Composer William Bergsma
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
William Bergsma, A Music Professor And
By ERIC PACE
Published in The New York TImes,
March 21, 1994
William L. Bergsma, a composer of symphonies, chamber music, songs and
other works, died on Friday at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. He was 72
and lived in Seattle.
The cause was a heart attack suffered in the hospital, where he was
being treated for a broken hip, said his daughter, Anne, of Seattle.
Mr. Bergsma was born in Oakland, Calif., and studied at Stanford
University. He was a teaching fellow at the Eastman School of Music and
earned an a bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester in 1942
and a master's degree in music there in 1943.
From 1946 to 1963, he was on the faculty of the Juilliard School of
Music, where he was associate dean from 1961 to 1963. He was a
professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, from 1963 to
1986 and the director of its School of Music from 1963 to 1971.
In 1972 and 1973, he was a visiting professor at Brooklyn College. He
received numerous awards, grants and commissions, including Guggenheim
fellowships in 1946 and 1951.
In 1981, after the world premiere of his work "The Voice of the
Coelacanth," a set of 10 variations for horn, violin and piano, at
Alice Tully Hall, one critic noted that the coelacanth was a fish that
had long been thought extinct until a specimen was found in the 1930's.
It was said at the time that Mr. Bergsma had adopted that unlikely
survivor as a symbol for himself -- a composer, then 60, who had never
deserted tonality and, at that time, saw dozens of his former
avant-garde colleagues returning to the fold.
In addition to his daughter, a classical soprano specializing in the
20th-century repertory, Mr. Bergsma is survived by his wife of 48
years, the former Nancy Nickerson; a son, Laurence, of Seattle; two
half-brothers, Edwin Bennett of Portland, Ore., and David Bennett of
Oakland, and two half-sisters, Shirley Bennett of Maui, Hawaii and
Gloria Olson of Hillsborough, Calif.
One of the more interesting, or dare I say ‘quirky’
figures of Twentieth Century music was composer, teacher and
administrator William Bergsma.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him twice, the conversations
occurring exactly one year apart. The first one was on the
telephone, and the second was in his home in Seattle, Washington.
Portions of both were used at various times on WNIB, and once as part
of the in-flight entertainment package aboard United Airlines.
That package, incidentally, was also placed aboard Air Force One, the
What appears on this webpage is an entire transcript of both
conversations, one after the other. Amazingly, there is very
little duplication of ideas, and when those do come up, there is
usually a little different slant or additional examples given.
He mentions quite a few names of other composers, and those which are
links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.
The first conversation is an interesting snapshot from 1986, when the
recording industry was in an upheaval. Much would settle down
quickly, but this moment-in-time captures the reactions and reflections
of one of those who started and steered the way early on in the LP era.
In my career presenting musicians on the air and in print, practically
all were friendly and amenable to speaking with me. Obviously, a
very few were not, and they simply declined my invitation. I
encountered a few who were apprehensive at first, but I managed to put
them at ease. In this case, however, my guest made his feelings
known at the very start...
[With regards to editing the conversation] I can’t say that I
trust your judgment, because
after all, you are a journalist. What I’ve been taught over many
hard experience is that journalists are very nice people, and one must
regard them as mortal adversaries. Their interests are not
identical with mine.
Well, my interest is really to try and present
you in the best possible light.
This seemed to satisfy him, but later, after we had been speaking for
about a half hour, there was this exchange...
I’m getting some
interesting insights into the workings of your mind.
Well, that, too, is dangerous. Pardon me if I sound
suspicious. I don’t
really mean to sound suspicious. I do mean to sound wary.
We did continue, of course, and in the end he seemed pleased with how
it went. We stayed in touch, and he even invited me to his home
the following year!
Here is the first of the two interviews from the point where he picks
up the phone . . . . .
May I speak with William Bergsma,
BD: How are
Good. How goes it?
fine... Adjusting the levels here
on my equipment. Everything seems to be rolling fine.
figured, a radio man you’re going to be
BD: I try to
be. Everybody seems to comment on
that, on how accurate my time is when I make the call.
WB: I was
trained at Eastman, and when I was Vice President of CRI, a lot of
recording sessions had to
start precisely at the dot and end precisely at the dot. So, I’m
Good. For this I have an accurate start time
but no finish time. We can go as long as you like.
[Laughs] Well, you cut it off.
BD: I didn’t
realize that you were Vice President of CRI.
yes. Founding Vice President. In default of anybody else, I
ran the place for
about the first two years. My opera was on CRI 105, so I had a
interested in seeing that the firm got off the ground. I write in
the mornings, so I spent probably three or four
afternoons a week being vice president of what
was then a profit-making corporation. At that point you
couldn’t get into the Schwann Catalog
unless you were profit-making, so the original incorporators, who were
non-profit, decided that was that way to go. Then after a couple
of years of this, it crossed my rather lame brain that I might as well
get paid for administration, so William Schuman
offered me the job of Associate
Dean of Juilliard. I decided, okay, I’d move over.
BD: So you would
teach at Juilliard,
and work for CRI, and try to compose?
WB: I wrote
and I composed. Juilliard was
compassionate. Schuman took the point that if he was going
to hire composers, he wanted them to compose. He managed to do
that until the Rockefellers at Lincoln Center practically killed him
off with a major heart attack. None of us ever showed up before
noon, and we
taught as long as we had to, or administered as long as we had
to. He also took the point, which is perfectly true, that no
musical crisis blows up before noon, when rehearsal breaks.
[Laughs] Very sensible. As VP of CRI, were you involved in
the decisions of what would
and would not get recorded?
after the first twelve releases, which were
pre-set. CRI, by the way, was the second in existence
in the United States of a label run by composers, the first being Henry
Cowell’s New Music Edition,
to which I was a
subscriber for a while. Anyway, CRI was formed by the
editorial board of the old
American Recording Society [example
of one of their discs is at right] which was Doug Moore,
Quincy Porter, and Howard Van Desto, the President of Desto Records,
and a bunch of other people. Desto kept us commercial. Doug
Moore at ASCAP heard about this, because that was going to come through
the American Composer’s Alliance, which is BMI. Doug’s position
that with such an important potentiality as a recording company run by
ASCAP ought to have an input. He got together enough money from
the Ditson Fund and other places to not quite match the BMI input,
so we became non-partisan. The board of directors, then, had
about an equal number of BMI people and ASCAP people.
BD: Is that a
Yes. If we had any substantial number of
people in CSAC, which is another performance arts organization, I would
be in favor of that, too. It’s like industry counsel
with Ford and General Motors. It’s sort of stupid to go off on
your own unless
you’re BMW, a firm for which I have inordinate admiration.
BD: Then what
criteria for deciding which pieces would get recorded and which would
WB: I pushed
for certain pieces. I pushed for
Copland’s First Symphony and
Sessions’ First Symphony.
wanted a great big chorus and percussion
piece which was recorded later but we didn’t do it. And I pushed
sort of Americana, because I have, through my wife’s side of the
family, a songbook from about 1848 to 1850 published mostly in St.
Louis. The family
by that time on her side was in Hannibal, Missouri, having abandoned
Georgia just in time to escape the Civil War... though to hear them
you would never believe that. [Both laugh] At any rate,
some of the things I
pushed for worked. Some of them didn’t sell, but it was the
board’s decision, not mine.
BD: Now you
say that the company had to make a
WB: No, I
it certainly never did. It lost money hand over fist.
BD: I thought
you said it had to be a profit-making
WB: It had to
be incorporated as one in order to be listed in Schwann. Then
about ten years ago they decided that this was nonsense, that they’d
get more money from non-profit organizations by being a non-profit
organization. So they wrote each one of the people who had
records on CRI, which they or their publishers had sponsored, or some
foundation had sponsored, and said, “Would it be okay if we became
nonprofit? Would you sign the enclosed release?” Which we
all did, I guess.
who held out
would just simply be dropped from the list?
WB: I don’t
think they did, because CRI’s great
boast, as you know, is that they never dropped anything.
everything is always available?
WB: That was
the original policy thirty long years ago.
BD: But CRI
is still continuing to
WB: All over
the place. They’re into cassettes which are
very nice. I haven’t been active with them really since
I stopped being Vice President. I think my last piece on CRI is
on #140, and they’re in the
200s and going on 300s now.
BD: I assume
that without CRI, a lot of
these pieces just simply never would have been recorded.
WB: We took
the position that any piece worth being
done is worth being recorded, at least in one form or another, in those
days before cassettes. There was no possibility of doing
what’s very easy now, simply to put on your own concert, pay the
extra money to the performers and get a usable cassette which you can
sell at your next concert.
BD: But you
were not trying to
compete with Columbia or any other recording company?
WB: We sure
were! We got into a fierce, almost
bullfight with Columbia Records because they objected to our use of
‘CRI’ because they were Columbia Records
Incorporated. I was a great deal of fun having to correspond,
with our lawyers’ help. Then Columbia Records
Incorporated dis-incorporated to take a loss from somebody going
broke. Columbia had, unadvisedly, recorded
Guerrelieder with a piano
pick-up group, and RCA casually
re-released the Stokowski 1933 version on RCA. So nobody bought
the Columbia Records thing, but every record retailer did. Sam
Goody went broke, and in order to take the loss against
Columbia Records B, Columbia Records Incorporated went out of
business. So I had the pleasure of sending a letter pointing out
that ‘CRI’ no
longer existed, except with Composer’s Recordings.
[Laughs] Gave you some satisfaction, then?
WB: There are
a few pleasures now in this job.
Not many, but a few.
BD: So you
are still very
supportive of CRI, even though you’re not directly involved?
WB: Yes, I’m
supportive of it, in principle. I’m sort of supportive of things
in proportion to the propinquity
I have with them. I haven’t been in the CRI offices for twenty
BD: Would you
rather one of your pieces be
released on CRI, or on RCA or Columbia?
Obviously, RCA or Columbia... except that both are monumentally stupid,
haven’t even gotten into the CD market yet.
[Laughs] That’s not necessarily
monumentally stupid. That could be just lagging behind.
WB: Which is
monumentally stupid in the business
world, isn’t it? Aren’t they paid a large salary to think ahead?
true. Of course, we’re seeing a
repeat of 1948 now, with the CD market. Back in ’48, when
introduced the LP and RCA went with the 45 and EMI stayed with the
78 format, and it was a long time before everything got straightened
WB: CRI got
into the LP market right away, but not
into the stereo market. All the early releases were mono.
Some of them had been reprocessed in stereo,
which is generally a dreadful idea, including a couple of pieces of
mine which sounded much better in mono. The interesting thing
about the LP market is that it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
Cassettes, at least in Seattle, sell very
well. At least they’re only being marked down to 50 percent of
cost. Compact discs are selling at only a discount of about two
dollars from their $16.69 price, and LPs you can hardly get rid
of. Chicago may be a different market.
BD: CDs are
selling very well, and we know that a number of
things are being released only in the CD format.
WB: There was
some talk about The Murder of
Comrade Sharik. Brooklyn College has a benefactor who has
record company, and he distributes through a national firm. He
issues only in CD and cassettes, which sort of shook the teeth out of
some of the record owners I know in Seattle when they heard about
in not too far down the line we will see the replacement of CD with
another format, and then all the CDs will become obsolete.
that’s excellent for the
manufacturers. It’s simply hell on the musicians. It simply
means that you have to record the Unfinished
Symphony yet another time.
BD: Is it
hell on the consumer also?
WB: I’m not
that much of a consumer.
the composer or the performer be concerned about the consumer?
probably should be. Actually, this
conversation is now occurring to me as a composer, and I’m delighted to
see the trend. This is a dreadful confession, but I really write
for the dress
rehearsal. I write for the musicians who are playing. I’m
not a performer myself. I can conduct all right, but I’m very
clumsy with piano and viola, which are my instruments, and I sound like
hell. Since the tape recorder, I’ve hardly played them. But
the most satisfying thing to me is when you get through the dress
with the players knowing what I want, and I knowing that I’ve written
them music that they can play happily and sound good, because if they
don’t sound good, I can’t sound good. The audience is simply
there. They’re wonderful. They’ve paid their admission,
they pay the freight, and I must admire that pertinacity, if not
perspicuity in some cases. But so far as I’m concerned, the real
not what a real performer feels, which is, “My God, I’ve got this gut
feeling between me and the audience.”
You know you just stand on a stage and you know it’s there. It
may not be physically measurable, but it is
supposed to be animal magnetism between people. You’ve stood on a
stage and talked to an
audience, and you know very well that there is something
there between you and them, and if you lose it, you’re dead.
nights it’s there, and some nights it’s
Right. Same as composing.
taught in Juilliard?
WB: Yes, it
was my first teaching job.
BD: A note I
have says you were involved in the curriculum reforms of the 1940s,
so how has the teaching of composition changed over forty years?
WB: Please remember
studied with extraordinarily great teachers. I studied in high
school and in between high school and college with Al Frankenstein, who
was teaching a course in 20th Century Music at San Francisco Extension
of UC Berkeley. I would go up once a week, and Al would play
Bartók, Schoenberg, Ives, everything that was on 78 at the
He promised us he was going to bring in Blitzstein’s
The Cradle Will
Rock, and then he didn’t like it, so he said, “I’m not bringing
because I don’t like it.” That was Al. He was absolutely
wonderful! Then I had Howard Hanson, who was my principal
teacher. I hid my credentials, because I
was still in high school and not in college, and went down to his
seminar at USC in Los Angeles in
1936. It was a weekly thing, and at the end of his two-hour
session, I shyly took out a score and said, “Would you have time to
at a page or two?” So he sat down with me. He played the
whole damned thing through, and he wanted to recruit me for
Eastman. It took me two years to grow up to that. My
parents decided that I should not face the wild east while I was
still not dry behind the ears — which in
retrospect was a very sensible
thing — so I spent two years at Leland Stanford
Junior University. There I studied with Warren Allen, who is the
Philosophies of Music History,
which is a superb book. It deals
with what musicologists don’t pay much attention to, which is
historiography, the study of history as the way you look at it.
He went through the great man theory, and the evolutionary theory,
and the “We are all fallen from Paradise” theory, which go behind all
music history books. He wasn’t a terribly good teacher, but in
this book he had a great perception, and did it with great
thoroughness. Then there were other teachers. Pierre
Monteux, the conductor who played me while I was still in high school
and college, is a teacher. He teaches his
orchestra. He teaches his audiences, and in my case certainly, he
taught this composer. He had a concept which is quite rare in
major conductors, a responsibility to the community, to the whole
area. I was scared to death of him. If he wanted to know
about a young artist, Monteux put him or her not on a series, of
course, but on the
broadcasts and all sorts of other things which the San Francisco
Symphony did for a living. And he did the same with me. He
did the same with any talent that came around, and it was sort of
wonderful. It does happen with a few conductors, and I will not
name them for fear of annoying others.
BD: Is there
too much talent around today to be
accepted or worked with by the major people?
seriously, that is the problem of the major people. They can’t
look at every
manuscript. They can’t hear every pianist. But they have to
have tentacles in their community, be that Tel Aviv or Minneapolis or
whatever, so that somebody can come to them and say, “This is somebody
you should hear,” and they’ll hear them. Somewhere around 1960 I
was talking to Roger Sessions, and bitching that
in my generation there were 200 trained composers, and one could tell
one from the other. They came from a very few schools. They
came from Eastman, and possibly from USC, or maybe — but
not very likely — from New England
Conservatory, Juilliard, or Curtis. If you look at my generation,
that’s where we all
came from.... mostly Eastman, because Hanson was an
absolutely superb teacher — not of composition,
but of music. Bitching to Roger, I said that there were probably
2000 well-equipped American composers, and twenty years from then
there would probably be 20,000. How was one to tell one from the
other? Roger looked at me owlishly and said, “How would you
like to be in my generation when there were only two?” I told
that to Otto Luening,
waspishly said, “Charles Ives and who else?”
[Both laugh] That was naughty, but the point being
you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. That’s a Harry
Truman phrase, if I remember correctly. In my
contest judging years, which ended when I had my heart attack and I
retired, I used to judge three or four major contests a year
— National Endowment, a number of the foundations, who
would like me to
be nameless, Prix de Rome, ASCAP, BMI. There you would look at
work of 500 composers inside two or three days, a lot of them you knew
from before. But there is a cadre of composers — and
I will not name them, because
again, they might like to be anonymous — of
maybe twelve to fifteen
American composers of my generation and the generation immediately
below, guys in their forties, who know these pieces, who have a very
firm idea what each judge thinks of the piece or the pieces, and,
moreover, has insight into how these pieces are going to
sell. Now with that knowledge — which is
very painfully acquired,
let me assure you — he can go conceivably to a
conductor, who asks him, “I’ve got this
commission. Who would you
recommend?” I would say, “Go see Mr. Y.” Mr. Y
sometimes would get the commission, sometimes would not, sometimes
would get payments and get a post, and sometimes would not. The
point of it is there are people who
know who they are.
BD: So you’re
saying that the number gets reduced to a certain few
who stay in the mainstream, and the rest fall by the wayside?
WB: If a
composer, by age thirty, has won an ASCAP or
BMI award, has been commissioned by a local arts council, that’s
important. If he has won a national prize or two — the
Institute of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives award, which is better than
a fellowship, for instance — has
got a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation or one of the major
they’re arrived at one of these things?
WB: Not one
of them, five or six of them, then you’ve got a built-in
selection. [Retrieves a book from his desk to read the list of
got it here. This is the American Academy and Institute of Arts
and Letters 1986-1987 Members Book. It’s my club. We are
two hundred and fifty
gentry, who don’t like each other very much.
WB: Let me
read off the list of the members in the
Department of Music. Dom Argento, Milton Babbitt, Leslie Bassett,
Arthur Berger, William Bergsma, Lenny Bernstein,
Henry Brant, John Cage,
Elliott Carter, Chou Wen-chung, Aaron
Mario Davidovsky, Norm
Dello Joio, David
Jake Druckman, Vivian Fine, Ross Lee
Finney, Lucas Foss,
Imbrie, Betsy Jolas,
Ulysses Kay, Leon
Krenek, Otto Luening, Don Martino, George Perle, Vincent Persichetti,
Schuller, Bill Schuman, Steve
Sondheim, Louise Talma,
Virgil Thomson, Vlad
Ussachevsky, Bob Ward,
Hugo Weisgall, Charlie Wuorinen.
quite a list!
WB: And they
decide, or committees from them, decide
who shall get the $80,000 or so a year, for young composers, the
American Academy Institute has to give out. I can give you list
of fellows. Give me a
year from 1942 on.
BD: Let’s say
1951... Alan Hovhaness, Leon Kirchner, Frank
Wigglesworth got the music award. Give me another one.
1960... Arthur Berger,
Salvatore Martirano, Gunther Schuller. In other
words, we pick well.
BD: Yes, you
have selected rather well. It reads like a Who’s Who.
is. This organization essentially
doesn’t give any money to its members. Its members give their
time in order to give money to youngsters in their field. There
are similar lists for art and literature. The members are awfully
good people. Now, they’re sort of survivors. I said in
my introductory speech that in 1945 I received
$1000 from the organization in my trembling hand, and I looked at the
assembled multitudes on stage,
probably about 180 of them, and I knew most of the names from the
text books. They looked three times older than God and twice as
distinguished. I never thought that I would be among them,
but it turned out, if you live long enough, you are.
BD: So back
to my original
question. How has the teaching of
music, teaching of composition, changed over all these years?
WB: For the
BD: Why and
WB: Go back
to J. S. Bach.
If I studied with J. S. Bach, I would get beaten regularly by him or
his assistants, but I would have had to learn the keyboard and violin
than I did. I would have been
forced to copy out the music of my master and the people he thought
well of, which would have included Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro
Scarlatti, Monteverdi and God knows who else. Copying out music
is not a bad idea, if you
pay attention to what you’re doing. In my generation, Howard
Hanson at Eastman set up a situation where I received forty-four
orchestral readings in four years. Some were broadcast, some were
stage performances, but that’s
an average of eleven readings or performances in an academic
year. That’s an awfully good background. I’ve
not been able to do that for any of my students, and I’ve had some very
BD: Is there
any way of recapturing this, or has it
simply gone the way of the dinosaur?
unlike J.S. Bach, you can forget about the beatings, and with Xerox you
can forget about the copying of music. It can be
done if you simply give somebody of Howard Hanson’s imagination
and ability to talk to an orchestra — who are
his employees and his
students — and who has done this for year after
year, and you can
convince them of the value of it, and attract the best students in the
United States so that Eastman, in provincial, frigid Rochester, was
the musical capital of the United States. New York never realized
it. You get the man who has vision and competence with, let’s
say, instead of the twenty-two million dollars that George Eastman gave
Eastman School, multiply it by ten, to 220 million dollars, found it in
and you have a first-rate school.
BD: If the
money was appropriated properly!
was quite sure that it was,
including a bribe to the University of Rochester. He always gave
them back some money every year, so that they wouldn’t claim that he
was hogging it. We all could have used it well, but he decided
that the bribe was the best way. Same with Juilliard. The
first recipient under the will of Augustus B. Juilliard was
not Juilliard School, but the Metropolitan Opera, which snubbed him by
not having him on the board of trustees, and refused his bequest.
So, the second beneficiary for the benefit of music in the United
States, was construed by the lawyers to mean to set up a school.
BD: The Met
turned down money???
WB: Yes, but
in my time, Juilliard was still paying
$20,000 to the Metropolitan Opera to keep them quiet.
BD: Are you,
optimistic about the future of music?
[Laughs] Musicians will always manage
to survive. We’ve been very poor most of the
time. Sometimes we hit it rich. The field of music is by no
means as rich as painting is now. The painters are
so rich, with huge canvases selling at $120,000 each,
and painting three a week, that they have their own secretaries.
They’re too busy to devote time to the kind of juries that the
musicians and literary people do at the Academy.
BD: But is
the music that is coming out worthy to
stand beside the music that has already come out?
WB: I like
some of it. I shouldn’t. It’s my
competition, but for what a composer ought to like, it’s quite a lot of
BD: Is there
competition amongst all these
Basically, there’s the kind of competition where
there’s too much money thrown around, so that a talented composer is
going to get a lot of it. Money equals
time, so he’s going to get time thrown at him. For instance,
Sessions had the reputation of being a ‘foundation-bum’.
He’d been on fellowship for so long that he had a hard time getting a
decent teaching job. He had to while away some years at the
University of California at Berkeley before he was allowed to return to
the east coast and a decent job at Princeton. Is there an
opportunity for young composers? Sure. If there are 20,000
with music composition degrees in the
United States, most everybody’s going to have a
regional or a local reputation. For instance, in New York, Dom
Argento is still considered a regional composer. You read John
Rockwell on the new opera that Dom
produced, Casanova, and he
says, defensively, and I’m quoting
from memory, that “He is not well known in New York City.” Hell,
he’s been played by the Minneapolis Symphony in New York City
time after time. I’ve heard him. Aside from being a
intelligence, he is a very good composer, as far as I’m concerned.
recordings allow you to break out
of your locality and become national and even international?
Crumb was the first one to prove
that. He had no solid publisher. He changed performance
organizations in mid-stream because he was furious at a certain ASCAP
publisher. He moved over to BMI and moved to a certain BMI
publisher. In the middle of this he got enough recordings from
various sources, including the American Academy and Institute, because
these prizes now include one side of a recording from CRI. He’d
accumulated enough recordings so that he could bypass the critics, he
could bypass the music publishers, and suddenly appear as somebody with
a popular following, which was very difficult to obtain. It took
John Cage years, and George did it relatively overnight, only a year or
two or three. So the answer is yes.
reading a little bit about you, Baker’s
Dictionary has a very interesting thing to say about your
WB: That’s Nicky Slonimsky.
BD: He says
that your style “is that of classical
romanticism, having a strong formal structure without lapsing into
modern formalism.” Can I get you to translate that?
[Laughs] I’m as impressed as you are.
BD: Is it not
WB: I would never
dispute Nicky Slonimsky on fact.
BD: But is
that fact or opinion?
WB: I think
it has to be considered opinion.
BD: So then,
is his opinion accurate?
opinion is as good as mine is. A
composer is not a jury of his own compositions, for God sake. He
writes the stuff.
BD: Do the
performers who play your music
find things that you didn’t even know were in the score?
Rarely. Sometimes, but rarely. Of
course, I’ve palled around with performers since I
was a pup, and been serviced by conductors the likes of Monteux and
I was in my teens and twenties. With organizations such as the
Symphony, and pick up groups in New York, and the New York
Philharmonic, and teaching at Juilliard as
long as I did, I can’t go to an orchestra or any chamber group or
conservatory in the world where there aren’t
one or two, or maybe five or six students who I have probably
taught myself. I’m dependent upon
performers, except for being a moderately good conductor. I’m a
very bad performer, and I have to work through other people,
particularly since my chosen medium is the voice, or its extension, the
interesting that you make the connection of the voice and
the string quartet.
WB: My old
teacher, when I again was a kid, said in effect, “You’re
never going to be a violinist, but you’re going to be something
So he sent me up to San Francisco. It meant going up in the
trolley, eighteen miles from the peninsula. I would bring back
sonatas. He had all the Mozart, Beethoven, etcetera, so I would
bring back Honneger and Milhaud. I don’t think I brought
back any Schoenberg and Webern wasn’t published then. There
isn’t any Berg for violin and piano, but we would sight-read the others
me at the piano. That was my violin lesson, and I learned to
sight read very well. I can sight read better than I can play.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances that you have heard of your works?
WB: When the
performer has had the time, and this is
critical. I haven’t written for a large orchestra
since 1950, unless I’ve had a soloist or a chorus, because
I know that I’m going to have something like three times the running
time of the piece in rehearsal. In other words, if I write half
an hour symphony, I’m going to have an hour and a half rehearsal.
not very much.
certainly isn’t. I’ll get a lot more
with a chamber orchestra, or chamber music, or opera, so I write for
them. If I’ve got a soloist, he can force his way through.
The conductor can only do so much, and if the score hasn’t been done
and there isn’t a
tape of it, the conductor is faced with the problem of being perplexed
with a great
volume of sound. He’s
studied it, that’s for sure. He’s worked on it, but he hasn’t had
that much time. I’ve envisioned it. I’ve
spent a year on the thing. If he’s
spent thirty hours, that’s a lot. That’s a full working week for
a conductor, aside from doing other things that conductors have to
do. So I am perplexed... Is this a mistake in the
parts? Is this volume balance correct or not? Having to
make split-second decisions with the time running — at
what used to
be $180 a minute, but it’s probably more now — my
margin for error is
not that comfortable ten per cent plus or minus which an electrical
engineer or an architect has. My margin for error in a three hour
rehearsal is if I waste five minutes I’m in very bad favor
with the performers and the conductor.
BD: Do you
ever make revisions in your scores?
Regrettably, yes. Well, you look at Slonimsky, for instance, or
Grove, any list of my pieces, you find that a lot of my pieces
been revised. [See my Interview with Stanley
Sadie, Editor of The New Grove
Dictionary of Music and Musicians.] In the last year or so
I’ve been discovering
that revisions were a bad idea. Not the ones that I made at the
time of the performance, because that was directly fact on fact.
These were the ones in listening to dear friends or critics or somebody
saying, “You know, this really needs to be fixed up,” and fixing it
up. Well, it didn’t need fixing.
the Anton Bruckner syndrome.
WB: I never
thought much of Bruckner’s intellect, but
I’m beginning to doubt my own. That’s the Anton Bruckner
syndrome, yes. For instance, I’m conducting A Carol on Twelfth Night in New
the not-glamorous Brooklyn College. I’ll have to be in New York,
Thanksgiving until almost Christmas for their rehearsals and
performance. I’m going to ask for the un-revised version, the one
that’s recorded in Louisville. I did the more flashy
version, which is current and which has been done, according to my
publisher, more than a hundred times, because the beginning was
“obscure.” Well, I happen to like the beginning, and I’m going
back to it to see how it sounds. I may be wrong. I may go
back to the revised version. I’d like to find out.
BD: So you
need to hear it again with new ears?
WB: I’d like
to find out what I did first. I
was not all that untalented.
BD: Part of
my reason for asking all of this is the
current rage among musicologists to dig up first versions and urtexts,
and play them either alongside revisions or
in place of revisions.
take Mahler. The
First Symphony had five
movements. The Blumine
thing, I think, Mahler
was perfectly right to cut out. That was a rational decision, and
he adhered to it. Bruckner didn’t have that much rehearsal time
with orchestras, and he suffered from the defect of being an
have to do their own registration.
WB: Yes, and
you have a jerry-built instrument every
time. You don’t know what you’re going to get, so I don’t write
for organ. Beside which, in Bruckner’s day you had to stop
everything and rearrange registration if you wanted to change things,
which I think explains the grand pauses in Bruckner’s music... and for
that matter, in Cesar Franck’s. They automatically were
to the grand pause so they could readjust the
registration. The instrument the musician plays is very important
to his output. Berlioz played
guitar and flute, not piano until much later. That’s one reason
he sounds very much different from any other orchestrator of his
time. He had what in the guitar was called the decaying
instrument, and the flute, of course, a completely sustaining
instrument. He used those things; he knew about them. You
do what Berlioz tells you to. I discovered something in the Symphonie
Fantastique the other day, doing a bit on counterpoint in the
century. When the bells
come in, in the fifth movement before the Dies Irae, they’re marked derrière la
théâtre, behind the theater.
WB: Does that
mean offstage, or does that mean
behind the audience? I’d like to try it with an orchestra some
time, or get a conductor to, but my feeling about Berlioz is you must
follow his instructions completely correctly. In the first
performance, I’m afraid he substituted something like
six grand pianos on stage, but he may not have been able to fit them
audience. He says derrière
la théâtre, not derrière
la scène or derrière
l’orchestre. He was
a very, very good man with the French language.
BD: Are you
this specific in your scores about
writing out all these details?
else is going to be.
BD: Earlier I
asked if you are pleased with performances of your music. Are you
pleased with the recordings that have been
made of your works?
WB: In the
main. I’ve had absolutely devoted performers and
performances. I’ve been extremely
lucky. Where people have not had enough time, or mistaken a
concept, or a soloist who demanded more rehearsal time, then naturally,
the new guy suffers, and the composer’s automatically the new guy.
BD: You say
that you like to write for the voice, so
let me ask you about your operas.
WB: Okay. May
I first say that the most
beautiful sound to me is the mezzo soprano on G on the staff, going
from piano up to forte, and back down again.
One of the
reasons I’m glad not to be teaching anymore is that I had a student
this past year, who, upon hearing that in
my two operas I considered the test of truth was in the mezzo soprano
role, asked what voice my mother
had. I should have said I’m off to a psychoanalyst, but I didn’t
have the wit to do so.
BD: One of
the articles about you said you learned a
bit from your mother, who was an opera singer.
WB: She sang
in the chorus. I played under Gaetano
Merola at the Bach Festival in Carmel for awhile. One time he
looked at the section I was playing in and he said, “You sound like a
mosquito with intestinal flu,” which was perfectly proper music
criticism. But he looked at my mother’s section of the chorus and
said, “Each of you is saying to herself, ‘How dreadful is that
soprano next to me!’” He was never a great international success,
but he did found San Francisco Opera. He also wasn’t a terribly
good conductor. I
knew that because not only had Monteux played my music, but
I played under Alfred Hertz! He conducted one of the all-high
orchestras once and I was in it. I had enough time in the second
violin section to watch his technique, which was very, very good.
BD: So you
enjoy writing for the voice?
BD: Does that
enjoyment carry over to writing for the
voice on stage?
especially. I’ve not written very many songs, but I’ve
written two full-length operas, not counting one I’ve thrown
away. I’m working on a third, and very possibly
a one-act. One does not commit to an opera without a certain
exhilaration and despair.
BD: So the
joys and pains are multiplied?
WB: I don’t
think I’ve ever felt as completely used
as I was in the rehearsals of The
Wife of Martin Guerre at
Juilliard. I was revising the orchestration like crazy — not so
voice because I’d had a chance to do that in the vocal
rehearsals. But it was a steamy. I don’t know what season
was, but I was stripped to the waist and running a blueprint
machine and sweating like a fool for the revisions. Then I was
going on stage to make sure they were in the orchestra
parts. It’s just absolutely wonderful when you
get into that. I missed that in the recent Brooklyn performance
for a number of reasons. I was away from the initial rehearsals
until the dress rehearsal, so I missed all that fun. On the other
hand, I survived, which I may not have otherwise. Composers have
a rather dangerous period after an
operatic premiere. Bizet did not survive Carmen.
BD: I’m glad
to know that you survived The Wife
of Martin Guerre!
WB: I am, too.
BD: Did you
this for young voices, or did you just write it for voices?
what I know now, I would say I wrote it
for young voices, but that’s the view after the event. I wrote it
for voices. I knew the kind of theater I wanted, and in
particular the kind of theater I did not want.
BD: What did
you not want?
WB: I did not
want a large opera house.
BD: So it
would be useless for you to try and
solicit the Metropolitan to do it?
WB: I never
did. I also
never did City Center. Any place that’s above twelve hundred
seats I would look on with suspicion. In other words, I’m writing
for the theater. I’m writing chamber opera, reducing my
orchestral forces, and not necessarily reducing my vocal forces, but
not asking for Pavarotti. I was not asking for anybody to force
BD: Then did
you purposely go and solicit
Stockholm or Vienna, where they have theaters of smaller size?
because I was based in New York. I had
the Juilliard Opera Theater, the present Manhattan Hall, which fits my
specifications perfectly. The piece has been done in small
halls. My operas have been done in small halls.
BD: But now
that it has been produced, are
you looking for that kind of theater to get it produced again?
sure. There’s no point at all at
putting on an opera which requires the words to be heard. I’m
thinking, for instance, of works like Britten’s Turn of the Screw, or
Monteverdi. There’s no point at all in putting them on in a
theater bigger than the Uris in New York, which is the biggest
“legitimate” Broadway theater used for musicals. It has 1200
seats and it has to be amplified there.
Once you get
beyond eighty feet from stage center, you lose the faces, you lose the
gesture. You have to be amplified, and the economics of the
grand opera are such that it’s in an impossible situation. I
think it would be probably on videocassette, almost certainly in twenty
BD: Do operas
work well on videocassette?
there’s a superb performance of Elektra,
excellent one of Nozze di Figaro.
Yes. You don’t get what
you get in the opera house, but mostly what I get in the opera house I
don’t want. After all, let’s face it, when you went to an
opera in early Verdi time or Rossini time, you went from a palace to a
box, or if you paid for your seat, or for standing room, you went from
a cold hovel into a warm, lit theater, much more opulent that
anything you’d ever seen. This was a treat! You stood for
four hours and the singers were close to you. You could hear
everything. You could watch the dramatic action. It was the
equivalent of television in functional terms. Now I leave a very
comfortable house and a very
nicely set up play-back system, and I commute two and a half miserable
miles to a too large opera house to hear singers I don’t particularly
want to hear do an opera, which I will manage to avoid, so I generally
BD: In your
own operas you want the
diction to be heard. You work hard on the libretto. The
second, Comrade Sharik is
your own libretto?
WB: Yes, and
the third is likely to be my own, too. I’ve invited Janet, my old
comrade in arms, but her special
kind of insight and humanity in poetry just go against the grain in the
opera I have in prospect.
BD: If your
operas are done in Europe, do you want them translated?
enjoyed, for instance, the von
very much more, and appreciated the
libretto very much more, with supertitles or subtitles. It seems
to me that’s the way out of this
dreadful dilemma of translation.
BD: That was
my next question, about bringing
the supertitles into the theater.
WB: I’ve only
seen that once in Eugene Onegin,
was so dreadful a production in theatrical terms that it was simply
another impediment. So I can’t really say. I do know that
cassette or VCR, I like the subtitles very much. For the first
time, I didn’t think that von Hofmannsthal was being too talky in
Elektra. He isn’t.
He’s being extraordinarily pointed, but you
got the difficulty — not in reading, but in listening. When I
first saw the movie M*A*S*H
in Italy, it was translated
into Italian. My Italian was not all that good, but it was
serviceable. The problem is that the English titles went
and the Italian had to have a syllable or two extra in every word in
order to make sense. The result was super-bad. It was just
incredibly difficult to understand. The Italian
audience was getting a fair amount of it, but I didn’t know what the
picture was about until I came back to the United States and saw it in
English... or American-speak.
[Laughs] That’s right. There’s a
difference between English and American. Have your works been
done in translation?
WB: I don’t
think so, but I don’t know. Once
they’re published, or in the hands of a publisher, you don’t have any
real control. I think that I would have heard about it, because
there would have been some right I would have had to sign for someplace
or other. According to my contract, I would still have to approve
translation to another language. I’m not
absolutely sure about that, but I would hope so. Not that I’d be
in Hebrew, but I’d try.
BD: If your
is being done in Tel Aviv, you’d have it done in Hebrew?
WB: Well, the
Jerusalem Post, in a review of
concert I gave there, described me as “the wandering Jew of American
music,” which sort of threw me. I first checked around to see if
being a wandering Jew is
very good in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. “Flying
Persian” would have been
more accurate. What they were talking about was my habit of going
back and forth between coasts and jobs — San
Francisco, to New York, to
Seattle — that sort of thing.
BD: Are you
still teaching, or have
retired as of September 15th, so, officially
I’m not retired yet.
BD: When you
were actively teaching, did you have enough time to compose, or did it
have to be
WB: I had
enough time to compose. They kept my mornings free. I wake
up at about four in the morning and
think best in the morning, so it was no great hardship. But what
I discovered upon quitting was that I didn’t think I was concerned with
the affairs of my institution that were outside my
control, but I was. I felt like a balloon with helium when I made
the decision to retire.
BD: Will you
have too much time to compose?
WB: No, I
don’t think so. I’ll find out.
All I want to do is write the Collected
Works of William Butler Yeats.
BD: As song
cycles with orchestra.
should occupy your time very
WB: Well into
the next century!
BD: I hope we
lot more things coming from your pen.
that’s a nice thought. Thank you.
BD: Thank you
for being a composer.
[Laughs] That’s an extraordinary
statement. Thank you for interviewing me.
=== === === === ===
Exactly one year (less one day) later, I was in Seattle for
performances of the Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival. Having let
Bergsma know of my impending visit, he graciously invited me to his
home to continue our chat.
The drive out from the city went through winding roads and up many
hills until we reached a remote and quite isolated locale. I was
met at the door by his daughter and their Golden Retriever, and
escorted upstairs to his studio. This room had windows which
overlooked the forest and mountain range, and seemed the ideal place to
formulate ideas and allow them to blossom into new sounds.
Here is that second interview . . . . .
BD: First, my
favorite question. Where is music
WB: Onward and
upward, and onward or downward,
depending on where you’re standing.
BD: So where
is William Bergsma standing? Is
his music going upward or downward?
[Laughs] I wrote a piece a few years back for the
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center called The Voice of the
Coelacanth. The coelacanth is a nice fossilized fish that
thought was extinct until 1936, when an unwary specimen was caught off
the coast of South Africa and hauled, indignantly protesting, into a
fisherman scientist’s boat. The only thing I know about it
from a scientific standpoint, which is not very scientific, is that it
has a very primitive gut and exuded large amounts of a pungent
oil. Despite these attributes, I sort of adopted it as a
mascot. I figured that with the various
things that are going around I could certainly pay attention to
them. I know pretty well what goes on. I seal what is mine
where I find it, and intend to continue doing so.
[Laughs] It is interesting that you seal what is
yours. I like that.
WB: I think
that’s perfectly fair.
God knows, most of the composers in this and every other century have
done just that. You have just been through some little pieces of
Mr. Wagner, and he ate up all the Spohr, the big Spohr. And
Mozart, of course, ate up C.P.E. Bach, skin, bones, eyes, and all.
BD: Do you
feel that you’re part of a lineage
WB: I’m part
of it. I came to my study
of music as a very bad performer, not through any kind of theory, not
through any history. I didn’t get to those formal studies until I
went to school, which was a couple of years after I had my works played
by Monteux, among others. I learned my craft by playing violin,
then viola in the back stands of everything including a string
quartet. My teacher, Howard Hanson at
Eastman School, did not have a course in tonal counterpoint in the
curriculum. He’d been over-trained in it and thought it was a
of time. So the first time I studied tonal counterpoint in any
was when I had to teach it, which is a good, honored
tradition. On the other hand, since I’d played Bach on the
keyboard, and Roy Harris’s arrangement of Art of the Fugue and String
Quartet, I knew damned well from my fingers to my ears what
counterpoint was about. I think that’s the way to go. Said
this elderly gentleman showing his infirmity, the
thing that bothers me a little bit is that in my youth the theory of
music came from the practice of music, and particularly since
Schoenberg, the practice of music is coming from the theory of music.
BD: So it’s
the wrong way around?
WB: From my
standpoint, but not from the
standpoint of Milton Babbitt. Milton’s an old and dear friend and
wonderful musician, but his way of analytical thinking is not something
which I learned from the back stands as a viola player. Another
influence is jazz pianists. He was
coming at it from that way, too.
you see music reviving and coming up? Are you optimistic about
future of music?
sure. Why not? Things may happen.
Things could very easily happen. All that you have to do is kill
all the piano players and kill all the violin players, and you will
have ruined most of the music of the Nineteenth Century, and the
Eighteenth Century, for that matter. Dinosaurs died. On the
other hand, music is
where good musicians are, doing what they want to do.
not? I’m on record on that theme. For the hundredth
anniversary of the New England Conservatory I gave a speech in which I
asked for an enormous room in which the music of all cultures
rock, classic — could meet and mate. It
was then an impossible
thing because the recordings were not available except for
specialists. Now it’s obviously happening. I think I’m a
better composer than I am a
prophet, but if you put me on my prophet channel, I think I would write
BD: What has
been the offspring of this mating of the
different musical cultures?
an awful lot stolen by
commercial music, from “standard music” to far out music. In C,
for instance, has been stolen all over the place with the driving,
insistent, repetitive high C transformed into a bass for rock.
Roy Harris, for instance, has almost been completely destroyed by 1930s
westerns with the things they stole from him right and
left. I had a piece recorded by the Goldman Band called March with
Trumpets, and it suddenly began appearing on the movie
Varèse has been looted like crazy for science fiction
television, movies. It’s the way of the world. You’d have
wait for a generation which didn’t know the movies to go back
to Roy Harris the way Roy heard it himself.
BD: For you,
as a composer, what constitutes great
music, or greatness in music?
WB: There is
a very good book by Alfred
Einstein — not the physicist but a cousin
— called Greatness in
which he goes into that. It’s one of the books, along with Warren
Allen’s Philosophies in Music History,
which kind of formed my
attitude. Also Philosophies in
Music History by Warren Allen, who was my
teacher, too. That is seminal among ethnomusicologists because it
first book to cast into question how you looked at music — or
is it Paradise descending into hell, which is the way some
at it; the great going down, or is it Darwinian up to
excellence, or is it the Great Man School of Music? Those are the
main things. There are some Marxist theories, and some
sociological theories. I would say the great
music is where music — which, after all, has
been written by a human
being — appeals to the greatness in you as a
listener, and that’s highly
subjective. I’m not prepared to subscribe to any doctrines my old
teacher would not have approved of.
BD: So then
it’s the public that is
WB: Yes, or
the publics, because the publics
change. When you have a bad first performance, there’s
always the possibility that the composer was wrong. There’s
always the possibility that the interpreters were wrong, or didn’t have
enough time. There’s also the possibility that the audience was
wrong in the sense that it was not prepared for it. A lot of the
famous scandals of the twentieth
century have been of that variety. Ideally, great music ought to
appeal to everybody all the time, and I question if that can be
done. I gave away my score of the Eroica Symphony last year.
[Genuinely surprised] Why???
played it and I’d taught it enough in
class, and I’d marked up that copy so that I really couldn’t see
it. A student wanted it and didn’t have a
copy, and I gave it to him. If I ever go back to the Eroica,
as I’m sure I will, I will want to have an unmarked copy.
come back to it fresh.
WB: Come back
to it fresh. But I
can’t think of any pleasure which is
unending. Is Paradise imaginable?
BD: It should
be imaginable but perhaps not attainable.
WB: I’m not
sure I would want to attain it on those
BD: What do
you feel is the purpose of music in
Delight. I’m not looking for any moral
BD: So you’re
not trying to make a message?
WB: So far as
concerned, whatever message there is for my music is in the music
itself. We will look
high and low to find any kind of statement in words of what I propose
to do in music. It isn’t that I don’t respect words. I
respect them very much and happen to be rather good at them, but it’s
paraphrasing; any kind of end is abstract and non-verbal. Nobody
tries to say in words how to tie a rope. There are mathematical
formulas that will let you do it accurately, or since I don’t
understand them, I can take a cord and tie a rope. So it seems to
me that talking about music, as we are doing, is... In a
sense the evasive animal, that’s me. When we are
talking we’re building analogies, and the tendency, then, is to try to
make the analogy work in its own terms, to make it perfect. I
would like to take the bit of analogy that I am prepared to erect and
tear it up, and not try to make it a consistent philosophy. I’m
not a philosopher. I’m a composer. In that same speech at
the New England
Conservatory I said, “Tie me to the rack; throw me over the
precipice. By a thread I will confess, I’m not a scholar, I’m a
clown.” Basically, I am the performer that I started out being,
just a very clumsy performer, and I happen to be quite a skilled
BD: In your
composition or any composition, where is
the balance between the skill and the inspiration?
nobody will ever know. You cannot say that in any of the works of
art which I truly
treasure. I can tell you in cases, let’s say Borodin’s Second
Symphony, exactly what he did wrong and how he could have done
it better. I can wail, because I just don’t like it, about
some of the more turgid passages in Johannes Brahms, but I can’t tell
you how to improve them. The skill is enormous, the craft
is enormous, so was the genius. Inspiration is sort
of indispensable, but if it
doesn’t get on the page, which takes technique, nobody hears
you’re writing, do you look
at your scores with the same kind of critical eye that you look at the
Borodin Second and the Brahms
except by a learned reflex. I
knew that a long time ago, unless I was setting words. I’ve had
productions since I’ve written two operas and a lot of choral music and
songs, dealing with the setting of words, and I don’t do
that. I have to immobilize the verbal part of my mind. When
I was a kid, I used to — and I still
do — take something which is very well written, so that it doesn’t get
my way. It can be thoroughly uninteresting and rather
recommend The Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire in three volumes. That is
the sort of stuff which I find useful in doing that, and
detective stories sometimes, too, if they’re well written.
BD: As you’re
writing the piece, how do you know when
you have finished?
WB: This is
apparently something that painters have
great problems with, and I don’t. Essentially a piece
gets easier for me to write as I become familiar with it. I have
to figure out first just what I’m trying to say, walk around it, and by
the time I get to the end, the end is already a consequence of what’s
preceded it, just as the preceding is a necessary antecedent to
what followed if I make any sense at all.
BD: But once
you planned it
all out and gotten most of it all written, I assume you go back and
tinker with it just a little at least?
WB: What I
tend to do differs. I’ve written five string quartets and I’ve
written two operas. In string quartets it’s quite impossible to
tinker. Either it’s there or it isn’t. You may have
to rewrite some stuff, but essentially it’s so architectural.
That doesn’t exist in a stage work. Sure, you write in great
splashes and come back and fill in. I have a nice
precedent. I have Mr. Mozart in the sketches, as you know.
operas, he would write the vocal line in the bass and the violin line
of the voices, and then come back with a different quill and different
ink, and fill in the remainder.
painting. Do you feel that you are painting in sound?
I think the analogy is as far-fetched
as word. It’s nice to have a pretty title like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,
and it helps sell copies, but I don’t see any significant relationship
between any music and painting. You can say, of
course, that Beethoven lived in the age of Goya, as Beethoven lived in
the age of Goethe. They had a commonality and vision
which is a lot easier to see in retrospect than it was at the time.
just as it’s hard to see today everything
coming together. We’d be able to analyze and understand the
twentieth century twenty-five or fifty years from now better than we
WB: It’s a
lot easier, I can tell you, to teach the
music of the twentieth century, and the technique of writing music of
the twentieth century, than it is classical techniques.
WB: To put it
in slightly technical terms,
when I was in my first teaching fellow job at
Eastman, it was common knowledge that if you had a 6/4 chord
in the wrong position in the left hand or the right hand, the upper two
notes had to resolve. You would simply say, “Can’t you hear
Resolve it.” Then Hindemith came into the ears of the young, and
“natural thing” no longer existed. It’s perfectly easy to
analyze practically any piece of the twentieth century and say, “Okay,
these are the boundaries. These are, in the jargon, the
parameters.” The student — or for that
matter, I — will grasp
this a lot more easily than I will a tonal scheme, such as Schenker
finds in Beethoven.
down. Our common perception of music of the twentieth
century is that there are no boundaries. There is nothing you
WB: That’s not
really true, once you’ve written the
first bar, once you’ve set up the first section, or whatever it
is. Otherwise it becomes pastiche. Admittedly,
Varèse, for instance, is awfully easy to analyze.
Stravinsky is also, even when he gets
classic. You can point to existing pieces without any particular
problem. Schoenberg is rather hard to analyze, more so in the
twelve-tone music than in the atonal music. You
can analyze, for instance, the Five
Pieces for Orchestra, which is a
gorgeous piece, much more easily than I can the String Trio.
BD: Is it
easy to analyze the music of
WB: I tried
out of curiosity, a couple of years
ago. I took a recent piece and said, “Okay, I’m teaching this to
a class. Is this composer compatible with twentieth century
mores, and can I understand it and explain to somebody else?” I
could. It took study. I wasn’t looking at it the way I
wrote it, but I could say, “This is what’s happening.”
BD: Were you
surprised by how it did analyze?
WB: A little
BD: Once you
got through analyzing it, did
you ever wish that maybe you would have changed a little thing here, or
something else there?
The piece was Four Songs;
simple and they worked very well. Anyway, I didn’t do it until
it was published, and it was too late.
musical composition something that
can be taught?
WB: It can be
badly taught. For instance, early
Britten was dominated by Frank Bridge and a peculiar system of added
thirds, which he kept in a very attenuated form later on. Debussy
was badly taught. He was taught by Guiraud. I was forced to
use one of his texts
when I was a teaching assistant. The idea was you wrote two
bars, and sequenced it up an irregular third; two bars,
two bars, two bars, two bars. I’ve seen the sketches of La
Mer. They’re in the Sibley Library of the Eastman School
Music, where I went to school, and Debussy was doing that.
He was sketching with sort of ditto marks. He got out of that,
but some of the early
music, the String Quartet for
instance, is frightfully symmetrical
because of that, frightfully predictable because of that. It’s a
case not of Debussy not being a very great talent, because God knows he
was. He was also a very limited composer, in the sense of numbers
of works. Schoenberg, for instance, never got above
sixty, if that. Webern, obviously, but Debussy... When I
was a graduate student I could see that the idea was that I would go
through the works of Debussy in chronological order, every last one of
BD: Did you?
WB: Yes, and
it’s fascinating to find the idea of grabbing your own where you can
find it — Debussy starting from
Massenet, essentially. The foreground of one piece
becomes the background of the next, and the whole thing gets
chewed up, thought over, mulled, considered, and becomes an autonomous
part of Debussy. Each of the works is extraordinarily
different. I have no idea what Debussy would have written in 1920.
BD: And yet
it follows in a logical progression.
WB: Yes, but
if you went from Afternoon
of a Faun to the three last Sonatas,
you would not
believe they were written by the same person... or from the
Études to the Préludes.
BD: Is there
a logical progression in
your music from piece to piece?
certainly changes. There’s things I keep
coming back to, and they make me wary because you have to be aware of
your own clichés, but I think I’m recognizably
me. Last year Gerry
Schwarz revived, for the first time since
1946, the Symphony for Chamber
Orchestra. I had to
learn the damned thing for the rehearsals because I’d
forgotten it, and I had to be able to tell where any misprints
or mistakes were. But I found myself aware of what that brash
young man had meant at that particular time.
BD: Is there
any desire to change it at all?
WB: I thought
of re-scoring it for a
bigger bunch, and actually worked up a copy. Then I just said,
“This is perfectly silly. I knew what I was doing at that time,
and I’m just going to louse it up.” I made the mistake of lousing
up some pieces for pretty right reasons, and this time I wanted my
mistake intact. I’d leave the ideas where they are and
leave the piece alone, not try to have my 21 year-old self overseen by
my 65 year-old self, as I was then.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?
WB: I’ve been very
lucky to have had the best performances
anybody could have with the best groups anybody could have. I’ve
had my share of bad performances, too, but it’s wonderful. I
won’t name any of the performers, but the best ones I’ve had have been
in chamber music, where
they’ve been able to take the time to work something out — with
present and with me away — and mulled it over
and tried out in trial
performances. I had one glorious experience with the Chamber
Music Society of Lincoln Center, which I will mention, but I’ve been
played by some very distinguished quartets.
BD: Do the
so-called great performers play your music
better than the non-great performers?
WB: The great
performers of my generation played me
when I was young and they were young. Today, an
eminent performer with a concert manager and touring schedule does not
have the liberty, the freedom, or the time, or the ability to tackle
new works. It just doesn’t happen.
BD: How can
we get more new works into the concert
WB: The old
die off, and the young come up.
BD: Is there
no hope, then, for teaching the
old performers the new music?
really, given the exigencies that you’re on the road for weeks, and the
publicity of the rivalry of recorded performance — because
in the review and the minds of the audience who come, you’re up
against every pianist who was ever recorded, from Paderewski or Busoni
on. That is just the same as a conductor
who cannot responsibly take too much time for a new piece when he has
play the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony
in the same program and will be
compared with every recording artist that ever was. With a good
American orchestra and
a devoted conductor, you can count on getting, perhaps, three times,
four times the
playing time of the composition in rehearsal. It’s not the kind
of luxury that
Mendelssohn had, that Mahler had, of trying out a movement for a
symphony in the provinces by playing a performance of it. I’ve
seen a photostat of the Mahler
Seventh Symphony as engraved,
but it’s not the version that’s printed. It’s engraved, and he
slashes things out for a
purely mechanical reason. It’s very much easier to say, “Trumpets
tacet here,” or have just one trumpet if it’s in the parts for the four
five that Mahler might have. This was how that particular man
this particular piece, and it may explain why Das Lied von
der Erde and the Ninth
Symphony sound different, because Mahler never heard them.
They have a less chambered score. It was the way he worked.
BD: He was
much more inclined to hear something
and change it, rather than see something and change it?
WB: He had
composers today have to know
their mistakes on the paper before they hear them.
that, or you go by what one distinguished
contemporary conductor states, that he will not rehearse twentieth
century music unless he has hours of rehearsal time for every minute of
playing time. I’m asking
substantially less than that, but a lot of the music of the twentieth
century is just exactly that, even in so standard a work as Symphony
of Psalms. Listen to the first recording of that on the
old 78s. The a cappella
music was dreadfully out of tune and lines up a half tone or more
flat. The first recordings that I know of, of the
Bartók Music for Strings,
Percussion and Celeste was the Los Angeles
Pick-up Orchestra led by a dead conductor, and it chills the
blood! When I was Vice President of Composer’s
Recordings and working with composers in the studio, it
became impressed upon my mind that you must make a recording,
good or bad, so that a good recording can be made. You find out
from experience where the
pitfalls are, and they are not the same in concert as they are in the
BD: Who was
the dead conductor of the Los Angeles recording?
BD: May I
correct you? He is still very much
alive. [Janssen lived from 1899 until 1990.]
WB: I’m glad
to hear that.
contacted him recently, and had an
interview with him before I left for Seattle. He had just gotten
back from a conducting stint in London. He’d been in London for
six months and he said that he’d be glad to talk to me
when he got back. We had the chat, and he said he was only going
to be home for a
few weeks and then was going off again.
WB: They look
forward to travel now that they cease
to be absolute masters of their orchestra because of boards and union
restrictions. I have been a good union man, and I’m all in favor
of unions, but conductors live forever. Nobody contradicted
them. They got good physical exercise and regular
adulation. In Seattle in the past few weeks we lost Stanley
Chapple, who was Koussevitzky’s associate
at Tanglewood, and who made the first complete recording of the
Mendelssohn Italian Symphony
and, with Ravel present, the first complete recording of Tombeau de Couperin!
Stanley Chapple was born in 1900. He studied at the
London Academy of Music where he was successively student, professor,
Vice-principal and until 1936 principal. In 1920, at the age of
nineteen, he was hired as director of the City of London School's
opera, and he was also hired by the Aeolian Vocalion (record) Company
as and piano accompanist. By 1924 he became music director, a position
he held about 1929. A fascinating article by Chapple was published in
the Gramophone in 1929.
By 1922 he had been invited to appear as a guest conductor with the
London Symphony Orchestra; and shortly after he was made head director,
although I can find no mention of this in the history of the LSO
publish a few years back. In 1930 the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
invited Chapple to appear as guest conductor, and by the end of the
decade he had become one of the most coveted guest conductors on the
European Philharmonic circuit, travelling to Vienna, the Hague, and
Chapple also frequently travelled to the USA making his first voyage I
believe in August 1931. Chapple’s dream of going to Russia was ruined
when war broke out in 1939. He was in Boston at the time when the tour
to Russia had to be cancelled. Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian then British
ambassador in Washington D.C. asked him to stay in America to ‘promote
good will’. During the war, Chapple conducted the National Symphony in
the Watergate concerts. In 1940, the director of the Boston
Symphony opened a school for conductors and orchestra musicians in
Massachusetts and made Chapple its director. Thus was born Tanglewood,
a music academy that is still going strong today. Leonard Bernstein was
Chapple's first student there. Chapple was invited to teach at the
University of Washington and to be director of the University of
Washington School of Music in 1948, when the active dean of the
department heard him at Tanglewood. When the Seattle Symphony lost its
conductor in 1950, Chapple took over and virtually remodeled Seattle's
culture. He used the Symphony as a means of introducing Seattle to the
opera, ballet, and the theater. During his tenure as conductor, he
greatly enhanced the professional level of symphony players In 1962,
Chapple became director of symphony and opera at the University of
Washington, and when he retired in 1971, Mayor Wes Uhlman asked him to
direct the Seattle Senior Symphony (Musicians Emeritus), a program
providing ‘encouragement and help to former music-makers wishing to
resume their participation in music-making’. For the next fourteen
years Stanley Chapple was the much beloved conductor of Musicians
Emeritus Symphony Orchestra and Thalia Symphony Orchestra. Chapple died
in on June 21st, 1987, in Seattle.
-- From a blog by
There was a gorgeous pianist named
Carl Friedberg. When I met him he was in his seventies,
and had just been fired on grounds of age from Juilliard School
— the first and only time, to my knowledge, that had ever
done. No human could have thought, coming from a liberal arts
college, that seventy was a good cut-off time. Hell, it’s
when the Juilliard faculty is just beginning! Anyway, Friedberg
had studied with Clara Schumann, and in his last years, in the sixties
have been, he recorded, for his own pleasure, some of the music of
Robert Schumann that he had studied with Schumann’s wife. Bob
Blake, who was the recording engineer at the
old Carnegie Hall, one of the few recording engineers who, in my
experience, could read music, clambered down his iron gantry and said,
“Mr. Friedberg, I think you should know that you played C-sharp twice
in this phrase, and the score says B.” Friedberg waived one
eagle-like claw at him and said, “That’s all right, my dear young man,
Clara told me I might play it that way.” [Both laugh]
BD: Is music
a continuum, then?
WB: It’s one
of the few fields in which you still say, “My
students are X and Y and my teachers were A and B.”
It’s kind of
apostolic succession. For God sakes, my best known students are
Phil Glass and Steve
Reich, as well as P.D.Q. Bach.
I know and respect these people, whose music
is far from mine.
BD: Are you
pleased with the music of yours
that has been embedded in plastic?
essentially, almost all of them have
been done. Well, that’s not true, but a great number of them have
done with me around. Of the ones that haven’t, Grant Johannesen
did one book of my Tangents,
and I’d never met the man until after
he’d done it. That was because I was going backstage to kiss
his wife, Zara Nelsova, never having met Johannesen.
[Laughs] It’s an elegant performance.
you’re involved in the recordings, do
you make a lot of suggestions, or do you basically stay in the
background unless there’s a major mistake?
room etiquette — you can make your
corrections before the recording session. I have seen the
Juilliard Quartet stop in the
middle of a recording session and argue about what Beethoven meant, but
in general that’s not done.
[Laughs] Should they argue about what William
WB: They can
always ask me. Here again, the
chances are if the piece has been done a number
of times, their opinion will be just as good as mine. I put it on
the notes. I’m interested in knowing the music, which may affect
the way I look at a particular piece in question.
BD: Does what
you mean about a piece change at all,
or do you leave the piece and then go on to
I’ve re-written, I’ve been wrong, most of
the time. Not entirely. Operas were made to be re-written.
[Laughs] What I’m getting at is your opinion of a
WB: It’s like
with kittens. I suppose you’re interested in a new kitten.
BD: Then you
let the kitten go off on its own?
BD: Are you
ever surprised by where your kittens turn
Yes. You’re supposed to be able to predict
audience response, etcetera, but I’ve never seen any good way of doing
that. If you write predictably to formula, the problem is the
players won’t feel particularly interested in it. And if it’s not
particularly interesting, why take the time? There isn’t
that much money in music. There isn’t there much time in time.
there be more money in music?
WB: I don’t
know of any composer who truly is a
composer that has supported himself for a ten-year period, by
writing, without writing film music or conducting or teaching,
lecturing, or are being born into a family with an oil well.
BD: What do
of the audience that comes to hear your music — either
an old piece or a
feel much more comfortable with
rehearsals. If I’m conducting, then I’m
wound up with being a conductor, and it’s a different matter. I’m
considering myself as a composer at all. I’m considering that
this is something to be played. If I’m in an audience, I would
much rather be someplace else while my music is being played. There
was one lovely time when a performance that included one of my pieces
also had a child
performer. I was not sitting in a seat I was supposed to sit in
I didn’t want to be looked at. I incautiously sat next to that
entire family, who, once the child performer had finished, rose in a
body and went out. It took me some time to figure out what had
happened. All of a sudden, rows around me were vacated, and
I thought it was me. [Both laugh] I’d much
rather be at the rehearsals.
BD: Or a
WB: In a
recording studio; I suppose that’s a private
performance. It’s a sense of not having anything to say about
it. The music is going on, so of course I’m
BD: How do
you decide which commissions you
will accept and which ones you will say, “No, thank you”?
turned down commissions. Most of the
time I take them with great pleasure because they’ve fitted something
that I wanted to do. Generally, I would turn one down because I
didn’t think I had
anything to say in the medium. For instance, I’ve never wanted to
write a piano trio.
BD: It just
doesn’t interest you?
WB: The whole
idea, it seems to me, is something that
I just don’t want to get involved with as a composer. Obviously,
there are very great piano trios. I don’t particularly want to
hear them, either,
but that’s not an influence. No, it’s very difficult for me to
explain. It isn’t that I mind dealing with disparate
forces. It’s sort of fun balancing things that can’t balance
easily in this top-bottom-heavy medium with the violin up
there and the cello down there. The Ravel Trio seems to me exemplary, but it
doesn’t try to balance. It literally tries not
to balance. When I wrote a Horn
Trio for Lincoln
Center, the Voice of the Coelacanth
for violin, horn,
and piano, I picked that group knowing damn well that
Brahms had written an absolutely incredible piece for that
medium. He had managed by sheer musical force to subdue those
incredibly unbalance-able forces into a homogeneous whole. I did
my damnedest not to emulsify them, to dis-emulsify them, if
there is such a word, to make the horn the horniest horn, the piano the
most pianistic piano, and the violin the most
wonderful violin, but to keep them absolutely independently in their
BD: And out of
those three, then, comes the
unity of the whole?
WB: Yes, if
there is a unity of the whole. I
think there is, but they never try to do what each other did.
BD: That was
just an assumption on my part,
that you wanted it to be unified.
Nope. There is no way of doing it in my aesthetic. Can it
be done? Brahms did it fine. I
can’t do it his way.
talk about a couple other specific
pieces. There are some works for percussion?
WB: These are
the four percussion pieces, or pieces with percussion. The first
Illegible Canons for clarinet
and percussion, the second is Clandestine
Dialogues for cello and percussion, the third is Latent Hypotheses for trombone and
percussion, and the last which is called Clown Time, and
manages to combine How Dry I Am
with When the Saints Come Marching In,
and Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.
It’s quite a nice cozy bit. My pupil, P.D.Q. Bach, would have
approved. Then there is a concluding group called Four All for the clarinet, cello,
trombone and percussion. It’s about 33 or 34 minutes all in all.
BD: Can they
be performed separately?
totally separate. They’re seldom
performed together. That would be a virtuoso effort for
the four percussionists. These are some of the most difficult
percussion musics ever written, and since both Bill Smith
Dempster (trombone) are specialists in
multiphonics and other nice sounds, of course I wrote for them.
BD: Do you
always write with the performer in mind?
Yeah. What I love to do is to write where I
know every last performer, when I know the whole, when I know the
music’s going to proceed and follow. If I knew that I were going
to follow the
Marriage of Figaro Overture,
it would be a different piece than if I
follow the prelude to Parsifal.
BD: Is that
not limiting for that specific piece of music?
WB: It’s got
to worry about itself, doesn’t
it? What I like to do is build a very real green world; as
Marianne Moore wrote, “Imaginary Gardens with
Real Toads.” Puccini had a small theater
puppets which he moved around, and that was essentially to
visualize. It seems to me that whether the music is
theatrical or not, I love knowing the performers. I sort of revel
BD: I assume
you want your music to be played in
different locations at different times by different groups?
Rimsky-Korsakov said, quite properly, that if it
will sound good with one orchestra, it will sound good with another
BD: And yet
you want to conceive it differently,
even not in and of itself, but where it’s going to be and relative to
going to follow and precede?
allows me to build the reality and the
wonder in my mind. It helps.
see. So that’s just on the building end, not on
the appreciating end?
WB: I don’t
whether a piece is going to please performers. I think it
probably will, because I think that they ought to be able to make a
piece sound good whether it’s hard or not. But there’s nothing
courageous in giving a performer difficulties — except
listening to them in the performance where he’s
stumbling over those difficulties. I first started
with the sound of music as an instrument in my hands, and that is the
substance of my art. All instruments are beautiful, including the
I’ve never written for — if you know how to do
them. I’ve never
written for contrabassoon. I’m sure I would love the
contrabassoon, if I ever — oh, wait a minute, I did once. It’s an
alternate instrument and the section sounds very good with
[Laughs] I’m an old contrabassoon player, so I will
pounce on that!
WB: This was
a woodwind quintet and it’s
one of my most recent compositions. It is called Masquerade, in part because the
flute uses piccolo and alto flute, the oboe uses English horn,
the clarinet uses bass clarinet, and the bassoon uses
contrabassoon. Unfortunately, I left the horn alone. I
could put him on waldhorn or anything in
that particular vein.
BD: Perhaps a
it’s probably impractical to ask a wind
quintet to go through these Masquerades,
but it sounds really quite
player has to use both instruments
in the same piece?
Yes. The start of the last movement is for
English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and horn all in the lowest
possible registers. The sound, which has never occurred on earth,
followed by the alto flute, so that was fun. I liked that.
Obviously, it’s sort of an obsession; otherwise
nobody in his right mind would continue it. Maybe the mistake is
that nobody in his right mind should be one. I’ve certainly never
anybody to be a composer.
BD: Have you
discouraged someone from being a composer?
I’ve given them every opportunity, and
would say, “You’ve got talent,” but everybody’s got
talent. It’s true. Talent is cheap.
developing that talent that’s expensive?
developing that talent which is, in most
cases, impossible. That’s the sort of thing you can’t know.
was commonly agreed, when I was on the Juilliard faculty, that Richard
Wagner never would have been allowed entry into a school of music
before, probably, Flying Dutchman...
of opera, let’s talk
about your newest one.
WB: My new
Murder of Comrade Sharik, just got a premiere last year.
It’s to a banned Russian novel by
BD: Banned by
Soviet society, until quite recently.
It was published in the west only in 1968, and in the Soviet
Union just this year (1987). It’s the story of a doctor in Moscow
1925, who specializes in sex transplants, and who in the course of his
experiments, inadvertently transforms a dog into a Soviet
citizen. The plot follows logically thereafter... [Both
laugh] I should say, by way of historical background,
that there was such a doctor in the 1920s. Serge Voronoff, a
born in Russia. He was director of the experimental laboratory of
College du France from 1921. He specialized in the transplant of
animal-, chiefly monkey-glands for rejuvenation in old age. He
made all the papers. He was the Dr. Ruth of his age except that
he was actually concerned with
transplanting monkey’s testicles to men and ovaries to women. So
obviously this is an apt and significant subject for opera!
BD: For this
day and age, or for any day
any day and age.
BD: How did
you come by it?
WB: I read it
when it came out in translation, and a
friend of mine said, “What you ought to
do is to set Master and Margarita.”
I said, “If I’m going to
set any Bulgakov, it’s got to be The
Heart of a Dog” — which was
Bulgakov’s title — and promptly went to work on
BD: Why did
you change the title?
WB: I used
the original in The Wife of Martin
took it from my librettist’s novella. I just felt that
The Murder of Comrade Sharik —
‘Sharik’ is the Russian for
— was more
of what my opera was about. Bulgakov essentially did not
finish that story. There’s an end to it, but there isn’t in a
lot of Bulgakov. He just did not finish things because he was out
favor. But there is no kind of dramatic ending to this one.
builds up to something, but then I found myself cliff-hanging and
having to move back to my idea to fulfill the logical premises which
have gone along before the illogical premises. That ending stood
me up on my nose for about eight or ten years until I
finally got it.
changing the title reflect the different slant that you as the composer
and librettist made in reshaping the work?
WB: If you
were in the habit of buying tickets to
theatrical productions, would you rather buy a ticket to The Murder of Comrade Sharik or The Heart of
[Laughs] I see what you mean. Thank
you for spending this time with me.
WB: Thank you
very much for
wanting to talk to me.
-- -- -- -- -- -- --
© 1986 & 1987 Bruce Duffie
The first of these two conversations was recorded on the
telephone on August 9, 1986. The second was recorded at the
composer’s home in Seattle, Washington one year
August 8, 1987. Material from the first one was used on WNIB in
1986. Portions of the second interview were broadcast on WNIB in
1990, 1991 and 1996.
A portion of the second interview was included in the In-Flight
Entertainment Package aboard United Airlines (and Air Force One) in
July-August of 1988. All of these uses also included recordings
of his works. This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.