Composer  Benjamin  Lees
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Having done over 1600 interviews, it is interesting for me to look back at some of them and see that what was said is still very much valid today.  In the case of Benjamin Lees, his ideas are certainly pertinent, and his predictions seem to have come true.  Between 1987 (when this conversation took place) and 2010 (when it is being posted on the internet) he has continued to write significant works, and more things have been recorded and issued on compact discs. 

A brief biography is included at the bottom of this page.  Names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

On the day we arranged to chat on the phone, he had set aside some time to be with his grandchildren, but was willing to speak with me for awhile before they arrived . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    In looking over your biography, I notice that besides composing you’ve done some teaching scattered around a couple of years here and a couple of years there.  Has this been a conscious effort to cut back on your teaching or to change teaching positions?

lees Benjamin Lees:    There really was no conscious effort involved, it was just the way things evolved.  I didn’t really begin teaching until I got back to the United States from Europe in 1962, and began teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.  I taught there for two years and then received an offer from Queens College in New York.  Since there was considerably more money attached to it and a chance to be in the New York area, we moved to Long Island.  I was there for two years, and the only reason I left was because the college was less flexible in permitting its composers to attend performances and rehearsals.  I had to make a choice between teaching Harmony One and doing my own writing!

BD:    I think you made the right decision!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Jacob Avshalomov, William Bergsma, and David Diamond.]

BL:    [Laughs]  Well, I hope so!  So I left Queens College and began commuting back to the Conservatory in Baltimore where I remained another two years.  Following that, I can’t remember the years precisely, but I think it was from 1970 to ’72, I was at the Manhattan School in New York, and then a year at Juilliard.  That’s really been the extent of the teaching.  Every once in a while I’m asked by a university to come out and give a lecture, and apart from that, it’s really been writing.

BD:    When you were teaching, how did you balance your time between the instructional schedule and the compositions you wanted to write?

BL:    At that point the writing had to be done in the late hours of the evening.  Some people work very well late at night, but I really don’t.  I enjoy myself really well late at night, but I can’t concentrate on writing at that hour!  All of us develop certain habits, and my best time is either in the late morning or early noon to the entire afternoon.  After a while, one develops hot streaks and you work in white heat for three hours and will accomplish a great deal.

BD:    Then do you look up and wonder where the time went?

BL:    Exactly!  Then, of course, the test comes the next day when you look at the material you have written to see whether or not it’s really as good as you thought it was the day before.

BD:    Is it generally as good?

BL:    I would say it works out about seventy-five percent of the time.

BD:    That’s a very good average.

BL:    But the other twenty-five percent you have to take seriously, so you tear it up and you start again.

BD:    Do you tear it up completely, or do you revise what’s there?

BL:    I sometimes revise, but I very often tear it up.  There’s no compunction about tearing something up.

BD:    Before we leave the teaching aspect, I want to ask if musical composition is something that really can be taught, or must it be innate within each composer?

BL:    I don’t think it can be taught.  I don’t know what the general consensus is, but all I know is that at a certain point there comes this absolutely terrible need — it’s an inner need — to write.  It has nothing to do with this worn expression of
expressing one’s self.  Whenever I hear somebody say, “I want to compose because I want to express myself,” it sounds a little self-indulgent.  You can express yourself in a thousand other ways.  I think in order to really create, whether it’s in music or writing a play or writing a novel, there has to be such a terrible, desperate, burning need!  It’s one that overrides everything else, that if you couldn’t do it you would literally want to kill yourself.  It’s that great.  Unless it’s that which is driving you, then really composition or the creative side of something is not for you.  There are many people who have a talent for putting something down on paper, and I think they could make a wonderful living by writing commercially.  And many of them do.

BD:    Are you looking down your nose at commercial music?

BL:    No, no, never!  Never!  As a matter of fact, in the early years when my wife and I had just been married, I was doing music every once in a while for animated cartoons.  There was a wonderful company at that time which produced things like “Mr. Magoo,” and “The Telltale Heart.”  They were using James Mason as narrator; they were trying to elevate that medium a bit and they insisted upon using symphonic composers.  So I learned a little bit that way.

lees BD:    Was that a satisfying thing, or was it just a lark?

BL:    Oh, it was very satisfying!  It was great fun because you had to write something that was eight minutes in length, which is the length of the cartoon, and then you orchestrated it yourself and you conducted.  Later on, here in New York for Channel Thirteen there were a series of documentaries in which I was involved, and so I wrote music for that.  No, no, I think that the film medium is a wonderful one, and I would like to do a full-length feature film one day.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  Copland didn’t do too badly and Bernstein didn’t do too badly.  Neither did Prokofiev, by the way.  I think it’s a valid and viable medium, and I would never turn my nose up or down [laughs] as the case may be, at that!

BD:    I assume that you have a mountain of commission offers.  How do you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you will set aside?

BL:    There is never a mountain.  There is, at best, a modest hump!  [Both laugh]  But once you accept a commission, then of course you are honor-bound to fulfill it within a reasonable time.  So at that point, when you accept a commission you must then tell the commissioning party what it is you are involved in at the moment.

BD:    What I’m looking for right now is the previous step.  How do you decide whether to go with it or to pass?

BL:    Only in very few instances would I really pass on something that didn’t promise a life of its own later.  For example, one day I was approached by two very, very nice people in New York who played the harp.  They wanted a concerto for two harps and orchestra, which is not a bad idea, but every orchestra has its own resident harpist and many orchestras carry two harps.  So I told them, “Under the circumstances, it would be very difficult to obtain even the first performance, and trying to get the second would be almost impossible.”  I didn’t feel like taking their money for a project which really didn’t hold out any promise of further performances either for them or for myself.  So it’s on that basis that I would turn something down.

BD:    That’s too bad.  Sounds like an intriguing proposition.

BL:    It certainly does, and I was sorry to have to do it.  But I was really trying to look at the thing in the cold light of day, and I really thought there is very little hope for this kind of a piece.

BD:    How often do the practical considerations take precedence over the artistic realities?

BL:    Let me put it this way:  usually there is no such struggle.  Somebody will want a new orchestral piece or somebody will want a concerto for a solo instrument and orchestra, and that poses no problem at all.  There is no artistic clash there.  I haven’t been asked to do an opera, and I presume that the choice of subject would be left to the composer or mutually agreed upon when a story was chosen.  But other than that, I’ve had very few artistic clashes between a commission offer and what I think might or might not be artistic.

BD:    You’ve been very lucky, then.

BL:    I don’t know if it’s lucky or not.  Most people either will ask for a piece of chamber music
a sonata, quartet, trio or a song cycleor they may ask for a piece for a chamber orchestra of anywhere between thirty and forty players.  Or they may ask for a full-blown orchestral piece.  That’s been the pattern for me, anyway.  So yes, I suppose in that sense I’m fortunate that I don’t have any clashes.

BD:    You mentioned not having been commissioned for an opera, and yet there are two listed in your résumé of works.

BL:    I’m talking about a full-length opera.

BD:    Oh, I see.  The Oracle was a one-act opera?

BL:    The Oracle was a one-act opera, and as a matter of fact was not commissioned.  It has not been completed and it’s been removed from most catalogues.  It was the first opera to my knowledge — and I’ve been told by others — to have been based on the computer.  It was written back in 1955, and the idea evolved in 1952 when the very first computer by IBM was constructed.

BD:    Oh, the old Univac?

BL:    I don’t even know what it was called, but I recall one day reading in the paper that it had to be torn down because it performed a function for which it had not been programmed!

BD:    Uh-oh!

BL:    That absolutely baffled the people who had designed it, and they tore it down.  Then they put it back together, and some months later it again performed another function for which it had not been programmed.  Anyway, I took that as a cue and the work was written.  Portions of it were performed in England at the time for Barbirolli by a soprano I’d known.  Barbirolli was fascinated with the idea and he said, “Let’s complete it and we’ll do it as a television production.”  But at that time an economic crisis hit England, and people who were converting to certain channels of TV were suddenly told that they would have to pay an extra fee.  And that just demolished the project completely.  So you go on to other things.  Sometimes it’s almost destined.  If you keep trying and trying and it doesn’t get off the ground, put it away, forget it, go onto something else.

lees BD:    With no hard feelings?

BL:    No hard feelings.

BD:    The other opera that’s listed is a piece called The Gilded Cage.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Leonardo Balada, Ellen Taffe Zwilich, and Lorin Maazel.]

BL:    All right, I have to eat my words a little bit here.  The Gilded Cage had been commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the New York City Opera.  It was a comic opera
or supposed to be, anywaybased on a true incident that occurred in France about a prison that was taken over by the inmates, in a town called Pont-lÉvêque, where a famous cheese comes from.  It’s up in the northern part of France.  Anyway, through the great leniency of a warden, who felt that all of these people were wrongly incarcerated, he began giving them greater and greater liberties, and finally they were allowed to leave the prison and have coffee at the local café.  There they lock themselves in!  So, the poet Alistair Reid and I thought this would make really an interesting opera.  I proceeded to finish two scenes which were performed at the Metropolitan Opera Studio.  At that time, Menotti was fascinated with the idea, and he said, “I’m frustrated because I really want to hear more now.”  Apparently the people at the New York City Opera didn’t have that much of a sense of humor, and somehow the idea just died, period.  I tried several times to revive it, and then went to the great Beverly Sills, who apparently didn’t see much humor in the situation.  So as far as I’m concerned, morally I owe the New York City Opera an opera!  [Both laugh]  Whether they will feel that they are morally bound to accept an opera, even if it isn’t this one, is open to question!  I haven’t approached them since.  And then there’s Medea, a one-acter which has been done fairly often now.  That was based on the Robinson Jeffers treatment of the old Medea in Corinth story.  Judith Anderson originally played that role on the stage and I received permission from the estate to use the Jeffers version.  Instead of making a two-hour opera out of it, I condensed it into a thirty minute opera, or a thirty minute theater piece, really.  The orchestra consists of a woodwind quintet with timpani, and four singers.  There is one set.  It was premiered in 1970 in England, and then CBS Television did it in New York in 1974.  Subsequently it was taken up by small opera groups.

BD:    You made a very distinct differentiation between opera and musical theater.  Where do you draw the line, and what are the differences?

BL:    Because we’re all chained to the past, in a sense, opera to me would consist of formal sets, duets, trios, quintets, this kind of thing; whereas a theater piece would not necessarily involve formal set pieces, but rather flow quite naturally from the spoken word into a situation in the score where you find yourself involved in a solo or a duet or a trio.

BD:    Is one better than the other, or is it just different?

BL:    No, no, I don’t think so, not at all.  They coexist very happily, but you have to decide what it is you want to do and how you’re going to treat the subject.

BD:    What kinds of things do you look for in deciding how you’re going to treat a subject?

BL:    I have to look at the situations in the libretto.  I have to look at the situations in the story.  You look at situations in character development.  I don’t know if that answers your question on that or not...

BD:    That’s a start anyway.  Do you feel that opera is in a healthy state these days?

BL:    I don’t know.  I’m not the authority on opera.  If you ask me things other than opera, I can answer more coherently.  [Both laugh]  Generally today, music is in a great state of flux.  That’s number one.  I think that for opera or for the musical theater to have a successful composer — I mean successful artistically — there has to be a lyric gift somewhere, or a lyric streak no matter what the style of composition is, and I don’t see any lyric streaks.  I see very angular kinds of lines.  I see angular lines in the orchestration and I see a lot of anguish in the orchestration.  I see a lot of tautness.  I don’t feel that there is anything, so far, that has come along with a grand sweep.  The last two twentieth century composers I can think of that have that would be Britten and Poulenc.  Those were the very last.  Whether I actually like their music or not is beside the point.  I’m only talking about my reaction.  I think that Billy Budd, for example, is an excellent opera.  Certainly Dialogue of the Carmelites is going to become, if it is not already, a repertory piece.

BD:    Yes, it’s getting there.

BL:    It is certainly getting there!  So far, all of the efforts by American composers — and I suppose for that matter, by composers elsewhere — to create repertory pieces that will remain has not really proved very successful.  We have Gershwin and Porgy and Bess.  Every once in a while the Copland Tender Land is revived, but it’s not a repertory piece.  West Side Story, I suppose, can be considered a successful musical theater piece by any standard, but then you begin counting on the fingers of one hand
or on the fingers of two handswhen we’re trying to sum up repertory pieces of the entire twentieth century, at least to this point...

BD:    ...and you run out of pieces before you run out of fingers.

BL:    I think so.

*     *     *     *     *

antheil BD:    In a great number of your own works, you have used the traditional approachSlonimsky calls it accessibilitywhich makes your music attractive to conductors and soloists.  Is this something you have consciously built in to your pieces, or is this an outgrowth of what you wanted to write innately?

BL:    I don’t really know how that came about.  I suppose we are all pre-programmed or predestined to do what we do.  We evolve in our own way, but we evolve within certain parameters.  I used to write much differently twenty-five years ago and yet it’s the same hand.  The hand which writes today is the same hand that wrote twenty-five years ago, so certain similarities are still there along with certain little characteristics.

BD:    You could find your fingerprints in your early works?

BL:    Oh, certainly, certainly.  I know that there are always the inevitable changes of meter which, twenty-five years ago, used to shock and annoy certain segments of the public and certainly certain orchestras and certain conductors!  That’s old hat today; everybody changes meter.  The accessibility, I suppose, comes from something that George Antheil told me when I was studying with him.  He put it very succinctly, and it was one of those catch words which stuck in the memory.  He said, “Music must have a face.  A theme must have a face, something which is really recognizable, both to you and to the listener.”  And again, it matters not what style a person writes in, but it cannot simply be amorphous.  It cannot be really formless and it cannot be merely notes spinning.  I find that composition has never come easily because I’m always rewriting incessantly just to make sure that that is really the best, that each idea can evolve.

BD:    There must come a time when you say you’ve finished with it.

BL:    That’s right, exactly!  And once it’s finished, I don’t have any desire to say, “Well now, I will rewrite the piece,” or, “I’m going to change the dynamics or I’m going to change the phrasing.”  Once it’s set, that’s the way it’s going to be.

BD:    How do you know when you have reached that point?

BL:    You know it because there are certain things physically which tell, at least to me!  If there is no visceral reaction, then it’s not set yet.  One really knows, and that’s my way of knowing.  If it really doesn’t register in the viscera, then it has not yet gelled.

BD:    You say that composers are pre-programmed.  Do you feel that you are in control of the music going onto the page, or that the music is in control of you as your hand writes?

BL:    No, no, no.  I’m in control of the music.  But if you would ask me why I don’t write like Composer X, suppose X stands for Xenakis.  “Why don’t you write like Xenakis?”  It isn’t that I don’t admire what Xenakis does, it’s simply that that’s not the way I see my music flowing.  I don’t think he’s wrong.  What he does and the way he does it, is perfectly right for him.  I can’t see Xenakis writing a C major chord.

BD:    And yet you see yourself writing a C major chord very often.

BL:    I see myself writing a C major chord which is overlapped by a C sharp major chord.  I like to have oblique harmonies if I use harmonies at all.  But if a C major chord comes up and it seems absolutely the right place for an open, naked C major chord, then that’s exactly what I’ll use.  I notice that the so-called
minimalist composers have no compunction about repeating an A major chord from for ten minutes!  I feel that I can use a C major chord for a split second.  [Both laugh]

BD:    When you get into your piece, are you ever surprised by where your music has led you?

BL:    Yes, yes.  Sometimes you find yourself in that situation known as
quicksand or uncharted territory.  Maybe others have been there, but for you that’s the very first time.  You are very, very careful, and at the same time, with all of this taking care there’s also a sense of excitement because it’s something that you’ve not encountered before.  As a matter of fact, I’m finding it even now in this new Fifth Symphony that I’m doing, that there are certain things that I’ve never encountered before.  It’s like a puzzle; I have to figure it out and then pick my way very gingerly before I feel confident about where I’m going next.

BD:    What, if anything, do you expect of the audience that comes to hear either a new piece of yours, or perhaps the repeat of an older piece?

lees BL:    I really don’t expect anything of the audience.  I think the audience comes in good faith to a concert, and looks at the program and says, “Ah, yes, there will be this piece by Lees.”  Some have heard this composer; some haven’t.  All they’re hoping is that the work won’t be too dreadful, or that it’s something that they might actually enjoy.  It’s really up to the composer, in the writing of a piece, to be able to communicate in the first instance to himself or herself.  If the communication to one’s self has been successful and really honest, then chances are that the piece will communicate to the audience.  Honestly, I’ve seen this work so often that it’s something that I live by!  I’ve been involved with audiences who were very, very conservative, and I was warned in advance, “If they stand up and walk out, don’t take it personally.  That’s the way they are.”  And that very same audience will stand up and cheer, which is a complete surprise.

BD:    I would think that would be a special victory for you.

BL:    It’s not so much a victory for me personally.  It’s simply a vindication of a fact, at least known to me and I presume known to others as well, that this idea of communicating is extremely important.  After all, we don’t create in a vacuum.  I remember back in the fifties, when composers who were writing works practically only for each other, and who presumed to believe that the audience really didn’t matter, found that they had no audience at all!  I never believed in that.  I believe that if one writes a piece, you obviously are writing first because that’s the inner need, and second because ultimately you would like to share what you have written with the audience.  And you are hoping that the audience will react in somewhat the same way that you reacted when you finally had finished the piece and then played it from page one to the end.  But you have to be convinced of what you have written.  That’s the other aspect, because if the composer isn’t convinced, then the audience is not going to be convinced!

BD:    Are there ever cases where performers or interpreters find things in your score you didn’t know you had hidden there?

BL:    Oh, yes!  I remember back in 1959 or ’60, I was in Rome with Erich Leinsdorf, who was at that time just about to take over the Boston Symphony.  He had asked me if I had a work which had never been done, and it happened to be the Violin Concerto.  We were going to be using Henryk Szeryng as the soloist, and we were in his hotel room.  He’s looking at the score and he suddenly said to me, “Ah, that’s really very clever.”  I asked, “What?” and he said, “This theme from the Jupiter Symphony that you gave to the second oboe.”  I had never in my life even thought of the Jupiter Symphony as I was writing this violin concerto, and yet somewhere along the line, here was this very, very tiny fragment.  It was there, but I had never noticed it.

BD:    Do you feel that you and Mozart arrived at the same combination of notes?

BL:    [Laughs]  Several hundred years later we came upon the same idea!

BD:    When you present a piece of music to the performers, how much leeway do you allow them for interpretation?

BL:    A knowledgeable soloist or a knowledgeable conductor will be able to interpret the piece within certain parameters, beyond which he or she knows that it simply becomes distortion.  You give it a metronome marking, or you say
quickly, and some will take it quickly while others will take it a little less quickly.  Some will take it a little more quickly.  A really first-class conductor or soloist will know what the boundaries are, and they’ve already had the experience of being able to take a look at a work to know pretty much what they want to do with it.  So I very rarely have any problems that way.  But I do have a problem primarily with conductors who will take a score and never bother to ask you at all about your particular feeling on page eighteen.   Or they won’t say to you, “This is my idea of how the second movement should evolve.  What do you think?”  In other words I find that today there is less and less communication, by and large, between the conductor and the composer.

BD:    Are you one of these that sits in on all the rehearsals and jumps up and corrects the conductor?

lees BL:    I believe, after all, that the composer should have the right to correct!  While they are rehearsing a standard piece, I have heard I don’t know how many conductors say to an orchestra, “If only Beethoven (or Mozart) were alive, we could ask him how this should go!”  Well by God, here’s the bloody composer sitting there!  Ask him while he’s still alive!  But so often, they treat the composer as somehow a necessary impediment.  So you have to be very careful about how you ask a conductor whatever it is you want asked or corrected.

BD:    Are your ideas about a score always right?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Vincent Persichetti, and James DePreist.]

BL:    I would say in the large sense, yes.  Naturally, certain details can be changed at any time, and I find that a good conductor or a good soloist can do things I hadn’t thought of.  That’s absolutely true!  But in the larger sense, looking at a piece overall from beginning to end, I find I have a pretty good conception of what it is that I want out of it.

BD:    Do you ever accept suggestions from the interpreters?

BL:    Oh, certainly!  All the time, particularly from one whom you respect completely because they really do have something to offer.  And I’ve been fortunate.  For example, in the preparation of that Violin Concerto we were speaking about, Henryk Szeryng was a marvelous soloist and came up with absolutely first-class suggestions!  In the case of working with the pianist Gary Graffman, he had very pointed and very good suggestions, and I took him up immediately on them.  I would be a fool not to.  I’m just thinking back to working with Maureen Forrester.  When someone of her stature has a suggestion to make, you listen very carefully because it’s not a fool who’s talking there.

BD:    And yet it’s not the creator making the changes!

BL:    The suggestions that the soloists will make are sometimes suggestions of detail and not suggestions on the overall, or overview of the piece.  We’re talking of a detail, of a phrase, how a phrase should be sung, how a phrase should be bowed, of a certain kind of attack, of a certain point at which you have a diminuendo.

BD:    So not changing notes, but how you play those notes you’ve written?

BL:    Yes.  We don’t really change notes.  Sometimes the composer will temporarily change balances, because we hear the balances in our head correctly, but you may be having your orchestral work done in a hall where the balances simply will not work out that way.  So you have to change.

BD:    You haven’t really miscalculated, it’s just the hall isn’t giving you what you want?

BL:    Exactly!  For example, Ford Auditorium is not known as an acoustical wonder!  So anything that you had calculated will have to be recalculated for that particular hall.  There are differences between playing at Carnegie Hall and playing at Avery Fisher Hall.  You have two different situations.

BD:    But you don’t make emendations in your score, and say, “Use this set of parts for Carnegie and the other for Fisher,” can you?

BL:    Actually, that would be a wonderful idea.  But being very pragmatic and knowing what the cost of parts reproducing them are, it’s a little difficult to do!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you a great, big philosophical question.  What is, or what should be, the ultimate purpose of music in today’s society?

BL:    You mean music in general, or are you talking about symphonic music?

lees BD:    Music in general.

BL:    Including the popular music?

BD:    Let us just stick with concert music, since this is your area of specialization.

BL:    You know, sometimes when I’m in a particularly depressed mood, I don’t even know that it serves a purpose any longer.  There are a tremendous number of distractions in our society, at least in the society of the United States — I can’t speak for a society of Western or Eastern Europe.  People will flock in the tens of thousands to hear a rock concert.  They will watch their favorite TV programs.  They will go to sporting events.  They will go to the beach.  For somebody to come to a concert hall requires effort because you have to get dressed, even minimally.  You may even want to wash!  You have to plan ahead.  If you’re driving in, you have to worry about a parking place.  If you’re not driving in, you may have to wait for a bus or for a subway.  Then once you’re there, you have to sit; it is a form of concentration.  You have to sit for ninety minutes without anyone speaking to you, and have a kind of concentration that will provide you with a measure of satisfaction at the end, or of a release, or to come away with whatever it is that you came for at that concert.  In a rock concert, the audience participates.  It stands up and sings and cheers and drinks beer and does all kinds of things; there is a reciprocity between the performers onstage and the audience.  You don’t have that same reciprocity in symphonic music.

BD:    Isn’t there a reciprocity, but much more subtle?

BL:    No.  Nobody’s asking you to participate.  When was the last time you heard a conductor speak to an audience, or the last time you heard the soloist speak to an audience?  The only time you hear a sound coming from the vocal chords is if it’s an evening of song.

BD:    But isn’t the music supposed to literally speak to the soul of each audience member?

BL:    It is, but it requires a great concentration on the part of the audience.  I’m not saying that it’s not possible, because obviously it happens every day of the week.  But you have too many concert halls which are still not filled, even if you have an Isaac Stern playing.  The hall is just barely filled, if he plays.

BD:    Should we try to get the kids who go to the rock concerts and the guys who go to the sporting events into the concert halls?

BL:    How are you going to do it?

BD:    Should we at least try?

BL:    I think we should, of course!  And orchestras are trying very hard.  They’ve devised even lighter programs, what they call
popular programsa night of Viennese waltzes or a night of Rodgers and Hammerstein or a night of Leonard Bernstein.  But to many of the younger generation going to the pop concerts, an evening with Rodgers and Hammerstein seems pretty prehistoric.  They would rather go and hear Elton John.  I don’t see the audiences growing younger; I see an older audience all the time, and I’m saddened by that and frightened because I don’t know what relevancy the music now has.  I know that theater has more relevancy; ballet has more relevancy.

BD:    The orchestra is like a woolly mammoth walking to extinction?

lees BL:    [Laughs]  Perhaps so, unless we develop a larger audience.  I’m writing a fifth symphony, and while I’m pleased that I was asked and I hope it’s a successful work, I keep wondering all the time what its relevancy is in today’s society.  You see, the audience still likes to be entertained, so I always feel, somehow, more confident in writing a work for soloist and orchestra because for the audience, it’s almost like a circus; it’s an act.  They love to come and hear the pianist because they have a chance to see his fingers fly!  And they love to hear a violinist because they can look at the violinist and they see what he’s doing.  The soloist in the twentieth century has become the star.  The conductor is the aide-de-camp to the soloist, and the composer is a very, very distant third.  The composer is not a glamorous figure; the soloist is a glamorous figure, and our audience today, our society today, loves the lives of the rich and the famous, and that’s the soloist!  And the orchestra is the soloist’s tool.  The audience cannot wait for the last note to expire before they stand up and scream and applaud.  The same thing happens in ballet.

BD:    When the audience stands up and screams and applauds before the last note has even died away, are they applauding for the performance, or are they applauding because that piece of music has always been applauded like that, and they’ve been told that they should applaud?

BL:    It’s not because they are told that they should applaud.  They have obviously been to concerts where the same work was played.  I have never yet attended a performance of either the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or his First Piano Concerto where the audience didn’t burst into applause before the piece ended.

BD:    But you’ve obviously been to performances of those two works where they have not been played particularly well!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Meyer Kupferman, Michael Colgrass, and Lou Harrison.]

BL:    It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter.  The two are such show pieces, and pieces like that are indestructible!  Just like Mozart, just like Bach, the piece remains even though the soloist should be shot!  The piece cannot be destroyed.  The piece is like matter; you cannot destroy matter.  You cannot destroy the bulk of the repertoire.  I have heard miserable performances of the Schubert Third Symphony.  It doesn’t matter; the Schubert Third is going to go on a long time!

BD:    Is that what really defines a great piece of music, that it surpasses even the poor performance?

BL:    That’s right, exactly!  Ultimately it must stand on its own as a totally indestructible work.  I’m sure that you must have heard, at some point, a bad performance, or what we call less than satisfactory, of a Beethoven symphony.

BD:    Oh, of course.

BL:    Or a Brahms Fourth, or a Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto.  If the piece is strong enough, it’s going to hold up on its own.  We have heard outright bad singing for Verdi operas and for Puccini operas, and yet no matter how miserable some of the singers have been, the operas remain.

BD:    Then let me ask this:  is the music of Benjamin Lees indestructible?

BL:    That’s not for me to say!  I haven’t been around that long, in terms of Earth time, and the pieces have not been around that long.  So that’s going to be for the twenty-first century to determine.

BD:    You do expect your music to last, though, don
’t you?

BL:    We always say we hope.  There are no guarantees, because if you examine the golden age of the nineteenth century, the composers who finally emerged were merely a handful compared to the number of composers who were actually writing then.

BD:    Of course.

BL:    And do you happen to know how many active composers there are today?

BD:    I’ve heard several astronomical figures bandied about
thirty-five thousand, forty thousand.

BL:    Yes, the figure now is a little bit more than fifty thousand.  Now out of those fifty thousand, obviously seven-eighths are going to fall into oblivion.  There’s simply no outlet for the fifty thousand composers on the concert stage!  We don’t have that many orchestras.  So a handful will remain.  Whether I’m going to be among that handful, I don’t know.  I hope that several pieces will survive into the twenty-first century.

lees BD:    Have we thrown a new joker into all of this by the fact that so many of these pieces by most of the fifty thousand are being recorded and preserved, if not commercially, at least on private tapes?

BL:    Quite possibly.  I’m sure that there are dedicated people who have tuned into broadcasts and have recorded everything which has been broadcast for the last thirty years.  And there are, obviously, private archives.

BD:    Even just the composers themselves will have most of their performances recorded, so the people in the twenty-first century will not have to wait for an orchestra to play a piece; they can go to a shelf someplace and put it into a machine.

BL:    That’s possible, but we don’t know what the picture will be like.  If orchestras are still going to exist in the twenty-first century, then the situation, I think, will be roughly the same as it is today.  On any given program you can only have ninety minutes of music, and two out of the three pieces are not going to be contemporary.

BD:    More often than not, three out of the three pieces are not contemporary.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Steven Honigberg.]

BL:    That’s right!

BD:    How can we get more contemporary music onto the concert stage?

BL:    [Laughs]  First you have to have this terrible socialist idea of some support from the government.  You cannot endlessly rely upon private means.  Most of the boards around the country may be well-meaning, but really it’s their private domain, and unless the situation changes, we’re going to be in the same crisis in the year 2000 as we are now — perhaps even a worse crisis.

BD:    Then are you optimistic about it, or no?

BL:    About the change for the better?

BD:    About the whole future of concert music.

BL:    I don’t know that I’m either pessimistic or optimistic at this point, really.  I keep crossing my fingers every day, because every once in a while I’ll come across a news item that another orchestra has canceled its season or that another orchestra has simply dissolved.  By some miracle, once in a while we read that an orchestra has been resuscitated, and we know that that resuscitation means that in order for it to remain alive, it will have to program the kind of music, or repertoire, that brings the bodies into the hall.  So naturally, the inclusion of new music is going to be very rare.

BD:    It seems like an ipso facto disenfranchisement.

BL:    That’s the way it is seen from this vantage point.  I think many things have to change in order for symphonic music and concert music generally to survive into the twenty-first century, and survive in a healthy state with an enthusiastic audience.  I really do think that despite pockets of conservatism among concert-goers, by and large they are tired of the same repertoire!

BD:    I would hope so.

BL:    They really are.  And the conductors are very conservative.  We are in a situation now where the conductors — I’m talking about most of them — have to be very careful what they program, and those who don’t have to be careful what they program are not interested in taking the responsibility for American music.  Instead, they have made the composers-in-residence their surrogates.  The whole composer-in-residency idea was supposed to be for a composer to come to an orchestra for anywhere from one to three years, write a piece every year or every other year, and be exposed to the orchestra, and then say, “Thank you very much, goodbye,” and leave.  Instead, the conductor saw that it was a marvelous way for him to be able to assign the responsibility of choosing orchestral works, leaving that responsibility to the composer-in-residence, while he himself concentrated on the standard repertoire.  What you have created with this kind of a monster is an immediate barrier to where the composer cannot even correspond or communicate with the conductor, and where the choice of which new works are to be played has become very political.

BD:    This is a lament I have heard a number of times among composers approximately your age, or even a little older and sometimes a little younger.

BL:    You are not going to have a man such as Vincent Persichetti, for example
who has long ago paid his dues ten times overhave his work judged by some composer-in-residence as to whether or not it is fit to be shown to the maestro!  [Both laugh]  In my caseand I’m not name-dropping but merely telling you with whom I have collaboratedI’ve worked with the likes of Ormandy and George Szell, Leinsdorf and Thomas Schippers, Milton Katims, Max Rudolf and William Steinberg.  These people could either write to you, or sometimes they’d even pick up the telephone and call.  They were the ones who would decide what they were playing; they would never leave that responsibility to someone else.  Even if I respect that composer-in-residence, I am not going to have that person judge whether or not my work is good enough to be shown to the incumbent music director!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music?

BL:    Basically I have been because I was fortunate in having performances with the major orchestras led by the names I just mentioned.  And when you have performances of that kind, really you are blessed because there’s very little to worry about.  You know the quality of the orchestra; you know the quality of the music director.

lees BD:    What about the recordings?  Those have a bit more permanence simply because they are around more and have a wider distribution.  Are you pleased with those?

BL:    Not as pleased, no, because it wasn’t very often with the orchestra that I had in mind, or even with the size of the orchestra to be able to bring out all the juices of the piece!  I would say I’m pleased fifty percent of the time with the recordings I’ve had, and fifty percent I am not pleased at all!

BD:    Are you so much displeased that you don’t want them played at all?

BL:    Being very pragmatic, I suppose in one sense a recording is better than no recording at all.  On the other hand, I have private tapes of the same works with performances that are far superior.  But radio stations cannot take tapes where permission has not been granted by the orchestra.

BD:    Right.  I can’t touch a lot of the stuff that I would love to broadcast.

BL:    That’s it.  So I have to always apologize for a particular piece that I know is going to be broadcast if it’s something that I feel isn’t the recording that I wanted.

BD:    Rather than asking you which you don’t like, let me ask you which of the recordings are the ones you feel are of excellent quality and represent your ideas well.

BL:    [Laughs]  No, I won’t go into that one.

BD:    Okay, that’s perfectly all right.  In this case we will certainly hit them because we are going to play all of the recordings at various times, so you will get both the good and the bad!

BL:    All right!  As long as you don’t have a negative reaction from your audience...

BD:    Is the audience always right in its opinion?

BL:    I’ll tell you something... I have never regarded the audience as cabbage heads because it is sitting there and merely reacting to what it is that you have presented.  I don’t think the audience is comprised of fools at all; I always feel the audience is honest.  They may be musically uneducated, but that doesn’t mean that they’re crazy or that they don’t want to like a piece.  I have seen many, many colleagues who have experienced almost dead silence at the end of a piece with just a smattering of applause.  Then comes the bitterness and the cursing of the audience, and saying, “They don’t know what they’re listening to.”  And yet, if you look at what comprises the standard repertoire, I think part of that is due to the championing of the works by the forces at that time
by the soloists, by the conductors and by the orchestras of the nineteenth century.  But, as they say in the vernacular, it takes two to tango!

BD:    [Laughs]

BL:    The other part of that acceptance had to be from the audience.  I think they have pretty much determined what they want and don’t want to hear.  Although sometimes the decisions may be strange ones to our latter twentieth century ears, nevertheless, those pieces are there.  And if you look at the bulk of the repertoire, it isn’t too shabby, really!  If you look at the repertoire from Monteverdi on up to the present
what comprises the best works of those composers, and those which are most often playedthe audience has really not been wrong, has it?

BD:    No, but it seems to me that the audience gets a slightly one-sided view of things when they only hear masterpieces, or only want to hear masterpieces.

BL:    Let’s put it another way.  You said
masterpieces.  We presume that’s Masterpieces with a capital M.

BD:    Right.

lees BL:    There are also minor masterpieces.  Is a minor masterpiece the same as a major masterpiece?  [Both laugh]  Let’s take the most mundane and the most obvious.  If a Mozart Number Forty or a Jupiter or a Beethoven Fifth is a major masterpiece, then what do we consider a minor masterpiece?  A Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto?  A Bruckner Fourth?  They’re certainly performed often enough.

BD:    Or even a Beethoven Symphony Number Two.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with William Bolcom, and Norman Dello Joio.]

BL:    Even a Beethoven Symphony Number Two is a minor masterpiece, but it gets played all the time.  The audience has obviously also chosen that.

BD:    I often wonder if the Beethoven Second would be played very much if had been written by someone with a name other than Beethoven?  If all the notes were the same and all the dynamics and all the inspiration were there, but it was not Beethoven’s name?

BL:    That’s quite possible.  We’ve often wondered what would happen had some of Stravinsky’s pieces not borne the signature of Stravinsky.  There’s something to that.  Or if some of the Debussy works were simply untitled, would they convey the same pictorial aspect in our minds?  But he put a title to his things.  And sometimes the music can be very dull!  Let’s face it, for all the excitement that Debussy generates, there are pieces where it’s just a little simplistic, a little bit dull.  But after all, it is Debussy!  So whether or not some of us will be accorded the same honor, who knows?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in the twenty-second century, somebody would say, “Suppose it wasn’t written by Lees?”  [Both laugh]

BD:    In my humble opinion from what I have heard, I certainly rank your music up with the very highest.

BL:    Thank you.  I’ll be happy if it survives ten years from now.  That will already be a first step!  It’s curious, by the way, as to what you really think is going to survive, and what actually does survive.  There was a piece that I thought would not survive past the first two performances, and yet it became the most performed piece
the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  You really didn’t have any hope for it???

BL:    No! I accepted the commission because I was flattered by the offer, and I needed the money.  

BD:    I was certainly impressed when I played the recording.  Now before we go, I want to thank you for being a composer.

BL:    Thank you.  It’s the nicest thing that’s been said in a long time! [Laughs]

BD:    I look forward to playing more of your music on the air, and also putting together some special programs which will feature the material which I have gathered today. 

BL:    I wish that you could hear some things live in Chicago, but things have not been performed there in many years.  So it’ll have to be through this medium.

BD:    I do what I can to present the American composer as often as I can.

BL:    You are to be congratulated because there are not that many of you around!  I don’t know how many FM classical stations there are around the country, but among all of them there aren’t that many who actually want to highlight American music.  So you are to be congratulated for doing that!

BD:    It’s my pleasure.  Thank you so much for spending the time this afternoon.

BL:    No problem.  It was my pleasure, really!

New Haven, Conn.—The Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University announced that it has acquired the entire archive of renowned American composer Benjamin Lees. The comprehensive archive, which was a gift from the composer, includes manuscript sketches and scores for all of Lees's compositions, correspondence, concert programs, reviews, photographs, and biographical materials.

Born to Russian parents in Harbin, China in 1924, Benjamin Lees arrived in the U.S. in 1925. He and his parents settled in San Francisco where he began his piano studies at the age of five. After military service in World War II he attended the University of Southern California to study composition, harmony, and theory. Shortly after completing his studies he was introduced to the legendary American composer George Antheil and thus began almost five years of intense study in advanced composition and orchestration, during which the two formed a close and lasting friendship. Throughout his distinguished career, Lees has composed in a wide variety of genres. His works have been commissioned and performed by ensembles and soloists throughout the United States and Europe, including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and l'Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has commissioned two of his works, Piano Trio No. 2 "Silent Voices" and "Night Spectres" for unaccompanied cello. As a composer, Lees is especially renowned for his orchestral works, which are represented by five symphonies and numerous concertante works that feature soloist or small instrumental groups with orchestra. Writing in the August 2007 issue of The Strad, Robert Markow called Lees' Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, "an outstanding model of the form." Other concertante works for small ensembles include concertos for woodwind quintet, brass choir, percussion ensemble, all with orchestra. The composer's many awards include a Fromm Foundation Award (1953), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1954, 1966), a Fulbright Fellowship (1956), a UNESCO Award for String Quartet No. 2 (1958), and the Sir Arnold Bax Society Medal, the first awarded to a non-British composer (1958). He also received a Grammy nomination in 2004 for his Symphony No. 5. Benjamin Lees' music is published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.

For information about the Benjamin Lees archive contact:

Kendall Crilly
Andrew W. Mellon Music Librarian
Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
(203) 432-0495

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 13, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1989, 1994 and 1999.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

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

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

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