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
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 . . . . .
Let me start out
with a very easy question. Where is music going today?
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?
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
BD: Is it the
managerial forces that do not
want the new music, or is it the public that does not?
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
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
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
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.
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
Concert Music really for everyone?
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!
[Laughs] Is he really an ignoramus, or is he just
that’s the same thing. Closed-minded
people are already refusing to accept the unknown, to have a sparkle of
BD: Then let
me ask the big philosophical question — what is
the purpose of music?
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.
an extraordinary, profound speculation of human nature. We can
only ask how come
does it spring that way?
BD: Are you
about the future of music?
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
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?
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
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
very sweet of you!
heard many performances of
your works. Have you basically been pleased with those
performances you’ve heard of your music?
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
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?
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?
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
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.
you’re writing a piece, are you
writing it for the performers, or for the audience, or for whom?
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?
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?
organization is very
important to me in writing music. It has to be organized.
It has to be constructed — organized
— so 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?
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?
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.
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
them later, it was just impossible! I never touched them again!
BD: But the
commercial recordings have a
little more life to them.
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
by students at the university — and 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
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.
been watching the
development of younger composers — and audiences
— in 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!
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
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
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?
[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
another. I attempted to be concise and precise. My
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
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.
composing is work for you?
work; it’s life, I would say. If
you call life fun, then yes, in that term yes it is fun.
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
BD: I hope
there are many people who do like
AH: I’m very
grateful for your wish. Thank you
so much, Mr. Duffie!
Alexei Haieff, 80, A Ballet Composer And
By BERNARD HOLLAND
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
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
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.
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.
are invited to visit
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
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.