Composer  Marcel  Dick

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



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Marcel Dick (August 28, 1898 - December 13, 1991)

1962 Cleveland Arts Prize For Music


Marcel Dick gained international renown during his performing career with major European and American orchestras and string quartets. When he was named head of the graduate department of theory and composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, however, he put down his viola forever and forged a second career as composer, teacher and conductor.

Born August 28, 1898, into a wealthy Jewish family in Miskolc, Hungary, Dick made his debut playing a violin recital at age six—before he learned to read music. Five years later, he entered the Royal Academy in Budapest, where he studied violin with Joseph Bloch and Rezsö Kemény and theory and composition with Victor Herzfeld and Zoltán Kodály. While still in his teens, he earned a degree in violin and was named Professor of Music.

Following army service during World War I, he joined the violin section of the Budapest Opera and Budapest Philharmonic. In 1921, he emigrated to Vienna, then the European hotbed of innovative musical thought. After a stint as assistant concert-master of the Volksoper, he became principal violist of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. During his 11-year tenure, he also was violist of the Gottesman and Rosé string quartets.

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In 1924, Dick was invited to help prepare and perform the world premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Serenade, Op. 24, the first 12-tone work ever offered in a public concert. During rehearsals, the exceptional young violist astonished the revolutionary composer by pointing out an error in the score. A valued member of Schoenberg’s inner circle, Dick subsequently co-founded the Kolisch Quartet, an ensemble that specialized in the master’s music and applied his detailed performance practices to classical works.

By 1934, anti-Semitism was rampant in Vienna, and Dick was offered the title of “honorary Aryan.” But he was so appalled by the idea that he immediately arranged to emigrate to the United States with his American wife, Ann. He quickly found work, first as a freelance musician in New York, then as principal violist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. From 1935 to 1943, he was a member of the Stradivarius Quartet, an affiliate of Harvard University. In 1943, he was named principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra, a post he held for six years. When Dick left the orchestra to teach full-time, music director George Szell asked him to attend rehearsals weekly and give advice on musical matters. “He took my advice, too,” Dick told a Cleveland Plain Dealer interviewer.

Although Dick composed a few pieces before coming to the United States, most of the 29 works in his catalogue were written after 1934. His earliest compositions were influenced by Wagner and Mahler. But after he became a disciple of Schoenberg, he embraced the 12-tone system and made it his own. His music, serious in tone and contrapuntal in texture, unfolds with lyrical expression within traditional forms, including sonata, symphony, variations and fugue. Symphony no. 1 (1948), the first full-length 12-tone symphony, was premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos and reviewed by Cleveland News music critic Elmore Bacon, who praised Dick’s “magical gift for orchestration.”

Dick conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in premieres of his Adagio and Rondo for Orchestra (1951) and Capriccio for Orchestra (1955). Besides orchestral works, he composed chamber music, songs and instrumental solos. A phrase from his Four Elegies and an Epilogue for unaccompanied cello is quoted in Evensong by Donald Erb, 1966 Cleveland Arts Prize winner and one of Dick’s most accomplished students.

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In 1990, Dick was honored with a concert of his works at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the publication of a Festschrift containing scholarly essays, tributes and scores. The following year, the composer died at his home in Cleveland Heights. He was 93. At a memorial concert, 1965 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Klaus G. Roy described Dick as “a giant among musicians” and acknowledged his important place in music history, “not as a bystander but as a protagonist.”

— Wilma Salisbury  [Text only - photos and link added for this website presentation.  BD] 



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Early in 1988, I made contact with the composer and arranged to have a conversation with him on the telephone.  I explained that portions would be used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday . . . . . . . . .


Marcel Dick:    Oh, that’s very generous of you.


Bruce Duffie:    It’s my pleasure, believe me!  You’ve taught both in Europe and in the United States?

MD:    Yes.

BD:    How is the teaching of music different from Europe to the America?

MD:    This is different from teacher to teacher, different from school to school.  I cannot give you a general differentiation because in Europe I did and would have taught the same way as I did here, and differently from most others.   Otherwise it is a great difference.  It is a college affair, or a conservatory.

BD:    What is the difference between a college and a conservatory?

dickMD:    A conservatory puts a greater emphasis on performing, including composing, than the university where there is more a theoretical and musicological aspect.

BD:    Do you feel that composing is performing in a way?

MD:    Yes, yes.  The composer is doing the piece, making the piece, oh definitely.

BD:    You taught over a number of years.  Did the teaching change just over time?  Was it different to teach in the 30s and 40s than in the 60s and 70s?

MD:    It is somewhat different because music has become different during these decades.  The basis and the future of composing today is different from what they were thirty or forty years ago.  At that time, for instance, Schoenberg was still revolutionary and new.  To me, it has been absorbed now, and it’s altogether of interest and imaginative.  If I may very rude, I would say it was more art-orientated before and it is more money-orientated today.

BD:    You feel that the composers today have sold out?

MD:    Yes.  I’m observing that all the time, and am most interested at it.  We are all end products of 800 years of progression and development, the continuity of which was interrupted by World War II and the downfall after Hitler. 

BD:    So that really put a stop to the line, and it restarted again?

MD:    I hoped it was only temporarily.  Of course, it is not without every influence, leaving a mark on the future development, but I cannot believe that what goes on today as most successful and most frequently performed canned music
like the minimalists and that sort of thingcan last very long, as there is nothing in it.

BD:    You don’t feel that it’s really just the beginning, and it will continue to develop?

MD:    No, it is not the beginning.  It’s a phase because there’s no way to develop.  From nothing you cannot be able to develop.

BD:    Of the people today who are writing, who do you feel are making the most impact on the future of music?

MD:    Well, I better think about this for a moment.

BD:    You do not need to give me any specific names; perhaps just the school or the trend or the idea.

MD:    I would say that everything from the school of Leonard Bernstein and his kind of music might have a wholesome effect, and certainly a more lasting effect because it’s all connected to the direct line of the past.

BD:    Then let me ask a big philosophical question.  What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

MD:    Oh, my goodness, that’s a big question, and I also give you a big answer to that.  Society has changed greatly and with that the attitude towards arts, first of all to music, which in this country is hardly considered to be an art.  That’s separate from the visual arts, from poetry, from architecture.  That shouldn’t be so, but it is.  Maybe it isn’t just the most important question of society, but society reacts not just to the music but how music serves society.  I’m talking about now of past centuries, two or three centuries.  The artist or musician provided a beauty represented by each new piece, a new beauty.  Haydn, for instance, had in his contract for the Esterhazys, that he had to deliver new music every Thursday evening for the concert.  The same was demanded from Beethoven.  Not all of it was very favorably received, but it had to be new.  Bach had to write a new work for every service.  Today the general public rejects new works.  I don’t mean the young, avant-garde people who just go after fads more than anything, but the general concert public rejects the new.  They’re not interested in the new.  You put anything from Mahler upwards on the program, and they stay at home. 

BD:    Is this because they have been so disappointed in the new music, or because they have been unwilling to try the new music?

MD:    They are unwilling to try, unwilling to listen to what the composer and the music has to tell them.  They want to relate it with the familiar, and to go on for ever.

BD:    How can we get the public to be more adventurous?

MD:    It’s very popular and very inadequate to try ‘educating’ them.  I hate that word ‘educating’!  We can
‘inform them, yes, but the arts are not there to educate.  The arts are to please, to give pleasure.  It’s the reviewers who have a very great influence on the taste, and understand the following of music.  They are a little bit more critical and more knowing.  Whatever is new, whatever grows a large audience and gives an impression is great in the reviews.  It is inconceivable to me that intelligent and knowledgeable reviewers should be into all those things that they accept today and propagate today really seriously.

BD:    Despite this, are you optimistic about the future of music?

MD:    Eternally so!  Always!  As long as mankind goes on, it will go on, and it will develop, sometimes a little simultaneously, but basically it will develop in one direction.  It is a direction that started some thousand years ago and continued with interruption perhaps, with disturbances perhaps, but by and large in one direction.  For the development of music, the material of it is so abstract, it’s slower than the other arts, obviously.  But it develops the same inevitable way form the simple to the more complex, from five notes to seven notes, now to twelve notes and so on and so forth.  That is inevitable because of the curiosity of the ear, the curiosity of the human mind.  That is what is behind it.  There is more in music than what has been accomplished so far.

dickBD:    Do you foresee the use of even more than twelve notes?

MD:    Possibly so.  There are experiments with quarter tones, but that is somewhat artificial.  It’s just the mechanical division of the twelve notes which served its purpose and may lead into the next phase.  But it is more likely that it will develop the people listening into the similar tone that produces the overtones.

BD:    Let me hit you with another big philosophical question, if I may.

MD:    [Laughs]  You can ask me anything but warn you I might answer it!

BD:    [Also laughs]  Where do you see the balance between art and entertainment in music?

MD:    Gosh, this is a very important question because art should be at the same time entertainment also.  But there should be a difference between popular, perhaps often low-grade entertainment for the masses on the one hand, and the exquisite artistry for more refined receiver.  That’s what would make me intolerably elitist, which I am!

BD:    Do you feel that the availability of music on the radio and on records has helped to bring more people to the concert hall, making it perhaps less elitist?

MD:    Yes, that is it!  I’m talking to a radio man so I’m utterly out of line by saying this, but at the same time it’s spoiled the listening habits.  It is impossible today to imagine an audience that would talk loudly about all kinds of things
— maybe how much salt to put into this puddingwhile a work of art is presented on the stage.  But on the radio you can listen and combine the two.  That is the dangers of this kind of communication that has no control for the listener.

BD:    So it creates a kind of lack of attention?

MD:    Yes.  As George Szell used to call it, the background music in a restaurant.  Nobody listens to it, but it is there.  May I say something that hits very personally into your profession?

BD:    Yes, please do!

MD:    It is about the commercials, which are just about impossible, indeed unacceptable today, unless there is background music.  I cannot listen to the commercial since I don’t hear what they are saying because I am trying to cut through to the music even though I’m not supposed to be doing that!

BD:    [With modest pride]  Then you’ll be very pleased about our station [WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago].  Most of our commercials are simply read by the announcers with no music in the background.

MD:   
I’m glad to hear that.  it’s wonderful.  The two should not interfere with each other.  If you read a commercial that has a certain purpose, that’s socially acceptable and useful.  There should not be interference with some kind of independent musical noises, no matter what the musical noises — even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony!

BD:    I agree with you completely. 

MD:    I told you if you ask me a question, I would answer it!

BD:    I am very glad for your honesty and directness.  I appreciate that.  Coming back to the concert hall, what do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of your music?

MD:    That I’m very happy to answer with a very simple answer.  Just listen to it and accept what you hear.  Don’t try to relate it to other music that they have heard, but to hear it in its own right.  If it has anything to say, even though it doesn’t transport on first hearing, then it might stimulate them the hear it a second time.  Get used to its idiom and its language, and then they will understand it.  It’s a different kind of beauty, a new beauty, maybe, an inferior beauty or superior beauty or whatever it may be, but it’s beautiful.   Just as you found my music in its major part, you accept the musical beauty.

BD:    When you are writing, do you specifically try to create this beauty, or is there something that just comes from within you?

MD:    It comes from my imagination and my associations with life.  It is my life and my experiences which I try to express, not in words, not in pictures, but in sounds.  That is my intention, this is my aim in writing music.  How much conscious effort there is to accomplish that, or how much instinctive associations, I would be the last one to answer that.

BD:    Let me pursue this just a bit.  When you are writing, are you in control of the pen, or is the pen in control of you?

MD:    I don’t write down a single note before I have heard the whole piece in its entirety.  That doesn’t mean to say I hear every pitch, and what will be in the seventy-third measure in the second bassoon, but the whole mood, the movement, the directions of the piece.  I hear that very clearly, and imagine very clearly from beginning to the end.  When I have that, I sit down and write it out.  Then I am composing it with application, with appropriate vocabulary, grammar and syntax.  In composition there are techniques, and I hope to succeed.

BD:    Do you feel that you have succeeded?

MD:    In most of my pieces, yes.  Not in everything...  What you will present on these radio programs, yes. 

BD:    Oh, the three recordings?

MD:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to come back to the recordings in a moment, but first, have you basically been pleased with the performances that you have heard of your music over the years?

MD:    These are very deepest questions.  The performers try.  They put in all the effort and artistry, and they really dig into the performance, and it did not always succeed to my perfect satisfaction.  That is maybe my fault.

BD:    Did you expect too much?

MD:    I wrote it too difficult.  Sometimes the sincerity of the performers is so evident that even if there are some minor flaws
— which are inevitable in almost every performancethat doesn’t bother me.  Take the performance of the String Symphony, which I think is very excellent in spite of certain problems.  If I would have been there at the recording sessions, which I wasn’t, I would have criticized this and that, and maybe a less lively performance would have resulted.


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See my Interview with Donald Harris.


BD:    Are there ever times when performers or interpreters discover things in your music that you didn’t know you had hidden there?

MD:    [Hesitates]  Maybe yes, if they are very intelligent and penetrating in the approach the music.  Analysts have often discovered things about the scores that have been not known until then.  That applies to Beethoven and Mozart also.  They are more complex and more penetrating in their story telling.

BD:    You have conducted a number of your performances.

MD:    Yes.

BD:    Are you the ideal conductor of your works?

MD:    No, sir!  No, sir!  Things that came from the performing group which didn’t so enthrall me, so that I would dig around this for ever and ever.  It sort of climbs it on and stays.  I’m not ideal performer of my own music.

BD:    Well, let me turn the question around a bit.  Are you a better composer because you are also a conductor?

MD:    Let me change it a little bit.  I am a better composer because l am also a performer, an instrumentalist.  I don’t look to be a conductor.  When I write the orchestra pieces, I never think of how I’m going to beat this or how I am going to perform in an orchestra.  Being a being a conductor does not influence my composing.


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See my Interviews with Gardner Read and Lorin Maazel.


BD
:    What advice do you have for younger composers coming along?

MD:    Be sincere and don’t give into fads.  Make your own mistakes, search for yourself.  That’s the only way to have hope to find something new. 

BD:    That is wonderful advice. 

MD:    Still it’s how I teach my students, who pride themselves to be so different from any other of my students.  I try to instigate, to bring out their own individuality, and not attend to fads or generate trends.

BD:    What advice do you have for young conductors today?

MD:    Study the score, and try to play as closely as you are able to what the composer wrote
especially because the notes themselves are not everything that the composer composed.  When the composer writes down this note or that note, he hears something.  Try to penetrate into his musical thinking and hearing, and try to imagine what he must have heard when he wrote such a score.  You might make mistakes, you might exaggerate, you might go astray, but it will be a better and a more elaborate performance of that composerthat piecethan if you would just play the notes according to the printed indication.

BD:    You want more than just playing pitch and duration?

MD:    Exactly, exactly.  That’s what I’m trying to say, because no matter how differentiated today the musical notation is, it still does not quite express the infinity of musical imagination.

BD:    Yet another big question.  What do you feel are some of the points that can contribute to greatness in music?

MD:    [Pauses to think]  That would lead us back to some kind of an understanding or even a definition of what music is.  There are very right disagreements on that point.  My understanding of what music is
musical ideas, musical entities like theme, subject, Cantus Firmus, by whatever means they gothey’re destiny, they’re history, whatever happens around them and what grows out of them.  The clue is the more fully the composer can penetrate into this matter and reveal its consequences and its circumstances, it’s story, the greater the piece is.

BD:    Do you feel that we should only perform great pieces?

MD:    No, no.  There are pieces that are not the greatest literature, but there is enough to be heard, and I will always absolutely rely on history
s judgment as to what is really great and good, especially in contemporary music. 

dickBD:    Who should be the judge of what is great?

MD:    We can’t help judging it, but don’t let’s be too sure of ourselves to classify it.  Listen to it again.  Maybe there is more to it than we grasped at first, or maybe more to it than what in our limited concept of what music should be in that area. 

BD:    I want to ask perhaps an indelicate question.

MD:    Ask it!

BD:    Is the music of Marcel Dick great?

MD:    No.  I’ll be just as frank and unashamed in answering this as I have been during all this conversation
some of it, yes, but not all of it.  Some of my works have one quality that I’m very proud of, and it is that there is not one piece of mine that doesn’t say something new, that I have not said before.  I don’t repeat myself.  I don’t write a work unless I know that it has something new to say, something I did not express before.  There’s a very important step to the next more mature work, and that is the preparation for it.  That more mature work of course is preferable to the previous one.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But this does not mean you wish to disown the older works in your catalogue, does it?


MD:    No, no, not one note!   Not one note would I change.  Once I wrote it, that was what I wrote because that was like the best and most concentrated ability at that time.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise works.

MD:    No!   If I find something I could do today better, I write a new piece.

BD:    Have most of the works you have written been on commission?

MD:    No.  One was on commission, and that was the Piano Suite.  That was commissioned by Kent State University in Ohio on the occasion of their fiftieth year of their foundation.  They asked me to write some music for them.  They have excellent performers on the piano, and I was able to write for them.  That was the only commission I got, and I confess I got paid $30 for it.  Yes, that’s the one commission.  I was offered it and I kept it!

BD:    Why do you use the word confess?

MD:    [Having a huge laugh]  A $30 commission!  It’s nothing to be shameful about!

BD:    So then all of the other music you just felt you had to write?

MD:    I wanted to write.  I had to write.  I didn’t have to make a living.  My goodness it cost me so much money for the copying and what have you, I didn’t make any income on it.  But my teaching position and previously my instrumental activities allowed me to be absolutely independent in composing, and I made the most of it, I hope.

BD:    Do you encourage your students to try and make a living composing, or do you encourage them not to worry about that?

MD:    I do not interfere.  I cannot interfere with them making a living.  They have to live on something.  I would rather see them transcribing things and copying things and making this kind of menial work in music than to compose for just a salary.  It is very rarely an art work that was written for the purpose of selling it and for profit.

BD:    Are you pleased with what you hear coming from the pens of your students?

MD:    I criticize them and advise them that there are better ways to express what they want to say.  That’s the function of a teacher
not to tell them what to say, but how to say it better. 

BD:    Are there some of your students that have made names for themselves?

MD:    Donald Erb is one of the best known names in the contemporary scene.  Another one is Hale Smith, who is acclaimed as the greatest black composer today.  He would rather be a
composer than a black composer, but such is life!  There are others too, yes.  [See my Interview with Donald Erb, and my Interview with Hale Smith.]

BD:    I’m very pleased to let you know that I have met both of these men and have done programs of their music on the radio.

MD:    [Sounding pleased]  Good.  And what do you think of them?

BD:    I’m very impressed.

MD:    And you should be!  Both of them are entirely different in style and expression, and they teach us.  They know it and they appreciate that.

BD:    Tell me about the recording of the Piano Suite.


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MD:    The recording was for a group here in Cleveland of living composers, a composers’ guild, and we got a certain sum of money to have it recorded.  CRI was interested, we appeared interested, and they selected the performers.  Mine was the great and very wonderful Arthur Loesser, who worked very hard at the piece and had a great understanding... a little bit too much so!  It was a kind of intellect that had to know exactly what the composer composed, so in the fast piece he had to know what number of notes were in this kind of a row or that kind of a row before he was willing play it.  The piece requires a little bit more of the dashing that his style of performance had, but it was very accurate and very excellent, and I have no complaints about that.

BD:    But it doesn’t have the fire, the heart that it needs?

MD:    The dash, the temperament more than the heart.  The heart is there, the intellect is there, but the work is missing something to some extent.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What did you learn from Zoltán Kodály?

dickMD:    [Sighs]  Oh, my goodness gracious!  Nothing!   And it was not his fault.  He was a great teacher.  I was a lousy student.  Have you got the time and patience to hear the story?

BD:    Yes, certainly!

MD:    I was accepted at the Franz Liszt Academy of Budapest at the age of 11, so much so that two years later, at the age of 13, I was on the final upper classes where I had to harmony with Kodály.  Previously for the first two years I was supposed to study theory with dictation and all these sorts of things, but I was excused because whatever the teacher dictated I wrote down to perfection.  So he excused me.  As a result, I was not prepared for Kodály.  I had to miss the most important class because I had septic throat, a high fever and I could not go to class.  But another classmate visited me and explained to me everything that Kodály taught in that class.  He explained it correctly, accurately and intelligently, except for one thing.  He did not tell me the triads are superimposed first.  That was taken for granted, having been taught in the previous classes which I didn’t have.  So everybody did the assignment absolutely correctly according to instructions, and Kodály just blew his stack. He called me names.  He said I was stupid, idiot, ass and things like that.  I was standing there and I was so scared of the man that I didn’t go classes anymore.

BD:    Oh, dear. 

MD:    I did my homework by myself from books.  Very soon after I had to show him my work for exams or I would have been flung out.  He then sent me his students to take their remedial work with me, and instead of teaching them what they were supposed to learn, what I was supposed to have learned from Kodály, I taught them the understanding of the system.  That gave them a better understanding and better results in their harmony than if they had studied and put effort into what learned from Kodály.

BD:    So the student became the teacher?

MD:    Yes, and that’s what I’m doing today too!  Of course, I’m not teaching with textbooks, which I cannot stand.  They’re faulty anyhow, both of them.  I teach what it is all about.  There’s a very logical, very exact logic in the system.  If you understand that, you don’t need remember every little word.  The rules follow from that understanding.

BD:    Have you written some vocal music?

MD:    Some songs, not many.  One of my later works I call A Portfolio of Eight Japanese Miniatures.   That is perhaps one of my most beautiful and most mature works.  It is for soprano, harpsichord and flute.  I wish it would be commercially recorded.  I had another piece which is partly for human voice, but not in the conventional sense.  It is for Sprechstimme on nonsense syllables.  The syllables have only the meaning that you hear associated with them, and this is a very remarkable work.  I would say it is one of my most significant because I never made anything like it before, and nothing like it after.  It is very different from Schoenberg
’s meaning of Sprechstimme.

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

MD:    [Ponders a moment]  No matter how you struggle occasionally on a textual problem, a musical problem, a transitional problem, no matter how much is connected to it, it’s always fun... well, the outcome, the result is always fun!  If it’s worth writing, it makes it fun and a very exciting exercise, a very exciting activity to do, to follow what comes out of it in consequence, or what started it.

BD:    Thank you so very much for speaking with me today.  It’s been wonderful talking with you.  I have learned a lot.  I feel I have come to know you a bit, and I look forward to presenting your music and your thoughts on the air.

MD:    Thank you very, very much for your kindness to consider me for your program.  I am very happy about it.





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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 27, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following August, and again in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.