Composer / Educator Donald Harris
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 website. BD
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.
Bruce Duffie: You’ve
just taken over a new position at Ohio State?
Donald Harris: 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 about everything.
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 other arts?
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’ building
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, drama,
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
* * *
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.
BD: Is 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 life?
DH: Oh absolutely,
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.
DH: She 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 well!
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?
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
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 the radio?
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?
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.
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?
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 reach.
* * *
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
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 valleys?
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 absorb?
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
DH: If it doubles
in twenty years, all that doubling is not yet getting into the curriculum.
BD: No, but
DH: Yes, and
that’s an issue.
BD: What advice
do you have for young composers coming along — besides
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 a
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 contemporary.
* * *
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 out?
Mainly 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 in Boston.
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 London, Lucy Shelton, Gilbert Kalish, and Yehudi Wyner.]
BD: But should
they should be performed on the same program as Pierrot?
DH: Not necessarily,
no. They will be tomorrow night in New York, but not necessarily, no.
Pierrot stands by itself and doesn’t
need anything else.
BD: When 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?
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?
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 pitfalls?
DH: I don’t
know... I hope so. I’ve been doing it for forty years, so it’s a long
of time, are you conscious of time — meaning how
long a piece will take to perform — as you’re composing
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
BD: Is it pleasing
that you know each piece is going to be a one-movement entity?
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
* * *
Let us come back to the Piano Sonata.
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 Paris. It
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 that time ladies’ hats were
going out of fashion. It used to be that ladies wore elaborate hats,
and then they stopped wearing them at a certain point. So this person
had to rent out part of her workshop because she didn’t have enough business.
So I was able to have a studio with a piano in this room which was full of
these little heads, models with pins sticking in hats all over. It
was very inexpensive, and that’s where I had my studio to write music, in
this hat workshop. Anyway, I 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 first. I 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 it was like Francis
Poulenc in style. Then I wrote the last movement, and that was longer,
more elaborate. It was a theme and variations, and it had a number of
different moods, including a little French waltz. Then I wrote the first
movement, and then the second. This was the last 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. I 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 lovely person, and she asked me if I’d
written any music. I told her that I’d written a number of things but
had not shown them to anybody as yet. So she put me in touch with a
marvelous pianist whose name was Geneviève Joy (1919-2009). She
is the wife of a very famous French composer, Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013).
We’ve since become very close 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
it 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 ballad. It’s 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 in my style.
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 performances.
BD: Are there
times when the interpreters will find things in your scores that you didn’t
know you’d put there?
Yes, all the time.
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
BD: What about
the recordings? They get wider distribution, so are you pleased with
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, Mario Davidovsky,
and Luciano Berio.]
DH: Yes, absolutely!
BD: This is
scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Why that particular
DH: That is
what the commission was for. That was the size of the group.
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?
DH: No, 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
the 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?
DH: Not usually,
no. I try to concentrate my thought on what it is at hand.
BD: When 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 done?
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 you?
DH: Oh, no,
absolutely not. That is my first published piece, my first publication.
It was engraved and everything.
BD: Is it your
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!
DH: Yes, possibly!
BD: What 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 [shown with Harris in photo below], 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 Guide).
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?
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!
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?
DH: Not necessarily
stir it, but get reactions of some kind.
BD: We’ve been
talking about concert music. Is concert music for everyone?
DH: No, 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?
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
good. Thank you for spending some time with me this afternoon.
I’ve enjoyed it.
DH: Thank you
for inviting me!
---- ---- ----
---- ---- ----
© 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 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.
To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print,
as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
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.