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, a
more things have been recorded and issued on compact discs.
More information, photos, and a complete list of works can be found on
his official website.
A brief biography is included at the bottom of this page (which is
taken from his site).
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 . . . . .
In looking over your biography, I notice that besides composing you’ve
teaching, sort of 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
There really was no conscious
effort involved, it was just the way things sort of 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
Harmony One and doing my own writing!
BD: I think
you made the right decision!
[Laughs] Well, I hope so! So I left Queens College
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
in New York, and then a year at Julliard. 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
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 sort of in white heat for three hours and will
accomplish a great deal.
BD: Then do
you look up and wonder where the
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
BD: Is it
generally as good?
BL: I would
say it works out about seventy-five
percent of the time.
BD: That’s a
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
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
“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
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
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.
BD: Was that
a satisfying thing, or was it just
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
did Prokofiev, by the way. I think it’s a valid and viable
and I would never turn my nose up or down [laughs] as the case may be,
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
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?
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
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.
too bad. Sounds like an intriguing
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.
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 cycle — or they may ask for a piece for a
chamber orchestra of anywhere
between thirty and forty players. Or they may ask for a
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.
mentioned not having been
commissioned for an opera, and yet there are two listed in your
talking about a full-length opera.
BD: Oh, I
see. The Oracle was a
BL: The Oracle was a one-act opera, and
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
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!
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
BD: With no
BL: No hard
BD: The other
opera that’s listed is a piece called The
BL: Well, 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, anyway
— based on a true incident that occurred in France about a
was taken over by the inmates, in a town called Pont-l’Évêque,
famous cheese comes from. It’s up in the northern part of
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
BL: 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.” [See my Interviews with Gian
Carlo Menotti.] 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
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?
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
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.
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
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
Story, I suppose, can be considered a successful musical theater
by any standard, but then you begin counting on
the fingers of one hand — or on the fingers of
two hands — when we’re
trying to sum up repertory pieces of the entire twentieth century, at
least to this point...
you run out of pieces before you run out of
BL: I think
BD: In a
great number of your own works, you have
used the traditional approach — Slonimsky
calls it accessibility — which 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
BL: I don’t
really know how that came about. I suppose we are all
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
certain little characteristics.
BD: You could find
your fingerprints in your early
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.
must come a time when you say you’ve
finished with it.
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
BD: How do
you know when you have reached that
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
are sort of 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. [See my Interview with Iannis
Xenakis.] I can’t see Xenakis writing a C major chord.
BD: And yet
you see yourself writing a C major chord
BL: Well, 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
composers have no compunction about repeating an A
major chord from for ten minutes! I feel that I can use a C major
for a split second. [Both laugh]
BD: When you
get into your piece, are you ever surprised by where your
music has led you?
yes. Sometimes you find
yourself in that situation known as “quicksand”
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 sort of 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?
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
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
BD: Are there
ever cases where performers or
interpreters find things in your score you didn’t know you had hidden
yes! I remember back in 1959 or
’60, I was in Rome with Erich Leinsdorf, who was at that time just
to take over the Boston Symphony. [See my Interviews with Erich
Leinsdorf.] 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?
[Laughs] Several hundred years later we came upon the
BD: When you
present a piece of music to the performers, how much leeway do
you allow them for interpretation?
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
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?
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,
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
BD: Are your
ideas about a score always right?
BL: I would
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
certainly! All the time, particularly from one whom you respect
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: Well, 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,
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
BD: So not
changing notes, but how you play those
notes you’ve written?
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.
haven’t really miscalculated, it’s just the
hall isn’t giving you what you want?
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
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?
BD: Music in
the popular music?
BD: Well, 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
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
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.
there a reciprocity, but much more subtle?
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. [See my Interview with Isaac Stern.]
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
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”
programs — a
night of Viennese waltzes or a night of Rodgers and Hammerstein or a
night of Leonard Bernstein.
BL: 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
orchestra is like a wooly mammoth walking to
[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
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
BL: It’s not
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.
you’ve obviously been to performances of
those two works where they have not been played particularly well!
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?
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
BL: Or a
Brahms Fourth, or a
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?
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?
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
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
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.
possible, but we don’t know what
the picture will be like. If orchestras are still going to exist
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.
often than not, three out of the three
pieces are not contemporary.
BD: How can
we get more contemporary music onto the
[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 cancelled 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
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
BD: I would
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
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 over — have his work judged by
as to whether or not it is fit to be shown to the maestro! [Both
laugh] [See my Interview with
Vincent Persichetti.] In my case — and
I’m not name-dropping but merely telling you with whom I have
collaborated — I’ve worked with the likes of
Ormandy and George Szell, Leinsdorf and Thomes Schippers, Milton Katims
and Max Rudolf [See my Interview with Max Rudolf]
William Steinberg. These people could either write to you, or
sometimes they’d even pick up the telephone and call. They were
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?
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.
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?
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
Right. I can’t touch a lot of the stuff
that I would love to broadcast.
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.
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
[Laughs] No, I won’t go into that one.
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!
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, “Well, they don’t
know what they’re listening to.” And yet, if you look at what
standard repertoire, I think part of that is due
to the championing of the works by the forces at that time —
soloists, by the conductors and by the orchestras of the
nineteenth century. But, as they say in the vernacular, it
takes two to tango!
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 played — the 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.
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?
certainly performed often enough.
BD: Or even a
Beethoven Symphony Number Two.
BL: Even a
Beethoven Symphony Number Two is
masterpiece, but it gets played all the time. The audience has
obviously also chosen that.
BD: I often
wonder if the Beethoven Second
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
quite possible. We’ve often
wondered what would happen had some of Stravinsky’s pieces not borne
signature of Stravinsky. There’s something to that. Or if
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, “Well,
suppose it wasn’t written by Lees?” [Both laugh]
BD: Well, in
my humble opinion from what I have
heard, I certainly rank your music up with the very highest.
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
[Genuinely surprised] You really didn’t have any hope
BL: No! I
commission because I was flattered by the offer, and I needed the
BD: I was
certainly impressed when I played the recording. Now before we
go, I want to thank you for being a composer.
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
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: Well, 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!
It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for
spending the time this afternoon.
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
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:
Andrew W. Mellon Music Librarian
Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 13,
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.
made and posted on this
website in 2010.
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
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.