Composer  Joseph  Goodman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Joseph Magnus Goodman

(November 28, 1918 - August 12, 2014)

Joseph Magnus Goodman died at home on Tuesday morning, August 12, 2014. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren in his last hours.

Joseph Goodman is survived by his three children, Meredith Downey, Alison Bergman (Robert), Christopher P. Goodman (Tanya), and his six grandchildren David (Deepa), Betsie and Daniel (Lori Ann) Bergman, Matthew and Megan Downey, Christopher L. Goodman, and his great-grandson Nathaniel Bergman. Joseph was born in New York City on November 28, 1918. He was the beloved son of the late Solomon Goodman and Bella Magnus Goodman.

Mr. Goodman graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1938 with a degree in European history. He started his doctoral studies in music history at Yale University and received a Masters degree in Music Composition from Harvard University in 1948. Mr. Goodman was a highly educated man who spoke, read and taught seven languages.

As a devout and principled man, Mr. Goodman was abjectly against killing anyone, and so became a conscientious objector during World War II. He volunteered his services as an ambulance driver for the British, French and Canadian Armed Forces Ambulance Corps during the early years of the war in France. He then volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee in Mexico. During his five years working with them, Mr. Goodman built schools, roads and churches in destitute parts of Mexico. He also spent years teaching local children and adults, as well as playing piano recitals in the local communities and churches.

After the war, Mr. Goodman was the recipient of one of the first Fulbright Grants in 1949. His grant was to study music composition with renowned musicians and composers in Venice, Italy.

On returning to America in 1951, Mr. Goodman embarked on a career as a Professor of music history and music composition. He taught at Brooklyn College of Music, Queens College and New York General Theological College as well as Union Theological College in New York City. Mr. Goodman was a talented pianist, who had a solo concert career that took him all over the country for many years. He taught music history and music composition to hundreds of students throughout his career, but his true passion was composing, and he focused his composing on writing music to the glory of God.

Mr. Goodman had been encouraged by both his parents to give back to others and to those in need of help. His mother Bella, was a talented musician in her own right who played at nursing homes and hospitals, worked with the blind and the disabled, while his father, Solomon, was a factory owner who bankrupted his business to pay the way to freedom from the Nazis for his family and the families of his factory workers. From the start of his solo concert career in his late teens, Mr. Goodman has been following in his parents' footsteps to give back to others in need. Mr. Goodman has been sharing his time and talent by giving recitals in every community he has lived and served in.

In 1969 when Mr. Goodman moved his family to Pleasantville, NY, he realized the dearth of available classical music in the local communities and began giving piano recitals at St John's Episcopal Church, where he was a member. His personal commitment to bringing music to the local community morphed into the Pleasantville Chamber Music Society in 1976. Mr. Goodman spent the next 35 years bringing top chamber music musicians and their talents to the Westchester area.

In other quiet ways, Mr. Goodman has given tirelessly of himself to his community, his fellow man, and the world around him. Mr. Goodman visited the sick and injured, drove his friends and neighbors to doctors appointments when needed, visited Rosary Hill Hospice for years, played piano concerts for the seniors in surrounding hospitals and senior facilities, often with grandchildren in tow to turn pages for him. From dropping in to chat with local widows and housebound neighbors, Mr. Goodman was a constant in the lives of those in his community.

A devout Episcopalian, Mr. Goodman lent his experience and talents to serving on the vestry for many years at St. John's Episcopal Church in Pleasantville and Trinity Episcopal Church in Ossining, NY.

Mr. Goodman retired from teaching in 1982, and spent the remaining years of his life dedicated to spreading Classical music to everyone, helping his church, visiting with those in need, and spreading the word of God through music.

A talented and devoutly religious man, Joseph Goodman cared deeply for others, but most especially for his wife, Constance. On December 8, 1951, Mr. Goodman met the love of his life. From that first meeting in the pew at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in New York City, until they were parted by death, 61 years later, Joseph was devoted to his beloved Constance. Together they shared a life full of love, music, art, gardening, travel and faith. For those left behind, we can rest happy knowing that Joseph is now joined in eternity with the love of his life, having lived a long productive life to the glory of God, sharing the talents he was given by the grace of God, and walking a path in Jesus name. God Speed Joseph, the heavenly choirs need some new music!

The family will receive friends Thursday 3 - 5 PM and 7 - 9 PM at the Beecher Flooks Funeral Home. A Funeral Service will be held at 10:30 AM on Friday at the Pleasantville Presbyterian Church, 400 Bedford Road, Pleasantville. Interment will take place at 1:30 PM at Kensico Cemetery.

--  Announcement from the Beecher Flooks Funeral Home in Pleasantville, NY 

As part of my long-running series on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, it was my pleasure to gather interviews with both well-known and little-known composers and performers.  Many were held while they were in Chicago for one reason or another, but in those days long before Skype, a few were done on the telephone.  This is one of those long-distance conversations.

goodman Besides the details enumerated in the obituary above, Goodman studied with (among others) Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston [note that both teacher and student are on the same CD shown at right, as well as another CD shown farther down on this webpage!], and Gian Francesco Malipiero.

In anticipation of his upcoming 70th birthday in 1988, I arranged to speak by phone with Joseph Goodman.  Portions of the chat (along with recordings) were used on WNIB that year, and again both five and ten years later in special programs.  I am pleased that now the entire interview can be presented in this visual format.

Bruce Duffie:    I want to talk quite a bit about your teaching of music, and about your ideas of music.  You’ve been teaching music for a long time.  Is this composition?

Joseph Goodman:    It was a combination of composition, theory, and occasionally what they used to call ‘literature’ courses
— a course on Beethoven, and a course on Mozart, and a course on this and that. 

BD:    One of my favorite questions to ask someone who teaches composition is whether composition is something that can be taught?

JG:    In a certain sense I do believe it can be taught.  You can’t do anything about the imagination and the account, or anything like that, but I do very firmly believe that you can teach something about the technique of composition
such as how phrases can be controlled, how you can control your material so that you know when it is something for a very short space of time, and you write a piece that’s based on that material.  What often happens, especially in the younger stages, is that you get people writing something which ought to be a piece for three minutes, and you find they’ve written something that lasts fifteen minutes.  Then it’s so boring, it’s dreadful!  So that was one of the things that I always tried to teach.  I would start out having students write something which would be just exactly right for sixteen-bar piece.  There are full of examples of that in the eighteenth centurylittle minuets and that kind of thing.  Bartók wrote some marvelous short pieces for children.  So they would take these as examples, and then I would ask them to write something that would be a sixteen-bar piece, and then show them how to extend a sixteen-bar piece to make it a twenty-bar piecewhich happens so often in all the composers, for they know how to make extensions of phrases. 

BD:    So twenty four rather than thirty-two?

JG:    Yes, yes, you just want to extend the last part of the sixteen bars!  That’s all.  You find this very often in Mozart.  The first phrase will be, say, eight bars and then when he writes out a repeat, it might be ten bars long.  It’s just a little extension of that.  This is the kind of technique that I thought was very important to teach students, not style.  I never insisted on any kind of style at all.

BD:    How long did you teach composition?

JG:    I taught it at Union Theological Seminary.  We had a school of sacred music there for organists and choirmasters, and I taught there for about twenty years.

BD:    Was this different than if you were teaching someone who was going into the ministry?

JG:    These were all music students.  They were all organists or choirmasters. 

BD:    But they weren’t students who were going to be playing in the Philharmonic?

JG:    They were people who were going to be organists and choirmasters, but after all, the technique of composition is the same as it is for anything else.  I would teach them composition as such, and then usually at the end of a course we would discuss setting of words.

BD:    I just wondered, since these were people who were going into the theological arena, if that gives them a little different mindset than someone who would attend Juilliard or another conservatory?

JG:    Unfortunately, I think that they come in with that.  This is one of the things that I found which was just horrendous when I first started to teach there.  These students were marvelous organists.  They really could play wonderfully, and you would find that they knew absolutely nothing about the opera literature, the symphonic literature, string quartets, Schubert Lieder, etc.  They knew nothing of piano pieces like Chopin Nocturnes.

BD:    They’d been sheltered?

JG:    They had been sheltered completely with only organ music and anthems!  So this is one of the reasons that I brought all of my examples whenever possible from the secular literature.

BD:    To expand their horizons?

JG:    Sure, that was one thing.  I would try to insist that they study scores of string quartets, symphonies, and sonatas.  If they knew any Beethoven sonatas, it would have been the Pathétique or maybe the Appassionata.  But [laughs] if you would take an example from some other sonata, they would say,
I didn’t know he wrote that!  On the other hand, if you go to a school like Juilliard, where I taught for many, many years, or Queen’s College, they would know nothing about organ music except for the Little G Minor Fugue, which they had heard in the Stokowski arrangement!  So there was ignorance on the secular side, too, but not nearly as much. 

BD:    I remember when I was in music school, the instrumentalists would sometimes talk to the vocalists, and the conductors would sometimes talk to the choral singers, but nobody ever talked to the organists.

JG:    Yes, that’s true.

BD:    The organists had their own jargon and their own little clique, and they were off in their own little corner.  They were always worried about registration.

JG:    Right!  I found that was true also here, that they always worried about the registration.  I remember once, a wonderful French organist, André Marchal [see box below], came to play, and he gave an absolutely exquisite concert with some wonderful works of Bach.  The next day when I came into the classes, all they could talk about was,
Oh, did you hear that funny registration?  He used a quint on this!  They completely missed the musical point.  The only other person in the whole Seminary who thought exactly the way I did was the choral man.  We talked about this marvelous playing, and he said, “These students are so funny.  All they talk about is the fact that they’re using this or that registration.

marchal André Marchal (February 6, 1894 Paris – August 27, 1980 Saint-Jean-de-Luz) was a French organist and organ teacher. He was one of the great initiators of the twentieth-century organ revival in France.

Marchal was born blind. Remarkably undaunted by this handicap, he studied the organ under Eugène Gigout at the Paris Conservatoire; and there, in 1913, he won the First Prize in organ-playing. Four years later he also won the prix d'excellence for fugue and counterpoint.

As well as giving a good many concerts, both in France and in other countries (England, Australia, the United States), Marchal taught organ at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, in addition to serving as titular organist of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1915–1945) and Saint-Eustache (1945–1963). From the latter post he resigned in 1963, his departure being brought about over a conflict concerning the correct organ builder to be hired to restore Saint-Eustache's instrument.

He was an unparalleled improviser and was recognized as such by Fauré. Among his students are many brilliant musicians such as Peter Hurford, Louis Thiry and Jean-Pierre Leguay, one of three titulaires du grand orgue of Notre-Dame de Paris.


BD:    They missed the point on the whole recital!

JG:    But coming back to your question, after many, many years of having taught composition, and also having studied it, I think that it can be taught as far as technique.  You can show students what to do.  When you want to extend a phrase, you do this; if you want to shorten a phrase, you do that.  You can teach them something about balancing a composition so that you don’t have too much of one rhythm repeating, unless that must be a dance.  But you don’t have the same kind of musical patterns.  You want to change them.  If you’re writing things for a string quartet, you don’t want to have all of the important things only in the first violin.  There are things like this which one can teach, and then I believe that one can teach forms.  I always made them do things like a Rondo Form, Theme and Variations, Sonata
not with the idea of that’s the way they were going to write in the future, because they will find their own way, but simply this way they had to get into some of the great literature.  They would learn what they needed to learn.

BD:    In music composition, where is the balance between the inspiration and the technique?

JG:    That’s very, very difficult.  [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  That’s a very, very difficult thing to say because I remember having some students who were simply so gifted.  They would get wonderful ideas, but they never, never seemed to be able to do something to bring them into a real composition.  Then you have composers who can write at the drop of a hat.  They can write a symphony for you, but there won’t be a grain of content in it.  Everything will be right, but it wouldn’t say anything.

BD:    You end up thinking,
“So what?

JG:    Exactly, precisely!  This is very difficult to know where or how the balance is struck, or what makes it possible for one composer in three measures to know what the piece is going to be about and even how long the piece is going to be.  You hear a Mozart symphony and you know immediately how long it’s going to be within a few minutes.  In some performances it may be thirty-five minutes and in others forty minutes, but you know right away when he’s writing a very short piece, and that is entirely different.  When you’re hearing the G Minor Symphony, you know this is something that’s going to take a longer time to get through.

BD:    Is this something that he intended to write as a long piece, or did he only have so much material and he knew to only develop it so far?

JG:    Mozart above all came so quickly.  I don’t think that he ever set out and said,
I’m going to write a piece now and it’s going to take thirty-three minutes.

BD:    Because he used his material to the best advantage?

JG:    That is something like it.  The material came, and instantly he seemed to know how long the piece should be, and what kind of piece it should be.  He was the most extraordinary genius, not only of music, but in all sorts of other things too.

BD:    When you, yourself, were sitting down to write a piece of music, did that same thing happen to you?  Would you know the theme, and then you would know about how long the piece was going to turn out?

JG:    I would know whether it would be a complicated piece or not, but very often I would get a commission to write a piece, and therefore it was already pre-set.  I might be told it is to be a piece that’s only going to take ten minutes’ time, so that would exclude many kinds of material that I might use, whereas if a person wants a piece that’s going to take twenty-five minutes, that will be different kinds of material.  All you have to do is figure it in terms of  a short piano piece with the kind of material Schubert uses, and then take one of the longer symphonies of Beethoven or any composer.  There is something that goes on in the composer’s mind which may not be a conscious thing.  It maybe something else, and if the genius is so great, it never gets to be a conscious thing.   It is something intuitive and natural.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, are you in control of the pencil, or does the pencil sometimes control you?

JG:    No, I’m always in control of the pencil.  Now that doesn’t mean that ideas don’t come from your subconscious mind.  I don’t mean that, but I know that I have heard composers say,
I just let the piece write itself!  Sometimes you listen to what is written, and what has written itself, and you know that he’s right.  He didn’t have any control over it.  You find that sometimes it’s a piece in the tonal style, and it takes too long until it gets to the key of the dominant, and you get tired of the original key.  He obviously did not have control.  But I don’t know very many composers that say that.  If you can get a theme and it comes and you know where it comes from, you write it down.  But from that point, most composers are controlling what they’re doing.  It’s a thinking process, it’s not improvisation.  That’s what I believe, but there are other people who probably disagree very strongly with this.

BD:    Are there ever times when you are surprised where a composition will lead you?

JG:    [Thinks a moment]  I’m trying to think...  No, I really can’t say that I have had that happen.  I have never wondered,
Why have I ended up here?  I never expected to do that!  No, I don’t think I ever had that happen.  I’ve had it happen that, in the middle of something I will suddenly decide that I’ve been working on the wrong thing all the time.  This isn’t a piano piece at all, it should really be a piece for violin, flute and oboe!  [Laughs]  That’s something that could happen, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to the end of the piece and suddenly decided, Oh my goodness, I’ve done the wrong thing!  I really meant to write a piece for the piano.  Now look what’s happened to me!   It’s ended up and it really ought to be a symphonic movement, or a choral movement!  I don’t think that’s ever happened in all the things I’ve written.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances that you’ve heard of your music over the years?

JG:    Yes, and with very, very few exceptions I have been very fortunate in that.  There have been a few exceptions.  There have been one or two exceptions early that the performance was so bad the piece was hardly recognizable, but then it was performed about six or eight months later and it was the way I expected it.  It was fine!  But on the whole I have been very pleased.  There have been some performances that have lacked fire.  Sure you don’t always hear Placido Domingo sing, but most of the performances have been very, very good.

BD:    Let me ask you about the recordings because they have a wider distribution.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made?


JG:    Yes, yes, the recordings have been very, very good.  A couple of times the sound quality of a record hasn’t been as good as it might have been, but that’s an engineering factor.  That’s nothing to do with the performers.  The performances have been extremely good I would say on all of them.

BD:    You have been very fortunate then!

JG:    I’ve been very fortunate indeed in that regard, yes.  I’ve had a few performances that definitely could have used some more rehearsals...  I had a performance not too long ago where they really skimped on the rehearsal time, but only because the artists were so good did it really come off.  It came off well, but it wasn’t superb because they could have used at least one full rehearsal.  But that happens so much all over the United States, and it certainly happens in New York City an enormous amount.  You hear about performances down at Lincoln Center.  One of my friends just the other day told me that one of his friends, a Chinese-American who has won some piano competition and has played a lot, was running in the park.  It was about quarter of eight, and he met the conductor Gerard Schwarz.  That night, Peter Serkin was supposed to have played, and he canceled because he was sick or something like that.  So Schwarz said,
I’m so glad to see you, my goodness.  What are you doing tonight?  The pianist said, I’m not doing anything.  I’m going home to take a shower!  So Schwarz said, Listen, I want you to play any Mozart concerto you want.  We have them all, and we’ll accompany you.  We have to have someone perform tonight!  So he didn’t even go home to take the shower.  He just simply went home to change his clothes, and went right to Carnegie Hall and played a Mozart Concerto.

BD:    Goodness!  If he hadn’t run into this guy in the park...

JG:    ...they would have had to cancel the whole concert, or just played a Mozart symphony or something like that.  [Laughing so much he can hardly get his words out]  But the soloist takes the rap if anything happens!  There’s a lot of that kind of thing going on, especially with New Music.  That gets short shrift in rehearsal time.

BD:    I hope this doesn’t mean that when people hear this interview that everyone will start charging around in Central Park trying to purposely run into every conductor they meet!  [More laughter from both]

JG:    It could happen!  You never can tell!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to delve a little into the philosophy of music, and ask a question that may have no answer.  What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

JG:    I don’t think there’s any one ultimate purpose.  It depends on which segment of society you’re addressing yourself to.  If you’re writing, say, a religious work
— such as an anthem or a cantata for Christmas — this is one definite purpose which is extremely important.  But it will not in any way have anything to do with other people who are not interested in religious music and not interested in Christmas!  As far as secular music goes, this is somewhat the same thing.  I don’t think there’s any one ultimate purpose.  There are quite a number of things that I would have in mind if I’m thinking actively about a philosophy of music.  There is the expression of trying to write something which is beautiful, but there again, who knows what that means?  I suppose it would be trying to produce something which has a sense of beauty about it, which in turn will communicate something to the listener, but he will derive something else from that.  He will not derive the same ideas from the music that you may have put into it.  Hopefully he will take away something from it, and see that something has happened to him.  It’s an experience that has changed in some way his perception of life or his feelings.  This can be in the minutest way, or it can in an enormous, almost cataclysmic way.  The first time when someone hears the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, when you hear the last movement something happens.   It might be extraordinary.  On the other hand, it could happen with a very small piece.  The first time that anyone hears Gretchen am Spinnrade of Schubert, he could say, My God, how gorgeous that is!  Then how you translate that into something in your own life, when you hear other things as you approach life, I don’t know.  But I do know that music certainly can have this kind of an effect on people.


BD:    When you’re writing pieces of your own, do you consciously try to put this kind of thing into the music?

JG:    Oh, no!  I do not, except I want to write something that is meaningful and beautiful as possible.  I think of it in terms of,
This might possibly be a very revealing experience for someone else.  In truth, though, that is the height of arrogance!  However, if you have someone like Mozart or Bach doing this, then I’m sure it never occurred to them at all.  It might have occurred to Beethoven, as he’s a different personality, but unless one is of that caliber, that you know your genius is so enormous, if you said that, you’d be an ass!  That’s not humility, it’s being just foolish.  No, I wouldn’t think of that.  It has always pleased me enormously if someone says, “That was a very beautiful piece.  If they say, Oh, my, that was interesting music, that doesn’t mean very much.  But if he would say, That was really beautiful, I would feel extremely pleased about it.

BD:    Let me come at a similar question from a different angle.  What do you feel are some of the points that contribute to a work being great?

JG:    [Laughs]  You ask the most difficult questions that one has really got to think about!  One can give very glib answers, but I can tell you what works I think are Herculeanly great, and that’s probably the best way.  When speaking about what contributes to that greatness, I think, for instance, certainly of large works
something like the St. Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass, Don Giovanni, Otellobut what makes these great?  I suppose it has something to do with this element of beauty and meaningfulness; that people discover in these a revelation of reality about life.  Now what reality about life is will be different for different people, and that’s very, very difficult to pinpoint.

BD:    [Pursuing the point just a bit]  You’ve mentioned a few works, and in looking at those particular works, what did they have that other works lack?

JG:    I guess it is the immediate impression of meaningfulness that leads one to feel reality about living.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a long piece at all.  It can be other things.  You hear sometimes a Chopin Nocturne or a Debussy Prelude, and instantly you recognize it and think,
My God, that is real!  There’s something in hearing this that opens up a part of the understanding of an element in life.  But it’s very strange because the pieces I’ve chosen and the composers I mentioned are all very great.  Very often you’ll find a person who has written something which is really a marvelous composition in so far as the technique and the interest.  The phrases are all nice, and at times there’s even very beautiful things in it, but you don’t get that sensation. 

BD:    Is there a place in the opera house or on the concert hall for pieces that are not of the highest quality?

JG:    Oh yes, absolutely.

BD:    Or the next level, or even the level below that?

JG:    Oh, of course there is.  You can’t always climb Mount Everest, and one can’t always read Dante’s Divine Comedy.  You need other things.

BD:    But it seems that most ensembles are trying to only do masterpieces.

JG:    Oh, I don’t think that’s true, at least at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.  There’s a lot of music there.  This is a personal opinion, but the operas of Richard Strauss are done all over.  You know what Richard Strauss said about himself?  It’s really very interesting because I think it’s absolutely the truth.  He said,
I am a first-rate second grade composer!  [Laughs]  I can’t figure anything of Richard Strauss that ever gets terribly much beyond the basic, and that’s good singing which is entertaining!  There are sometimes very beautiful sections in it, but I don’t find, for me anyway, that it ever gets beyond that.  You go there, and it never appears to me as being reality, whereas I hear almost any part of Don Giovanni and that’s life right in front of me!  This just happens a million times over again.  This is truth, and I’ve never felt that about Richard Strauss at all.  The same thing can be said of a lot of operas, for instance, some of Massenet.  There are plenty of operas of Donizetti which are, in many ways, very beautiful.  They’re wonderful for a singer, certainly, no question about that.  They are magnificent for the singer, but they don’t touch that same element at all.  You never feel, My golly, this really hits home!  This is true!  This is reality!

BD:    This brings up another one of my favorite questions.  Where is the balance in music between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?


JG:    I don’t know that there is one.  Well, I am sure that there is a balance because the Broadway show has marvelous entertainment value, and some of them are remarkably wonderfully put together.  But I don’t know if there’s any long artistic value in them, principally again, I suppose, because it never gets beyond entertainment.  When they do strike that slice of life it’s on such a superficial level, whereas sometimes there are things that have tremendous artistic value which may not have terribly much entertainment value.  For instance, there are certain late Beethoven sonatas and certainly the late string quartets which have a hundred per cent artistic value.  But entertainment?  I’m not sure that there’s any entertainment in it because when you hear it, it makes you work so hard!  There’s so much meaning in it, and even though it’s very beautiful, unless you’re completely unmusical you can’t leave a performance
especially a great performance, let’s say, of a late Beethoven string quartet or of a late sonataand not feel that this is touched some very deep element of truth about life.  But entertaining?  No!  If I want to have some entertaining, I would never, never think of putting on a late Beethoven string quartet or a playing a late Beethoven piano sonata ever.   I would turn to some other kind of music if I want to hear just entertainment. 

BD:    Perhaps maybe a Haydn quartet?

JG:    A Haydn quartet would be the happy conjunction of everything, yes.  [Both laugh]  Not every Haydn quartet.  Some Haydn quartets are loaded with the artistic leaning, and they are not quite as entertaining.  But usually that will be a very, very happy combination, yes.  That would be just fine!  Another piece is The Marriage of Figaro.  That would be just exactly that same happy feeling, and certainly it’s entertaining.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’ve been talking about a lot of the great masterworks.  Without being specific, are there works being written yesterday and today that stand up alongside of those?

JG:    Oh, I don’t think anybody in our time can tell.  If you’re still asking me the question in another thirty years, I might have a little better answer.  There are people who are writing certainly serious music these days and are very interesting.  Some people are writing very interesting music but I don’t think one can tell this at all.  I don’t know.  In my experience, the only composition that’s ever struck me the very first time as being of that quality was the Symphony of Psalms.  The first time I heard that, I thought,
My God, this is really so great! and the first time I heard the work must have been at least fifty years ago.  Maybe it was even more than that, and I still feel exactly the same way about it.  Every time I hear that work I think this is absolutely a marvelous piece.

BD:    You say we cannot judge the music of our own time, so let us look at the newest music we can judge
perhaps music from thirty or forty or fifty years ago.  Are there pieces there that will stand alongside the Beethovens and the Mozarts?

JG:    Undoubtedly there are.   Whether they will stand on quite the same level, I’m not sure.  That’s pretty hard to say, but how many pieces in the nineteenth century can you think of which are on the level of Mozart?  It’s pretty difficult to match.  Are there any standing on the level of Schubert songs?  Even throwing in Schuman, how many of his songs are on that fantastic level?

BD:    Not a whole lot!

JG:    No, not a lot!  [Both laugh]  We’d be a lot poorer without Schumann and Brahms and Hugo Wolf, and all the others, but as to forty or fifty years ago, again the Symphony of Psalms was the one work I feel I have absolutely no doubt about.  Maybe also the Concerto for Orchestra of Bartók, though the Third Piano Concerto probably has more of that quality.  It’s very curious.  I remember when I first started teaching at Union Seminary, there was a man there by the name of Julius Herford [see obituary and photo in box below].   He was a German who was a great expert, particularly in Bach and Handel.  We were talking at the table one day with several other faculty members, and I had just heard a wonderful performance or recording of Bartók’s Violin Concerto.  I said to him that I thought the Bartók Violin Concerto was the one other concerto that will stand right at the top with Beethoven, and maybe in some things it’s nicer!  He looked at me and said [in a German accent],
Vahhht???  How could you say that, Joe?  Well, at the time I thought I was right and he was fully wrong, and I would say that over the last thirty years, the more I hear the piece, the more I know that Mr. Herford was right!  The thing is you get these enthusiasms, but I think that the Third Piano Concerto of Bartók is one of these pieces that has a quality about it that is just marvelous.  The second movement in particular, but the whole thing is an absolutely wonderful piece.



Published: September 18, 1981 in The New York Times [with an addition; text only - photo from another source]

Julius Herford, a teacher of Lukas Foss, Robert Shaw, Roger Wagner, Margaret Hillis, and a number of other conductors - particularly choral specialists - died yesterday at his home in Bloomington, Ind.  He was 80 years old.

From 1964 until his retirement last year, Mr. Herford was director of graduate studies in choral conducting at the Indiana University School of Music. Earlier, he had taught at Columbia University, the Juilliard School and the Westminster Choir College.

Born in Berlin, Mr. Herford studied at the Sterns Conservatory of Music. He was a teacher and concert pianist in Europe before coming to the United States in 1939.  He is survived by his wife, Johanna; a son, Peter of New York, and two grandchildren.

BD:    Let me ask another impossible question. Where is music going today?

JG:    [Laughs]  You are asking the most impossible questions indeed!  Even if I were the absolute Aristotle of music, I wouldn’t be able to say!  I don’t think one knows.  There are so many different things going on which are very interesting, but where they’ll lead, if anywhere, I don’t know.  In the late
’40a and early 50s, one had the feeling that the twelve-tone dodecaphonic music was the wave of the future, and people were very excited.  Anton von Webern was even more exciting than anything of Schoenberg or Alban Berg.  Now we know it’s not leading anywhere.  It’s gone, it’s finished!  There are still those old pieces, but there are very few people today anymore who are strictly twelve-tone, and a lot of composers don’t use twelve-tone technique at all!  Boulez was perhaps the last of that group.

BD:    Is this a good thing, or just a thing?

JG:    It’s a ‘thing’.  I don’t think it’s good or bad.  It’s just that the system seems to have exhausted itself.  I used the system many years ago.  I did pieces, and at times it was a very, very interesting system for many different kinds of effects that you wanted.  You wanted an effect of a chaotic harmonic effect, but you didn’t really want it just write down any old note.  You wanted to have control over it, so using tone rows was a very good way of having control over it.  After you played it, you recognized there were wrong notes there.  If you didn’t play the right tone row, it did sound wrong, but I don’t know many composers are doing much with that anymore in that same serious way of making it almost a religion as they did in the late
40s and early 50s.  Really up until the mid-60s there were people who would listen to a piece, and they would say to me, Oh, what an interesting tone row!  It is a tone row piece, isn’t it? and I’d say, No, it isn’t a tone row piece at all!

BD:    They just thought anything difficult was a tone row piece!

JG:    Yes, right, and of course sometimes it wasn’t at all.  When you see something as phenomenal like that which has so gripped the musical world, you don’t really know.  Today, for instance, there is this minimalist movement, which doesn’t interest me at all, but there’s certainly an awful lot of people who seem to have taken it up.  Philip Glass has suddenly become a czar of the musical world.

BD:    You have no interest in writing minimal music, but does it interest you to listen, perhaps for relaxation?

JG:    No!  I find that I get terribly tired of it very, very quickly.  I’ve listened to some of this, but it just doesn’t feed my interest at all.  That doesn’t in any way mean that it is no good.  It may have tremendous meaning for other people; it just doesn’t for me.  One always has to be very careful of this.  You realize your own reactions
the baggage you bring to whatever you’re listening to or looking atlimits you because you’re just not open to everything.  It’s very hard to be open to everything that comes along.

BD:    You say you can’t be expected to be open to everything. 

JG:    No!

BD:    What about the public?  Can the public be expected to be open to all kinds of things?

JG:    No, of course not.  I don’t believe that at all!

BD:    Then what do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a new piece of yours?

JG:    That they will listen to it, and they will like or they won’t like it.  That’s all.  Somebody will say,
Oh, Gee, this is very beautiful, and another person will say, I didn’t like it at all, or I think it was too long, or “It was too short.  I would like people to simply want to hear a piece of mine and say, Gee, I really like that!  I thought that section was beautiful.  I loved what you did with the voice, or something like that.  I don’t have very much more of an idea what I want people to say or how I want them to react.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

JG:    There are more joys than sorrows, much more.  Sorrow only comes when the performance is bad.  Of course, then the singer might say
that the performance wouldn’t have been bad if I’d written better for the voice!  [Both laugh]  There’s always that rejoinder from the artist.  No, writing for the voice, for me anyway, has always been quite a wonderful experience.  I like writing for voices.  I haven’t written very much solo music.  I wrote more choral music in the earlier part of my life.  At the moment I’m writing a set of songs on Garcia-Larca text for mezzo-soprano and chamber group.  I find that I am enjoying the writing of it as much as I enjoy writing anything.  Writing is always difficult for me now.  It’s very strange.  When I was younger, writing was much easier.  As you get older, you discard a great deal more material than you would have when you were at the beginning of your life as a composer.  But writing for the voice is fine.  There are many interesting things going on in the use of the voice of today, which make some of the singing extremely difficult.


BD:    You’ve written quite a lot for chamber ensemble.  Have you written anything in the large forms
— symphonies, concertos, and things like this?

JG:    I’ve written three concertos.  I wrote one for violin many, many years ago, which I’ve discarded.  Then I wrote a piece for organ, an organ concerto which was performed once by one of the American Guild of Organists convocations.  Then I was commissioned to write a piece by Thor Johnson and the Peninsula Festival Orchestra [1965] for wind quintet and orchestra.  I called it Concertante.  The Organ Concerto is probably twenty-five minutes long, and the piece for wind quintet and orchestra is a little bit shorter, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three minutes long.

BD:    But it seems that most of your efforts have been either choral or chamber.

JG:    Yes!  There’s another piece for flute and chamber orchestra, which I wrote almost forty years ago, and that’s been performed three or four times.  It is for flute, strings and percussion.

BD:    Is there a certain reason that you have stayed away from larger works?

JG:    Part of it is that it’s very, very difficult to get orchestral performances.  That’s one of the things.  If you’re going to write something for orchestra, you spend so much time and so much effort, and then there’s the expense of getting parts copied, and all of that.  Without a commission to do something, and without a definite performance in mind, it’s seems to me you could put forth your musical ideas in forms that would have more of a chance of getting out to a public.  I never had any really great difficulty in getting chamber music performed in some place or other.  Most of the pieces I have written have been performed at least three or four times.  

BD:    Is that especially gratifying to have that second and third performance?

JG:    Oh yes, of course!  The musical world is filled with first performances, and they’re never repeated.  For a composer, it’s very important to hear your pieces played by different groups.  You learn something about your own piece that way if you hear other interpretations of it.

BD:    How much latitude do you allow for interpretation in your music?

JG:    You have to allow quite a bit, but again within limits.  I usually put an approximate tempo marking, and if I want changes, such as an accelerando, I will usually mark how fast it is supposed to go at the fastest point.  But these are all approximations.  The same will be true with dynamic markings.  Phrasing I usually am very careful about, but not how something is phrased.  I’m not a violinist myself, so I never write down that I want something played on the D string or the A string.  Unless you really are a violinist, that’s suicidal because the violinist knows best how to bring out something.

BD:    You said earlier that you are basically pleased with the performances, so obviously you’re communicating.

JG:    Yes, I’m very, very pleased.  I have written a lot of organ music, but I never write registration down.  I sometimes say that I only want an 8ft here, or no 16ft for the pedal, or I want a 4ft added, but I will never say I want a particular kind of color because no organ is like another organ and no building and set of acoustics is alike from one place to the next.  So what may sound magnificently in, say, St. James Cathedral in Chicago might sound dreadful in St. James on Madison in New York because the acoustics are so different!  That was the advice I got from one of the best organists around New York City some thirty-five or forty years ago.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there any chance that there is too much music being written, or too many young composers coming along?

JG:    No, I don’t think there’s ever a chance of that.  I don’t think you can have too much.  After all, when you sift it all out there’s very little left.  When I was growing up as a composer in the mid- to late-
40s, there were so many composers on the scene who were all composing and getting performances.  Of those, the only one left  of that whole bunch is Elliott Carter.  They were all about his age, so they would all be about 80 years old now.  They’re all of ten years older than I am, so when I was 29, these people were 39, and they were getting a lot of performances.  I won’t mention the names because it might be embarrassing if you put this on the air and you hear me mentioning names of people whose feelings might be hurt if they happen to be listening, but there is certainly a group of six or eight whose works are rarely played anymore.  Some names I haven’t seen in ages.

goodman BD:    The ones that come up most frequently are David Diamond and Norman Dello Joio.

JG:    Yes, right, they come up very frequently, but not in the same numbers as Elliott Carter does.  There were a great deal at that time, and there are friends of David Diamond hanging around who still play things of his.  But I don’t think that you can ever have too many young composers doing things, and I don’t ever think that you can have too many experiments going on.  The more experimentation the better!  Well, if you’re an intelligent artist who is experimenting with something and it doesn’t work, you try something else.  I would never tell students that I don’t teach any certain style anymore, and I never did tell a student that I don’t think he should do this because it’s experimental.  It is fine if you want to experiment, but it still has to say something.  That’s the thing.

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

JG:    [Laughs]  I don’t really have many occasion to tell them anything very much anymore.  I met a young girl yesterday, an organist and composer, and I gave her a little bit of advice about what to offer a publisher.  She had some ideas of having some anthems put out, so I said,
If you want to start, begin with something like a two-part arrangement of a chorale.  If the publisher will take that from you, then maybe go on to something that’s more difficult.  But if I had any advice, or if any composer asked me, I would say to write a great deal, and write first of all short pieces.  I did have a student who wrote a big cantata for orchestra and chorus, and it took about forty-five minutes.  He got a performance in his home town, and asked me something because he wanted to go ahead.  He had an idea of something else like that, and as equally live.  I told him right away to write some short pieces and  some chamber music of about fifteen to eighteen minutes in length.  Or if he wanted to write a choral piece, write some that are ten to twelve minutes.  That way he’ll get chance of performances.  But works that are forty-five minutes long?  No!  Then, on the other side of it, if I really knew the person very well I would say quite definitely, Do you think you have enough to say to ask people to listen to if for forty-five minutes?  That’s a very, very important element in it.  One really should think about asking these people to hear a work that you’re writing.  Is what you’re saying important enough to have them listen to you attentively for whatever duration it is?

BD:    Who makes the decision as to whether it’s important
— is it the composer, is it the listener, or the critic, or the historian?

JG:    The composer has to make it himself.  I’m sure you can ask someone else if you should write a piece for forty-five minutes, and show them what you have to say.  But in the end, you have to decide if what you have to say is so important that you’re going to write it, and it takes forty-five minutes.  It’s a very, very important thing, and everybody ought to realize it’s important!  In the case of someone like Richard Wagner writing an opera, he made some people laugh at sitting there for three and a half hours, asking if it really was worth it.  Then something came out of it that was really important.  But then you get someone else writing for three and a half hours, and at the end of the first act they’re all going home!  These are very difficult things, and I do feel that if a composer has any idea of his own abilities, he should look at some of the very great pieces that have been written.  Then he can look at himself and try to think if what he has to say is in this league.  Can he ask people to listen to him for forty-minutes?  This is a very individual thing, but some composers would never consider it an important question at all.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

JG:    Oh, of course!  There’s no reason not to be optimistic.  Things are going to change.  Professional music is getting more and more expensive, so consequently professional performances are probably going to be curtailed because people just don’t have that kind of money.  But that doesn’t mean music’s going to end.  There will be a lot more good amateur music and small groups.  But as to publishing, I’m not so sure.  The publishing business has really suffered terribly because of the Xerox machine.  I had some correspondence with Presser some time ago.  They published a lot of my things, and one of the things that makes choral music so difficult is because a group will buy one copy and they’ll run off forty copies on the Xerox machine in the office.  So as far as publishing goes, this is getting to be more difficult, but I think that music has as great a future as it ever has had.  I don’t see why not.  There are many things that are open to a composer today that were not open to me when I was a youngster, such as all the mechanical aids.  Now you can compose, and you can have the darn thing played back on of those computers for you.  [Laughs]  I don’t know whether this is really an artistic advantage or not!  I’m not sure about that.  Maybe the imagination ought to be sharp enough to know what it sounds like without any artificial aids.

BD:    I suppose as long as it’s used as a tool it’s okay, but when it’s used as a crutch, it’s a problem.

JG:    I guess that’s true.  That is what it amounts to.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    As you approach your 70th birthday, what is either the most surprising or encouraging thing that you have seen in music over that time?

JG:    It’s the combination.  Technical proficiency of performances have become really quite startling.  The virtuoso technique of orchestras and chamber groups and soloists is just really fantastic.  I’m not sure at all, though, whether the musical qualities, the distinction of the performances
except for their technical proficiencyhas increased that much.  I’m never quite sure why this is, or whether it’s because I’m getting to be an old man.  I think back to the days of Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and Heifetz (1901-1987), and wonder whether they really were something different when I hear recordings now of people of that generation.  Rachmaninoff was one of my very great favorite performers.  He was just always superb.  He brought great individuality to performances, and his composer’s qualities came through.  There are people today whose technique is great.  The general level of technique has certainly gotten tremendous, especially in the winds.  People today can play higher and more beautifully than they could earlier.  They couldn’t come anywhere near that fifty years ago.  On the other hand, if you go back and hear some of those old Toscanini (1867-1957) recordings made in the 30s, or some of the recordings that were made by Bruno Walter (1876-1962) and other orchestras, the performances don’t stand up the same way.  Technically they’re better today.  Now maybe it is just an old man talking.  You talk to some younger kids, and see what they say!  Maybe they will say that’s not true at all, and find someone today so much better.  People think it’s a good question to ask.

BD:    All of this has given me a lot of insight into your thinking, and into your process and your ideas about music.  You have the experiences of a working musician who’s been doing it for so long, and so successfully.

JG:    Well, I don’t know how successfully.  I still write, that’s for sure. 

BD:    We’ve been talking for an hour, and I’ve learned a great deal.  I just want to thank you for spending the time with me, and sharing a lot of your thoughts on these very admittedly difficult questions.

JG:    Thank you very much for calling, and having been interested in this.  

BD:    I look forward now to playing your music on the air at various times, and also doing a special program for your 80th birthday...  [Immediately realizing the mistake]  I mean...

JG:    [Has a huge laugh]  Not 80th yet!! 

BD:    [Also laughs]  Sorry, your 70th birthday!

JG:    Being a grandfather makes me feel sometimes like 80, but I’m not!  [More laughter]

BD:    I hope that you will still be around for your 80th birthday!

JG:    It would be very nice to think so, with a lot more music written, but that’s in the hands of the Creator, I would say.

BD:    I hope that your creations continue to flow through your pen.  I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard very, very much.

JG:    Thank you very much.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 23, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, 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.