composer extremely late in life, and to a certain extent it is still marvelous.  I never had planned to be a composer, and to think there are these good people who, without knowing me and without anybody helping me by manner of an agency, would simply do my stuff.  This is terribly exciting, so it will have to be pretty God-awful before I’m displeased.  Basically I have been pleased.  There are the really terrible performances, but frankly, recently I’ve been lucky in having heard many more of them and what I hear is usually very inspiring... although it may be quite different from what I would be doing myself.  As long as I recognize the music or hear the enthusiasm of the singers and of the players, it makes my day and I feel very happy!

BD:    Coming back to your commercial recordings, tell me about the Short Overture for Strings.

JB:    This had been requested by G Schirmer, who at the time
we’re talking about the mid-50s — was interested in publishing a good-sized series of works that addressed the non-professional, particularly the school orchestra.  So that is what this is for.  I may have written it in 1965 or thereabouts.  That was the beginning of my outlook in the direction of these non-professionals performers, which I have devoted myself to almost exclusively.

BD:    Obviously you’re pleased with the Belmont Chorale recordings, because you supervised those.

JB:    Yes.  I was there with my remarks and so forth.  On the whole, to me it is an excellent example of American collegiate choral singing.  There are not many college campuses where so much music is made as at Belmont College, but this level of quality one finds quite frequently, and so I find that very inspiring.
  Then there are the Five Songs of Mary Stuart, which is vocal but not choral.  I am not really pleased with the Orion recording, but I have other recordings which are not on commercial discs but from performances.  The major one, which is still my favorite, was sung by Nan Merriman, the mezzo-soprano who was such a marvelous singer.  She has not sung for many years, but that was the first performance.  In fact I wrote it informally for her.  It was not a commission but I had Nan in mind, and that was a stunning performance.  So all the others just don’t exist for me!  The last I heard was that she was remarried.  Nan was a very close friend of mine.  In fact she had come to New York from the West Coast approximately at the same time when I came to America.  I forget how we met, but it was early on when she was in her early 20s.  I was her accompanist for a nwhile.  She was a magnificent singer.  When she did this cycle of songs of mine, she told me that she was then 41.  This was in 1961, so indiscreetly I’m telling you now old Nan Merriman is!  But she said on her 45th birthday she would give her farewell concert, which in fact she did, in Amsterdam where she was particularly popular.  We had known each other very well, and I had known that she had been married.  The marriage had lasted for a tragically short time.  She told me this thing about her 45th birthday, and I indeed did read in the papers that she had given this concert.  A very short time after that I read that she was married to a Dutch tenor.  From that time on there was no communication with her.  Nobody could find her, including some very famous people such as Eugen Jochum.  He was a very close friend of hers, and he wrote me to ask if I knew where Nan was.  She completely withdrew from public life, and I don’t know where she went.  I had no way of reaching her.  She was stunning.  She was the living proof to me that a really extraordinary singer is also an extraordinary intelligent, well-read, human being.  The inarticulate singer simply does not make a great career, I don’t think.  Fischer-Dieskau would be another example.  A more articulate man you couldn’t have found.

BD:    As you approach your eightieth birthday, what is perhaps the most surprising or interesting thing that you have noted within music in that time?

JB:    [Thinks a moment]  It is something that I hope will continue, and that is the extraordinary rise of amateur music making in this country.  There is a quality in this country that I simply do not find elsewhere.  I’ve just had an example of that last week.  I was in Laramie, Wyoming.  Even for me, who has lived in Colorado since 1961, when I say Wyoming, I get condescending.  I had a group of about sixty people, most of them public school music teachers from grade schools, junior high and high schools.  There were also church musicians, and we did a reading session of about a dozen or so of my scores.  I want to tell you it was mind-boggling to have this many people sight-read, and much of my music is very difficult to do.  I like to tell people that, that this is simply a unique American ability that people who, if you take them individually, can barely read a C major scale in whole notes, but if you put them together, suddenly there’s this mysterious thing that happens, and they make music.  It is this kind of fellowship that I find characteristic of American society generally speaking, and is the most inspiring thing that I’ve seen grow during my time stay in America.  As you know, my career was launched by people like Olaf Christiansen and particularly his father, Melius, and by all these wonderful people who have devoted themselves to this particular facet of American music making.  Coupled with that is the fact that the non-professional organizations are the only ones at this point that take composers such as me to heart, whereas the professional groups, be they opera societies or symphony orchestras, pass by completely.  It will not occur to the Chicago Symphony to extend a commission to me, whereas these non-professionals want their own pieces.  They don’t have any kind of contemporary music-commissioning project.  No!  They just want a piece!  They’re very simple.  They don’t even know what
contemporary means!  This is what I have observed, and to me it is the most inspiring thing, and something which I always like to mention when I go on my European lecture tours, because in Europe you have precisely the oppositea disappearance of, to use Hindemith’s term, the ‘enlightened amateur’.  So this is what I would single out as perhaps the most magnificent feature of American music in these last thirty-five or forty years.

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

JB:    Ah, it’s torture and fun!  I hate starting a score but I will say that once I know where the score wants to go, yes, it is fun.  At that time I get very compulsive.  I’m very asocial then, and just work and work.  I can go eighteen hours a day.  I simply can’t sleep and I can’t eat.  This is why I write fast or else I would starve to death!  [Laughs] 

BD:    I want to thank you for all the music that you have given the world, and for spending this time with me today.

JB:    Well, let me thank you for these very nice remarks. 
Awfully good talking with you, Bruce. 


“The music that he wrote for the choral community was important. Any choral conductor over the age of forty has done a lot of his work.” So commented the artistic director of the Colorado Chorale, Dan Grace, in the obituary for pianist and composer Jean Berger. Grace estimated that he had performed at least twenty-five of Berger’s works.

Born to a Jewish family in Hamm, Germany, a modest city in Westphalia, and originally named Arthur Schlossberg (which he changed in the 1930s), Berger’s academic music studies centered initially around musicology, which he pursued at the Universities of Vienna and Heidelberg under the tutelage of two of the founding pillars of the modern discipline, Egon Wellesz and Heinrich Besseler. At the same time, he became an accomplished pianist and acquired conducting skills as well. After receiving his doctorate in Heidelberg, he accepted a post as assistant conductor at the major opera house in Mannheim, where he also studied composition with Hugo Adler—the chief cantor of that city’s principal Liberale, or mainstream nonorthodox, synagogue and a highly regarded composer and teacher.

As a Jew visible in a German cultural institution during the doomed waning days of the Weimar democracy, the young Schlossberg was almost instantly a target of local Nazi party followers—even before the party came officially to power as a result of the elections that gave no party a clear majority and resulted in the National Socialists being invited to join the government. Later, in his American years, Berger would recall how four of the Nazi party thugs, known as brown shirts, assaulted him during a rehearsal and ejected him from the opera house at gunpoint. In 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor by the newly reelected president Paul von Hindenberg in an effort to form a coalition government, Schlossberg emigrated to Paris to study composition with Louis Aubert. He took the French name Jean Berger and from his new home base in Paris embarked on concert tours in Europe and the Near East as a pianist and accompanist for singers. In 1939 he left Paris for a concert tour of Brazil with a singer, and he remained in Rio de Janeiro for the next two years, serving as assistant conductor at the Theatro Municipal and joining the faculty of the Conservatório Brasileiro de Música. He also made extensive tours of other parts of South America.

In 1941, a tour as accompanist to a Brazilian singer brought Berger to America. France had fallen to Germany and been occupied by the German army in 1940, while Berger was still based in Rio. When he arrived in America, his initial intention was to remain temporarily and then return to Paris after the war—certain that the Allies would be victorious and France would be liberated: “I thought that I would return to France after the victoire,“ he said in retrospect, “which was inevitable, bien entendu.” But he soon became attracted to many aspects of the new environment, including its creative possibilities and its non-European–based musics—despite some of the typical reservations of many refugees who were grounded in central European culture. He had first encountered jazz while still in Paris, where he heard the ultimately legendary Duke Ellington in a concert at the Salle Pleyel, and he had been enthralled. The American black singer Ethel Waters sang “Stormy Weather” on that program, which had further intrigued the impressionable Berger. “Whatever else was on the program faded into nothingness,” he later recalled, “compared to that song. We discussed it all night. . . . We knew we had heard something new.” Now, in the land from which Ellington’s and Waters’s music and styles had sprung, Berger was also drawn more broadly to the musical expression of American black culture and experience—not only jazz, but blues, gospel, spirituals, and other genres. Thirty years later he would articulate his recognition of “the radical impact made upon ‘idiom’ in our time, by the Afro-American irruption.” He would become convinced that, as he observed in a 1971 discursive letter, that “idiom” could “easily and gleefully integrate Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and ‘A Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ ”—much as highbrow European art music had integrated elements from wider cultural spheres long before the modern era. But he always credited “The Duke” with having led him to these sensibilities. “My conversion at the hands of the Black Jesus” was how he once referred to Ellington’s influence on him, and he hoped that he would one day have an opportunity to “tell him myself. I shall be willing to do so on my knees.”

Not long after Berger’s arrival in America, he determined to stay. “America had begun to take me to her wheat-covered bosom,” he reminisced twenty-eight years later in a letter to the well-known critic Henry Pleasants, with whom he conducted a rich and intellectually stimulating correspondence for thirty-seven years:

“and I could no longer consider a return to Europe. . . . I am willing to . . . look for what there might be [in America] that is grand. And that is here, indeed. Ellington being one of the things, but there are more. And if my small efforts can contribute one ounce of stuff, so be it.”

It was not that he lacked nostalgia for prewar Europe and the refinements of its Old World cultural life, but he looked forward from the beginning to the fresh opportunities and discoveries that awaited him: “The yearning for the life that once we led is sometimes almost more than can be borne, yet my life is here.”

Berger served in the United States Army beginning in 1942, and a year later he became a United States citizen. From 1943 to 1946 he produced foreign-language broadcasts for the Office of War Information and performances for USO Camp Shows for servicemen and servicewomen in various theaters of the war and areas of postwar occupation—often with his wife, Rita, a professional dancer. After a brief period spent arranging music for the CBS and NBC networks, as well as continued piano accompanying, he entered the academic world and taught until his retirement, in 1971. During those twenty-three years he was on the faculties of Middlebury College in Vermont, the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana), the University of Colorado, and Colorado Women’s College in Denver, where he settled permanently and continued to compose.

Berger’s gift for choral writing and vocal music in general was acknowledged as early as his Paris years, when, in 1937, he was awarded first prize at an international competition in Zurich for his piece Le Sang des autres. And although over the next several decades he wrote for various instrumental as well as vocal media—including such mixed-media works as The Pied Piper, a play with music, and Birds of a Feather, an “Entertainment in One Act,” as well as orchestral pieces—he has always been most widely associated with two highly successful choral pieces: Brazilian Psalm, perhaps his most recognized work, and The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee. Both have been part of standard repertoire of American high school and college choirs, as well as professional and amateur ensembles, for many years. Other significant choral and solo vocal works include Magnificat; Skelton Poems (1957), inspired by poetry of the Tudor-era English poet John Skelton (1460–1529); Vision of Peace; Six Madrigals; Songs of Sadness and Gladness; and, from his later years, Cantico de lo frate solo, a cycle of five songs on a text of Saint Francis of Assisi. Closest to his heart were his works for what he called “staged chorus,” the best known of which is Yiphtah and His Daughter, based on the incident in the biblical Book of Judges in which the military commander Jephta (Heb. Yiftaḥ) swears an oath that, if granted victory in battle over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering to God whatever was first to emerge from his house on his return—which turned out to be his daughter. (More than one hundred musical works have been generated by this story over the centuries, including those by Handel, Schumann, Meyerbeer, and Toch.) Although composed much earlier, it was not until 1993 that Yiphtah and His Daughter was scheduled for a 1994 performance as a staged work—by the chorus of the University of Leipzig, with Berger conducting.

Indeed, by the end of the 20th century, Berger concluded that his works for staged chorus constituted what he felt was his most important contribution to “the musical substance of our age.” This was, in part, an outgrowth of his developed view that the so-called traditional concert format was gradually losing its hold on American audiences and coming to an end. He saw the innovation of staged choral works as one positive solution, whereby theatrical elements were introduced into the performances.

For Berger, another alternative to the traditional concert format—which he came to view largely as a holdover from a 19th-century German culturally based institution—was a workshop setting, in which a chorus would sing for itself, sometimes divided into smaller groups, rather than for a separate audience, what might be called today a “sing-in.” He believed that this kind of experimentation was made possible by the relative openness of the American environment. In a 1971 letter to Henry Pleasants he described enthusiastically such an experience with a chorus at Ashland College in Ohio, which he conducted in this format in a reading of Bach’s first motet, Sing Ye, for double choir—done without interruption as a performance for the choristers themselves, but not as a rehearsal. “No concert, but music” is how he characterized it. And he went on to affirm his certainty that “no such thing could happen in Germany, France, Italy, possibly not in Britain.”

Berger was a prolific letter writer, and many of his letters to friends and colleagues offer valuable insights into his thinking and into the development of his ideas. With Henry Pleasants, he engaged in an ongoing discussion about the problems of categorizing music and the semantic as well as conceptual difficulties inherent in the various terminologies used to distinguish from all other musics what has now been accepted under the historically misleading rubric of “classical.” In the 1970s, when Berger and Pleasants were addressing this matter, the term “serious music” was in common use, probably more so than today (following other attempts, such as the 1950s “longhaired music”; “cultivated music,” which comes closest to its purpose and meaning, but never caught on, perhaps not least because it has one syllable too many; “concert music,” which lost its significance once popular, folk, jazz, and rock musicians began using the word for public performances; and “art music,” which has historical precedent but tends to sound excessively rarified—if not pretentious—and which, in any case, could apply to other musics whose very essence is the art of improvisation, not cultivation, such as jazz!). Recognizing that the label “serious” risked being misperceived in terms of relative merit, or even dismissive of other musics, Berger suggested that the German seriöse Musik—from which he presumed the English usage to have stemmed—both contained and implied nuances different from those of American sensibilities. He posited that the original German designation was born out of socioeconomic class distinctions rather than from purely aesthetic categorization. “The German music consumer of the 19th century,” he wrote, “had to demand that music be ‘serious’ because his whole Weltanschauung was predicated on this adjective. The various other terms such as Bürger (citizen), or its obverse term Künstler (artist), or the Bürger’s chief quality Pflichtbewusstsein (dutifulness) or so many others, all point in the same direction, namely a sort of Teutonic Victorianism.” Did not, he implied, this designation bestow sociological legitimacy? Moreover, he wondered whether the implied “seriousness of purpose”—i.e., an almost pretentious high-mindedness—of art music had not come about as a function of the “dissolution of the impact of religion within the 19th century,” so that the formal concert hall had become a para-religious substitute. Whether or not one agrees with any of this, the observations are certainly stimulating.

Pleasants replied that the real distinction, albeit artificial, was to be found between the designations ernst Musik (serious music) and Unterhaltungsmusik (popular music)—official appellations of distinction among German radio staffs, which he called prejudicial categorization with little regard for the quality of either the music or its performance. “It nourishes snobs,” he wrote. “. . . the arts may now be the only area of human activity where snobbery is still applauded, encouraged, and even subsidized. I have no objection to music’s being taken seriously. I take it very seriously. But I don’t believe in taking only Serious Music seriously.” Berger appears to have concurred in subsequent correspondence.

Other of Berger's letters yield keen observations and attitudes on a rich array of subjects, ranging from Jewish identity and inner conflicts about Zionism to the merits of serial techniques in composition, and from the small-mindedness of the academy to the nature of the art song genre, or Kunstlieder. With regard to the last, he favored performances in translation into the language of the audience. All of these discussions and deliberations help us to understand the intellect that lay behind the musical creativity of Jean Berger.

After his retirement from his last full-time university post, he continued to give guest lectures as a visiting professor at colleges, universities, and conservatories in the United States and abroad. As a sort of “musical ambassador” for American culture, he spoke on American music at Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow universities, and at schools throughout Germany, Brazil, Portugal, and Holland. And his composing continued unabated until his health began to fail. His many honors include an honorary doctorate from Pacific Lutheran University (1969) and the Colorado Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (1985).

Although his heart seems to have lain principally in composition, the musicologist within him from his early European training never disappeared entirely. He published many critical-historical editions of music by Giuseppe Torelli (1658–1709) and the 17th-century Giacomo Perti (1661–1756), as well as related articles in The Musical Quarterly and the Journal of the American Musicological Society.

—Neil W. Levin 

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on June 25, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  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.