Composer  Walter  Mourant

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Walter Mourant (b. August 29, 1910 - d. 1995) attended the Eastman School of Music from 1931-1936, where he received his Bachelor's and Master's in Music. His first orchestra work was performed in 1932 and published by Carl Fischer. He attended the Juilliard School of Music from 1937-1938. Various assignments while working at CBS and NBC included writing a 'March of Time' theme for the March of Time program, a theme for Westinghouse program, orchestrating the Robert Montgomery Show at NBC, and arranging for the Raymond Scott orchestra at CBS.

(Source: American Composers Alliance)  

In July of 1987, Mourant agreed to be interviewed via the telephone . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Now is a good time now to have a chat?

Walter Mourant:   Yes, now’s a very good time.

[Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]  Karel Husa sent me come recordings, and your music was included on one of them.  [This LP is shown below-right.]  It says on the back of the record that you’ve been involved a lot with film music.

Mourant:   Not a great deal, no.  I did one film score, and that was all.  I did various assignments for Mark Warnow, who conducted Your Hit Parade years ago.  One of the things he asked me to set was the Preamble to the Constitution, and I did that for chorus and orchestra.  It was played on The Pursuit of Happiness program at CBS.

warnow Mark Warnow (April 10, 1900 – October 17, 1949) was a violinist and orchestra conductor, who performed on radio in the 1930s and 1940s.

He was the older brother of composer and bandleader Raymond Scott (b. Harry Warnow), and is credited with steering his younger (and eventually also very famous) brother into a career in music.

Warnow was born in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) to Jewish parents, and came with them to the United States when he was a boy. Warnow grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Public School 100 and Eastern District High School, where he was a soloist as a violinist in the school's orchestra.

When he was 17, Warnow became the Massel Opera's musical director. From there, he became the Ziegfeld Follies' musical director. That was followed by a stint as bandleader for the Music Box Revue.

Warnow enjoyed a lengthy and versatile career with the CBS Radio network. He was CBS music director in the early 1930s, and hired his younger brother Harry as a keyboardist in 1931. Warnow conducted the orchestra on the CBS radio program Your Hit Parade from 1939 to his death in 1949. A 1941 newspaper article described Warnow as "the busiest man in radio", noting that his conducting duties included not only Your Hit Parade, but Helen Hayes Theatre and We, the People. He also conducted his orchestras for The Jack Berch Show, the "Matinee Theatre" program, and Ed Wynn's "Happy Island" program.

Warnow also conducted the orchestra for the "Sound Off" Radio show, 1946, New York City, sponsored by the U.S. Army to encourage post World War II recruitment. Emcee Arno Tanney, aka "The Chant" would sing/chant army recruiting commercials like a drill seargeant in his signature booming baritone to the rapid fire rhythm of the "Duckworth Chant" - "Join the Army, it's for you, better pay and college too, Sound Off!, 1, 2, Sound Off! 3, 4, - 1, 2, 3, 4, Sound Off...Sound Off!"

Warnow appeared as himself with his band in the Paramount Pictures release Paramount Headliner: The Star Reporter (1938), and also produced a Broadway musical-comedy, What's Up? (1943-1944).

In the 1940s, Warnow conducted and arranged for Frank Sinatra while the singer was signed to Columbia Records, then owned by the CBS network. In 1949, Warnow and his orchestra recorded a Capitol Records album, Sound Off, named for the Sound Off Chant, which was featured on the album along with some marches and other patriotic music.

BD:   Was this strictly commercial music?

Mourant:   No, I wouldn’t call it that.  The Pursuit of Happiness program was m.c.’d by Burgess Meredith.  It was a very serious work, and was rather short, because the Preamble wasn’t too long.  It lasted maybe seven or eight minutes.  Then he gave me various other assignments, like The March of Time theme, and the theme for The Westinghouse Hour, and a few other things.

BD:   Is that gratifying to write a little snippet of music, which is used over and over again, and becomes well known?
frank black
Mourant:   It was, yes!  That was a good long time ago.  [Laughs]  Frank Black [shown at right] did an overture I wrote when I was still at Juilliard, and that was done with the NBC Symphony.  [
Frank Black (November 29, 1894 - January 29, 1968) became the music director of NBC in 1928, and was responsible for arranging and producing orchestral shows of light classical music for NBC throughout the 1930s and 1940s.]  I’ve had recordings on London Records, and on CRI.  One contains three works of mine, conducted by Tony Camarata [shown below-left].

BD:   I particularly enjoyed this piece because it was so tonal.  I’ve been working a lot with non-tonal composers, and tonal music is very refreshing in this day and age.

Mourant:    I’m happy to hear that!  [Both laugh]  I’ve been in more or less commercial music.  I tried atonality, but it didn’t stick.  I enjoy working for audience appeal, rather than just university music, so to speak.

BD:   So when you’re composing a piece, you have the audience in mind?

Mourant:   Yes.  I wrote a piece for orchestra last year, and I hope to get it performed fairly soon.  It is something I call The Song of the Caribbean.  I lived in that area for a year, and I’ve always had a feel of nostalgia about it.

BD:   Is this a commission, or just something that you had to write?

Mourant:   Just something that I thought I had to write.

BD:   Are most of your works on commission?

Mourant:   No, very few.  I’ve just been writing the past few years.  I’ve written a few scores for children’s musicals.  We’re looking for productions fairly soon if we can get them, and I’ve also written some piano music lately.

BD:   Are you also a performer?

Mourant:   Not really.  I did perform one of my pieces two years ago, but that was really my first public performance on a piano.

BD:   Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

Mourant:   I think so.  I’m never satisfied with anybody else’s interpretation!  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you give them suggestions, and mold it to your ideas?

Mourant:   Yes, I always try to give suggestions, but it’s hard to buck conductors.

BD:   Then let me turn the question around.  Do the conductors or the interpreters ever discover things in your scores that surprise you and please you?

Mourant:   That’s happened occasionally, yes.  I’ve been very gratified by that. 

BD:   Have you done any teaching?


:   I went to the Eastman School of Music, and after that I went to Juilliard, and then I naturally gravitated to New York because I didn’t want to teach.

BD:   Why did you not want to teach?

Mourant:   [Thinks a moment]  I was just too obsessed with composing at the time.  I got a master’s degree in composition, and I took no teaching courses.  I was not interested in it, that’s all.

BD:   Is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it just be learned by each individual?

Mourant:   I don’t think it can be taught any more than orchestration can be taught.  A person has either a feeling for the orchestra, or he doesn’t have a feeling for the orchestra.  I took a course in orchestration, but it didn’t mean very much to me because I was orchestrating my own music as a composer.  A student does need guidance, but if he doesn’t have his own ideas, he can’t get to first base to begin with.  A person cannot be taught to have ideas.

BD:   No, of course, not.  But what about the technique?

Mourant:   Technique can certainly come into play.  Counterpoint can be taught, and improvisation can be taught.

BD:   Then where’s the balance then between the inspiration and the technique?

Mourant:   The balance is just getting the idea and knowing what to do with it.  One has to have some technique, and the technique flows naturally if it’s learned.  I’ve seen too many young composers that get what they consider brilliant ideas.  Then they write eight bars or sixteen bars, and they’re suddenly stuck.  They don’t know what to do.  I remember Howard Hanson was very inspiring, but it took another teacher, Bernard Rogers, who could actually on occasion write the needed one or two bars, and that would give the impetus to the student to continue.  In other words, Rogers could write in the student’s style, which is a rare gift for a teacher.  I’m sure I wouldn’t have that gift myself.  Howard Hanson, on the other hand, was a very inspiring teacher, but when he tried to help me out, or help anybody out, he wrote Howard Hanson.  He did not write Walter Mourant!  [Both laugh]  But he was still a very fine teacher, so I’m not criticizing him at all.

hanson Born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on October 28, 1896, to Swedish-American parents who had settled in the Midwest, Howard Hanson was a child prodigy whose music lessons were begun with his mother. He continued his professional training at Lutheran College (Wahoo), the University of Nebraska School of Music (Lincoln), the Institute of Music Art (New York), and the School of Music, Northwestern University (Evanston), earning his Bachelor’s degree in 1916. That year he was appointed to the faculty of the College of the Pacific in San Jose, California, where three years later he became Dean of the School of Fine Arts.

A declared neo-Romanticist, Hanson wrote music at once tuneful, vigorous, and accessible. Hanson’s earliest compositions, dating from around 1914, included songs, piano pieces, and two symphonic works, and culminated in his music for the California Forest Play of 1920. In 1923 he won the Prix de Rome with which he took up residence in Italy as the first American composer to be named a Rome Fellow. While there he completed his first symphony (“Nordic”), whose first performance by the Augusteo Orchestra he conducted in Rome, and wrote his great choral piece, The Lament for Beowulf, his String Quartet, and his two symphonic poems, North and West and Lux Aeterna.

Early in 1924 Hanson returned to the United States to lead the New York Symphony Orchestra in his North and West and to conduct the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the American premiere of his Nordic Symphony. Upon the invitation of President Rush Rhees and George Eastman, he became the second director of the recently established Eastman School of Music, taking office shortly before his 28th birthday. During the ensuing decades Hanson became one of the country’s most influential music educators. The Eastman School under his leadership developed into an institution in which students could receive a well-rounded education while concentrating upon their professional studies.

Perhaps his greatest overall influence upon music was as protagonist of American culture. During the early decades of the century, music in America was dominated by European music and Old-World influences. As an American composer striving to be heard, Hanson was fired with zeal to bring native music to the fore. In 1925, in a daring move for those years, he initiated the American Composers Concerts, during which works by our own writers were performed, many for the first time, by professional musicians from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, assisted by the School’s artist faculty and advanced students. In 1930 he began an even more ambitious project: the annual Festivals of American Music, which continued through 1971, by which time more than 200 compositions had been given their first performance, with the composers being present for the rehearsals and the public concerts. While it may appear that the greatest emphasis was upon orchestral music, each Festival also featured a ballet, opera, chamber and choral music. Hanson’s inclusion of American works at symphony concerts he offered as guest conductor with major symphonies throughout the country and his national radio broadcasts over the NBC network during the 1930s and 1940s helped to create a large audience for contemporary works by our own composers. He was justly called the Dean of American Composers and spokesman for music in America.

The outward signs of recognition accorded him by the public took the form of citations for his contributions to the quality of American life and culture, 34 honorary doctorates, election into the most prestigious national and international organizations, and buildings named in his honor. He died on February 26, 1981.

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rogers Bernard Rogers (b February 4, 1893, New York; d May 24, 1968, Rochester, NY) received his first instruction in composition with Arthur Farwell; when Farwell left New York, he continued his studies with Hans van den Berg. His first significant accolades as a composer were for his first orchestral work, the symphonic elegy To the Fallen, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1919. For this piece, Rogers was awarded a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship to fund study in Europe (1920–21). When he returned to the US, he began working as a reporter for Musical America while continuing his composition studies with Ernest Bloch. In 1921, Rogers enrolled at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School of Music), where he studied theory with Percy Goetschius; later (from 1922–23), he studied for a year at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

In 1926, Rogers accepted a teaching position at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. The next year, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1927–1929), which enabled him to study with Frank Bridge in London and Nadia Boulanger in Paris. When he returned to the United States in 1929, he was invited by Howard Hanson to join the faculty at the Eastman School of Music; he would spend the duration of his career at Eastman serving as professor of composition and chair of the composition department (1930–1967) until his retirement in 1967. Many of his students enjoyed distinguished and prominent careers as composers and educators themselves; this number includes Mary Jeanne van Appledorn, Dominick Argento, Jack Beeson, William Bergsma, David Diamond, Kenneth Gaburo, Ulysses Kay, John La Montaine, Burrill Phillips, Gardner Read, Vladimor Ussachevsky, Robert Ward, and many others.

Prof. Rogers’s output as a composer included more than 25 large orchestral works, including five symphonies; five operas; three cantatas and several other large-scale choral works; and numerous works of chamber music. He received commissions from the Ford Foundation, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Louisville Orchestra, the String Foundation of Cleveland, and several other organizations. Among his numerous awards are the Loeb Composition Prize (1923), the David Bispham Medal (for the opera The Marriage of Aude, completed 1931), election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1947), the Alice M. Ditson Award for opera (for The Warrior, 1947), and a Fulbright Award (1953), in addition to the aforementioned Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship and Guggenheim Fellowship. He was also awarded honorary degrees from Valparaiso University (1959) and Wayne University (1962). His compositions have been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Sinfonietta, Cincinnati Symphony, and other major orchestras in the United States and Europe. Additionally, Rogers’s treatise The Art of Orchestration (1951) was long regarded as an essential reference for students of composition.

BD:   Without teaching, it’s all been writing for you?

Mourant:   Writing for symphony orchestra, and I’ve done quite a few jazz things.  I wrote that popular tune Swing Low, Sweet Clarinet, which is very widely recorded, and had a very big sale in this country.  I also wrote a tune called Dance of the Puppet, which shows up on the other side of that recording with the Ambrose Orchestra in London, and that did very well.  [Both sides of that 78 rpm record are seen in the photo above.  A 10-inch LP of Reginald Kell presenting more works of Mourant is shown at the bottom of this webpage.]  I also wrote several jazz things for the Mildred Bailey Show.  That was on the radio years ago, and had a very fine orchestra with trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and people like that.  So, I’ve been in all fields.  I’ve written church music, I’ve written band music, I’ve written chamber music.  I’ve tried practically everything.

BD:   When you’re writing a jazz piece, are there any classical influences?  Would you blur the line at all, or do you keep the jazz strictly jazz, and the classical strictly classical?

Mourant:   I pretty much keep them separate.  I got into jazz when I was in high school playing the piano, and I was very much influenced and inspired by Duke Ellington when I first heard his recorded music.  I’ve always loved his music since then, so he was my one influence in the jazz field.  Some things have tied over to the symphonic field, but there has been a dichotomy and separation.

BD:   Is the separation a good thing or a bad thing?

Mourant:   I would have liked to have had it just flow one into the other, but it didn’t work that way.  I don’t think any composer has been very successful at that.

BD:   Do you think performers are trying to break down the line with these so-called crossover things?

Mourant:   I don’t know.  I haven’t heard enough music lately to be too aware of that.  I heard Billy Taylor the last week, and it was a very fine concert, very inventive.  There’s no hint of what I would call
serious music there.

BD:   In your opinion, where is music going today?

Mourant:   I wish I knew, but I really don’t.  I’m a little bit afraid of the electronic medium.  I especially don’t like to see it taking jobs away from musicians.  I guess I’m prejudiced because I remember the first concert I went to of that kind.  There was a loud speaker right over my head, which I didn’t know was there, and a sudden fortissimo just about blasted me out of my seat.  [Both laugh]  Of course, rock music with all that amplification is very painful for me.

BD:   Should the symphonic managements try to induce the rock public into their concerts?

Mourant:   I wish they could.  It would be good if we could get a proper indoctrination of music into the high schools again.  I don’t know what the situation is, but it’s not very promising because education seems to be cutting out arts in the high schools.  That is a sorry situation.  [Below is an item I discovered when it was mentioned during an interview with my old bassoon teacher, Wilbur Simpson, of the Chicago Symphony.]


Walter Johannes Damrosch
(January 30, 1862 – December 22, 1950) was a German-born American conductor and composer. He is best remembered today as long-time director of the New York Symphony Orchestra and for conducting the world premiere performances of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928). Damrosch was also instrumental in the founding of Carnegie Hall. He also conducted the first performance of Rachmaninov's third piano concerto with Rachmaninov himself as a soloist.

Damrosch was the National Broadcasting Company's music director under David Sarnoff, and from 1928 to 1942, he hosted the network's Music Appreciation Hour, a popular series of radio lectures on classic music aimed at students. (The show was broadcast during school hours, and teachers were provided with textbooks and worksheets by the network.) According to former New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg in his collection Facing the Music, Damrosch was notorious for making up silly lyrics for the music he discussed in order to "help" young people appreciate it, rather than letting the music speak for itself.


BD:   Let me ask you a big philosophical question.  What is, or what should be the ultimate purpose of music in society?
Mourant:   Music and art in any form gives people a reason for living.  It is the inspiration for the spirit, for the soul you might say.  It’s just as inspiring as going into religious music, and music itself can alleviate the drudgery of the existence most people have.  I think it is a very necessary thing.

BD:   [Surprised]  Is your life as a composer a drudgery???

Mourant:   My life, no.  I’m very fortunate because I’m long past the age of retirement, and I’m still playing the piano, and I’m writing music, and getting some of it played.  I’ve tended to get more of it played, and I feel quite satisfied.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Mourant:   Yes, composing and playing.  I have a good many friends who are retired from jobs they didn’t like to begin with, and they have menial little hobbies that don’t amount to much.  I know they’re lost, and that’s a very sad situation.  Music can alleviate the boredom that the general public feels when they’re strapped in their jobs, and in their retirement.  It’s a much-underestimated value in our society.

BD:   Do you feel that concert music works well in the electronic medium?

Mourant:   I’m not too familiar with electronic music.  I have heard very little of it.  The one thing I dislike about it is that it doesn’t seem to have the life that the accepted instruments have.  I’ve heard some so-called
new-age music, and it’s interesting to meditate by it because you don’t have to listen to it.  [Both laugh]

BD:   [Mildly sarcastically]  You mean music should be listened to???

Mourant:   Yes!  I would not like to have a radio going while I’m trying to work with something else.  If I hear music, I want to listen to music.  I don’t want to have it as a background sound.  I like what André Previn had to say about electronic instruments.  He said that in a symphony orchestra, the instruments blow and they breathe, and they take a breath.  They come to the end of a phrase, and there’s a breath.  Even a violin takes a breath, so to speak.  But with the electronic media, they don’t have to breathe, and they don’t breathe!  It gets away from humanity in that sense.  That’s a good observation of his.

BD:   You feel that music is part of the human spirit?

Mourant:   Yes, and using one’s own breath to make music is an important thing.  When we sing, we make music, and when we play with our fingers, we make music, but to me the electronic field can be unhuman somehow.

BD:   Do you feel that human music works well in the unhuman medium of recordings and television?  Do you feel that concerts are good when they’re broadcast?

Mourant:   I really don’t know.  I have quite a few recordings, and I have realized I have stopped listening to recordings a good many years ago.  I’m going to concerts, and I do like the live sound.  I don’t appreciate concerts on television at all because of the distortion.  It is recorded music that way.  Music should be live for any real satisfaction.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you written some vocal music?

Mourant:   Yes, I’ve written eighty or a hundred songs!
BD:   Tell me the particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
Mourant:   [Laughs]  I’ve always had my own inclinations that way.  One whose works I’ve loved very much is the Irish poet James Stephens.  I’ve set about forty of his poems to music [score to one of them is shown below-left], and in the past few years, I’ve turned to Robert Louis Stephenson.  I’ve done a dozen of his poems, and I’ve written my own lyrics, too.  Even for Broadway shows, I did a couple of lyrics.  So I’ve been a sort of Jack of all trades in one sense.
BD:   It seems like you’ve done quite a number of things.

Mourant:   Yes.  I’ve been involved in most every field of music, and it has been very satisfying.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Mourant:   Yes I am, because there are still composers whom I respect very much.  I haven’t heard too much modern music, but I like Olivier Messiaen, and Copland is a fine composer.  Bernstein I think is under-rated.  He’s a fine composer, so there really are people around.

BD:   Of course, these are the tonal composers.

Mourant:   These are mostly tonal, yes.  I like atonal music, but I don’t like the fact that it deals with so little of the human emotion.  The emotions that seem to be expressed are mostly negative.  I could ask if you have ever heard a love song in the twelve-tone idiom.  I’m sure you haven’t!

BD:   The closest would be a love scene in a twelve-tone opera, but that’s a little different.

Mourant:   Of course, Wozzeck, and those types of operas have very gloomy stories.  [Both laugh]  Lulu, and that very good opera of Richard Rodney Bennett called The Mines of Sulphur are all full of mayhem, incest, and all of these negative things.
BD:   Should music only be positive?

Mourant:   No, that’s why I do like Albert Berg very much, but I certainly want some Schubert along with it.  In fact, I have a great affinity for Schubert.  I’m very fond of his music.

BD:   Do you feel that your music is speaking the same language as Schubert?

Mourant:   I hope so, and also Scriabin.  I enjoyed his music very much.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, do you control the music or is the music controlling you?

Mourant:   [Thinks a moment]  The music has to go its own way.  I feel for what I want, but if it doesn’t feel right with what has gone before, I have to discard it.  So the music is really in control, I would say.  The idea is really in control.

BD:   Are you ever surprised where it takes you?

Mourant:   Yes.  I’ve often thought of the musical idea like a holograph.  Here’s a finished product that is finding out where it has to go.  It must almost be computerized and predicted, because of the notes that are down there.  It has its own direction.  I feel that very strongly.  Once a solid idea is on paper, it goes where it has to go, and I’m just the custodian, so to speak.

BD:   You’re being guided!

Mourant:   Yes.

BD:   How do you know when you are finished, and are ready to unleash it upon the world?

Mourant:   When I know everything has been said.  If I feel anything is missing, or left unsaid, then I know I’m not through with it.  That’s all.  I had that feeling about the Harpers Ferry piece I wrote.  That was an interesting experience.  I’d been on a vacation trip to Harpers Ferry, and I was really very much enchanted with the place.  It is a beautiful setting, and being a ghost town it appealed to my romantic nature very strongly.  [In 1963, his note about the piece included the following details...  
The scene itself, at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, had its own intimate grandeur, which, along with the historic associations of the place, afforded us an extremely beguiling afternoon. To add to our pleasure a freight train, its sound echoing between the cliffs on both sides of the river, came booming down the valley and sped through the town, over a bridge, and into a tunnel in a mountain on the other side.]  I promised myself when I was there that I’d somehow commemorate the visit musically sometime, and it was just about a year or two later that I got an idea, and wrote of couple of pages of music.  I was haunted by the thing, and it finally dawned on me that this was the piece I promised myself to write about Harpers Ferry.  After I realized that, it wrote itself.  I had no more trouble, no difficulty getting it down at all.  The fellow who conducted it, Fred Balazs, lives here in the same town as I’m living in now.  He took that piece to Europe without having met me.  They gave him a choice of things from American composers, and he chose my piece because he liked it on sight.  He recorded it with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra [shown above-right].  It was years later that I met the man for the first time, and now we’re good friends.

BD:   Is he a composer also?

Mourant:   Yes, he’s a composer.  He’s written some brilliant string music, including a string quartet.  In fact, the other CRI recording of mine [shown above-left] has three of my pieces on one side, and two dances of his on the other.  He’s a brilliant violinist and a brilliant musician.  He’s also a very good speaker.  He’s been a conductor, and he talks very well, and is very knowledgeable.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   I want to ask about the business of music.  You said you’re trying to get performances of various pieces.  Do you go around and try to sell yourself, or sell your music, to various people?
Mourant:   No, I really don’t.  That’s been one of my failings for years.  Once I finish something, I’d rather write something else than try to sell work I’ve done.  I should have an agent, but I did have some songs done here last year, and a piece for harp and clarinet.  I’ve written a good deal of harp music.

BD:   Is there any particular reason for that?

Mourant:   I was working at CBS in New York, and the harpist with the Symphony there asked me to write down some music she had written.  [This was Pearl Chertok, one of whose recordings is shown below.]  It was an awfully hard job hearing those notes on a record, but I got them down, and I got interested in the harp.  She was quite charming, and we became friendly, so I started writing for her.  She encouraged me, and I wrote a good deal of harp music for that reason.  I just picked up on that and kept going.  The piece I wrote twenty years ago was for harp and clarinet.  It was a jazz piece.  It’s been played quite a bit, and it’s quite effective.  The harp is very interesting when playing jazz.


Pearl Chertok
(June 18, 1918, in Laconia, New Hampshire – August 1, 1981 in White Plains, New York) was an internationally regarded harpist and composer for harp.

After studying ballet, piano and flute as a child, Chertok forwent her senior year of high school to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she studied with Marjorie Tyre and Carlos Salzedo. She then moved to New York City where she was staff harpist with the CBS Television Orchestra for many years, appearing on shows such as The Arthur Godfrey Show and Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town.

Chertok recorded several albums, both for solo harp as well ensemble work. Her solo work included her own compositions, many of which employed an innovative jazz idiom. On her LP Strings of Pearl she was accompanied by bongo player Willie Rodriguez. Other recordings include transcriptions for harp of music by Loeillet, Purcell and others.

Chertok also convinced contemporary composers, including Elie Siegmeister, Nuncio Mondello, Edmund Haines, Sergiu Natra and William Mayer, to write for the harp. As a result, numerous pieces are dedicated to her, including music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Jean Françaix.

Chertok was president of the American Harp Society and was on the faculty of several colleges and universities in the New York City area. Several of her students have gone on to distinguished careers as concert harpists. She served as judge at the International Harp Contest in Israel, and a prize named in her honor was awarded in 1982, 1985, 1988 and 1992.

BD:   When you get an idea, do you know immediately if it’ll be a pop song, or a jazz piece, or a concert work?

Mourant:   No.  Sometimes I get an idea and I put it away, but I have found that I can never abandon anything.  I’ve picked up ideas I’ve written five or ten years ago and try to make them work again.  If I feel it’s any good, I’m bound to go back to it and work with it.  I just don’t like defeat of that kind.  However, the older I get, the ideas don’t flow as readily as they did forty years ago.  [Laughs]

BD:   But they still flow?

Mourant:   They still flow, yes.  I’m just finishing a little piece now, a Suite for Piano.

BD:   Looking back over your long life in music, what is perhaps the most surprising or pleasing thing that has happened in music?

Mourant:   The surprise was when I was still at Juilliard.  The conductor of the Hit Parade loved this overture I wrote.  He kept trying to play it with the Hit Parade Orchestra, but there weren’t quite enough musicians for it.  So he gave it to the conductor of the NBC Symphony [Frank Black, who is shown above], and didn’t even tell me about it.  I suddenly got a notice that they were rehearsing it, and I was overwhelmed.  I was still quite young, and just to get a performance by the best symphony orchestra in the world, which it was still at that time, was not only an honor but a great surprise.  I was thrilled.

BD:   What advice do you have for the young composers coming along today?

Mourant:   Gee, I wish I knew!  [Both laugh]  It’s important not to try to be different all the time.  Everybody’s trying to do something different, and I don’t trust things like aleatoric music.

BD:   What do you mean you don’t trust them?

Mourant:   I haven’t heard much, but I don’t see how it can work.  It comes back to getting the idea, falling in love with an idea, and seeing it through.  The young composers have gotten away from that a good deal.  I can understand their plight, because to make any kind of an impression, somebody has to practically hit the public or the performer over the head with something so entirely different that he’ll look at it and play it.  But that’s gone too far, and we have to come back to some sort of approach, a fundamental source, an emotional source primarily.  A lot of it has become much too intellectual and computerized.

BD:   Is this complaint peculiar to music, or is it something that is an outgrowth of a larger problem in society?

Mourant:   It’s peculiar to all the arts today.  For a good laugh, I look at the art criticism in the Los Angeles Times, and the language they use is so inscrutable, so indecipherable that it’s funny to me.  I think the Fine Arts are in a worse shape than music, because representational art is something nobody wants to try anymore.  Then, to try to do something abstract that’s going to be arresting is old-hat in itself.  So I don’t know where they’re going to go from here.

BD:   Is tonal music the equivalent of representational art?

Mourant:   [Thinks a moment]  In a sense it is.  That’s a pretty good comparison, yes.  We have to start with an idea, and let it grow emotionally to let it fulfill itself.  There is too much muddle.

BD:   Are there too many composers coming along?

Mourant:   [Laughs]  I think so!

BD:   I’m glad there are at least a few composers like Walter Mourant, who are still giving us music that is not muddled.  Thank you for speaking with me today.

Mourant:   Thank you!  It
s been nice to talk to you.


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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on July 25, 1987.  I included a piece of his (without interview) on the in-flight program of Delta Airlines that ran in September and October of 1987.  Portions of the interview were broadcast (along with music) on WNIB in 1990, and again in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.