Patron  Paul  Fromm
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Growing up in suburban Chicago, I naturally took it for granted that any kind of musical event that I desired would be presented either very soon or in the not-too-distant future.  I went to performances by the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera, and as my musical education proceeded, chamber concerts and new-music events were added to the regular diet.

Those concerts which had world premieres and/or recent pieces tended to attract a specialized crowd, and among them was an aging gentleman whom I would soon come to know.  He not only was an enthusiast, he was a Patron in the best sense of the word.  Not only did he attend and appreciate, he put his money where his heart was and provided financial support for those who created and presented the continuing line.

Paul Fromm was that man, and his Foundation continues to give the life-blood needed to allow those who are inspired to jot down those thoughts, and those who are proficient to perform and interpret them.  A testament to his life can be found at the end of this webpage, and the Foundation at Harvard University that bears his name can be contacted through this web address

Fromm lived in Chicago, so despite his extensive travels, he was around quite a bit and in April of 1986, it was my distinct pleasure to be invited to his home near the University of Chicago for a conversation.  I had told him of my series on WNIB, and he was pleased to participate in what was, for him, a very unusual way.

What follows is our discussion . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  I’m very interested in someone who is involved in music, apparently for a lifetime!

Paul Fromm:  You have consumers of music who munch down music like a breakfast cereal.  For those people, music is mere entertainment.  But you also have active participants.  So let’s define the role of a patron; I think of myself as a patron.  It means someone who is involved in music, but also tries to nourish the artistic spirit.  When I came to the United States in 1938 as a Hitler refugee, I was puzzled because in Europe there was a schism between old music and new music.  It was the same thing here, however you can add something to it.  I found audiences very, very conservative, but they also projected commercial values in artistic production, fallaciously thinking, “Serious art can make its own place in the marketplace,” right?  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is it wrong to try to market serious music?

frommPF:    It’s a good question and I’ve thought about it a lot.  I think we have to start, first, with informing and educating an audience.  Our audiences really have become the victim of symmetrical droll disintegration, which really set in the early part of our century, let’s say about 1910.  When I was young, you learned music as a language.  You conceptualized musical history as a kind of evolutionary progression from one period to the other.  Each period had a style of its own.  So you go back to Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism and Romanticism.  In the earlier part of our century you had Post-romanticism, but then all of a sudden it ended!  It’s the era of Pluralism, which means it’s a very wide spectrum from serialism to hard rock; then on the way you had Minimalism, Microtonality, aleatoric music, musical theater, you name it, right?  Or Performance Art where you compose the music in performance!  It’s a kind of Conceptual Art.  It comes and goes with the performance.  Earlier in this century we were in a transitional state, but now we have accepted it as a permanent condition.  The problem for the listener is really that he has lost his or her vocabulary.  Until the earlier part of our century, you listened to music and you had certain expectations.  Let’s take Mozart.  He had syntax.  All he needed was to elevate the pre-existing structure to its height.  But you also have to take into account that historically, music always was in the state of revolution.  It is always growing.

BD:    We hope that music always grows!

PF:    Right.  Go back to Machaut.  By the standards of a pedantic musicologist, he was a lawbreaker.  [Both laugh]  Also Beethoven, but I would say the most striking example I could give would be Richard Wagner.  He recognized that the method that was available to him no longer served his art.  So what did he do?  He invented a new environment for his music, which was Bayreuth, right?  He even had to invent some new instruments, like the Wagner Tuba, and certainly a new way of using the human voice.  This concept he had called Gesamtkunstwerk was a total work of art.  It was theater; what you saw and heard.  So today, when we talk about so-called new romanticism, it is laughable!  It was like an atomic bomb he threw!  He dropped it on the world of music over a hundred years ago.

BD:    There’s a wonderful cartoon from the time, with the bomb exploding on a music factory and notes going all over the place!

PF:    Right, right, right.  So you asked me whether we should not expand audiences, and the answer is that we should.  However, you never build your house from the top to the basement.  I believe that we should have started here with educating a small but knowledgeable audience.  You inform them; you give them greater differentiation, greater inner growth to grow with the growing art of music.  Look at all the arts, even dance or poetry.  At all times they express themselves in the idiom of their own time.  So why should no one observe this rule in music?  Here I really believe that our big establishment institutions
our large opera houses and our large orchestrasdefinitely have missed the boat completely.  Rather than raising the audience up to higher standards, they tried to step down to a public that was uninformed.  That does not mean that those people were uneducated people, but musically speaking, they were poor linguists.  Nobody taught them the new language.

BD:    Is it at all the fault of the composer, for trying something that’s too radically different?

PF:    There is no fault.  Any composer who is serious about being a creative artist would have to find the medium that is appropriate to his own vision and concept.  I think Varèse said once that we are behind the time!  It’s not that the composer’s ahead of his time, because you never can be ahead of your own time, but the public is behind the times.

BD:    The public is always playing catch up, then?

PF:    Yes, and I’ll tell why.  Had they begun fifty years ago to play the music of their contemporaries
Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Varèse — then the public that hears music today would have a frame of reference, because you could have led them up in steps to the music of their own time.  The other day I talked to Henry Fogel, the new manager of the symphony, who I think is a very light intentioned person, and I told him why not develop a five-year plan?  Begin with 1910, and over five years gradually develop the music reaching our own time.  It takes committed conductors and performers.  If it’s just a labor of duty, it never, never gets across to the people.

BD:    What kind of percentage do you feel should be on Chicago Symphony concerts?

PF:    [Laughs] I’m very realistic.  Whenever you talk to conductors and managers, first of all they will tell you they don’t have enough rehearsal time, and our people don’t want to do it.  But there’s always money for doing the popular soloist performances.  If you do opera in concert version, you fly in singers from all over the world.  Then you have those four extra rehearsals, while in most cases one additional rehearsal would be more than adequate to perform the music of our contemporaries.  However, the assumption is that the conductor has learned the score and when he comes to rehearsal, he’s on top of the score and not trying to learn the pieces himself.  If you play a contemporary work and juxtapose it with traditional music, especially on a night when you have a very popular soloist, it can be a bigger success than you realize.  There is no given formula.

BD:    Is it good, though, to put a new work in juxtaposition with a masterwork?  Does it not make the new work pale by comparison?

PF:    It’s a good question, but your answer can turn this question around.  Would it be fair to Beethoven to juxtapose Battle of Victoria with the Rite of Spring of Stravinsky?  [Both laugh]  But you have a good point, of course.  You don’t want to upstage a young, unproven composer by putting his music next to a masterwork of all times.

BD:    Is this one of the problems, that the public expects all new works to be masterpieces?

PF:    It definitely is a problem.  It definitely is a problem.  Talking about masterpieces, go back to the nineteenth century.  You are a very well-informed person; if I would ask you, “Tell me the twenty-four masterpieces of the nineteenth century,” you’d probably begin to stumble after eight or ten or twelve or fourteen, right?

BD:    Perhaps...

PF:    In each century you have one or two, but music is an activity that has to be continued.  If you are in search of masterpieces, it surely becomes an obsession for you.  Today, of course, you have this other problem; we live in a technological society, so the arts occupy a peripheral role in the lives of people.

BD:    In most lives, yes.

PF:    And the artists also occupy insular positions that are rarely connected with just the organized musical life.

BD:    Is there any way we can get the musician to be more than the after dinner mint?

PF:    I’ll tell you, one shouldn’t have grandiose ideas about it.  If every conductor and every performer would commit himself or herself only to one composer in whose music he or she believed, the problem would be solved.

BD:    Like Beecham did with Delius?

PF:    Exactly.  When Bruno Walter came to America, he played some music of Bruckner, which in those days not only was unknown, but also not appreciated.  But, he didn’t do what our conductors do today, which is to perform it once and then, in baseball language, use the hit and run and never to do it again!  [Both laugh]  Remember what Koussevitzky did for Aaron Copland?

BD:    Sure.  Koussevitzky pushed quite a number of American composers.

PF:    Yeah.  I also have to go back to Dmitri Metropolis.  You probably remember that when he did a concert performance of Wozzeck with the New York Philharmonic [April, 1951], that was avant-garde.  However, the premiere of Wozzeck took place in 1925!  It was avant-garde, therefore the presence of people would mean it was the presentation of a twentieth century classic; one of the most important operas ever!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume you enjoy the twentieth century music you listen to.

PF:    I enjoy all music! [Laughs]

BD:    So you also enjoy Beethoven and Mozart and Machaut.

PF:    Of course, of course.  I certainly would have very little confidence in anybody who would say, “I listen only to twentieth century music.”  All good music approves its new music.  If a Beethoven symphony is not new music to you, then I think you are not a very musical person.  In other words, the architect Kant said once, “The creation of art is not the fulfillment of need, but the creation of need.”  And then he added, “If Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony, nobody would miss it.  But now since it exists, we can’t live without it anymore.”

BD:    But if we play the old works too much, they become stale.

PF:    Absolutely true!  I go to concerts all the time, you know, and you get to the point that you can anticipate every measure.  Then I think it would be best to give it a rest for a few years.  It happened to me last year.  Guilini came to the Los Angeles Symphony to play the Beethoven Fifth, and I had not heard it for the previous four or five years.  I tell you, it was very exciting.  If the Chicago Symphony plays Mahler Symphony Number Five every second year, I skip it and wait for another two years; then it becomes a very exciting new musical experience.

BD:    Are we getting simply too much music, so that we can’t hear all of the Mozart, and all the Beethoven, as well as all the new music?

PF:    Yeah, I think you are right.  We probably have too many concerts.  Somebody who subscribes to the symphony and goes every Thursday or Friday or Saturday, somehow it becomes a routinized experience.  You don’t go there anymore with the anticipation, the excitement that you are exposed to something to which you want to reach out.  And let’s face it, you look at the people on a Thursday night!  Most of them sit there half-stuporously.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Especially if they come after a big, heavy dinner.

PF:    At the same time, people look for something that is out of the ordinary of their everyday existence.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Your foundation has commissioned quite a bit of music.

PF:    We have commissioned about a hundred sixty-five works so far.

BD:    Can I assume you’re very pleased with the foundation and what it’s done?

PF:    Oh, it gives me great personal satisfaction, yes.  Perhaps it’s an illusion, this feeling that in a small measure, you can contribute to a living culture.

BD:    How do you decide which composers you will give commissions to?

paul fromm

:    There is no puzzle how to reach out to a young, gifted composer.  We are in contact with established senior composers; they all have students and would definitely direct us to their most gifted.  If you are a young composer, a gifted composer, chances are you wouldn’t study composition with the organist of the church in your small town.  You would seek out a school of music with a reputation and probably think of this or that composer who teaches in this or that school.  That’s how we do it; we get this collaboration and assistance from composers of standing.

BD:    So you’re looking to the established composers to decide whether the quality and the possibility is there?

PF:    We would write to a senior composer to put us in touch with the most gifted composer; just one.  We don’t want to have a laundry list of all the students!  [Both laugh]  Then we would ask this composer to send us a score and we circulate this score among nine readers.  We have three readers in the Midwest, three in the east and three on the west coast, because we want to be sure that none of the readers is prejudiced against a certain idiom, a style the composer used.  You don’t want to discriminate against Steve Reich, because he’s a minimalist, or you don’t want to discriminate against a student of Milton Babbit because he uses serialism.  This way, we try to be even-handed.  [See my Interviews with Steve Reich.]

BD:    Does it work the other way, too?  I assume you don’t want to automatically give commission to someone only because he is the student of a big name composer.

PF:    No, no, this we never do.  Never do it.  It’s only human nature that a composer sometimes would recommend somebody out of the goodness of his heart; a young, striking person who has no position whatever.

BD:    Are there any composers that have made their way, even without a Fromm commission, that you kind of wish you had given a push earlier?

PF:    Sure! [Laughs] Absolutely!  Don’t forget, there’s the Rockefeller Fund and the National Endowment, the Koussevitzky Fund and the Coolidge Foundation.  However, there’s one thing I can say:  when we started in 1952, we were in the vanguard, and I’ll tell you why.  From the very beginning, we concerned ourselves with individual artists, the individual arts of work, and not with organizations or institutions, and I still believe that the arts should be returned to the artists.

BD:    You just commission composers, not performers?

PF:    We don’t commission performers, but very often we commission a composer to write a work for a performing ensemble, and then we help this performing ensemble.

BD:    To make sure it gets performed?

PF:    Yes, yes.  In other words, we never have commissioned a work that remained unperformed, because as you know, music exists only in performance!

BD:    Sure.  There’s no point in putting it in a drawer.

PF:    Right.  It might look very beautiful on the paper, but people have to hear it!

BD:    When you give a commission, do you have any expectations from it?

PF:    You have certain criteria such as craftsmanship and originality which we think are important because from them you derive the commutative power, the emotional, humanistic expression that comes through to you.  Originality is not necessarily either; that’s no laboratory test. 

BD:    You don’t put any strictures on it?

PF:    None at all.  None at all.  If somebody wants to write another symphony of the thousand, we don’t do it!  [Both laugh]  We give the composer a lot of latitude.  We also don’t give them deadlines; we don’t say, “You have to complete the work in six months.”  One of our best works is Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto.  We commissioned it in 1954, and he finished it in 1961!  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]

BD:    You never wrote to him to ask, “How are you coming along?

PF:    Absolutely not!  He has to write his music when he’s ready to write it.  That doesn’t mean he hasn’t composed other works, but he had his commission of writing a double concerto, which is very difficult, actually; so he wasn’t ready but he knew he would do it, and he finally did it and it turned out, I would say, our most successful commission.

BD:    When you commission a piece you get the first performance.  Do you also then try to push for second and fifth and twentieth performances?

PF:    [Laughs]  It’s a story of the horse you lead to the stream!  We try, of course!  Not every work turns out to be successful, but that is not the idea.  We certainly are not in search of masterworks.

BD:    You’re just in search of creativity?

PF:    Right, right.  The problem is to get performances of orchestral works, because here you get very, very little from our established major orchestras.

BD:    Do you ever commission any operas?

PF:    We did.  We commissioned an opera by Krenek and we also commissioned an opera from Leon Kirchner, which later he called Lily.  It was based on Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King.  [See my Interview with Ernst Krenek.]  We also commissioned, a long time ago, an opera by Jan Meyerowitz called Esther.  Today it would be a little easier because you have so many regional opera companies, and also you have the opera workshops of our good schools of music.  As you know, they put on stage sometimes excellent performances, but in the beginning [of the Foundation], in the fifties, it was impossible.  Back then, there were performances in San Francisco and New York and Lyric Opera here in Chicago, and that was opera in America.

BD:    Is there any chance that we are getting too many performers today?  It seems like the music schools are churning out so many.

PF:    That’s a very good question, Bruce.  I think you are correct.  You remember the book Hindemith wrote which was called Composer’s World?  It was the lectures he gave at Harvard University, and he wrote, “At the rate we educate young musicians in the Unites States, every second in America there will be a musician in the twenty-first century!”  [Both laugh]  I think you’re bringing up a very valid point.  Last year when I was on the panel of the National Endowment to give grants to schools of music, I brought up the question — and I don’t think it was kindly received — that when you look over all those applications for grants, it is obvious that the good schools of music have very high admission standards.  In other words, they don’t accept every second or third applicant.  The other schools need students and I felt at that time, and I’m sure that you probably even agree with me, that it would be much more honest to tell those young people, “You are gifted, but if you want to make a career as a musician, you have to be extraordinarily gifted.  Why should we put you through a school of music for the next four years, during which time you could learn any other profession?  If you like music, okay.  Make music your avocation, but not your vocation.”  You are absolutely right.  We overpopulate the world of music with too many students we educate in conservatories.   I was not extraordinarily gifted, but I was gifted enough to go into it as a profession.  When I was a child, I played with my brother every four-hand transcription of symphonies right up to Bruckner and Mahler.  However, I knew my natural gifts were limited, so I’ve got the best of two worlds, just to love music.  But I think you are absolutely right.

BD:    This is something we need, though
— we need more educated consumers.

PF:    That’s what I said at the beginning; exactly, exactly, more knowledge with the consumers, because they could serve as a nucleus from which a healthybec musical culture could develop.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What’s the role of the music critic?

PF:    The music critic definitely carries position and I’ll tell you why.  He really has to represent the readers of newspapers — that means the consumer.  Also, if unwittingly, he has to be a publicist for the local institutions.  If he writes for the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times or whatever newspaper it would be, he cannot write disparagingly on the Art Institute and the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony, the big established institutions.  So it is really a very difficult position to be in.  As you know, the best criticism, the most valid criticism, you read in our small journals, like The Nation and New Republic.  That’s the way I feel.  I have no quarrel with the big papers.  I wouldn’t take such a position, because I know I wouldn’t have their autonomy and independence.  It’s a little different in New York.  The New York Times doesn’t put any limitations on their critics.

BD:    The only limitation is space
column inches!

PF:    Absolutely.  I think they have seven people on the staff.  The real problem is that we live in a society in which we always want to have instant results.  It really begins in grade school.  Most students who are ready to go to college are familiar with marching bands, because they have attended football games.  They also might be able to sing some Christmas carols, but they have no musical education.

BD:    Even the ones that maybe got a weekend job playing in a little rock band?  Are they not better, more ready for anything?

PF:    Yeah, but they probably are not connected with serious classical music.  If you play in this kind of a band, it’s really fun and entertainment always.  There’s more to musical experience than that.

BD:    Is there any way to get some of the rock musicians and the rock audiences into the serious music audience?  Or, should we try?

PF:    Sometimes I wonder if they are not more honest.  They don’t talk about musical culture as we do.  I really think that we are mired in strident commercialism.  The Chicago Symphony is right now on tour in Japan and Hong Kong.  They give fifteen concerts, and all fifteen are built around four programs which are recorded and which are sold out.  There is not one composer, living or dead, of the twentieth century, in any of those programs.  I read yesterday they were in Hong Kong in a sports arena, with a capacity of ten thousand.  Sixty amplifiers on the stage!  They played Tchaikovsky 1812, Romeo and Juliet, and Symphony Number Four.  Tchaikovsky was a fine composer, but the recordings of those three works were also available in the lobby.

BD:    [Laughs]  Relive your concert experience!  [Both laugh]  Well, what do you feel is the role of recordings in the serious music world?

PF:    I think it’s enormously important because we are told by the market surveys that the young people do listen to recorded music.

BD:    But do you think it’s a good thing that so little contemporary music is recorded, and that Tchaikovsky is recorded over and over and over again?

PF:    Of course, of course.  Also you mentioned the music critics.  It’s no fun to go to a concert and compare the one Beethoven performance with a hundred others you have heard.  That’s no fun and certainly no challenge, no sense of adventure and curiosity.

BD:    This, then, goes back to the public and their lack of curiosity for new works.

PF:    The public can get only what you get as the public.  It goes back, really, to our conductors and performers.  If a conductor of world-wide standing would really have a commitment and would turn to the audience for three minutes to five minutes and explain this and why he plays this music, people would rally around him.  Americans are open people, people with open minds, but the way we treat them, I suppose, is the way I treated my daughter when she was a little.  Every night I had to tell her the same bedtime story; I never could change a word!  That’s what we do with the performance of our standard repertoire
— we treat our audience as if they were little children, not grown up people.

BD:    It then becomes too comfortable?

PF:    Of course.  It’s comfortable and it’s not really a meaningful experience to listen to music in such a milieu.  You can play Haydn symphonies that are new to me, even if I listened to music all of my time!  It’s not that this music has to originate in my own time, you know.

BD:    How should we balance, then, new works and old works which have not been done for years?

PF:    You can play a Haydn symphony I’ve never heard before.  But then, if on the same program you would have a standard work, you certainly could squeeze in a contemporary work, but it should be a work that at least has the potential to enter the repertory.  That’s another thing; just playing contemporary music is like saying, “Oh, this stuff is worth nothing; it’s so poor, but it’s always obligatory to help the poor.”  That doesn’t accomplish anything.  If our performers really are committed, then they should bring it back, as you say, the same way that Beecham did Delius, for better or worse.

BD:    That’s right, sure.  The symphony, of course, is doing this Rorem piece, and they recently did one by Donald Erb...  [See my Interview with Ned Rorem, and my Interview with Donald Erb.] 

PF:    Now, wait a minute.  The symphony does Donald Erb only when Slatkin comes from Saint Louis because he has commissioned it for the Saint Louis Symphony.  [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin.]  And to do the Rorem Oratorio, Margaret Hillis has to do it.  [See my Interview with Margaret Hillis.]  If Mr. Solti would do it, he could put the prestige of his own standing.  What I want to say is if Solti really believes in the piece, then he should play it as he plays Mahler and Bruckner and Beethoven and Brahms
every second or third seasonbecause he has to familiarize his audiences with this piece.  One hearing is never adequate with a new piece.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.] 

BD:    No, of course not.  Wasn
t there a New York Philharmonic Concert years ago with a new piece on it, and at the end of the first half Bernstein turned to the audience and said, “We will play (the new piece) again.  Those of you who wish to begin your intermission now may do so,” and then he proceeded to play it again!  [Both laugh]

PF:    Bernstein is a pied piper!  He can play his audience the way he plays an instrument.

BD:    Is that a good thing?

PF:    I think it’s a good quality.  I have very high regard for him because I think he’s one of the most gifted performers on the contemporary music scene.  Sometimes his popularizing disappoints; he treats his audience as if they were children.  But when it comes to being naturally gifted, he is second to none as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve watched him in rehearsal and he’s completely on top of every score.  He’s a kind of a genius.  Years back I met him socially, and we talked about Goethe’s Faust and he begins to recite it
— and not just what Mahler used in the Eighth Symphony.  He quoted it because he studied Mahler’s aids.  The man has a photographic memory.

BD:    How should music be combined or linked with the other arts such as poetry or the visual arts?

PF:    As far as I’m concerned, there should be what you would call a community of artists that interact
— musicians with dancers with poets with painters with sculptors.  Today, not only is there a fragmentation between the artists, there’s a fragmentation between composers!   I think this is a very sad thing because if they would really understand the need they have of each other, they could serve as a nucleus for the audience of the future.  But at the same time, to answer your question, as far as I’m concerned, anybody with interest in one art form would also be sensitive and responsive to all other art forms.

BD:    So the audience that goes to the Chicago Symphony should walk across the street to the Art Institute?

PF:    I don’t want to set myself up as an example, but I have to tell you, I go to school right now.  Twice a week I go to the school of the Art Institute
every Monday and Thursday afternoon.  One course is called “The Arts and the Mind,” which is on conceptual art or performance art, and the other is “The Arts and Riches.”  There is this immediate relationship other than musical.  You cannot just say, “I’m interested only in visual arts, or interested only in poetry.”

BD:    Yet, as you say, there’s so much fragmentation.

PF:    Undoubtedly.  There’s really no aesthetical distinct culture that would bind them all together.  At the same time, all arts originate in the minds of individual persons.  You cannot organize the arts as you would organize institutional life.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I read the lecture that you gave in New Orleans just a few months ago on women composers.  Is the time ripe now for women composers?

PF:    Yes, it is ripe.  It has something to do with education.  You can go to law school and you would find thirty or forty percent of the students would be female.  The same would be true in the medical school.  You go today to a performance of an orchestra in any school of music, I would say two-thirds of the people you see on the stage are women.  It really has something to do with educational opportunities; and it was a rude awakening for the many males to see that women are not only as smart
or much smarterwhen they study together in the same classroom.  [Both laugh]  We have women composers who definitely compete on the same level as the male composers.  But if there were no teaching positions for such people, there’d be nowhere to go!  There’s a difference between here and Europe.  In Europe, you have government-sponsored radio stations playing serious music.  Even though not too many people listen, the composer at least has an outlet.  And because so many stations play the music, you have publishers who can afford to print the music.  Here in America, the composer is really driven with the college and university, just to survive economically.

BD:    Is this one of the things that the Fromm Foundation tries to do with the commissions
make it so that the composers can work without having to take these outside jobs at least for a while?

PF:    This would be too ambitious and too grandiose an undertaking.  We are really the poor relative of the large foundations.  What we do is really start projects that can serve as models or catalysts toward the formation of an environment in which a creative artist really can flourish.  At the same time, if I look back to our experience since 1952, many of those young composers whom we commissioned have become faculty people at colleges and universities as a result of this commission, which turned out to be a successful work.  So as a result, you have indirect benefits coming from this.

BD:    Is it a good thing for a composer to have to have the responsibility of day to day instructing, as well as doing original compositions?

PF:    When you have a teaching position, you are part of a community of scholars, and somehow you are inclined to prove yourself by scholarly activity, which is your score.  You have to validate what you write; you will also perform it for your university or college community, without having first to face the real world.  At the same time, it is a sensational alternative if you are not a performer who is in demand.  What else can you do?  You have to teach.  You would have a hard time to tell me who the freelance composers are in America.  Even Copland, who is now too old, also had to earn money as a conductor.  So did Stravinsky.  Who could afford to freelance now?  Elliott Carter is, to my best knowledge, economically independent, but that is all.  At the same time, if you are a composer you compose under any kind of circumstances.  You compose out of inner necessity.  You have this impulse you cannot restrain.

BD:    Do you find that composers who are performers are better composers or better performers?

PF:    Not better composers, but my experience is that those composers who perform hear the music as performers.  Their music, I think, is more communicative.

BD:    Out of all the commissions
or perhaps just some of the new music that you have heard over the yearsis there some that you, personally, just don’t like at all?

PF:    We all like some music more than we do others.  At the same time, if you commission music, don’t you feel a little like a parent who would never admit which child he prefers? [Laughs]  Right?  Wouldn’t you try to be even-handed?

BD:    I’m trying to stir the pot, just a little!  There must be some pieces...

PF:    There’s only one realistic tool, and it’s really that they capture it between the time of creation and the acceptance by the audience
which could be a generation later, generations later.

BD:    So it doesn’t matter to you, then, that a performance might be a failure at a premiere?  You’ll wait ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years down the line where it might be a success?

PF:    If you have faith, you know.  But failures could be temporary failures.  You probably know the story of Oscar Wilde.  He had a first performance in London, and people asked him, “How did the piece fare?”  His answer was, “The piece was a great success, but the audience was a failure.”  [Both laugh]

BD:    Of course the public changes its taste a lot of times.

PF:    Oh, of course, but not only the public.  Our musicologists change, too, in the evaluation of music of the past.

BD:    Is the public always right?

PF:    The public is right at the moment they judge music!  But even the public cannot judge for posterity because posterity has to look after itself.  We are not presumptuous about this point.  All you want is the music to be performed, and then it has to take on a life of its own.

BD:    And I’m glad that much of it does.  I wish that more of it would.

PF:    Yes.  We will go into the twenty-first century with so much twentieth century music still unperformed!  But we cannot be the custodians of future generations.  The important thing is that the flow of living music doesn’t dry up.  When it comes to our foundation, I think our contribution is that we have this personal relationship with the composer who really believes in our sincerity of purpose, which is very important.  So there’s nothing institutional about it.

BD:    Is there anything that you would do differently if you had infinite resources, or would it just be more of the same?

PF:    We probably would do more, but if you throw money at the problem, it doesn’t mean that the problem can be solved.  The National Endowment for the Arts has made a difference.  They give a special commission where six performing organizations obligate themselves to do the same piece.

BD:    Is this just for the big orchestras?

PF:    The big orchestras and also small, chamber music ensembles.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

PF:    If you go back to the past, the so-called good old days never were so good!  [Both laugh]  The French poet Paul Valery once said, “The future is not what it used to be!”

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been listening to music for all of your life...

PF:    I’ll be eighty years this year, but I have listened to music for the last, I would say, sixty-five years.

BD:    How have the performers changed, and are performers today better than before?

PF:    I think performers are much better today because they’re getting a much better education.  In my day, in schools of music they told a young student that if you are a pianist you learned how to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto.  It’s the stuff of which your career is made.  Or if you were a young violinist, you learned how to play the Brahms Violin Concerto and then you can go out and make a name for yourself.  No, I think education has become much more sophisticated.  When I still lived in Europe, the way students were instructed, they made you believe that music has come to an end with Richard Strauss. 

BD:    What about the composers?  Are the composers better today, or just different?

PF:    They’re different.  In each period you would probably have the same ratio of geniuses or journeymen, but you need both of them.

BD:    Do you see a continuing line through all the musical styles?

PF:    You can’t anymore because you live now in a period of musical plurality, which makes it also much more difficult for the composer; he has really, more or less, to develop his own style.  We have no common practice, no universal musical language anymore which also alienates us in music from the laughing public.

BD:    Is this a trend that you think is going to continue, or is it going to change?

PF:    I think it will grow.  Boulez, as you know, tries very hard to develop a new common language; I doubt whether it’s possible.  I really think that we have many musics for many different sets of audiences, which in itself is really not bad because in the history of music you didn’t have mass audiences, either.  How many people did listen to the late Beethoven projects in Beethoven’s days?  I think it’s less important how many people listen, but the intensity of musical experience people have.

BD:    You don’t see music falling apart, do you?

PF:    Never!  [Both laugh]  It never did since the early history of music, and it never will.  However, I think our large music institutions must change.  When Boulez gave a concert at Northwestern in Evanston, something came across to me
that new music probably also needs a new musical environment. The ensemble of twenty-four players played in the center and we all sat around it.  The soloists were dispersed all over in corners, and somehow the physical milieu definitely made you hear music differently.  Also, the musical institutions must change because they have lost the young audience already.  When I go to a concert, more often than not it’s the same concert I heard when I was a child!  In other words, it is the same concert that was playing the late nineteenth century.  You start with a curtain-raiser, send it to a fleshy concerto played by a fleshy soloist, and then you end it with a traditional symphony or a tone poem by Strauss.  This has to change, because otherwise our concert halls become mausoleums.

BD:    So they’re moving from museums to mausoleums?

PF:    A good museum would show you the art of all times.  You could not afford to ignore the twentieth century.  I think this will have to change.

BD:    And your commissions will help to change this?

PF:    I don’t have such grandiose ideas that they will!  [Laughs]  When he was younger, Boulez said, “If we want to have new operas, we have to burn down all the opera houses and rebuild!”  I think Luciano Berio said something like that, too!  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.] 

BD:    When I met him, that was the first question I asked him
if he was glad that the opera houses hadn’t all been blown up, as he had wanted twenty years ago!

PF:    What did he say?

BD:    He said that comment had gotten more publicity than all of his other writings! [Both laugh]

PF:    Let’s say you go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  It’s very difficult for such an environment, which is strictly nineteenth century, to write idiomatic works that really express feelings and souls of our century.

BD:    Is it wrong, then, for composers today to write for the concert halls and opera houses which you say are outmoded?

PF:    It’s not wrong, but it’s not the most hospitable milieu you can offer to the composer.  You remember when Boulez was with the New York Philharmonic, he established the Rug Concerts.  They were terrifically successful.  I went to some of them and the young people were there, but not the people you see at the subscription concerts.  It was an overflow crowd on very cold nights!

BD:    So it was a success?

PF:    Very much so because it gave people excitement, something that is not given to them in ordinary concert halls.

BD:    I hope that we can make the changes that are necessary without destroying all of the tradition that we have.

PF:    We shouldn’t, after all, but we have to understand the meaning of tradition.  Tradition means not only preservation, but also innovation.  Otherwise, it doesn’t continue.

BD:    So there are some good traditions and some bad traditions?

PF:    Of course, of course.  If you are a composer and you write music in the style of Beethoven, Beethoven doesn’t need help!  He has written his music.

BD:    So then it would be a big mistake to do that?

PF:    Right.  And yet every good artist would definitely carry forward the tradition from which he comes.  We all had fathers, right?

BD:    Right, exactly.  Is there a thread pulling all of the music together?

PF:    Oh, definitely, definitely.

BD:    Even though the thread has lots of split ends?

PF:    Yes, but still it has grown out of a musical tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

BD:    Even rock and roll?

PF:    Rock and roll in its own way, too.  Even so, we shouldn’t throw everything into the same pot.  Rock and roll serves a different role.  It excites young people very much.  It has even an erotic implication, and kind of generates orgiastic feelings.  It’s a different meaning; at the same time, one shouldn’t put a moral value on it.  It’s certainly valid.  I think some of our serious composers, especially the minimalists, certainly have taken small patterns from rock and roll
that they repeat over and over and over again, like putting you in a frenzy or in a hypnotic state.  It’s the old story — everything’s related to everything else.  [Laughs]  Nothing is new.  You might find something that is not precedented, but it’s not new, because if it were new, it wouldn’t be available to you.

BD:    Thank you for giving so much time and energy and financial support to music.

PF:    Thank you, Bruce.  I enjoyed talking to you!


Published: Monday, July 6, 1987, in the New York Times

Paul Fromm, a German-born wine importer who became the most active and distinguished private patron of contemporary classical music in the United States, died Saturday at the Bernard Mitchell Hospital of the University of Chicago after a series of heart attacks. He was 80 years old and had lived in Chicago.

Through his Fromm Music Foundation, now based at Harvard University, Mr. Fromm dispersed commissions to American composers of every stylistic sort. He also supported performances of new music, especially at the University of Chicago, the Tanglewood Festival (where the ''Fromm week'' of contemporary concerts became an annual tradition) and the Aspen Music Festival.

''We composers have lost our dearest friend and leader,'' said Ralph Shapey, the composer, in a statement. ''He had a total commitment as our champion. He believed in us and dared us to believe in ourselves.'' At an 80th-birthday concert for Mr. Fromm last year in Chicago, Mr. Shapey had called him ''the Esterhazy of the 20th century,'' in reference to Haydn's patron.

Earle Brown, a composer and the Fromm Foundation director who will be primarily responsible for its continuance, said yesterday: ''He was the leading sponsor of contemporary music in the United States. His love and support for new music were just extraordinary.''

Family of Vintners

Paul Fromm was born on Sept. 28, 1906, in the small Bavarian town of Kitzingen, into a prosperous family of vintners (Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and author, was a cousin). Mr. Fromm played four-hand piano duets with his brother Herbert as a child and attended the contemporary-music festivals at Donaueschingen between 1921 and 1926. He later said his first encounter with Stravinsky's ''Sacre du Printemps'' in Frankfurt in 1927 ''made a 20th-century man of me.''

Eventually, Mr. Fromm decided to enter the family business, but even in the 1930's he intended to devote himself to the patronage of modern music. Forced to emigrate in 1938, he arrived in this country on the Fourth of July, married that year and opened the Great Lakes Wine Company in 1940. He became a citizen in 1944, but was well-known for his impenetrable German accent all his life.

By 1952, Mr. Fromm felt ready to carry out his musical plans, and began his foundation in Chicago. From the first, he espoused a serious, even Germanic, ideal of elite musical culture. His tastes had been formed during the great early years of modernism, and although he deliberately broadened the stylistic range of music he supported in later years, he never abandoned his principle that great art was a rarefied experience, and that his nurturing should be devoted to work that truly needed it.

''We must realize that serious art does not appeal to everybody,'' he wrote in The New York Times in 1978. ''It never did and it never will. It is up to us to create stimulants to cultural development and to foster an environment that is friendly to creative pursuits. We can do this best not by trying to bring serious art to more people but by educating a more knowledgeable and more devoted minority of art patrons. We must look to them as a nucleus from which a healthy culture can grow.''

Advice From Composers

A modest man who once described himself as ''a footnote in musical history,'' Mr. Fromm surrounded himself with composer advisers. At first, he relied primarily on such committed modernists as Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and Gunther Schuller.  [See Bruce Duffie's Interviews with Gunther Schuller.]

But twice, Mr. Fromm made decisive efforts to diversify his commitments. In 1972, he withdrew his support from Perspectives of New Music, a Princeton-based journal he felt had become too closely identified with the Serialist position. And in 1983, he publicly questioned the narrowness of Mr. Schuller's programming at the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival (or ''Fromm week''), withdrawing his support. Mr. Schuller, who resigned a year later on other issues, complained bitterly that Mr. Fromm was ''now opposing everything he ever stood for.''

Undaunted, Mr. Fromm reorganized his foundation, dividing it into three geographical areas and signing on nine new composers as advisers to ensure a wider range of commissions. He also moved his summer festival to Aspen, Colo., and entitled the first series of concerts there in 1984 ''Musical Pluralism in the 1980's.''

Mr. Fromm's annual financing could never match that of the National Endowment or the Rockefeller Foundation. But its steady concentration on contemporary music lent it an influence far beyond its means. In the 1950's, the foundation's annual budget was around $50,000. By the 80's, that figure had risen to $150,000, although it varied from year to year and he was loath to provide exact totals. By now, nearly 200 composers have received commissions, amounting to an honor roll of 20th-century American classical music.

Received Many Honors

Through all the shifts of musical fashion, Mr. Fromm held true to his faith in the vitality and importance of the music of our time. In one of the many speeches and articles he was asked for in his later years, Mr. Fromm wrote in 1979: ''I am convinced that our century will eventually prove to be one of the great musical centuries. If we choose to ignore what is happening in our midst, it is exclusively our loss.''

In addition to his foundation, Mr. Fromm served at various times as an overseer of the Boston Symphony and a leader of several Chicago charities. His many honors included honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and the University of Cincinnati, the Golden Baton Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League and awards from the University of Chicago, the Peabody Institute and the American Music Center.

Mr. Fromm is survived by his wife, Erika, a psychologist; a daughter, Joan Greenstone, of Chicago; two grandsons, Michael and Daniel, and his brothers Alfred, of San Francisco, and Herbert, of Brookline, Mass.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the home of Paul Fromm in Chicago on April 9, 1986.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB later that year, also in 1991 and 1996.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

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.