Composer William Bergsma
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
William Bergsma, A Music Professor And Composer,
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
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
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 Presidential Jetliner.
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 years by hard experience is that journalists are very nice
people, and one must regard them as mortal adversaries. Their interests
are not identical with mine.
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.
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
Here is the first of the two interviews from the point where he picks up
the phone . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: May
I speak with William Bergsma, please?
WB: Mr. Duffie?
BD: That’s right.
BD: How are you?
How goes it?
BD: Just fine...
Adjusting the levels here on my equipment. Everything seems to be rolling
WB: I figured,
a radio man you’re going to be prompt.
BD: I try to be.
Everybody seems to comment on that, on how accurate my time is when I make
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,
For this I have an accurate start time but no finish time. We can go
as long as you like.
Well, you cut it off.
BD: I didn’t realize
that you were Vice President of CRI.
WB: Oh, 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 vested
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 both
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?
WB: Yes, 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 was
that with such an important potentiality as a recording company run by composers
that 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 good
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 constituted
the 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. I wanted a great
big chorus and percussion piece which was recorded later but we didn’t do
it. And I pushed for 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 talk, 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 profit?
WB: No, I didn’t,
because it certainly never did. It lost money hand over fist.
BD: I thought you
said it had to be a profit-making organization.
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.
BD: Anybody 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
BD: So everything
is always available?
WB: That was the
original policy thirty long years ago.
BD: But CRI is
still continuing to release material.
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 years.
BD: Would you rather
one of your pieces be released on CRI, or on RCA or Columbia?
RCA or Columbia... except that both are monumentally stupid, and haven’t
even gotten into the CD market yet.
That’s not necessarily monumentally stupid. That could be just lagging
WB: Which is monumentally
stupid in the business world, isn’t it? Aren’t they paid a large salary
to think ahead?
BD: That’s true.
Of course, we’re seeing a repeat of 1948 now, with the CD market. Back
in ’48, when Columbia 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 a 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 it. Things move fast.
BD: Probably 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.
WB: Well, 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.
BD: Should the
composer or the performer be concerned about the consumer?
WB: I 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 rehearsal 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 delight is 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.
BD: Some nights
it’s there, and some nights it’s not.
Same as composing.
* * *
BD: You’ve taught
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 that I 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 time. 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 it in, 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 look 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 author of 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?
WB: Quite 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,
who rather waspishly said, “Charles Ives and who else?”
[Both laugh] That was naughty, but the point being that
if 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 the 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 American Academy 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 foundations... [pauses]
BD: If 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 composers...] I’ve 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, Jack Beeson, Arthur Berger, William
Bergsma, Lenny Bernstein, Henry Brant, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Chou Wen-chung, Aaron Copland,
George Crumb, Mario
Davidovsky, Norm Dello
Joio, David del Tredici,
David Diamond, Jake Druckman, Vivian Fine, Ross Lee Finney, Lucas Foss, Miriam Gideon, Morton Gould, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Andy Imbrie, Betsy Jolas, Ulysses Kay, Leon Kirchner, Ernst Krenek, Otto Luening,
Don Martino, George Perle, Vincent Persichetti,
George Rochberg, Ned Rorem, Gunther Schuller, Bill
Schuman, Steve Sondheim, Louise
Talma, Virgil Thomson,
Bob Ward, Hugo Weisgall, Charlie Wuorinen.
BD: That’s quite
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.
Arthur Berger, Easley
Blackwood, Salvatore Martirano, Gunther Schuller. In other words,
we pick well.
BD: Yes, you have
selected rather well. It reads like a Who’s Who.
WB: It 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 worse.
BD: Why and how?
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 much better 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 good students.
BD: Is there any
way of recapturing this, or has it simply gone the way of the dinosaur?
WB: Well, 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 the Eastman School, multiply it by ten, to 220 million dollars, found
it in Tulsa and you have a first-rate school.
BD: If the money
was appropriated properly!
WB: Howard 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
WB: Yes, but in
my time, Juilliard was still paying $20,000 to the Metropolitan Opera to
keep them quiet.
BD: Are you, then,
not optimistic about the future of music?
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
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 it.
BD: Is there competition
amongst all these composers?
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 first-rate musical
intelligence, he is a very good composer, as far as I’m concerned.
BD: Do recordings
allow you to break out of your locality and become national and even international?
WB: George 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
* * *
BD: In reading
a little bit about you, Baker’s Dictionary has a very interesting
thing to say about your music.
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
WB: No! [Laughs]
I’m as impressed as you are.
BD: Is it not accurate?
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?
WB: His opinion
is as good as mine is. A composer is not a jury of his own compositions,
for God sake. He just writes the stuff.
BD: Do the performers
who play your music find things that you didn’t even know were in the score?
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
Leinsdorf when I
was in my teens and twenties. With organizations such as the San Francisco
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 string quartet.
BD: It’s 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 interesting.” So he sent me up to
San Francisco. It meant going up in the trolley, eighteen miles from
the peninsula. I would bring back violin 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
with 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.
BD: That’s not
WB: It 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?
yes. Well, you look at Slonimsky, for instance, or the New Grove, any list of my pieces, you
find that a lot of my pieces have 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.
BD: That’s 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 York
at the not-glamorous Brooklyn College. I’ll have to be in New York,
alas, from 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.
WB: Let’s 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 organist.
BD: Organists 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 accustomed
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 twentieth 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 behind the 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?
WB: Nobody 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
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 school 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?
WB: Oh, 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
sense of 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 much 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 it 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
WB: I am, too.
BD: Did you write
this for young voices, or did you just write it for voices?
WB: Knowing 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
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 the voice.
BD: Then did you
purposely go and solicit Stockholm or Vienna, where they have theaters of
WB: No, 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
WB: Oh, 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 years’
BD: Do operas work
well on videocassette?
WB: Well, there’s
a superb performance of Elektra,
and an 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 don’t go.
BD: In your own
operas you want the diction to be heard. You work hard on the libretto.
The second, Comrade Sharik is your
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?
WB: I’ve enjoyed,
for instance, the von Hofmannsthal-Strauss Elektra 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, and
it was so dreadful a production in theatrical terms that it was simply another
impediment. So I can’t really say. I do know that on a 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 lightning fast, 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.
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 very good in
Hebrew, but I’d try.
BD: If your opera
is being done in Tel Aviv, you’d have it done in Hebrew?
WB: Well, the Jerusalem Post, in a review of a 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 you retired?
WB: I’m 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 squeezed in?
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 now
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 texts?
WB: Song cycles
BD: That should
occupy your time very well!
WB: Well into the
BD: I hope we have
a lot more things coming from your pen.
WB: Well, that’s
a nice thought. Thank you.
BD: Thank you for
being a composer.
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
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 going today?
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?
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 everybody 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
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 of composers?
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, and 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 waste of time. So the first
time I studied tonal counterpoint in any sense 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,
BD: Do you see
music reviving and coming up? Are you optimistic about the future of
WB: Oh, 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
BD: All musics?
WB: Why 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 — jazz, 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 that.
BD: What has been
the offspring of this mating of the different musical cultures?
WB: There’s 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 screen. Varèse has been looted
like crazy for science fiction television, movies. It’s the way of
the world. You’d have to 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 Music, 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 was the first book to cast
into question how you looked at music — or is it Paradise
descending into hell, which is the way some historians looked 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
BD: So then it’s
the public that is deciding?
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.
WB: I’d 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.
BD: Ahhh, 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 terms.
BD: What do you
feel is the purpose of music in society?
I’m not looking for any moral improvement.
BD: So you’re not
trying to make a message?
WB: So far as I’m
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 like
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 composer.
BD: In your composition or any composition, where
is the balance between the skill and the inspiration?
WB: Hopefully 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 it.
BD: When 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 pieces?
WB: Not except
by a learned reflex. I knew that a long time ago, unless I was setting
words. I’ve had my 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 in my way. It can be thoroughly uninteresting
and rather familiar. I 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. In
the 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.
* * *
BD: You’ve alluded
to painting. Do you feel that you are painting in sound?
WB: No. 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.
BD: Sure, 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 can now.
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
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 it? Resolve it.” Then Hindemith
came into the ears of the young, and that “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.
BD: That seems
upside down. Our common perception of music of the twentieth century
is that there are no boundaries. There is nothing you cannot do.
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 William Bergsma?
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 uneasy.
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?
WB: No. The
piece was Four Songs; perfectly simple
and they worked very well. Anyway, I didn’t do it until it was published,
and it was too late.
BD: Is 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 of 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 them.
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?
WB: It 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
* * *
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 me 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 repertoire?
WB: The old die
off, and the young come up.
BD: Is there no
hope, then, for teaching the old performers the new music?
WB: Not 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 to 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 or
five that Mahler might have. This was how that particular man worked
in 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 that
BD: Most composers
today have to know their mistakes on the paper before they hear them.
WB: Either 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 choral
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 recording studio.
BD: Who was the
dead conductor of the Los Angeles recording?
WB: Werner Janssen.
BD: May I correct
you? He is still very much alive. [Janssen lived from 1899 until
WB: I’m glad to
BD: I 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 Warsaw.
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 "Jolyon50"
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 been 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 it must 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
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
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?
WB: Yes, essentially,
almost all of them have been done. Well, that’s not true, but a great
number of them have been 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.
BD: When 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?
WB: Control 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.
Should they argue about what William Bergsma means?
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 something new?
WB: Where I’ve
re-written, I’ve been wrong, most of the time. Not entirely.
Operas were made to be re-written.
What I’m getting at is your opinion of a piece.
WB: It’s like a
cat 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 up?
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
BD: Should 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 you
expect of the audience that comes to hear your music — either
an old piece or a new piece?
WB: I 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 not 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 because I didn’t want
to be looked at. I incautiously sat next to that child performer’s 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 private
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
* * *
BD: How do you
decide which commissions you will accept and which ones you will say, “No,
WB: I’ve 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
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 own characters.
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.
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.
BD: Let’s 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 is 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
WB: They’re 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 (clarinet)
and Stu 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?
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
with 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 in that.
BD: I assume you
want your music to be played in different locations at different times by
said, quite properly, that if it will sound good with one orchestra, it will
sound good with another orchestra.
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 what it’s going to follow and precede?
WB: That allows
me to build the reality and the wonder in my mind. It helps.
BD: I see.
So that’s just on the building end, not on the appreciating end?
WB: I don’t know
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 perhaps in 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 ones 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 contrabassoon.
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
BD: Perhaps a Wagner
WB: Well, it’s
probably impractical to ask a wind quintet to go through these Masquerades, but it sounds really quite
BD: Each player
has to use both instruments in the same piece?
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, is followed by the alto flute, so that was fun.
I liked that.
BD: Is composing
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 encouraged anybody to be a composer.
BD: Have you discouraged
someone from being a composer?
WB: No. I’ve
given them every opportunity, and would say, “You’ve got talent,” but everybody’s
got talent. It’s true. Talent is cheap.
BD: It’s developing
that talent that’s expensive?
WB: It’s developing
that talent which is, in most cases, impossible. That’s the sort of
thing you can’t know. It 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...
BD: Speaking of
opera, let’s talk about your newest one.
WB: My new piece,
The Murder of Comrade Sharik, just
got a premiere last year. It’s to a banned Russian novel by Mikhail
BD: Banned by whom?
WB: All 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 in 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 French surgeon 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 and age!
WB: Right, 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 Guerre.
I took it from my librettist’s novella. I just felt that The Murder of Comrade Sharik — ‘Sharik’
is the Russian for ‘darling’
— 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 of favor.
But there is no kind of dramatic ending to this one. He 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 would 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.
BD: Does 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 a Dog?
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 later, on 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 this website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.