Composer Burrill Phillips
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Phillips (November 9, 1907, Omaha, Nebraska – June 22, 1988, Berkeley,
was an American composer, teacher, and pianist. Phillips studied at the
Denver College of Music with Edwin Stringham and at the Eastman School
of Music in Rochester, NY, with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. In
1929 he married Alberta Phillips (who wrote many of his librettos);
they had a daughter, Ann Phillips Basart (b. 1931) and a son (Stephen
Phillips, 1938–86). Because of privations due to the Great Depression,
Ann was adopted and raised by her maternal grandparents; she was not
reunited with her parents until 1959.
Phillips's first important work
was Selections from McGuffey's Reader,
for orchestra, based on poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver
Wendell Holmes, Sr. The early style of this work, stressing melody,
self-consciously American references, and jazzy rhythms, has tended to
overshadow his later compositions. By the 1940s he had turned to a more
astringent and expressive idiom. In 1960 his String Quartet Number Two
was premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. by the
Paganini Quartet, with the composer present, and broadcast on live FM
radio. In the early 1960s he turned to free serial techniques, less
sharply accented rhythms, and increasing fantasy.
composition and theory at Eastman (1933–49), the University of Illinois
(1949-64), the Juilliard School of Music (1968–69), and Cornell
University (1972-73). His students include Ben Johnston. [See my Interview with Ben
He was a Fulbright Lecturer in Barcelona, Spain, in 1960-61, and
received Guggenheim fellowships in 1942-43 and 1961–62, when the entire
Phillips family reunited in Paris. His scores and sketches are housed
the Burrill Phillips archive, Special Collections, Sibley Library,
Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, NY.
In October of 1986 I wrote to Phillips, and he was most gracious to
allow me to phone him for an interview. On the appointed date and
time I called and we spoke for about an hour.
I mentioned that the previous evening I had played McGuffey's Reader on WNIB, and he
seemed both surprised and pleased to hear that . . . . . . . .
Burrill Phillips: Oh!
They're fifty years old, as a matter of fact, and were one of the first
group of pieces that I could hear played by an orchestra. They
were written for that, and they were first performed at Eastman.
Is the history on the cover of the album?
Bruce Duffie: Yes, and it
was mentioned that Howard Hanson conducted the first performance.
BP: Yes, that's right.
BD: Are you still pleased
with that work, now, fifty years later?
BP: To tell you the truth
I haven't listened to it for years, and I really don't remember what my
feelings were at the beginning. But I don't seem to have any
feelings at all about it because I've been so busy writing different
kinds of music. Of course my style has changed a great deal from
BD: Has it changed for
the better, or for the worse, or just changed?
BP: [Chuckles] Oh,
I think it's changed for the better! It's deeper, and it's a
little bit more adventurous. That was safe music, and believe it
or not, it sells as far as the public is concerned. It was at the
top of everything, even this late. The first movement, The One-Horse Shay is a poem of the
elder Holmes [Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894)], and it's a
rather peculiar and humorous thing.
BD: When you say it was ‘safe’,
it seems as though you are disdaining that style of music now.
BP: Well, so much time
has passed, and I've written so many different kinds of music. It
was orchestral because of the fact that the Eastman School always
played their composers' works in the orchestra. Howard Hanson was
an orchestral composer himself, and of course he was more interested in
that kind of music than any other. That's one of the reasons why
my music for a long time after that was predominantly orchestral.
The first piece that came after that which wasn't orchestral was a
trumpet trio, just three unaccompanied trumpets. I'd already
changed my mind about the kind of sound I wanted, and it was from that
time that I began thinking entirely of tone colors that I get from
individual instruments. I wrote quite a lot of chamber music
after that, while also keeping up the orchestral work as well.
BD: When you decide what
kind of sound you want, does that influence the orchestration you're
going to use, or what group of instruments you're going to write for?
BP: Sometimes that's
dictated by the circumstance, by the people who commission the
works. During the last half of my lifetime, I've written very few
works that were not commissioned. Almost all of them were, and I
had to follow the requirements that the commission carried.
Sometimes I had no choice because that was what they were looking for,
and that's what they wanted to have written. As a matter of fact
an illustration of that is a piece that I've just completed, which was
a commission for string orchestra. I probably wouldn't have been
interested in doing that until I got the commission, and it had to be a
string orchestra piece. That's the way it's happened more or less
all the time, although very often the commission coincided with my
interest in whatever combination they asked for.
BD: How do you decide
which commissions to accept and which you will turn down?
BP: Reluctantly I turned
one down for concert band. I have never written a piece for
concert band, and there was something coming up that was more
interesting. So I did turn that one down, but only because of the
fact that I had been recently commissioned for another piece, and I
wanted to put all my effort in that and not get sidetracked.
BD: So it was the time
BP: It was partly time,
and partly the fact that it would take me quite a while to prepare
myself for writing a piece for concert band because I had never written
one. And I was not particularly in favor of it, because the
concert band in those days was a group that played an awful lot of
[says the word disapprovingly] ‘arrangements’
from orchestral music. I'm not in favor of that at all because it
distorts everything. The idea of wind instruments taken from the
orchestra and forming a group of their own had not been gone
into. It's much more common now than it ever was then, and that's
something that I would like to do though I've never done one. I
should think it a little more exciting than the woodwind quintet or a
brass quartet, or something like that. I've written a sextet for
trombones, but that was rather early [Piece
for Six Trombones (1941)]. That was followed by the Trio for Trumpets. I've also
written at least two woodwind quintets, the regular standard woodwind
instruments of the orchestra, with the addition of a horn. I've
explored that quite thoroughly. As a matter of fact, I heard the
first performance of the latest one I've written about two weeks
ago. It was the standard quintet, but I handled it differently
than usual. I wanted to pair off instruments of related kind, in
other words, the double-reed instruments, the oboe and the bassoon, and
the smoother-sounding instruments, the clarinet and the flute.
That made two duos, and then I wanted to see what kind of a sound I
could get out of a trio by taking one of those duos and adding another
instrument. Then I wanted to see what I could do with a quartet,
and added one to the trios that had already been done with a different
kind of sound from another grouping of three instruments. So that
added a fourth and finally the full woodwind quintet. This is
intended not as a suite or something that should be disjointed, but it
had five movements. It became a piece that had related motifs and
things that that went all through the whole piece, from the first
movement to the second, where both of those were duos, and from the
second to the third movement. Then I arranged for a new sound, so
that gives it the outer appearance of a suite, but that's not the
actual effect that it had.
BD: It sounds like you
were experimenting with this to see where the music would go and what
it would sound like.
BP: The performance was
by a professional group. It wasn't an ad hoc group that you often
find in ensembles these days. It was a very good performance, one
of the best I've ever had as far as first performances go. They
studied it, they understood it, and they were all professionals.
One of them was chief oboist in the Rochester Philharmonic.
They've been together for quite a while. But this was not the
first woodwind quintet that was conceived in that manner. Years
ago, I think it was in about 1954, I wrote a very extended set of
pieces that were considered to be detached from each other, except that
they were all for members of the woodwind quintet. What I wanted
to do was to find out how much difference in color I could get by
combining all the possible combinations of those five instruments in
various groups — the duos and trios and
quartets. There were more duos... as a matter of fact I think
there were possibly 35 or 36 different combinations. I've
forgotten now the mathematical way to discover that. So I wrote a
piece for each one of those combinations, and sometimes I wrote two
pieces because I liked the sound of it so well. But because there
are so many short pieces only about six of them were published.
The publisher didn't want all of them because it was going to be a
little bit too much. The score ran a good many pages. I had
heard in my inner ear, so to speak, the kind of quality that each one
of these combinations would give, and from the ones that I did hear
that were published I got an idea of what the other ones would
be. So I was not disappointed.
BD: When you hear a piece
actually performed, does it ever surprise you how it sounds?
BP: [Chuckles] It
depends on where the rehearsal is because that's the first time you
hear it. My most recent experience was with a quintet, and the
rehearsal I went to was in a sense a dress rehearsal because the
performance was the next day, and the rehearsal was in a completely
different place than the performance. As you probably know, most
colleges have their own auditorium, or a church, or something like that
in the town in which the college is located. Their own facilities
for performances are limited because they're always being used, and
that was the case with this one. So I heard the first notes of
that quintet in a building that was originally a big classroom.
You can imagine there were no hangings, nothing but the hard
walls. It was horrible. I didn't know what to expect
because I never had quite had that experience before. I'm used to
hearing the rehearsal in the same place in which they're going to play
the program. The thing that I discovered that was most irritating
was the fact that they followed the marks of the dynamics as well as
they could, but actually nothing was softer than mezzo forte at the
very best, even if it was marked with three 'p'. So although the
movement was what I expected, and all the rhythms were in place and the
notes were fine, it was simply a completely different experience.
I wasn't too happy about it, but when it came time for the performance,
it was at a church that had marvelous acoustics, and exactly what I
wanted they brought out. That's one of the things that is likely
to turn up. I didn't expect that kind of thing to happen, but I'm
very pleased with the piece and the way that they did it. It
couldn't be improved upon, as a matter of fact.
BD: By and large, are you
basically pleased with the performances you've heard of your music?
BP: [Pauses a
moment] Now that's a very hard question to answer, because my
generation was of a different kind of idea about music. I'm not a
conductor myself, and I've only conducted a very few pieces of my
own. That makes a difference because you're filtering it through
a completely different person who must understand your own style and
what you're after. I was fortunate at the Eastman School that
Howard Hanson understood my style from the very beginning, though
sometimes exaggerations were characteristics of his conducting of
anybody's piece. But those were kinds of exaggerations that
didn't ruin anything, so generally speaking I was very pleased with
what he did with my music. He was one of the few people who
really understood it. When I got a little better known and pieces
began to appear in New York and other places, I remember particularly a
performance of a piece that I wrote for the Koussevitzky
Foundation. It was done at Columbia at one of their
festivals. [This work was the
Tom Paine Overture (1944) published in 1946 which was commissioned by
the Koussevitzky Foundation. The premiere took place at Columbia
University's Festival of American Music in 1946 performed by the NBC
Symphony led by Alfred Wallenstein.] You probably know the
conductor, Mr. Wallenstein. He was one of the conductors in New
York who did a good deal of new music. I'd never met him until
the rehearsals at Columbia. Most of the conductors that I've had
experience with understood the music right away, and he had no
trouble. It sounded like I wanted it to sound, and I was very
pleased with that. But I have had experiences with other
conductors who didn't understand the music, and for some reason it
didn't sound as if I had written it. It sounded as if somebody
else had written it. Thomas Schippers did a piece of mine, a very
short bassoon piece that also has had a rather successful life [Concert Piece for Bassoon and String
Orchestra (1942)]. I heard a performance of this that he
did for children's concert and it was perfectly fine. I'd never
met him before, and as a matter of fact I'd never heard him conduct
anything before, but it was the kind of piece that he couldn't have
gone wrong on. So I was pleased with that. The other thing
concerns works that are smaller in size than an orchestra, say, certain
kinds of ensembles that are not standardized. That's the kind of
thing that people do more frequently than before. The present
generation is not particularly in love with the string quartet, or with
many of the string quartets written at the present time. But
there are so many different things that can be done that don't use the
standard number of instruments, or the standard grouping of
instruments. In those cases, I've found that if you know one of
the performers — particularly the one that is
the leader of the group, though it doesn't have to be the first chair
person — you're likely to get a very good
performance because they would not play it unless they were interested
in the music. As a consequence, that's much to be preferred to
the kind of thing that went on when I was a good deal younger.
I've had a couple of experiences of that which were very satisfactory
because somebody in the group knew me and had heard other music of
mine. Another thing to think about in that connection is that for
so long orchestras and smaller combinations of instruments only seem
interested in doing first performances of new music. They'll go
from one of your pieces to another program which will include the first
performance of somebody else's piece. You seldom hear a second
performance soon after the first. It'll take time for that to
happen, and you have to start digging and working for its
advancement. Perhaps something could be done about an orchestra
or a group of people that specialize in second and third performances,
and not first performances because you almost always get that, but
getting the second one is really a job! Other composers have
suffered from that, too, although it doesn't make any difference who
the composer is. There's something about a first performance that
performers usually fall for. It's not that the thing is
unsatisfactory because I've had experiences with first performances
that both the audience and the performers really liked, but it took a
long time to hear it again. I think a composer should hear
various kinds of performances because, like in many other kinds of
music such as Classical music or Romantic music, there isn't any one
way of doing it.
BD: With the business of
always doing first performances, does that foster a competition amongst
BP: You mean that kind of
first performance mania? I don't think so, no. As a general
thing, composers will be successful with first performances no matter
who the composer is. That's one good thing because I've seen more
composers at performances of new music in the last twenty years.
Increasingly more of them go to concerts of their
composer-acquaintances more than they used to do. I don't know
what the reason is, but I don't believe that competition plays much of
a part... at least it hasn't with the experiences I've had.
BD: Do you feel that
there are perhaps too many young composers coming along?
BP: No, I don't think
so. [Chuckles] The more the merrier, as a matter of
fact. That doesn't mean the kind of music that comes out is going
to be something that I particularly care for, but I'm glad to see that
they're doing it, anyway. One thing bothers me more than anything
else at the present time is that so many young composers feel that
whatever they write must be completely new, and usually that search for
the completely new results in a lot of gadgetry.
BD: Are they constantly
trying to reinvent the wheel?
BP: Yes! That's
exactly it! And a better wheel, too... a better-looking one, or
maybe a square one or something. [Both laugh]
BD: And this is a mistake?
BP: Yes. That's
what it is, this desire to be the first of its kind, and it doesn't
turn out to be the first of its kind anyway.
BD: When you are writing
a piece of music, for whom do you write?
BP: There are so many kinds of
audiences that it's hard to say. That was one of the things I
learned from Roy Harris. He believed that, and he usually wrote
music for the audience with a general background that he expected to
hear it for the first time. That kind of thing could lead, of
course, to some bad results, but I don't think it did in his
case. In any audience there are people who are well educated in
classical music, but they have heard very little contemporary
music. That's one thing you have to take into
consideration. You might not do anything about it, but it has a
kind of formative influence on your career, and on what you ultimately
feel will give you success. Occasionally I've written educational
pieces that were written specially for teaching purposes. This is
ensemble music, not necessarily something that one person plays.
For instance, there was a piece that I've never heard called Three Easy
Pieces for String Orchestra [published
by the Interlochen Press in 1959]. It's done a lot at that
summer music camp up in Michigan. I can tell from the royalties
that I get that they still do it, and I've never heard a note of that
BD: No one has ever sent
you a tape or anything?
BP: No, they've never
bothered to do that. They must think that I've written for the
money that it generated and that's all. I'm curious, now. I
was talking to a conductor the other day that had experience with it,
and he said, "For heaven's sakes, I'll send you a tape!" But that
wouldn't interest me particularly because it was a kind of thing where
there were so many limitations on it that I couldn't make the piece
interesting to myself, particularly. The publisher said he wanted
the piece for a certain grade of performers up there at
Interlochen. He said, "The string players, as a general thing,
will be violinists, and there be more cellists, and a few basses, but a
couple of the bass players are generally not given anything to do
except just to plunk once in a while..."
BP: He also said, "There
are not many violists around, so don't write below the G string"
That was 25 years ago, and I understand that's not the case
anymore. They are more expert at the same grade level than they
were in those days, and there are more violists that can handle the C
string, and I can now write for the basses without making their parts
uninteresting because they've got better control and they're better
BD: You've been teaching
for fifty years. Do you find that the students have gotten better
over that time?
BP: Well, I suppose
so. The last teaching I did was at Cornell, and that was about
twelve years ago. I really have been retired and writing my own
music. A large amount of that time I was teaching at Cornell was
devoted to the writing of opera, so I was busy with other things.
But I can remember the graduate teaching was really a lot more like
private instruction. I could do what I wanted to with a smaller
group. I don't think there were more than about eight composers,
and I saw them every week. But they were superbly equipped for
anything that was going on at the present time, and good many of them
of have recently, or within the last few years, gotten very good jobs
as advanced teachers of graduate students in other institutions
around. They know more, for one thing. I don't know about
the performers, but I'm told that a good many of them are like the one
that I experienced in that woodwind quintet. They really are
professionals before they get to be sophomores in an institution like
BD: They're of
professional caliber by then?
BP: Professional caliber,
yes, and some of them probably have the potential to hold down
professional jobs! I taught for one year at Juilliard, but that's
an exaggeration because the freshmen that you get there are equal to
the seniors in many other place. But that's a different matter
because performance is something different than composing. As far
as the composers are concerned, I can't tell. I wouldn't have any
way of knowing about the numbers of good composers that you might turn
out if you started with a class, which you have to do in most
cases. My experience with teaching undergraduates has been such a
long time ago I can't remember, except that I do remember that the
people who went on and stuck with music and became composers that have
made a name for themselves was very a small percentage of the total
that I had. Most of the people considered it an elective.
These were people that wanted to know more about music than they would
otherwise if they didn't get to the inside through instruction in
composition. There were a good many people like that. They
may not be musicians at all, but turn out to be lawyers or whatever,
and this enriches their lives.
BD: Is musical
composition something that really can be taught, or must it just really
be learned on one's own?
BP: It's my opinion that
a little teaching of composition is about enough. They'll
experiment on their own. The teaching of composition is not a
science. It's not even an art. It's some kind of an
activity that has a lot more to do more with other things than
music. The techniques can be learned easily from people who are
not even composition teachers. I can imagine that you can get a
good deal out of knowing a lot about the musicology end of things
through reading and through listening to stages of musical progress
from the Middle Ages on down to the present if you're capable of
absorbing it. People who do that have a kind of discipline of
mind that the older generations had. When I was a young student
you had to study counterpoint in a certain way, and take a certain
textbook and follow that. It turned out to be completely
useless. It never gave me anything, I can tell you.
BD: Well, in composition
where is the balance between inspiration and technique?
BP: I don't know.
People get their inspiration from so many different ways. It
doesn't really make any difference how you get it, and I don't know how
you can explain it, either. It's something like a language that
comes naturally or it doesn't come naturally. Some people stammer
a lot and they ultimately get it out, but the quality of it might not
be what you expect. It might be very advanced or it might be just
very commonplace. I can't tell about that. Other people
think that there are techniques for getting started and that
inspirational ideas sometimes demand that you have a piano and
improvise things for yourself that way. I've never used a piano
in that way, but I know people in my own generation who did and they
seem to get along perfectly all right. I can't tell you what the
solution to that is. Another thing nowadays is with the business
of electronic music being as widespread as it is, it demands some
knowledge that we never even thought about when I was a student.
It's a technical knowledge that encompasses a lot of things including
mathematics and everything that has to do with electronic sound.
I know people that have spent an awful lot of time before the
synthesizer was quite so widespread as it is now. People used to
use tape and cut it up into various lengths, put it together, reverse
it, manipulate it and all that kind of thing. That was one of the
most tiring jobs that ever had anything to do with music. I know
one person who started out that way, and he almost gave himself a
nervous breakdown because it had to be so precise and so exact.
He found that he simply had to get into something else if he was going
to stay a professional composer... which he did. That meant he
had to exercise his imagination in a different direction than before,
and it was good for him. Another thing about that is those things
cost so much money that you have to be allied with a university or
something like that in order to get along, because those good
synthesizers are so expensive.
BD: In your opinion, what
is the ultimate purpose of music?
BP: [Thinks for a
moment] It's like any other art. It's certainly the
expression through tone of the same kind of ideas that prevail among
people whose medium is different, such as an expression of color.
You arrive at a certain kind of understanding of the human condition,
and try to do your best as to the quality that you can produce.
That's a partial explanation and probably not very satisfactory, but as
far as I can see that's about all I can tell you! In that regard,
things come out and are ultimately much greater if the composer is
gifted and has luck and is devoted to what he's doing. The only
way that I can explain it is how obsessed you are with it, and then you
don't think about what its purpose is. It's just your obsession
and you simply follow it through to the best of your ability.
Sometimes that doesn't please anybody, or doesn't please many people,
but that doesn't make any difference.
BD: Is music art, or is music
BP: [Thinks for a
moment] There's entertainment music and art music, and they're
both something that serves a certain purpose. Some people, like
Bernstein, can do either one of them and is handy at both, but those
people are not very numerous. Other people can't do anything more
than just one thing, and they stick with it. So I guess it
depends on the person, to a great extent. Bernstein is one of the
very few that could do that kind of thing and do it well. There
have been other people of his generation and even earlier that have
done it, but I don't think they've succeeded quite as well as he
has. When you stop to think about all of the things like West Side Story and that kind of
music, and then the serious stuff that he also produces, that really is
an astounding thing to do!
BD: I want to be sure and
ask you about your opera. Tell me a bit about the circumstances
involved in this work.
BP: First of all it's the
second opera I've written. The first opera [Don't We All] was a one-act, and
the libretto for both of them were written by my wife, who was a writer
and also a musician. She was a violinist, and she knew what to do
with the stage and the gala part of the opera. It was a
commission from the National Endowment for the Arts, and we worked
together on it. I think that's the reason we got the got the
award because it was kind of a cottage industry. [Both
laugh] We had had some requests for examples for somebody in New
York that was thinking about commissioning an opera. So we did a
very short scene and submitted it, but nothing ever happened. I
guess word got around somehow or other that there were two people that
would form a team of librettist and composer, and that, I think, had
something to do with the fact that we got the award. Then came
the business of choice of story, or choice of treatment I suppose would
be the best thing to say. It's draped over a story that has a
historical background — Henry Ward Beecher's
trial. It was a scandal in the '70s of the last century.
BD: Now was this the
first opera or the second opera?
BP: This was the big one,
The Unforgiven, the one that
we got the commission for. It's a regular three-act thing with
some different kinds of ideas that operas generally don't have.
There's a specialized group of voices for various purposes. One
is a boys chorus, and there is a woman's chorus, and there's a general
chorus made of all the adult voices. Some of them are
specialized, and then there's the jury that has to have twelve men
singers. It follows a kind of a plan, and the opera ends with a
trial. There are a good many operas that have a trial. It's
a thing that people would consider to be proper for the stage because
there's a certain amount of suspense involved. At the end nothing
is solved, because that was one of the things that historically didn't
actually happen. The jury couldn't agree. So it's left
unresolved and the music has to express that. It had other
problems that we had to change from any historical truth, which is
perfectly all right for an opera anyway. You don't want to stick
too close to make a news report out of it. [Both laugh] So
in general, that is a kind of skeleton arrangement we followed.
It took us from 1976 when we got the commission until 1979. My
wife finished the libretto about a month before she died, and there was
still some improvement to be made on it. I couldn't get around to
it at that time. For about a year, I couldn't get busy on any
music, but I finally took it up and I did change some of the words
toward the end because it needed enlargement. But otherwise, the
opera basically was finished in three years. It doesn't last more
than about an hour and a half, but it's got a great deal of
detail. It's an orchestra that has a peculiar arrangement in that
I used no double reeds.
BD: [Surprised] Why
BP: I wanted to have the
kind of music that they preferred. I had read an account of some
of the music in that part of the century in the United States that was
written by composers familiar to their audience, not necessarily
art music like was being written in Europe. They preferred smooth
sounds, and the nasal quality of the double reeds I thought was
inappropriate. Also there are no violas in the score either, but
the brass is full and the strings — aside from
the violas — are full.
BD: Has the work been
BP: No. That's the
thing. As soon as I had finished it and had the full score
copied, I looked around for somebody who could make a vocal reduction
for rehearsals. I asked one of my acquaintances who is a composer
and a very experienced conductor. He was not doing anything in
the middle of the summer and said he could take it on and get it done
before too long. There were several possibilities of doing it but
they had to have that material. The trouble was that he got a
full-time job just at the time when he would be able to take it on, so
it was impossible, and it's been put off since 1980. I have to
find somebody that could do it. I couldn't do it myself because
it's just too much of a labor that I didn't want to undertake. I
finally have found a great possibility, and probably it will be done in
the fall by another composer. That doesn't mean it'll be
performed, but at least it's the first step, which I didn't take, and
which was not required as far as the endowment was concerned. But
of course if you're going to be practical about it you have to have
that kind of a reduction. The next step will be to find someone
who will do the parts, and that won't be so hard because parts can be
done easily enough.
BD: Let me ask you about
the older opera, Don't We All.
BP: [Chuckles] It
had over a hundred performances the first three years of its existence,
which is not too bad for a small piece like that. Then, like
everything that is a novelty, it has fallen out. It was a one-act
opera that was based on a story probably of Scotch origin. It was
a comedy, and it gave us a great deal of pleasure to work on it.
It takes about a half an hour or 35 minutes, and it did have a
reduction and could be done with piano alone, though it was written for
small orchestra, and was done that way most of the time. It was
published by Schirmer's, but at the time that it was done, there was
another opera, Down in the Valley
by Kurt Weill, and they spent much more time publicizing that than they
did mine. So as usual, the publishers didn't really do their
BD: Does a tape of it
BP: No. It was
before the time that any tape was available.
BD: That's too bad
because I'd like to hear it.
BP: I would, too, but I
can't. It's just gone with the wind. I don't know how many
copies of the vocal score were made by Schirmer. Some people that
wanted to do it would buy the scores, but they also allowed people to
rent the whole business, and they had to reproduce so many more scores
because all of them underwent an awful lot of hard usage. They
sent me all of them back when they decided not to handle it anymore,
and I think that I probably had as many as ten. I don't know how
many they published. That's one of the things about publishing an
opera in that fashion is that in rehearsal people just tear the pages
and they mark them all up, and they can't be used after one
performance. The only way is to publish it and print it in
regular form and sell the whole thing outright. Then they'll take
care of it. At least that's my experience... But it was a
very happy occasion. I saw two performances of it at Eastman when
it was first done, and I saw two other performances that were done with
piano. One of them was by an organization in New York that was
doing small operas, and I had to do the piano part for that one.
So I couldn't really appreciate it because they had somebody else
prepare the singers. I rehearsed them once and it was put on, and
the crowd liked it pretty well. The quality of these small operas
has improved a great deal since that was making rounds. According
to the write-ups that you get, they do small operas at Santa Fe quite
frequently, and the according to what the reviews say, they certainly
are of a superior quality to the kind of small operas that were going
around when I was writing my own.
To read my Interview with Miriam Gideon, clilck HERE.
To read my Interview with Dennis (Russell) Davies, click HERE.
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of music?
BP: Well, it depends on
what kind of music you are speaking about. If you say orchestral
music I'd say no, I'm not at all optimistic that it will ever come back
to where it was at one time. But if you mean music in general and
the kind that ultimately ends up as being a standard form, I'd say
yes. Orchestras developed symphony, for instance, and thousands
of people wrote symphonies. But that's no longer the desire of
people to do it anymore. Young composers write big forms, but
they're very seldom symphonic instrumentation. Whatever they pick
out is usually different in every case. They will have several
pieces, and some of them will have chorus, some of them will be
entirely instrumental, some of them will be three hours long and some
of them will be operas or stage works or anything else. Some of
them will even be a group of very, very small pieces. It's
impossible to say what kind of shape they're likely to take, but they
won't take any of the older forms, I'm pretty sure. Some of these
well-known pieces have stuck to the kind of music that pleases if he's
got a public for it. But that's about only thing that resembles
the old kind of music which was something from a composer whose style
is known and he formed a public for it. The nearest thing to
that, nowadays, is multimedia. That seems to me to be one of the
strongest kind of thing because multimedia can include, and sometimes
it does, original works for dance, and choral parts to the same piece,
and a certain kind of accompaniment. Sometimes it's Asian
instruments or instruments that are unusual, with computer music or
whatever it might be. So it's a real tangled-up kind of
affair. It's not as standardized as it used to be, and I don't
think it ever will be again, because things like that always go in
cycles, from simple to complex, and then back to simple again.
[Chuckles] That might be the course it will take, but music of
some kind will always exist. Some of my composer friends don't
believe it. They think that there's no future at all unless it
follows some of the principles that they believe in. I have a
friend who's an expert about intonation, that is how to divide the
octaves into various numbers of pitches. They're organized either
according to a kind of theory of their own, or they go back to the pure
way of treating it that the Greeks had or the Medieval monks had.
I have been on a panel not too long ago in which one of the composers
said that we've been living a lie in music ever since the Middle
Ages. What he meant was that they did not use the right tuning
for instruments that were used at the time and that developed into
these that we have now. Well, that was pretty extreme, and I
don't know whether he follows it himself, but at least that's what he
thinks. And of course that's mild compared to various other kinds
of assaults, too. There's all kinds of ways you can get
interesting music, interesting sounds, and there's a lot of people who
are ingenious at doing that and prefer to do it. They always have
an audience in mind and they're very successful at it, and I think that
kind of music should be encouraged because it's going to happen no
matter what, whether we like it or not!
BD: I appreciate your
taking the time with me today. I've learned a great deal and have
gotten insights into the mind of Burrill Phillips.
BP: I enjoyed it very
much, and I hope it does say something. Responding to questions
is something I'm not used to doing very much.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on October 19,
1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1992 and 1997.
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
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.