Composer  Paul  Fetler
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Paul Fetler, born February 17, 1920 in Philadelphia, professor emeritus of music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota, received his early musical training in Latvia, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. He earned his Bachelor of Music from Northwestern University, his Masters of Music from Yale and his PhD from the University of Minnesota, as well as studying at the Berlin Academy of Music in Germany. Mr. Fetler’s teachers were David Van Vactor, Quincy Porter, Paul Hindemith, Sergiu Celibidache and Boris Blacher. Having composed over 150 works in various media his music has been performed by leading orchestras, soloists, choral and chamber groups in many parts of the US and Europe. He has received many awards, including one from the Society for the Publication of American Music (1953), two Guggenheims (1953, 1960), and two from the National Endowment for the Arts (1975, 1977). Mr. Fetler now resides at Golden Gate Point in Sarasota, Florida.

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 6, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago to celebrate his 70th, 75th and 80th birthdays.  This full transcript was posted on this website in 2012.  [Fetler lived until July 17, 2018.]

Bruce Duffie:    You’ve been observing music and working in music for so many years.  Where is music going these days?

Paul Fetler:    We are in a very interesting situation because the directions are manifold.  There are all kinds of things are happening.  Years ago, when I was a student, it was very polarized.  I went to Yale and studied with Paul Hindemith, and of course they were very anti-twelve-tone.  Many, many schools were very serial oriented, so there was this polarization.

BD:    Was one right or wrong, or were they just different?

fetler PF:    They were just different, although Hindemith was very strongly opposed to serial writing.  He disliked it very much.  As a matter of fact, in his class in musical composition he goes to some great lengths to show how bad the music is in twelve-tone.  But I happened to go there because I thought I could learn something from those people at Yale, and I enjoyed my studies very much.  Since then
I would say at least the last ten to fifteen yearsmusic has broken down barriers, and we also learned a lot from certain popular trends.  The overall trend is to get closer to people in our music today.  We have some extreme cases, such as minimalism, which is a very, very strong reaction to serial music — down to very basic, almost primitive sounds, which I suppose they borrowed from popular music.  Rock music drives it endlessly, so to speak.  I look at it, though, as a very healthy type of thing.  Music, to me, got overdeveloped, and now as I see it, serious composers painted themselves into a corner and lost contact with people, more or less.

BD:    Are you optimistic, then, about some of these new trends?

PF:    I’m extremely optimistic today.  My own music has become much simpler than it used to be.  Perhaps I was a little bit too concerned with following a particular trend or making a particular statement within a particular style for its own sake, rather than writing music which speaks to the people.  So I am concerned now with audiences.  There used to be a time when composers looked down on audiences.  They thought audiences are fifty, a hundred years behind the times and eventually they will catch up.  I think the reverse has happened now.  The composers have gone so far astray that they lost the audiences completely in some cases.  Some of that is still going on today.  I think there is a lot of music which exists for its own purpose.  It’s self-perpetuating.  It’s a very exclusive type of thing, and people who like it will perpetuate it and flock to these performances.

BD:    Then in your opinion, what should be the purpose of music in today’s society?

PF:    I think there are various reasons for music to exist.  I don’t appeal to everybody; that’s number one.  You have a certain sophisticated audience who will tend to foster certain types of music, but I can only speak for myself.  I want to reach a rather broad audience, but an intelligent audience.  I do not want to popularize
or as some people say, ‘write down’ to the people so they appreciate itbut I think we can use any sophisticated techniques.  Yet we could do something about not alienating, but winning people over to our side.  So if anything that happened in earlier time, it was that composers simply did not care about audiences enough.  Now I think many, many composers care very much.  The trouble among composers today is that perhaps we don’t quite agree on what the audiences would understand or appreciate.  Time and again I hear a concert of contemporary music, and the composer will say exactly what I’m sayingthat we have to reach audiences and so forthand yet the music doesn’t quite do it.  So it’s a matter of viewpoint, and there are many different levels.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, do you have the audience in mind?

PF:    I do very much, yes, but not simply for the audiences.  I don’t write for the purposes of audience’s understanding, but I write music very much like a playwright writes a play.  A playwright knows that if he puts a play on stage and no one understands what is going on, it will die on the vine.  It will have two performances and that’s it.  But a play which speaks, in other words a play which stimulates people and gets them interested and gets them totally captivated, to me that’s a successful play.  Music is no different.  Too many people think that contemporary music has to have a sort of rarefied existence.  I’m convinced that music today should have the same power of communication as composers of the past.  Why could Brahms, Wagner and Beethoven speak the way they did?  To be sure, sometimes they were misunderstood, but there is a tremendous communicative power at stake there.  I see no reason that we can’t do the same thing today.  We do not try to imitate old styles, by no means.  We are using new vocabulary, new language, but this new language can be as powerful in its communicative aspect as anything in the past... at least that’s what we should do.  I think that’s the mission of the composer, and I’m doing my darndest to follow that.

BD:    Is this the advice you give to young composers and your students?

PF:    I present to my students all type of possibilities, but I do tell them what I believe in. Every one of my students does something different, and I encourage very much individuality, but I do tell them that my belief is that if they do not find some kind of a common denominator, that it would be a very difficult thing for them to reach anybody.  It happens to result in a type of a two-way street.  You see, a composer presents his efforts, his artistic expression to the listener.  It reaches out, and if the listener understands and appreciates what is being dished out or what is directed to him, he in turn will return this appreciation.  So it becomes a type of two-way street.  There is a communion which exists, and this happens with a great conductor if he conducts one of the standard masterworks of the past.  Those can be played in various ways, but a good conductor will somehow make it alive, and there will be a return from the audience, a type of a sign of appreciation.  Conductors often say that they feel there’s sort of a magic in the air, so I see no reason why our music — we who write music
shouldn’t have the same quality.  Of course it has to be performed that way; the conductor, the performer, the orchestra does this with understanding and sympathy.

BD:    When you write a score, obviously you expect it to be performed the way you write it.  But how much latitude do you allow the performers or the interpreters?


PF:    I personally believe a great deal in latitude.  I love to see different interpretations, if they are intelligent.  The same thing with any of the standard works of the past.  You listen to various conductors and various orchestras, and one will notice different ways of interpreting.  If a conductor is truly a good musician, and intelligent, he may give his interpretation of the work and that is what I appreciate.  I appreciate good musical approach.  I have had situations where a conductor brought in some unexpected things to my work, and very often it was a very positive one.  For instance, I just came back from Buffalo where Semyon Bychkov, the young conductor there, suggested a slower tempo for the first movement of my work, and by golly it was the right thing for the movement!  Yes, indeed!  We have that in history.  If I remember correctly, in Dvořák’s New World Symphony the slow movement was marked at a certain tempo, and when it was performed for the first time the conductor suggested slightly slower.  Dvořák said, “By golly, that’s right!  It’s a good thing.”  I saw the manuscript in Prague a couple of years ago, and I saw the where he had crossed out the original tempo and marked it slower.  But he changed his mind because of the conductor’s suggestion.

BD:    Is this perhaps what contributes to the greatness of a piece of music, its ability to be performed with different interpretations and different views?

PF:    What is great in the way of a work is so hard to say.  Something may be very effective at the moment and it may disappear.  I wouldn’t venture to say what creates a great work of art, but certainly if we leave out this term ‘great,’ let’s simply say an
effective piece of music which is not simply a bunch of nonsense.  If you have something which is viable in some way and the conductor can see this and appreciates it and molds it in his own way, it can be quite exciting even if it is different from some other conductor’s.  So I very seldom interfere with that aspect if I deal with a conductor who really puts in a lot of intelligence and musicianship in the piece.  For instance, this work I’m talking about is called Three Poems by Walt Whitman for Narrator and Orchestra, which the Buffalo Philharmonic just performed.  The premiere took place here in Minnesota by the Minnesota Orchestra with Skrowaczewski conducting.  It was quite different in Buffalo; details came out which were not noticed here.  Skrowaczewski had a more flashy interpretation of the work, but the Buffalo performance had a greater depth.  I cannot say which I prefer.  I suppose I would say the greater depth is something that would satisfy me in this particular piece.

BD:    Is there ever a case where an ideal performance is given of any piece of music
— either a new work or a masterpiece?

PF:    I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  I’ve seen conductors vary the prescribed tempi quite a bit.  I checked, for instance, the tempi of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and that entire last movement was much, much slower according to the metronome mark, and I’ve never heard it played that slow.  I’m very surprised that Beethoven chose that tempo.  Most conductors take it considerably faster.  Conductors like Toscanini played everything faster, and Bruno Walter would play everything slower.  Wagner made an interesting point.  Looking at Wagner scores, they seldom if ever have a metronome mark.  I was surprised that he, who was so meticulous about performances, left those out.  He made the statement that there is sort of an inherent tempo to a piece which the conductor must discover.  That’s an interesting point, and perhaps there is an ideal interpretation for a given piece.  But my experience is that almost with every conductor there is something different, something in a way of emphasizing something else and bringing out something else which to me is very interesting.  I love to hear differences as long as it comes alive.  Ultimately what counts is the mystique which is behind the music, that factor X or whatever you can call it, the intangible, the indefinable, which moves people.  At the same time it has to be reasonable within the composer’s wishes, but those can vary.  I know that composers also have changed their minds on the interpretation of certain works as time went along.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    It seems that the concert repertoire is, if anything, getting smaller these days.  Is there any way of getting audiences and program managers to expand the repertoire, to play more new pieces and more different pieces?

fetler PF:    Yes.  That is a very important aspect, but I’m a little bit leery about this complaint that composers have.  “Why don’t they play more of our music?”  I find that it is often the composer who is really his own worst enemy.

BD:    How so?

PF:    The composer should be concerned to write something which has a communicative aspect to it.  The trouble is a lot of new music just will not be accepted wholeheartedly by listeners because they don’t like it.  Why don’t they like it?  There’s something that bothers them about it.  Are they right or wrong?  Well, maybe partially they are right and partially they are wrong, but I look at it very much as a situation of consumption.  A listener goes and consumes the music.  He takes it in like a theater play.  You go to a theater to take it in.  You go to a concert to take it in. You go to a fine restaurant to consume the meal.  What if a cook tells you he has a marvelous meal but you don’t like the taste of it?  Who is right and who is wrong?  There are some tastes that we haven’t acquired yet, but it is very possible that the composer or the cook is fooling some people.  They’re up a tree here and try to proclaim some great wisdom which somehow misses the point.  With that type of a dilemma, it is no surprise that many new works aren’t being played very often.  Each year in the United States there are maybe two, three, four thousand premieres, and that’s it.  They’re played once and then what?  But whose fault is it?

BD:    It seems that it’s harder to get that second performance than the first one.

PF:    Extremely hard!  I suggest that composers should analyze the situation, just like a playwright would, to see what comes across.  I don’t suggest for a minute that we have to write down, but we have to speak the same language.  We have to tell them something about experiences by way of sound, and they have to appreciate it.  If that is done, then I’m convinced that we can write very original new music.  We have good examples of that today.  George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children is, I think, a remarkable piece.  That is full of avant garde devices, and yet it has a communicative quality, a certain lyric quality that comes across.  Jacob Druckman has a number of pieces which seem to come across very powerfully.  But then there are many, many pieces that are simply revolving in some enigmatic circle, and then they complain, “Why don’t they play the music more?”  My point is if this music would be played more, would we make headway?  You can force things down the throat of conductors who then force it on the orchestra and the listeners.  If this is done over and over again, will the piece really eventually become accepted?  I don’t know.  I doubt it, but works such as The Rite of Spring and then Petrushka and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto have really have established themselves because there is a certain content in the piece.  Even if it’s misunderstood for a while, there is something which comes across, and this is for composers to discover how to communicate with listeners.  Ultimately it is history who will prove something.  I don’t want to use the term ‘survivor’ or ‘survival of the fittest,’ but it is a situation where works which are viable somehow will survive.  Yet out of the thousands of works that are written, how can all of them survive?  Every composer thinks he wants to be a Beethoven, so they’re inventing something new.  But how can you have one thousand Beethovens?

BD:    Is the judgment of history correct in most cases?

PF:    Ultimately perhaps yes, but some works can be neglected.  If anything, the situation with Gesualdo, the sixteenth century composer is a case in point.  We just covered it in my classes at the University of Minnesota, dealing with how only a few years ago Gesualdo was still considered very unperformable.  He sounds kind of odd even today, but with our excellent choruses they make it work.  Here is a person who is really a sort of a Charles Ives of the sixteenth century, who has been neglected for hundreds of years.  I still cannot tell you; I don’t know what the ultimate verdict will be of Gesualdo, but let’s leave him alone for now.  Let’s take some of the people who have survived and made a tremendous impact on history.  All those names are known, and I think there’s no question that there was a power, a universal truth kind of a thing that permeates their work.  We read about this or that work being misunderstood, but there are actually very few of those.  The great work somehow makes its way.  Take the Rite of Spring.  You read about the pandemonium in Paris, but many people regarded it or viewed already as something rather incredible.  Here’s the point
a composer cannot manufacture these things.  He cannot say, “I will follow A, B, C and D, and we will have a masterwork which perhaps is first misunderstood but then will survive.”  That in itself is a big question, but it seems to me that of all the music that is being written, ultimately very little will survive.  This has happened in the past, but that doesn’t mean there are not pieces that have this quality.

BD:    Do we have a new joker in the deck with the existence of the recordings which make the music a little more accessible to future generations? 

PF:    I don’t know if you could call it a joker. 

fetler BD:    But you no longer have to wait for a live performance of the music.  If the score is on the shelf the music has to be performed, but if the record is on the shelf you can put it in the machine.  It can be accessible at any time without a fresh performance. 
[Vis-à-vis the image at left, see my interviews with Gunther Schuller, and Antal Dorati.]

PF:    Right!  That’s a good point.  We have many of those.  There are thousands of recordings available, and I think it matters very little whether a few people hear it or millions of people hear it.  If millions of people somehow don’t give it a stamp of approval, a work can only survive if somebody will perpetuate it.  Why would anybody perpetuate anything of which they are not convinced?  I’m talking precisely of all of these recordings.  Could we imagine that all these thousands of recordings someday will be appreciated as great masterworks?  First of all, the odds are against that, but let’s look at the last fifty years.  There many, many recordings, thousands and thousands, and they all can be played at will, but how many of them have established themselves as works worthy of future performances?

BD:    Then let me turn the question back in this way
should the concert hall or the broadcasting stations or recordings only perform masterworks?

PF:    No.  There’s no way for us to know what a masterwork is, but at the same time we can rest assured that to find a masterwork is a very difficult thing.  So by all means we should perform new music, but at the same time there is a dilemma with performing enormous amounts of music, and my feeling of that is there is a sort of overkill.  As a young student I went to various symposia of new music out east at Yale and Juilliard and Eastman and other schools, and I learned very quickly that there is a gray area.  Before you know it there is an enormous amount of music being played, and it’s very hard to see the forest for the trees.  Everything mixes into one big pot, so to speak.  So I am leery of playing too much new music at the same time because you can get lost in the shuffle.  Suppose you have a diamond among ten thousand fake diamonds.  You have to play all of them, and you cannot distinguish right away the pure diamond from the fake one.  The ideal situation, as I see it, is to take a work and to give it a chance to be projected
against other works from other periods.  Like good programming you had a standard work of the past, you have a maybe then a premiere of some sort, and then fairly recent work, so you have a variety of things.

BD:    Sure, a balance.

PF:    Balance.  But to play endless new works, and to hope that we can discriminate or make any judgment is very hard.

BD:    Are there, perhaps, too many composers coming along?

PF:    It’s very possible.  I have arguments with my colleagues about this.  I have some people who say the more the better and keep on training composers, keep on playing the music.  The various organizations take great pride to say, “We performed two hundred premieres last year.  This year we will perform two hundred fifty premieres.”  What’s happening to all this?  Where is it leading?  Some people say to find the good work you have to play all of them.  Maybe that is true.  I don’t know, but my own experience is that there’s a lot of music being played that is sort of a dead end... at least as I can see it at the moment.  I may of course be wrong, but I followed the situation very closely.  There are various things that keep on coming up, and it seems to me that once in a while there is this very imaginative, interesting, viable thing, and before you know it orchestras begin to repeat the work.  It is contagious.  Why do they do it?  Well, there’s something about it.  There’s one piece by John Adams called Harmonielehre.  I’m not a fan of minimalism, but this is a minimalist piece which has more to it than endless repetitions of three chords.  I’m quite well-rounded.  Some of my colleagues say, “Oh, that’s terrible music.  It’s just regressive.  It doesn’t use all the latest advances.”  Some composers are bent to discovering and exploring every type of a device which hasn’t been done before.  Well, if it
’s done as a thing in itself, I wonder if it’s worth doing.  But we do apply avant garde devices if it is based on solid artistic sensibility.  We crave for something.  We crave for a new sound and we find it because there is this compulsion.  We must find a new sound because otherwise we are redundant, but it has to come from a deep conviction from inside.  Every composer who is looking for originality in a contrived way probably will end up with nothing at all.  But originality itself is not the big problem.  I think we are all original.  We’re all different.  We learn from each other.  We learn from the past.  We apply various things to our work, but simply because we are different individuals we are already original.  But the individual who writes music has to have something to say.  We have a lot of very competent composers who simply imitate something which sounds pleasant, and is perhaps redundant.

BD:    This brings me to one of my favorite questions.  In music, where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

PF:    I can tell you what I tell my students.  I tell them my job is to give them some tools to work with.  When students come to me, some of them need a lot of thorough theory work
counterpoint, orchestration and all that.  They also have to listen to a lot of music and study form.  When they have the equipment, then I say, “Good luck.  I hope you get inspired.”  When I worked with Hindemith at Yale, he never brought in the inspiration factor at all.  He said, “That’s for a psychiatrist to deal with.”  He was only concerned with craft.  He said, “I will try to teach you a few ways of constructing music.  Then it’s up to you if you have the imagination and inspiration.”  My belief is that music must have inspiration as a basis, but there are many people who have all the inspiration in the world but don’t have the technique, and they end up with nothing.

BD:    You have to have both?

PF:    Yes, and the reverse side is people with tremendous technique who have no inspiration, or worse yet they get sidetracked into various types of technicalities for their own sake.  They could be inspired to create something novel and something interesting, but they have hang-ups and they end up constructing pieces and following systems and theories for their own sake.  These are gifted people, but that, to me, is a dead end.  I have seen that in my own students.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me turn the discussion a little bit more specifically toward your own music.  Do you ever go back and revise old pieces?

fetler PF:    Sometimes, yes.  Most of the revising I do, though, is really before it is played, before the first performance.  There are sometimes some very extensive revisions.  If I start the first movement, I keep on going with the three movement piece, but I may go back to the first movement and revise it extensively, because the things change in perspective.  Everything has to be balanced carefully.  For instance, I may have over-written or made the first movement too long or too complex, or something which isn’t quite right has to be adjusted.  Or I suddenly decide to write an introduction to prepare an important first theme.  I do a tremendous amount of soul searching before I write the final score.

BD:    But at some point you must decide it is finished, it is completed.  How do you know when you’ve reached that point?

PF:    I personally feel that after a lot of testing of the material, scrutinizing and going over it, then something happens and it sort of gels.  It crystallizes itself, in which case I would say, “I better leave it alone now.”  That happens quite often.  You come to a point of saying, “Don’t tamper with it any more.”  But on a few occasions I had a situation where the piece was actually performed and I felt some adjustments needed to be done — not major adjustments but something that could improve the piece.  In short, I’m a great believer in enormous hard work.  I tell my students if a work can be improved, we should improve it, and most works can be improved.

BD:    Are all the changes you make improvements?

PF:    Maybe yes, maybe no.  I don’t remember where I would regret a change in a work.  In most cases it seems to me it was worth doing, and in some situations where I did not quite go along with my instinct, I regretted it.  I would say, “I really should have worked a little bit more on this.”  But another thing happens. You write a work and years go by, and then you look back at it and you may react differently.  You may say, “I really shouldn’t have written the piece at all,” or, “I’m pleasantly surprised!”  I’d say, “Well, this piece is better than I thought it was.” We change with time, too.  We look at something and our opinion may vary.  But getting back to inspiration, I very definitely try to find something which would get me excited about an idea.  Then what I try to do is plot the whole work from beginning to end in a very rough sketch form.  I don’t believe in writing from point one to point two in a very accomplished way.  I like to keep it very tentative because one can always change things.  One can always add things and make it longer, shorter, or change pitches.  This rough stage is where a lot of adjustments are made until finally you get a view of the whole thing from beginning to end.  Then you begin to make some refinements.  You worry a little bit about textures, about rhythms and so forth.

BD:    When you are composing, are you completely in control or does the music control you?

PF:    I believe that we have to control our work.  It’s very unfortunate if we are slaves, though maybe it works with some people.  They come up with something and throw it together and say, “Well, by God, this is pretty good.”  But I am skeptical about some of these strange, mystical things.  I think we can all learn from our mistakes, and the harder we work and the more we scrutinize, the better the work then becomes.

BD:    Is composing fun?

PF:    I could do nothing but; it’s part of my life.  Again, I can only speak for myself.  I know people who hate composing and yet they do pretty well.  Sometimes I take a little break, but then after a few days it gets very antsy and I want to do something.

BD:    I assume that you have quite a number of commissions.

PF:    Oh, yes.  I’ve turned many things down.

How do you decide which commissions you will accept and which commissions you will turn down?

PF:    It’s a very simple thing.  I hate to write something that will not be performed well, for one thing.  To me the performance is so important, and some of the commissions that I accepted I wasn’t too happy about in the long run. 
Some of them are done by amateur groups, such as the Missa de Angelis.  That was done by a college group, and their orchestra was really very poor.  It is the only recording of my music that bothers me a little bit because there are some instrumental interludes that are just pretty terrible.  I did quite a bit of editing because I had to cut out some instrumental interludes which were very, very poor.  But I think the singing is pretty good.  I didn’t expect that the orchestra would have so many weaknesses in it.  If I knew that, I never would have written that piece. 

BD:    Even though at some point it might be performed brilliantly by a better group?

PF:    Then I would write it at that time.  I have so much work to do that I could write day and night to supply people who want my music.  There are so many I simply won’t do because a lot of amateur groups like to do choral works or songs, and it doesn’t pay because it’s an enormous time-consuming situation.  My favorite is, of course, a brilliant orchestra, so I would say most of my time has been occupied with writing orchestral works.  Some are for a smaller group like the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  I’ve written quite a few things for them.  The Minnesota Orchestra has played over eleven works of mine in the past years.  I would get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and I decided to write something for myself, so to speak.  It was right away played by the Minnesota Orchestra in one case, and the Indianapolis Symphony played another work.  These are works I really had to do.  They weren’t ordered by anybody.  I had the luxury of writing whatever I wanted with the National Endowment grants I had.  But when some group commissions you, then you adjust to what they need.  Then you hope that they will do a good job.  Sometimes I don’t know what the choruses are, but I am very careful to write something that they really like.  It will get played sooner or later, rather than writing blindly for an organization I have no idea about.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me throw you a little bit of a curve and ask you about one of the works in your catalog, this opera for youth, Sturge Maclean.

PF:    That was commissioned by the City of St. Paul here for the public schools, and I have mixed feelings about the thing.  We had some good performances.  We had eleven performances here in St. Paul and a few out-staged.  It was all done by young people, but the orchestra was
a rather good one, also made up of young people supervised and conducted by the director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at that time, Leopold Sipe.  I have misgivings about it, I had to limit myself to very young singers and what they were able to do.  But I would say for the medium that this was intended it came out rather well.  I was pleased in that respect, more so than some semi-professional groups who would botch a work.  I had the opportunity here to work with these young people to stage this work, and so the results were rather satisfactory.

BD:    Are there any other operas in your catalogue?

PF:    No.  I just didn’t have an opportunity.  I would not write an opera simply with the idea of hoping for someone to pick it up.  It would have to be a very definite assignment for a definite performance because it could take two years to write.  That’s two years out of your life.  You want to be sure it’ll get performed, and at least it is going to be done by a reputable organization.  But I would certainly embark upon it if I had that request.  Right now I have too many other things going on for a number of orchestras.  I’m working now on a concerto for percussion, piano, and orchestra.  This will be for a consortium of three orchestras
the Indianapolis Symphony, the Syracuse Symphony, and the Buffalo Philharmonic.  This will be done in the season after this coming season.  I got very much interested in this because of a certain percussion virtuoso, Jesse Kregal, a timpanist with the Buffalo Philharmonic.  I knew him for years.  He commissioned some other works for me, and performed them all over the country.  He said someday he would like to have a concerto, and we finally have this opportunity to put this together.  It is also being supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.  It’s a full-blown concerto, and I’m using between twenty-five and thirty different percussion instruments.  So that will be a rousing type of coloristic thing.  At the same time, one has to be careful that it’s not just banging away on a bunch of percussion instruments.  It has to be shaped.  I finished the last movement complete.  I decided to write the last movement first because it is a climax of the whole thing.  It is a very driving, exciting movement, which is not so much simply making use of all these percussion sounds, but it draws in the entire orchestra.  I could call it more of a concerto for orchestra with all the instruments coming in.  It has shape, with the themes and development and all that focusing on the percussions.  The percussion instruments will be placed in the front.

BD:    It sounds wonderful!

PF:    Yes.  I’m very excited.  So I have to finish that.  I have to finish two more movements.  Then I have an assignment for a double bass concerto for the principle bassist of the New York Philharmonic, Eugene Levinson.  He was here in Minnesota before he assumed that post in New York.  I have sketches of that.  I don’t know when that will be premiered, but that’s a commitment I made.  I also have a bunch of smaller choral works that I’m working on, and I’m revising my Second Violin Concerto for a performance here by the Minneapolis Chamber Symphony.

BD:    Are there any more recordings coming along?

PF:    No.  I hope very much that we will get a recording of my Whitman Poems, but recordings nowadays are very difficult.  It’s a financial situation.  Recording companies are very careful.  We had a marvelous success with this work in Buffalo and got a standing ovation.  We did have a very good narrator for it, so I was extremely pleased with this.  I hope to get that recorded.  I wanted to get my Second Violin Concerto recorded and Skrowaczewski was interested to record it some day.  But again, we don’t know.  [Note: About twenty years later, both of these works were recorded and issued on Naxos, as shown in the image directly below.] 


BD:    Let me ask you about one more name from your past
David Van Vactor.

PF:    Yes!

BD:    Tell me about working with him.

PF:    He was one of my very first teachers at Northwestern University.  I grew up in Europe.  I was born in the United States, but my family moved to Europe and I got all my primary education in various European countries.  I lived in the city of Riga on the Baltic Sea, so I had some musical training there.  Now it is part of the Soviet Union.  Then, as struggles began to brew in Europe, we moved to Holland and Sweden and Switzerland and finally back here.  The family settled in Evanston.  I went to Northwestern University as a young man and studied with David Van Vactor.  He was one of my first composition teachers, and he recommended me to Paul Hindemith later.  I went to Yale after I finished my work.  I got my Bachelor’s Degree at Northwestern University.  Van Vactor went, I think, to Knoxville, and he is probably retired now.

BD:    Yes, and he is still there.  I did an interview with him a little more than a year ago, and then a special eightieth birthday program.

PF:    Oh, that’s exciting!

BD:    It was nice to contact him, and it’s been nice to contact you also.  I have learned a great deal about you and about your music and your views.

PF:    Well, it was absolutely delightful for me to talk to you!  Thank you, Bruce.

Paul Fetler was born in the United States and spent his youth in Eastern Europe, particularly in Latvia, where the influences of Russian culture made a great impression upon him. At the age of six he experimented at the piano with sound combinations which he found expressive, in one case particularly descriptive of a painting of a queen’s lavish coronation. Fetler credits his mother with making sure that his musical training was uninterrupted, despite the family’s frequent changes of residence, including a couple of years in both Sweden and Switzerland.

Fetler studied at Northwestern University where he received his Bachelor of Music degree under David Van Vactor. His Master’s degree was at Yale, where he studied with Quincy Porter and Paul Hindemith. He took advanced compositional studies with Boris Blacher at the Berlin Academy of Music. He accepted a post at the University of Minnesota, where he later completed his doctorate and where he taught composition and also composed for many years. His compositions include over 150 works in diverse genres. Many of these have been performed by leading orchestras, soloists, choral ensembles and chamber groups across the United States and Europe. He has been the recipient of important awards from the Society for the Publication of American Music, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 6, 1987.  Portions were also used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1995 and 2000.  The transcription was made and posted on this website at the end of 2012.

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.