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!

BD:    Coming 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 …

BD:    Deconstructionist???

DH:    That’s 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, everything?

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.

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, yes.

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]

Douglas Allanbrook; Daniel Barenboim; Leslie Bassett; Arthur Berger; Easley Blackwood, Jr.; Elliott Carter; Paul Chihara; Robert Cogan; David Diamond; Cecil Effinger; Donald Erb; Ross Lee Finney; Philip Glass; Donald Grantham; Alexei Haieff; Donald Harris; Karel Husa; Andrew Imbrie; Robert Kapilow; Leo Kraft; John La Montaine; Noël Lee; Gilbert Levine; Normand Lockwood; Nicholas Maw; Gian Carlo Menotti; Robert Moevs; Thea Musgrave; Daniel Pinkham; Marta Ptaszynska; John Donald Robb; Robert Xavier Rodriguez; Carol Rosenberger; Harold Shapero; Elie Siegmeister; Stanisław Skrowaczewski; Louise Talma; Virgil Thomson; Lester Trimble; George Theophilus Walker; David Ward-Steinman; Elinor Remick Warren; Rolv Yttrehus.

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.

deutschBoulanger 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!

DH:    Nobody ever asked me before, so I’m glad you did because it’s made me think in that sense.

BD:    Are these things that you learned from the various teachers, things that you try to impart on your students?

DH:    Yes... 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.

harrisBD:    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?

DH:    [Pauses 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?

DH:    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?

DH:    Heaven’s 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?

DH:    Absolutely
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 jobeducation 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 creativeis 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 musicand 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?

DH:    [Ponders 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?

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?

BD:    Yes.

DH:    Oh, sure, of course.  But you don’t listen to just the great music.

BD:    No!

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.

BD:    How?

DH:    Through 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?

DH:    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 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 yearswe 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.

harrisBD:    Is that scary?

DH:    No.  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?

DH:    That’s 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 fathers.

DH:    If it doubles in twenty years, all that doubling is not yet getting into the curriculum.

BD:    No, but it’s coming.

DH:    Yes, and that’s an issue.

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along
besides studying counterpoint?

DH:    [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 a vacuum.

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?

DH:    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?

harrisDH:    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, 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?

DH:    [Ponders 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?

BD:    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?

DH:    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 pitfalls?

DH:    I don’t know... I hope so.  I’ve been doing it for forty years, so it’s a long time.

BD:    Speaking of time, are you conscious of time
meaning how long a piece will take to performas you’re composing it?

DH:    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.

BD:    Except for the opera that you’re working on?

DH:    That’s 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. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    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 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 hang together?

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!

DH:    They’re 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?

harrisDH:    Yes, all the time.

BD:    That’s pleases you?

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. 

BD:    What 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.]

DH:    Yes, absolutely!

BD:    This is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.  Why that particular combination?

DH:    That is what the commission was for.  That was the size of the group.  

BD:    Is Ludus I the same combination?

DH:    No.  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 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?

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

BD:    [Gently 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 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.

BD:    [Being 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 w
rite 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.

schonbergSchonberg 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?

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?

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.

BD:    Despite all of this, is composing fun?

DH:    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 fun.

BD:    That’s 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 website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.