Composer  Alexei  Haieff
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Not a name with which many are familiar, but this is one of the joys of being in the broadcasting business
— discovery.  I am happy to say that during my career, many calls (and now e-mails) have come to me saying that the sender was delighted to be able to hear some of the music by this or that new-to-their-experience name.  While it is true that I did interview and present many of the biggest and most-known musicians, my special delight was always to give a platform to others — especially the lesser-known lights whose work would certainly stand with that of the firmly-established.  Not that these others would surpass or even equal the biggies, but works that would enlighten and inspire people by their inspiration and solid craftsmanship.

Alexei Haieff wrote orchestral and chamber works, and a ballet was made from his music by George Balanchine.  Haieff also taught for many years, so his thoughts and creative processes will live on in future generations
.  His family has set up a website which has information about recordings and performances of his music.

In anticipation of his upcoming seventy-fifth birthday in 1989, I was able to call Haieff at his home in Rome.  We had a wonderful conversation and here is what was said at that time . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let me start out with a very easy question.  Where is music going today?

Alexei Haieff:    Oh, it’s sort of floating into the polluted sea, I would say!  [Both laugh]

BD:    I take it you are not happy with all the directions it’s going?

AH:    Serious music, at the moment, is completely swamped by, let’s say, the Woodstock idea because serious music is now sprinkled in universities and a few concerts, but still subject to great managerial machines of big orchestras who really don’t want new music!  They can make ends meet only with the famous warhorses of the last century.

BD:    Is it the managerial forces that do not want the new music, or is it the public that does not?

AH:    The public just doesn’t know it.  Nobody tells them, “Let’s try and listen to the music for just half an hour.  Let’s have new music, unknown to you, the public.”  The public usually likes to hear the piece that they know.  Fortunately they can’t dictate that much, because we’d be at a complete stalemate!  And you can reflect on this... I got a letter yesterday from New York
a woman always sends me these charming new stamps that come out — and there is this new stamp of Toscanini, which I hadn’t seen.  About five years ago they produced a stamp of Stravinsky’s face, and Stravinsky is valued at two and a half cents, and Toscanini is twenty-five cents!  [Both laugh]  I would say that is the proportion of new music with the predominance of the old music.  Toscanini is valued much higher than any music including new music!

BD:    Is there any way to change the outlook of the public?

AH:    It’s a slow process, but it has to be conscientious, this possibility of every man capable of influencing the performance of music, you see.  It’s very understandable that every manager and every board of directors wants to balance the budget.  Maybe it’s a socialistic idea, but there should be slight federal help to promote variation to the common tunes.

BD:    You have been a composer all of your life.  Do you have any regrets about being a composer?

AH:    Not one bit!  I don’t find that you select to be a composer.  It’s a gentle vice that one has, and one is occupied by it.

BD:    [Laughs] 

AH:    You understand?

BD:    Of course.  Is it a good vice or a bad vice?

AH:    It’s a very good vice, but you have to suffer to exercise it.  As I used to say, it’s a luxury like polo playing used to be a luxury and yachting was a luxury.  I think composing is a luxury.

BD:    Is Concert Music really for everyone?

AH:    Theoretically, yes of course, because I believe in complete equality of human possibilities.  If someone is not exposed, it’s not his fault; he can’t be blamed.  I think that sort of superior outlook that will give this music only to these people who understand it is wrong!  People will understand; anyone will understand music if he’s exposed!  The moment you read about somebody saying, “I like what I like,” then you know that this man is an ignoramus!

BD:    [Laughs]  Is he really an ignoramus, or is he just closed-minded?

AH:    Well, that’s the same thing.  Closed-minded people are already refusing to accept the unknown, to have a sparkle of exploration.

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question
— what is the purpose of music?

AH:    There’s no purpose of anything.  It’s just one of the delights of human function!  It’s a luxury of human spirit, a gift from God or from nature to be able to hear, to invent, and to perform it repeatedly that you can let the others hear it!  It’s like painting, like any form of art, or any form of action which is a positive action.  There are evil actions which could be harmful to life, but I think all the arts are a positive action.  So it’s a delight of the human spirit.  It’s an extraordinary, profound speculation of human nature.  We can only ask how come does it spring that way?

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

AH:    Of classical music, it will fluctuate.  It may flow into something else.  Unfortunately, at the moment the popular music and the enormous success of it doesn’t show any interest; it’s a retrograde thing, you see.  It sort of gets simpler and louder and it expresses less and less.  It really doesn’t express music much.  It expresses the primitive state of human insides, though, because you have to attach words to that music.  If you don’t have words to that music, it would be completely meaningless and boring!

BD:    By words you mean a text?

AH:    Words.  Words make that music.  The people, the youngsters who listen to it, they don’t listen to it as music; they listen to it as an expression of their sort of vapors of maturity.  You understand?  And it has to be said in banal words, so that there is no great point in those words, either.  It’s a rather low state of human progress!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Well, let me come back to the high state of musical progress and talk a little bit about the music of Alexei Haieff.

AH:    That’s very sweet of you!

BD:    You’ve heard many performances of your works.  Have you basically been pleased with those performances you’ve heard of your music?

haieff, copland, fineAH:    I would say I’m mostly pleased, mostly pleased.  I don’t think any composer would say, “It’s better than I thought,” of a performance.  No, you can’t say that.  The true composer hears in his mind the ultimate performance, and it’s very seldom that one can beat that feeling.  I have heard certain performances which were a surprise to myself, and I wound up liking it as a contrast to what I imagined that piece was.  It was a very interesting new performance of excellence, but it was not the way I thought of it.

    [Photo at right: Aaron Copland (standing), Irving Fine (at the piano), and Alexei Haieff,
    taken in Richmond, Massachusetts, in 1947; from the collection of Mrs. Victor Kraft]

BD:    Were the discoveries that the performers made good ones?

AH:    The performers did something to it.  It was a most exquisite performance because it’s so well played.  It was played, for example, in a slower tempo than I expected, and I liked it very much because the performers had this extraordinary mastery of their instruments.

BD:    So then there’s more than one way to play some of your pieces?

AH:    Every performance differs, but it can’t differ from the conception of it, because if it goes further away and less clear, the worse it gets.  First of all, it has to be clear; a clear performance.  Then you can judge the pleasure of it.  If you can’t hear things, if it’s muddled, no matter how much force and obligation of emotion is put into it, it doesn’t matter.   If it’s badly performed, with missed notes and what not, you can’t say, “He meant well but didn’t play so well.”  It doesn’t mean that the performance came through.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, are you writing it for the performers, or for the audience, or for whom?

AH:    Originally I write for myself because I’m interested in playing with notes, but actually I want to have it performed when it’s written.  And when it is performed, then it certainly would be for the public.  But performers would enhance this music; it’s their creative process to transmit it to the public.  But still, of course, music has to be heard, pictures have to be looked at and literature has to be read, and poetry, even, may be recited.  It’s recited because you can read it to yourself.  You can recite it out loud to yourself.  But of course, it would please the audience.

BD:    So it is the performance in the air, rather than the notes on the page, which is the music?

AH:    Absolutely!  The notes on the page mean nothing.  It’s awfully bourgeois; playing philosopher with one’s self is a terrible occupation.  That you think between two notes that you discovered the world, it’s not the point.  You have to invent a piece of music which is an artistic achievement, not a sort of scientific achievement.  It’s an artistic achievement that counts.

BD:    In your music, is there a balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

AH:    The organization is very important to me in writing music.  It has to be organized.  It has to be constructed
organizedso that you don’t let all the surprises out of the bag immediately.  You hold back; you plan like an architect.  Every motion you plan, in a way, but that is part of the construction of music!  And writing or painting.  It’s not surprise painting; it doesn’t last long as a surprise.  Spontaneous improvisation doesn’t last long because it’s there.  If you record it, it becomes a piece of music.  Then you judge it, whether or not it is a successful improvisation.

BD:    Is there a balance between the inspiration of the composer and the technique of the composition?

AH:    Oh, definitely!  Inspiration comes and it’s a great help, but it’s not a guiding light.  If you have no technique, you can be inspired; if you improvise, you can be inspired for a few seconds or a minute of a piece of music, which might be of interest.  Then you have to apply your technique to play the results of your inspiration.  Inspiration does not make a whole piece from beginning to end; inspiration gives you an idea of a piece.  Inspiration gives you a certain twist, a few positions of notes or a combination of sounds, but you can’t be in a trance of inspiration.

BD:    When you are sitting at your desk, are there ever times when the pencil is controlling your hand?

AH:    My hand, no.  The original idea is there; it would not come from the pencil.  It has to come from my head because the pencil is an executor, but not the leading thought.  The pencil follows the command of the brain, of the mind, or hearing, or state of the mind.

BD:    Are you are never surprised, then, where the composition leads you?

AH:    Leads me?  Well, one always collects enough material, and when you have enough material it is like living juices.  You can work with it, you play with it, your mind begins to be inspired by the material you already have, and you suddenly discover new horizons.  It’s like changing, getting better and better glasses.

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

AH:    I say the advice is to hear as much music as they possibly can, of any sort, judgment aside.  And then always rehearing what they’ve heard, for another attempt at the first hint of a judgment.

BD:    At what point does the avalanche of music become overwhelming?

AH:    Oh, well then they have to stop.  If they are overfed, you know what happens!  [Both laugh]  But of course, they need the study of music, reading of scores of past music, of history.  You can’t learn much.  If you’re young you begin always with the music of your present, because that attracts you the most.  But then immediately you have to start walking backwards into history, into depth, so that your horizons open up.  And you certainly learn from that how to go on.  Otherwise, you may dry up.

BD:    Do you yourself feel that you are part of a lineage of composers?

AH:    I certainly do.  I don’t feel that I stepped out of nothing.  Everyone is an inventor, but I’m not a Marconi.  Marconi had a long preparation to discover wireless communication.  In the same way, every creative person invents new things but certainly in line with the past.  Like Marconi, who was trained as an electrical engineer, he knew his subject absolutely thoroughly before he could make a new step.

BD:    Is each composer, then, reinventing music, or are they working with the music that is already there?

AH:    Music is there, let’s put it that way.  There are infinite combinations.  Like playing chess, you have infinite combinations and that is the possibility.  You have a spark of a new mood which nobody expected, and that’s what music-making is.  Every person has his own stamp of personality, so he does have to invent.  But it’s not a Vogue magazine, or anything of the sort that you have to sort of walk upside down to attract attention of people on the Easter parade.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I asked you earlier if you were pleased with the performances, but are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

AH:    Some, tremendously.  Yes, very much, yes.  Most of them are excellent.  There are some tiny mistakes which don’t count; I hear them but nobody else will notice.

BD:    So you’re more concerned with the impact on the audience?

AH:    It’s the impact, the general impression.  Is it positive?  If I say yes, that’s fine.  If it is not... I’ve had some performances which were absolutely ridiculous, but they didn’t last.  I had some great performances which were broadcast and they were taped for me, but on hearing them later, it was just impossible!  I never touched them again!

BD:    But the commercial recordings have a little more life to them.

AH:    They usually pick very good performers, and they are better rehearsed for the recording.  Of course the level is higher.  But I have some tapes of performances
even by students at the universityand they’re extraordinarily good; spontaneously done.  I wouldn’t say they are as good as by the professionals, but musically they are fine.  I’m all for that.  There should be more performances of any kind of music, any new music, by younger people!  They can’t be that choosy, but they should — and they are, actually.  They are magnificent readers today, so it’s easy for them to do it, greater or not, because it’s a question of reading music; it’s a stumbling block to many a person.

BD:    You’ve been watching the development of younger composers
and audiencesin your vast career.  As you approach your seventy-fifth birthday, do you have any special reflections on that?

AH:    There are no great moments of communication where the exchange of views, exchange of ideas and just simply exchange of hearing the same piece of music at the same time by many young people happened.  It does happen very much in a few cities of the world, but the earth is so enormous that every town has too small a circle, and there is a general provinciality, a certain lack of communication among them.  There are cultural centers like universities where the youngsters meet.  They perform and they get things heard, but the unit is too small and they usually begin to feel that they are much more protected by staying inside an institution of learning.

BD:    And this is not good to stay there?

AH:    Not for life.  They should come out and face the music, so to speak!

BD:    What contributes to greatness in music?

AH:    I would say concentration of freshness and excellence in composition.  It’s the combination of mastery of writing the music and the freshness of ideas.

BD:    And that’s determined by the response of the public?

AH:    I think eventually, yes.  Of course!  The general public responds, finally, to the great thing.  You can’t say that the general public rejects Mozart or Bach or Beethoven.  All these three men are great composers simply because they are.  Not that they are different from each other, but the quality of the music is of the highest caliber.  The freshness of invention is there, and it’s the attraction.  What one doesn’t like are those partisans... maybe it’s less today, but there were amateur people who just loved the familiar in music.  Everything else is taboo because it’s too vulgar for their taste, which, again, is a provincial pose.

BD:    Is the music of Alexei Haieff of the highest quality?

AH:    Oh, [laughs] my name suggests it might be so, but I can’t say that.  I’m too modest to say, but certainly all my life I strived to do my best, and tried to make every piece different from another.  I attempted to be concise and precise.  My interests were always very much in the forms of music.  I could never say that I overflowed because I felt like it.  To my judgment, what I said is just right to my taste.

BD:    Well, one final question.  Is composing fun?

AH:    No, that is a bad word for it.  There is no fun in the world unless you jump with a ball in the swimming pool.  Fun applies to leisure; composing is work and it’s a serious preoccupation.  I don’t like the word fun.  Fun I accept in any leisurely relaxation from work.  That you can call fun.

BD:    Then composing is work for you?

AH:    It’s work; it’s life, I would say.  If you call life fun, then yes, in that term yes it is fun.

BD:    The composing may be work for you, but is the listening work for the audience?

AH:    That I can’t judge; I can’t tell you.  If the audience doesn’t like a piece of my music, I’m sorry and I regret it.  It saddens me, but I can’t be responsible.  There might be some flaw in my music which I don’t see.  I can presuppose that from a detached point of view; it’s philosophical and already cerebral.  But of course one wants to be liked.  Everybody wants to be liked.

BD:    I hope there are many people who do like your music!

AH:    I’m very grateful for your wish.  Thank you so much, Mr. Duffie!

Alexei Haieff, 80, A Ballet Composer And Teacher, Dies

Published: Thursday, March 3, 1994 in the New York Times

Alexei Haieff, a composer whose long life in music reached from Siberia to the United States and finally to Italy, died on Tuesday in San Camillo Hospital in Rome. He was 80.

The cause was lung congestion and heart failure, hospital officials said.

Mr. Haieff was an American citizen for 55 years and a prominent composer in New York life in the postwar era. He came to public attention again last year when "Divertimento," a George Balanchine ballet for which he created the music, was revived by the New York City Ballet in its Balanchine Celebration, observing the 10th anniversary of the choreographer's death. Mr. Haieff's work with Balanchine was complemented by a strong friendship with Stravinsky. Many critics found strong traces of Stravinsky's neo-classical style in Mr. Haieff's music. 'His Own Language'

His Piano Concerto No. 1 enjoyed considerable success in the early 1950's, and he was also known for his three symphonies, "Divertimento" and numerous chamber pieces. Writing in The New York Times in 1961, Harold C. Schonberg discovered "elements of Stravinsky and the dodecaphonists" in his Third Symphony, adding however that "Mr. Haieff has his own language."

Mr. Haieff was born in Biagoveschensk, Siberia, in 1914. He moved to China with his family when he was 6 and came to the United States in 1932. He studied at the Juilliard School, and then with Nadia Boulanger in Cambridge, Mass., and in Paris. In addition to composing, Mr. Haieff taught extensively, mainly at the State University at Buffalo, at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, at Brandeis University and at the University of Utah. He settled in Rome 20 years ago.

He is survived by his wife, Sheila.

© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 17, 1989.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that month, and again in 1994 and 1999.  A copy of the unedited tape was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made in 2009 and posted on this website early in 2010.

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.