Composer / Educator Donald
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Donald Harris (April 7, 1931 in
St. Paul, Minnesota – March 29, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio) was an American
composer who taught music at The Ohio State University for 22 years. He
was Dean of the College of the Arts from 1988 to 1997.
Harris earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in Music from
the University of Michigan. He completed further studies at the
Tanglewood Music Center and the Centre Français d'Humanisme
Musical in Aix-en-Provence. He studied with Ross Lee Finney, Max
Deutsch, Nadia Boulanger, Boris Blacher, Lukas Foss, and
André Jolivet. He founded the Contemporary Music Festival at
Ohio State in 2000. Prior to joining the faculty at Ohio State, he
served on the faculties and as an administrator of the New England
Conservatory of Music and the Hartt School of Music. From 1954 to 1968,
Harris lived in Paris, where he served as music consultant to the
United States Information Agency and produced the city's first postwar
Festival of Contemporary American Music.
Harris was awarded a Fulbright Award in 1956, the Prince Rainier III of
Monaco Composition Award in 1962 (deuxieme mention), a Guggenheim
Fellowship in 1966, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Grant
in Composition in 1974, the A.C. Fuller Award of the Julius Hartt
Musical Foundation in 1988, and the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award in 1989
(for co-editing The Berg Schoenberg Correspondence ). He received
commissions with the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation (Library of
Congress), Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation (Library of Congress),
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Radio France, Cleveland Orchestra, Goethe
Institute (Boston), Boston Musica Viva, Connecticut Public Radio,
Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Arnold Schoenberg Institute, and Festival
of Contemporary American Music at Tanglewood. In 1991, he received an
award in composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
which led to a retrospective recording of his work on the CRI label in
1994. In 2011, he was the featured composer of the Ohio State
University Contemporary Music Festival, a festival which he founded.
The King Arts Complex honored him with a Legends & Legacies award
in October 2011. He received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from
Ohio State in June 2012.
-- Throughout this webpage,
names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my
Donald Harris was in Chicago just before Thanksgiving of 1988, and we
met at his hotel for a conversation.
Several times, when I asked a probing or even a profound question, my
guest thought for a few moments before reacting and giving a considered
response. Some of these pauses have been indicated, but rather
than continually interrupt the flow of the conversation, many have not.
You’ve just taken over a new position at Ohio State?
That’s right. I’m the Dean of the College in the Arts. That
is after twenty years spending exclusively with conservatories of music
— the New England Conservatory, and then the Hartt School
of Music. Now I have music, dance, visual arts, theater, just
BD: Was that
something you were looking for, or something that landed in your lap?
DH: It landed
in my lap. However, now that it’s in my lap, I feel I was looking
forward to it. Like a kid in a candy shop, I don’t know where to
put my hands first. I want to grab a little bit of this and a
little bit of that. Everything is so tempting and wonderful, and
it gives vent to this feeling megalomania!
from a music background, are you going to bend over backwards to make
sure there’s a lot of music, or are you going to make sure that music
is perhaps kept in the background, and integrate it completely with the
DH: Music is
the largest unit in the College, but I am going to bend over backwards
to make sure that it’s integrated. The programs in dance and in
theater are so outstanding that it’s natural for music to be involved
with these two programs... for example, musicians that accompany
dances and things like that. The visual arts are a strong
component as well. My job is to make a more cohesive college of
the arts, so I’d like to integrate a lot of things.
BD: Was there
something special in your background that recommended you to a position
that would integrate all of the arts, rather than just a college of
music or a conservatory?
DH: I’m not
certain if that’s why I was asked to go there, but one thing is that
Ohio State is making a big effort in the field of contemporary
expression. They’re building a $43 million building. It’s
the Wexner Center which is designed by Peter Eisenman. It’s got a
lot of attention recently as the ‘deconstructionist’
what they’re calling, whatever that may mean. It’s really a
beautiful building, designed for contemporary art and contemporary
expression. I believe that having a Dean of the College of the
Arts who is committed to strong creative programs in artistic lives
today is what they were looking for. So, in that sense, asking a
composer with administrative experience to take over this job as really
what is more in keeping with the mission.
BD: What all
will be housed in this building — music, art,
DH: No, it’s
really a performance and exhibition space. It’ll have a film
theater studio and a small theater plus some performance space, but
mainly it’s for exhibitions.
BD: I want to
concentrate mostly on your music and your ideas about music.
You’ve done some teaching of musical composition?
DH: I have, yes.
composition really something that can be taught?
DH: Yes and
no. I always say that we learn in spite of our teachers!
What I mean is that we have to roll into our own persons. We have
to be our own people, but teachers can be guides. They can point
out directions. They can point out the paths that we might not
have thought of. They can be instructors in ways of the
past. We can’t understand what we’re about unless we can measure
ourselves against yardsticks from the past, which will place us in a
certain context if we want, and teachers can help us do that.
Especially at The Ohio State University, it’s a community of people
— some with more experience than others. Teachers
learn as much from their students as students do from teachers, so
maybe students learn in spite of their teachers, and teachers learn
because of their students.
BD: So now
you continue to learn in all phases of your life about music and about
BD: What did
you learn from some of your teachers, specifically Ross Lee Finney?
DH: I learned
a lot of specific and detailed things when it comes to the craft of
writing music. I learned something important on a philosophical
level from each of my teachers. For Ross Finney, it was the
importance of being a composer, of being an artist, and what that meant
in America and what it meant to be an American composer. I also
learned how important it was that there be compositions from a lot of
composers because they consequently merge, and Ross was very
important. In fact I’m still in contact with him all the
time. With Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) it was a love-hate
relationship. She made me very angry. She used to always
refer to Europe as being like Classical Greece, and America like
Ancient Rome. It would infuriate me, as if this country was
simply the country which saw people eating lions, or lions eating
people, or whatever it was in those days, while all the great culture
came from Europe.
BD: And yet
she was responsible for a couple of generations of American composers.
was! We ended up on very good terms because I won the Prince of
Monaco Prize. In her later years we had a lovely correspondence,
and what I learned from her on a philosophical level is that she may
have been right! Europe may be Athens and we, in fact, may be
Rome. I still fight against it as much as I did then, but
sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t right.
Juliette Nadia Boulanger (16 September 1887 – 22 October 1979) was a
French composer, conductor, and teacher. She is notable for having
taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century.
She also performed occasionally as a pianist and organist.
From a musical family, she achieved early honours as a student at the
Paris Conservatoire but, believing that she had no particular talent as
a composer, she gave up writing music and became a teacher. In that
capacity, she influenced generations of young composers, especially
those from the United States and other English-speaking countries.
Among her students were those who became leading composers, soloists,
arrangers and conductors.
[The list of her students is
enormous, so in this context I have only included in this box those
with whom I have interviews. Names which are links have been
transcribed and posted (like this one with Donald Harris) elsewhere on
this website. BD]
Boulanger taught in the US and England, working with music academies
including the Juilliard School, the Yehudi Menuhin
School, the Longy School, the Royal College of Music and the Royal
Academy of Music, but her principal base for most of her life was her
family's flat in Paris, where she taught for most of the seven decades
from the start of her career until her death at the age of 92.
Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major
orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston
Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia
orchestras. She conducted several world premieres, including works by
Copland and Stravinsky.
Max Deutsch (November 17, 1892 –
November 22, 1982) was an Austrian-French composer, conductor, and
academic teacher. He studied with Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and was
his assistant. Teaching at the Sorbonne and the École Normale de
Musique de Paris, he influenced notable students such as Philippe
Capdenat, György Kurtág and Philippe Manoury.
Max Deutsch was different. He was a student of Schoenberg, and
from him I learned a lot about the nineteenth century. We studied
Wagner and Brahms and Mahler together, which was nice, much more than
we studied Schoenberg. I didn’t have many teachers who would
explore these scores with me, so I enjoyed that very much. From
Deutsch I learned a lot about belief in one’s self in a condition that
what one was doing personally was very important, and that you could
stand in isolation if you believe strongly in what you were
doing. I admired him for that. These three people were the
strongest influences on my life. I didn’t stay with Nadia
Boulanger all that long, hardly a year. I was with Ross Finney
the longest, about six years or so, and with Deutsch about three or
four, but they all played a big role.
BD: They all
left an indelible impression upon you that you can articulate it so
ever asked me before, so I’m glad you did because it’s made me think in
BD: Are these
things that you learned from the various teachers, things that you try
to impart on your students?
but it depends upon the student. When I have graduate students,
it’s easier. With undergraduate students, maybe that’s the way
they had to spend with me, too. We don’t know much when we are
undergraduates, so it takes a lot of patience. Ross Finney had a
lot of patience.
BD: You’ve been
teaching for about how long?
DH: Off and
on for over twenty years.
BD: How are
the students today different from the students twenty years ago?
to think a moment] I haven’t found private students that I’ve had
that much different. In terms of students from my position as
administrator, I noticed the difference. When I first came back
from Europe, students were more rebellious. That was in the late ’60s,
and things were more confrontational. Today, generally speaking,
they’re quite docile.
BD: Is that
good or bad, or neither?
Neither! But serious students are serious students, and when
they’re serious, they study. The important thing is to have
serious students, committed students, and most music students are
serious and committed.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Do serious students only turn out serious music?
no! But they work at it. By serious I mean that their study
is the most important thing in the world to them.
BD: Is music
the most important thing in the world to you?
— music and art, yes. I’ve been in education and
higher education so many years that people always ask me why don’t I
want to go onto higher jobs. I say it is because I have the
highest job — education and the arts. There’s
nothing higher, nothing more important.
BD: You don’t
ever feel that you’re in a little ivory tower, and that the real world
is outside someplace else?
DH: No, I’m
not in an ivory tower! On the contrary, I believe that the most
challenging issue confronting all arts — performing
and creative — is in the field of education,
building your future audiences. The thing we have to work on more
than anything is quality of the future audience — not
just the quantity but the quality. That will then ensure that we
will be Greece and not Rome. [Both laugh] We must ensure
that people who listen to music — and who go to
museums, and who read books, and who go to plays, and etc., etc.
— are a literate audience who understand what’s going on,
who appreciate the quality of what they are seeing.
BD: Then let
me pose the great big philosophical question. What is the purpose
of music in society?
a moment] Music transcends society. Music goes much
further. Music is the expression of whatever it is we are going
to leave. Music’s a lot of things to a lot of people, and you’re
going to get a thousand answers to this question, otherwise you
wouldn’t ask it. But in the context of what we’re talking about,
music is one art by which we are able to leave to future generations,
or centuries, or civilizations, what we have produced, and which
contains eternal truths, eternal lives, and eternal beauties, which
transcend these different centuries or periods. For all of us,
they give experiences that are so important that we need to have them
repeated often in our lives. [Turning the tables on the
interviewer] Why do you spend all your time promoting music on
BD: I feel
it’s the best thing for myself and for everyone who’ll listen.
[Returning the questions to the guest] Let me ask this about
greatness of music. What are some of the strains that contribute
to making a piece of music or a kind of music so great that we’ll want
to hear it again?
DH: [Thinks a
moment] That always will be hard to put into words. Why is
Mozart’s great? And why is it that, out of the eighteenth
century, we select Mozart as being The Great Composer? Clearly
it’s for the depth of human expression he gives to his music that we
grasp his expression and range of thought; how he expresses the
sentiments and feelings we all have; how it will arouse these feelings
in us; how he moves us. It’s a physical as well as an
intellectual experience. Once can’t just be moved
intellectually. There’s a physical awareness that takes place at
the same time, which you get from Mozart.
BD: Should we
only listen to the great music?
DH: Oh, we
don’t just listen to the great music!
BD: It seems
that we listen mostly, if not almost exclusively, to the few
masterpieces rather than a wide range.
DH: You mean
in the concert hall?
DH: Oh, sure,
of course. But you don’t listen to just the great music.
DH: You have
many friends who don’t listen to just the great music, and the more
people we can educate into quality listening, the more music they’ll be
able to listen to the variety — not just from
our civilization, but from non-western civilizations as well, where
there’s just as much great music. We can’t be parochial in any
instance. It’s like what Dallapiccola (1904-1975) said about
Vivaldi (1678-1741) — that he wrote this same
concerto five hundred times... [laughs] which I don’t believe is true
by the way! But we hear the same concerto five hundred times when
we go to the concert hall. That’s an issue with which we must
deal, no question about it. But we must improve the quality of
listening, and we can do that. That’s an objective we can realize.
the educational process and the public schools, and our teaching.
We can! It is an attainable objective. We might not attain
it. We might fail, but it is attainable. The educational
system can be revised. It can be made better.
BD: So we’re
always getting closer to that goal, even if we don’t hit it?
Yes! Sometimes we just go backwards. That happens,
too. Music teachers are replaced in schools, and positions are
not given back. That happens, but it is an objective that we can
BD: I want
you to address the reality of this huge proliferation of recordings,
and music on television and radio. Do you feel it’s a good
thing? Do you feel it’s helping?
DH: I feel it
could be, but it’s not helping as much as it should. I don’t have
any statistics or any raw data to back this up, but I have the
impression that even though more works are recorded and available than
ever before, fewer works are being listened to. I see this as an
educational issue, but certainly the technology is here. There’s
no question in my mind that soon — and by soon I
mean within the next hundred years — we should
be able to program through computers, performances that satisfy every
expectation without there ever being a performer who’s there.
We’re going to reach that stage, and that’ll compound the issue.
BD: Is that scary?
It’s just a fact, and you can’t be frightened by it. There have
been other periods equally as full of change, and we’ve survived.
Good heavens, the switch from the style of Bach to Mozart happened very
quickly, and that was a very profound change! It was scary for
some, but it certainly heralded at a golden age for music.
BD: Are we in
a ‘golden age’ now?
DH: If we
keep our eyes open, if we have a freedom of research, and if we can
improve the quality of our education, we can be approaching a golden
age again. I’m not so certain that we haven’t had many golden
ages. I don’t know a particularly bad time in history of music.
BD: You feel
it’s more of a high continuum with little blips, rather than peaks and
right. We need to keep up the sense of history. We need to
keep on teaching history. We can’t neglect history. That’s
very important. We also need to make sure that when we teach
history that it’s not parochial, that it’s done with a broad sense of
inclusion with non-Western as well as Western material. That’s
what’s lacking more than anything is that too often students have not
had as good or as deep an education before coming to college as in
previous generations, or as in Europe. There was too much
learning that had to be done all over again or that hadn’t been done.
BD: At what
point does the mountain of material become too much for anyone to
DH: Let me
give you an example. This was a very good statement that somebody
said today at a meeting. If young composers would study
counterpoint like we used to teach it, it would help them a lot in
training their lives, and into using their computers better.
There’s a truth in that. We have to learn to lead off.
There is a selection process, no question about it. But you asked
me if young students are as well prepared today as they were twenty
years ago, and what’s happening now is not that momentous that we can’t
fit it in to the whole continuum we’ve been teaching.
BD: I read
somewhere that the composite knowledge of mankind doubles every twenty
years, so each student coming along has to absorb proportionately more
than their fathers.
DH: If it
doubles in twenty years, all that doubling is not yet getting into the
BD: No, but
DH: Yes, and
that’s an issue.
advice do you have for young composers coming along — besides
[Laughs] Among other things? Listen to music! Listen
carefully! Listen to a lot of music! Don’t give up on
it. Listen even to the music you don’t like because we need to
understand from where we came in order to understand where we are
going. We must see ourselves in a larger historical context, or
on an historical continuum to have those yardsticks by which we can
measure what it is we are about. We don’t come from
nothing. We come from something. Nothing is growing out of
BD: Where are
we going? Do you know? Look into your crystal ball...
DH: We can be
going in a lot of different directions, and I don’t know which one or
ones we’ll eventually take. But I’m confident that the directions
we will take will be the right ones if we employ the kind of process
which I’ve just described. The issue is not so much the direction
as the process, and how we arrive at the choice. We have to have
the background to do that, and that background is historical as well as
BD: I want to
turn the conversation now toward your own music. At what point
did you decide that you wanted to write music yourself rather than
perform other people’s music?
DH: In High
School. In my senior year at High School I started composing, and
I enjoyed it so I just continued. Then I went off to university
in Michigan, and I’ve been composer ever since the age of 17.
BD: Now that
you have all of these administrative responsibilities, are you able to
get enough time to compose?
DH: Yes, I
have my summers off to compose. I do it in the summers, and then
I have some time during the year. I don’t have as much as maybe I
would like, but I still have some time to do it.
BD: Are the
pieces you write on commission, or are they things you just have to get
they are on commission right now. Occasionally I do a piece just
for the fun of it, but right now I’m working on an opera on a text of
Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987), the French author who died
recently. She is best known in this country for The Memoirs of Hadrian, and she was
the first woman in the Académie Franҫaise. She lived in
Northeast Harbor, Maine, and we were very, very close friends.
She adapted the fairy tale of Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid. She
adapted it into a libretto for me, and I’ve been working on it. I
finished the first act, and am well into the second act, and I hope to
have it finished in a year or two. That’s a commission from WGBH
BD: So then
are you writing it specifically for television?
DH: I’m writing it
first and foremost for a radio production. I wanted to do that
first to hear what it sounds like, to see if it’s all right. It
might cost too much to present an opera, so let me see first if it
works. It’s a long work, a big work. It’s a three-act
opera, and I just finished a smaller vocal work. I’m one of the
composers that was commissioned by the Schoenberg Institute to complete
the poems in the Pierrot Lunaire
that Schoenberg didn’t set. I chose three of the poems, and one
of them is being premiered in New York City tomorrow night, where I
will be. Then the other two will be done in Los Angeles in
January. It’s kind of fun because these poems all have the same
form, so it’s a challenge to write little pieces and then have them
sound like you and not like Schoenberg!
BD: Are you
trying to make it so that they will integrate into a performance after Pierrot?
DH: The three
that I wrote I call Pierrot Lieder.
It’s just three songs that form a cycle and so, yes, they will be
performed together afterwards. It’s a short cycle because they’re
all short poems. [These
songs are among the works on the CD shown at right. Also see my
Interviews with Edwin
Kalish, and Yehudi
should they should be performed on the same program as Pierrot?
necessarily, no. They will be tomorrow night in New York, but not
necessarily, no. Pierrot
stands by itself and doesn’t need anything else.
you’re writing a piece of music and you’re involved in the guts of the
music, are you always in control of that pencil, or are there times
when that pencil controls your hand?
quite a bit] I don’t know if I’m sure what the difference
is. It’s the same me, whether I’m controlled by the pencil or the
pencil does the work, it’s the same me. Are you asking if there
is some hidden force that takes over in spite of myself?
Yes. Are you ever surprised by where you wind up?
DH: Yes, very
often! Oh, absolutely! Nothing is preconceived! I
don’t like to plan things out so that I know exactly what’s going to
happen and when. I can be surprised, too!
BD: Are they
usually good surprises?
Sometimes, and sometimes they aren’t. I’ve got pieces where I’ve
had to get used to them, but most often it’s what I expect, especially
as I get older. When you get older, you reach a point where
pretty well you know how to avoid this or that pitfall.
BD: And you
know how to attach that brilliance to it as well as avoiding the
DH: I don’t
know... I hope so. I’ve been doing it for forty years, so it’s a
of time, are you conscious of time — meaning how
long a piece will take to perform — as you’re
Yes. I try not to write pieces that are too long. I never
have. Of the scores that you have, only one has movements, and
that was one of the last pieces I wrote with movements. Virtually
everything I’ve done since then has been one-movement pieces.
Each one is self-contained - a sui
generis [of its own kind; unique] form, and it doesn’t call for
movements in any way.
for the opera that you’re working on?
right. Vocal music will be different because then you have
text. You can have several groups of songs if you want, or an
opera. I wrote my Piano Sonata
(completed in 1957), and I wrote the Symphony
in Two Movements (1958-61) which already was going towards a
reduction. The idea of avoiding movements was going towards the
direction, and my music has reached the point where there are no
separate movements. Each piece is self-contained, even of itself,
and then becomes a complete musical object. I do compose that way.
BD: Is it
pleasing that you know each piece is going to be a one-movement entity?
DH: It was
part of my style. I take it back, I have subsequently written a
piece for organ, which is in two movements, so there are a couple of
exceptions. But by and large it is the way I work. It’s a
total conception in one movement.
Let us come back to the Piano Sonata.
DH: That’s an
early work. That’s the first piece I wrote as a solo,
if you want, without any teacher. I had left Nadia
Boulanger. We just
didn’t get on; it just wasn’t working out. I was living in
was very inexpensive to live in Paris in those days. I lived in
the atelier [workshop or
studio, usually of an artist] of a hat maker. It’s what they
called a ‘modiste en étage’
[milliner floor]. It was a lady who made hats to order, and at
time ladies’ hats were going out of fashion. It used to be that
wore elaborate hats, and then they stopped wearing them at a certain
point. So this person had to rent out part of her workshop
didn’t have enough business. So I was able to have a studio with
piano in this room which was full of these little heads, models with
pins sticking in hats all over. It was very inexpensive, and
where I had my studio to write music, in this hat workshop.
wanted to write a piece, and to get back into composing because in my
Boulanger period I really hadn’t written much music. I just wasn’t
in the mood.
So I decided to write a piano sonata because I was more or less a
pianist, and I could do that. I wrote the third movement
didn’t know it was the third movement then, but I wrote it, and when
I’d written it, it sounded so French to me. It was almost as if
like Francis Poulenc in style. Then I wrote the last movement,
that was longer, more elaborate. It was a theme and variations,
had a number of different moods, including a little French waltz.
I wrote the first movement, and then the second. This was the
piece that I wrote which had several movements.
BD: Did it
DH: Yes, it
did. I wasn’t really looking for performances. I was
just writing music at that time, so I never showed it to anybody.
just put it in my folder. Later, about 1960 or ’61, there was a
wonderful lady who ran a music program for the United States
Information Service in Paris, and I got to meet her. She was a
person, and she asked me if I’d written any music. I told her
written a number of things but had not shown them to anybody as
So she put me in touch with a marvelous pianist whose name was
Geneviève Joy (1919-2009). She is the wife of a very
composer, Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013). We’ve since become very
personal friends, and she played the first performance of this piano
sonata. It was my first performance of anything, really my first
performance in France. I’ve always been very fond of it because
really is the first opus of my adult works. The recording is by
Veronica Jochum von Moltke, who is a German-American pianist who I’ve
known for many years. She is the daughter of conductor Eugen
Jochum, and she lives in Boston. She recorded this piece, and
commissioned another piano work which is not yet recorded, but which
I’m very attached to. It’s called Balladen
(1979) and it is a recent work. [Later
she did record this work, and it is on the CD shown above.]
I used the plural form of the ballad
because it’s really a three ballads in one. It’s my own
the Chopin G Minor
paraphrased, and the Brahms Op 10,
No. 1. It’s a very complex piano work, but it’s a long,
long way from the Sonata.
The difference from this early piano sonata and this later piano work
is really night and day. It’s just a tremendous growth and change
BD: And yet
they’re both you!
both me. Oh, yes, absolutely. You can tell.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music
over the years?
DH: Yes, I
have. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had very good
BD: Are there
times when the interpreters will find things in your scores that you
didn’t know you’d put there?
DH: Yes, all the
DH: Yes, I
like that. I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t have a lot of
performances, but when I do have performances, I find them really very
good, very faithful. The performers have worked well with me, and
been responsive, and I can’t complain.
about the recordings? They get wider distribution, so are you
pleased with them?
DH: Oh, yes,
absolutely. With Ludus II,
I wasn’t too pleased with the quality of the recording, but now that
it’s on compact disc, the problems have all been eliminated, and
there’s excellent quality there, too.
BD: So the
Compact Disc has improved the technical quality? [That CD is shown at right. Also see
my Interviews with Joseph Schwantner, and Luciano Berio.]
BD: This is
scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Why that
DH: That is
what the commission was for. That was the size of the
BD: Is Ludus I the same combination?
Ludus I was for a different
sized group. I was commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber
Orchestra in Minnesota, and they asked for a piece for the first chair
players at the time. So I took the woodwind quintet and a string
quintet, and wrote a piece for ten players. Ludus II was commissioned by the
Boston Musica Viva, which is a group of five players, and so that’s the
way it went.
BD: When you
get a commission, do you ever want to add a sixth player to a quintet,
or something like that?
no. When I got a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra,
it was for a work for chamber orchestra. I wanted to add the
whole orchestra desperately, so I asked Lorin Maazel why
don’t I get the whole band? But he convinced me that he wanted to
piece for chamber orchestra. I’ve been tempted but no, I
understand the constraints on commissions.
BD: Do you
ever get an idea that won’t work in one piece, so you set it aside and
work it into another piece?
usually, no. I try to concentrate my thought on what it is at
you’re working on a piece and you’re getting everything done, how do
you know when to put the pencil down? How do you know when it’s
DH: I just do
it, and it’s over. It is the same thing when a painter knows when
you don’t have to add another dab of color. It’s just all there.
BD: Let me
ask about a few of the other pieces which are on records. First
is the Fantasy for Violin and Piano.
Tell me a little bit about that.
DH: That was
written for Max Deutsch. I dedicated it to Max Deutsch years and
years ago. It’s actually is the only strict twelve-tone piece I
ever wrote. I think it was written about 1956 or ’57, and
surprisingly enough, I never heard the Schoenberg Phantasy [for Violin and Piano]
when I wrote it, so it’s very different from the Schoenberg. But
it was meant to be a one movement virtuoso piece for the violin, and
it’s fairly straightforward from that standpoint. It was recorded
by Paul Zukofsky many years ago. Now we’re talking about pieces I
wrote in the ’50s.
protesting] You don’t want to disown any of your old pieces, do
DH: Oh, no,
absolutely not. That is my first published piece, my first
publication. It was engraved and everything.
BD: Is it
your Opus 1?
DH: It wasn’t
the Opus 1. What I would call the Opus 1 would be the piano
sonata that you have on the record. But the Fantasy was the first published
piece. There’s also a version for orchestra that was done by the
Orchestra in Marseilles, in France. I seem to have lost that
version... at least I was looking for it and couldn’t find it at all,
so now we just have the piano version. But on my score it says Fantasy for Violin and Piano or Orchestra,
and that’s what the published score says when people buy it. But
I can’t find the orchestration anywhere, so I assume it’s lost.
optimistic] Maybe it’ll turn up in a trunk some place!
about the String Quartet?
DH: The String Quartet was commissioned by
Tanglewood. It was my first commission back in this country when
I was living in Europe. It was commissioned by the Festival of
American Music at Tanglewood in 1965. I wrote it and I dedicated
it to Ross Finney because I always associate a string quartet with this
country. It’s interesting because I could have written whatever I
wanted to for this Tanglewood commission.
BD: They just
told you to write a piece of music?
DH: Yes, for
a chamber ensemble group. I thought to do a string quartet
because I was so honored to have a commission from this country, my own
country, and I thought the string quartet would be right because I grew
up with string quartets, and at that time I didn’t hear many string
quartets. I’m talking about the early 1960s. There was one
quartet playing in France, the Parrenin Quartet. Maybe there was
a couple of others, but here, the University had its own string
quartet, and there were student string quartets, and it seemed to be
far more part of the culture. Yet composers weren’t writing many
string quartets. More Americans were writing string quartets than
Europeans at that time, in the early ’60s, so I
wrote this string quartet for this concert at Tanglewood. That’s
when I met Paul Zukofsky, who was a student, and he was the first
violinist in that group. This is kind of a funny story...
Until at the last rehearsals, towards the end of the work it just
wasn’t coming off the way it should. Gunther Schuller,
who was the head of the program, decided he would come in and conduct
so that I would get a better performance of the whole thing. At
the last rehearsal, Gunther was conducting, and there was this man, who
I didn’t know, who walked in to listen to the rehearsal. I
noticed everybody was looking at him with strangest eyes, as if to ask
who this man was. I didn’t know who it was, but it didn’t bother
me at all, and the rehearsal went pretty well. After the
rehearsal I said to Gunther that it was a good rehearsal, and he told
me that the unknown guest was Harold Schonberg of The New York Times! At that
very moment, Paul Zukofsky walked up and said, “Gunther,
we are not going to play this string quartet with a conductor. We
don’t want any critics to say they that it was so difficult it had to
be conducted!” So they went and they worked
and they worked, and they played the concert without a conductor.
They did a beautiful job, and we got a very nice review in The New York Times.
BD: Why would
Harold Schonberg show up at a rehearsal?
DH: I guess
he would come to rehearsals. He was reviewing the Festival for
the Times, and he would just
walk into these rehearsals at random.
|Harold Charles Schonberg
(November 29, 1915 – July 26, 2003) was an American music critic and
journalist, most notably for The New
York Times. He was the first music critic to win the Pulitzer
Prize for Criticism (1971). He also wrote a number of books on musical
subjects, and one on chess.
Schonberg was born in New York City to David and Mini
Schonberg. He had a brother (Stanley) and a sister (Edith). Schonberg
graduated from Brooklyn College in 1937, and did graduate studies at
New York University. In 1939 he became a record critic for American Music Lover Magazine
(later renamed the American Record
During World War II, Schonberg was a first lieutenant in the United
States Army Airborne Signal Corps. He had hoped to enlist as a pilot,
but was declared pastel-blind (he could distinguish colors but not
shadings and subtleties) and was sent to London, where he was a code
breaker and later a parachutist. He broke his leg on a training jump
before D-Day and could not participate in the Normandy invasion; every
member of his platoon who jumped into France was ultimately killed. He
remained in the Army until 1946.
Schonberg joined The New York Times
in 1950. He rose to the post of senior music critic for the Times a decade later. In this
capacity he published daily reviews and longer features on operas and
classical music on Sundays. He also worked effectively behind the
scenes to increase music coverage in the Times and develop its first-rate
music staff. Upon his retirement as senior music critic in 1980 he
became cultural correspondent for the Times.
Schonberg was an extremely influential music writer. Aside from his
contributions to music journalism, he published 13 books, most of them
on music, including The Great
Pianists: From Mozart to the Present (1963, revised
1987)—pianists were a specialty of Schonberg—and The Lives of the Great Composers
(1970; revised 1981, 1997) which traced the lives of major composers
from Monteverdi through to modern times.
BD: What is
the role of the music critic?
DH: [Thinks a
moment] To be a pain in the ass! [Both have a huge
laugh] Music critics have a big role. They spark
controversy, get people talking, set standards, express an audience’s
viewpoint, etc. What’s the role of the political
commentator? They’re right-wing, they’re left-wing, they’re this
and they’re that. I’ve gotten plenty of bad reviews, but the
worst thing is to be ignored by a review; not even get mentioned.
But, I really don’t believe that the critic, especially in music, can
negatively impact the financial health of an organization or the career
of an artist. Both responsible and irresponsible journalism are a
fact of the day, and we might as well live with it and react to it, and
just get in the frame of battle!
BD: What do
you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of yours?
DH: If it’s a
piece that I’m hearing for the first time, I don’t know what to
expect. But if it’s a piece that I’ve heard, that I know and has
been played for a long time, I would hope that they would be interested
enough to want to hear it again, and if they like it they would express
their appreciation. If they don’t like it, I would hope they
would be willing or able to understand why they didn’t like it. I
would hope that the language would not be the issue, but if it were a
language problem, they would spend some time to get to know it.
We can’t really just hear things once, in spite of the fact that we
think we can. We’ve been conditioned by so much old music,
and have to be conditioned by new music. I would expect an
audience to be hostile if it really wanted to be hostile. I hate
when the audience is indifferent!
BD: You want
to stir the pot?
necessarily stir it, but get reactions of some kind.
been talking about concert music. Is concert music for everyone?
absolutely not. It’s changing. Symphony orchestras are
changing. The students we’re educating are changing. When
you asked me to predict the future, that’s where I was having the
problems. I really can’t predict the future. Our structures
will probably not survive, but what we’ve created for them can very
much survive. Nobody thought that Beethoven string quartets would
be played and played in halls that hold 3,000 people, or played over
compact discs or on TV, and they’re surviving very well. Whenever
one is in Chicago the word ‘symphony’
comes to mind because Chicago is the home of the greatest symphony
orchestra. It’s most definitely the No. 1, but that structure is
going to have to change. It’s going to have to be more
media-orientated. By ‘change’
I mean that more different types of composition must become
involved. The whole thing is going to change, but luckily, if the
institution is solid to begin with, it will change with it and grow.
BD: So, are
you optimistic about the future of music?
DH: Yes, I’m
optimistic about the future of music to the extent that I can be
optimistic about the future of humanity. I have to be optimistic
about it, which, by the way, is the reason I am an educator. If I
wasn’t optimistic I wouldn’t be an educator, but I could easily take
the other position, which is wrong, and I don’t want to go into hiding.
Despite all of this, is composing fun?
Yes! Absolutely, and very time consuming. It takes an awful
lot of time — sometimes
days for a measure. It depends. What’s not fun is the act
of composing, the worry. Schoenberg always said he loved all of
his pieces because he loved them when he wrote them, and I know what
that means. The problems come after you’ve written a piece.
Then you either wait to hear it played, or you hear it played and you
have to live with it before it becomes part of your past. That’s
not so much fun. But the actual composing is loads and loads of
good. Thank you for spending some time with me this
afternoon. I’ve enjoyed it.
DH: Thank you
for inviting me!
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© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 20,
1988. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1991 and 1996.
This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.