Composer  Robert  Moffat  Palmer

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Syracuse, New York on June 2, 1915, Robert Moffat Palmer began piano studies with his mother at age 12. He attended Syracuse's Central High School, undertaking pre-college studies in piano and additional study of violin and music theory at the Syracuse Music School Settlement. Awarded a piano scholarship to the Eastman School of Music, he soon became a composition major. At Eastman, he studied with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, earning bachelor's (1938) and master's (1940) degrees in composition. He undertook additional studies with Quincy Porter, Roy Harris and, at the first composition class at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1940, with Aaron Copland.

Palmer came to national attention in an article titled "Robert Palmer and Charles Mills" published in 1943 by critic Paul Rosenfeld in Modern Music. Rosenfeld hails two "new, impressive, distinctive works" by Palmer," noting "an impression of robustness and maturity." In the Concerto for Small Orchestra (1940), Rosenfeld discerns a "quite original opening movement, (whose) clash of melodies in contrary motion was magnificent and fierce," signaling "a new composer to be watched with happy expectation."

Further national attention came with the publication in 1948 by Aaron Copland of an article in The New York Times titled "The New 'School' of American Composers." Copland's article singles out Palmer as one of seven composers "representative of some of the best we have to offer the new generation," adding that "Palmer happens to be one of my own particular enthusiasms." [The other six composers are Leonard Bernstein, Harold Shapero, Alexei Haieff, John Cage, Lukas Foss, and William Bergsma.]  In Palmer's first two string quartets, Copland discerns "separate movements of true originality and depth of feeling," observing that "always his music has urgency—it seems to come from some inner need for expression."

Early in his career, Palmer taught music theory, composition and piano at the University of Kansas from 1940 until 1943. From 1943 until his retirement in 1980, Palmer served as a member of the faculty at Cornell University, where he was appointed Given Foundation Professor of Music in 1976. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Music Center and a former Palmer student, "(Palmer) founded the doctoral program in music composition at Cornell University, which was the first in the United States (and quite possibly the world)." Writing in Clavier magazine in 1989, pianist Ramon Salvatore observed that "[Palmer's] influence on two generations of Cornell composers has been enormous; many of his former students now hold university and college professorships throughout the United States" Additionally, Palmer served as visiting composer at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1954 and as the George A. Miller Professor of Composition at the University of Illinois in 1955-56.

Many of Palmer's most distinctive works date from his Cornell period. Stucky remarks that Palmer "once seemed poised to become a leading national figure. A steady stream of first-rate pieces attracted top performers in concert and on recordings: the Second Piano Sonata (1942; 1948), championed by John Kirkpatrick; Toccata Ostinato (1945), a boogie-woogie in 13/8 written for pianist William Kapell; the First Piano Quartet (1947); the Chamber Concerto No. 1 (1949); the Quintet for Clarinet, Piano, and Strings (1952). Most influential of these was the mighty Piano Quartet, which used to loom large as one of the major accomplishments of American chamber music."  [See jackets of early LP recordings of these three last-mentioned works in box below.]

Echoing this assessment, Robert Evett, in a review written in 1970 for the Washington Evening Star of Palmer's First Piano Quartet, found it "one of the most engrossing works of a superb American composer. ... At its premiere, it was a triumph. It was a triumph again last night."

Palmer's publishers include Elkan-Vogel, Peer International, C. F. Peters Corporation, G. Schirmer Inc., Valley Music Press, and Alphonse Leduc-Robert King, Inc. Besides Stucky, Palmer's students include Christopher Rouse (also winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Paul Chihara, Bernhard Heiden, Brian Israel, Ben Johnston, David Conte, John S. Hilliard, Leonard Lehrman, Daniel Dorff, Jerry Amaldev, and Jack Gallagher.

Palmer died in Ithaca, New York on July 3, 2010.

--  Note: Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 


To read my Interview with Virgil Thomson, click HERE.

To read my Interview with William Schuman, click HERE.


To read my Interview with David Diamond, click HERE.

[The Palmer recording was later re-issued on the Albany CD shown below.]


To read my Interview with George Rochberg, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Roque Cordero, click HERE.


In May of 1988, Palmer was traveling, and agreed to stop in Chicago for this interview.  He came to my home-studio, and we spent a lovely hour discussing his works and his life.  He gave me an LP of the Trumpet Sonata in which he plays the piano and Marice Stith is the soloist, but naturally he was most excited about his newest piece, and brought me a tape of the performance . . . . . . . . .

Robert Moffat Palmer:   
The Trumpet Sonata was written in 1972.  Marice Stith had arranged with a pianist to perform it, and somehow that wasn’t working out.  So it ended up that Marice and I did the recording on Redwood Records, which is really Marice’s recording company.  [See LP jacket below.  Stith also was the conductor of the Cornell University Wind Ensemble, and made recordings with them, including a work of Palmer which is seen in another LP jacket farther down the page.]  I started out as a pianist, and had originally studied at school, but I’d not practiced in years, and at that time I had to try to learn that piece.  The last movement was, I would say, a bit too much for me, but on the other hand, it is from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, so the performance, at least in terms of tempo and spirit, is authentic. 


In the meantime, a wonderful trumpet man in Raleigh, North Carolina named Ned Gardner got interested in the work and was quite instrumental in getting it and a few other pieces published by King’s Music in recent years.  He wrote a review of it in the Trumpet Guild Magazine, in which he said, “Of the ten top prominent duos of the twentieth century, I pick three,
and he picked my sonata among the top three of the ten.  It was a lovely review, and partly a result of this, and partly because Robert King came to an International Meeting of the Trumpet Guild and heard the piece, he decided to publish it.  So that’s the trumpet story.  This tape is the new String Quartet is right off the pen!  The pen is still dripping!  This [tape which he gave me] is a live performance, the third of three.  The première was January 19th, the second was February 19th, and this is the performance of March 4th.  It was commissioned by the Society for New Music.  It’s a one-movement work, about twenty-three or four minutes, and is my first string quartet in thirty years... my last one having been my Fourth in 1959.  I wrote this new one for them, and I really had a lot of string quartet bottled up in me!

Bruce Duffie:    Why did you get away from string quartet writing
— just other demands?

RMP:    Yes, other things.  I had planned to write a number of quartets, and started out in 1939 with my first one.  If I’m counting right, that’s about fifty years ago.  I was just finishing up in Eastman School, and then around 1941, partly through the intervention of Aaron Copland with whom I had studied in 1940, I received a Koussevitzky Foundation commission.  It was certainly the first chamber music commission, if not the first commission, and it was for string quartet which I already had virtually complete.  It’s a big work, and I still think one of the best things I’ve ever done.  Then in 1954, the Stanley String Quartet at the University of Michigan commissioned me, and I went to the MacDowell colony in the summer of 1954.  I still can’t believe this, but in four weeks I wrote this entire work which is about thirty-five minutes.  Again, it has a certain significant point for me in my output.  Then four or five years later, Grinnell College commissioned me to write a string quartet for the Grinnell String Quartet in 1959.  I went out for that, and in 1960 I received an all-time winning combination.  I had a sabbatical coming up, and I applied for a senior Fulbright Grant and also a traveling Guggenheim, which I received all in the same year!  This meant that in 1960 I took Alice and the two daughters, then aged whatever 13 and 16, to Rome for the entire year.  We got an apartment, and I worked on one of my really monumental things, the oratorio Nabuchodonosor.  It’s the longest work for male chorus in the repertoire, I believe.  It’s a setting of the vulgate version of Nabuchodonosor.  In Latin it’s such a tremendously resonant name.  Although I had a Protestant upbringing, at one point in my life I was very interested in the Catholic liturgy, and I was particularly interested in some of the services of Holy Week.  I picked up the liturgy for Holy Saturday and looked at the twelfth prophesy, which is sung on Saturday morning.  I read this incredible opening sentence, Nabuchodonosor rex fecit statuam auream...  [Nabuchodonosor rex fecit statuam auream altitudine cubitorum sexaginta latitudine cubitorum sex et statuit eam in campo Duram provinciae Babylonis.  (Nebuchadnezzer, the king made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth was six cubits, and set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.)]  It was just absolutely tremendous Latin, so resonant, and I wanted to do a setting of that.  I got the whole text outlined, and the nice thing about the Liturgy of Hours is that the monks have carefully written the accentuation, so even if you don’t know Latin, you get the right emphasis.  In all that year, I composed the first twelve or fifteen minutes of the work.  Here I was in Rome setting a work to the ancient Latin text, and I’d also been reading a lot of Greek tragedy.  So I did solo and chorus, which is a mixture of Greek tragic ideas and Biblical ideas.  Also there was the whole ‘Fiery Furnace’ business.  At that time we were close enough to the Holocaust so that trial by fire and all the rest of this was involved.  I just got enormously involved emotionally doing this thing.  Tom Sokol was one of our directors who commissioned this, and he said if I wrote this they would certainly do a première.  The whole work is for male chorus, tenor and baritone solo, double reeds, two pianos and brass, no strings.  I wanted, first of all, to reflect monumentality and austerity.  It’s forty minutes of uninterrupted music in five major sections starting already at a rather high pitch, and building up through four levels of intensity, and the fifth is the dying off after they’ve come out of the furnace.  It’s only had one performance, which is on the recording with the Rochester Philharmonic soloists.  If you had some kind of score you could follow it.  I’m not sure comes, through, that it all comes through with the disc, but certainly some of it does.  It’s certainly one of the biggest and most intense things I’ve ever written.  I worked four years on that, and then I decided to work on orchestral music.  This is all by way of answering your question about why I started writing string quartets!  In 1956 I wrote the Violin Sonata, which, again, is one of my biggest and I think best chamber music works.   Then in 1958 a piano trio, in 1959 the last of the string quartets, and then in the ‘60s I decided I was going to write orchestral music.  In 1966 I wrote the Second Symphony, and then other things along the ‘70s. 


BD:    You would spent much of your time teaching during the year.  Did you get enough time to compose?

RMP:    Without attempting in any way to cast aspersions, it shouldn’t be understood in that way at all.   There is more than one kind of artist.  There are some artists who basically can only do their own work in their own terms, and there are other artists who maybe need to share it... meaning they have more of a teaching tendency or teaching ability.  That’s probably true of the old artists, the ones who took on apprentices.  I found that I was very happy being in a university.  In fact I’ve done a couple of articles about this.  I felt happy teaching.  I enjoyed teaching.   What it did was to get me into the inside of music.  I taught analysis, including chorus that started with Gregorian Chant and went all the way up.  I tried to get at it from the inside, to see what made the music work.  I also tried to deal with music in a rather different analytical perspective, which had to do with the tension and release.  I developed an analytical system, which dealt with the various ways composers manipulated tension and released tension, and having to do with cadential things and cadential links.  In fact I got so fascinated with it that I probably went a bit overboard from time to time.  The problem was that since I’d got so involved with teaching, and still needed to keep composition going, I had two masters.  You know, you can’t serve two masters.  I served two masters, but the thing was that the teaching was a pall for me.  I went through a period in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s when music was very dry for me.  I was very much a tonal composer, and felt very much alone.

BD:    You felt left out?

RMP:    I certainly did feel left out.  In fact I felt that there was a definite prejudice against the kind of music I was doing.   So my refuge really was in teaching and in my contact with the masters, and in finding out how exciting polyphony could be, and going more deeply in to Bach, and discovering the harmonic things of Chopin in the nineteenth century and developing systematic ways of getting at that.  There was a wonderful phrase that the playwright, William Gibson, said.  He’s been a  friend of mine since the ‘40s, and I was interested at one time in a certain poet.  So I was encouraging him to read this person, and Bill just couldn’t get excited about it.  I asked him why and he said, “I only read what feeds me.”  That was such a simple, direct phrase.  So I feel that teaching and going into this music was food for me as a composer.  My music is traditional and evolutionary, and in a way I learned very much from this idea.

BD:    Do you feel that you are part of a direct lineage of composers?

RMP:    I must say I do, maybe in two ways.  Most directly, my music really stems from the first generation of American composers including Harris, Copland, and to a lesser extent Piston.  I was influenced in varying degrees by those people, Harris and Copland probably most.  But I always had my own kind of thing, and in the case of Harris, he attempted certain things or talked about certain things, and he was highly original, but I wanted to carry them out more systematically.  So that was one of the things I did as a young composer.  Then Bartók, who has not influenced me directly, is someone I just admired tremendously.  It is his formal thing and the fact that he also had developed an evolutionary way.  His work was based on his own culture, and I was just very much moved by him and by his music.

BD:    Does it surprise you, as we now head toward the very end of this century, that composers are coming back to tonality?

RMP:    Ah, this is what I live for!  [Both laugh]  It happens if you can just stay around long enough.  One can’t be sure that this would happen, but I remember going to a music conference in Memphis where my Second Sonata was played.  This was back, I guess, in the late ‘70s.  I had not really heard much music by young composers for a long time, and I remember being absolutely thunder-struck at how much the style had opened up.  I heard rock composers writing free dissonant music.  I heard some of the Princeton group calling me a Harvard kind of standard.  Is it up-town or down-town?  [Laughs]  I guess
up-town is what the Princeton group called me, and down-town is Cage and that whole ‘kitchen school!’  But I heard all kinds of things, and this was what was so exciting as a young composer, because my first experience of festivals with was the old Yaddo festival, which took place in the early ‘40s.   People like Copland and Kirkpatrick and many other composers I had known came there, and their music was played and it was always a surprise.  You never knew what kind of music who were going to be hearing.  You heard all sorts of styles.   You never knew when you’d discover somebody new.  It was so different in the ‘60s, when almost everything that you heard at a concert would sound like Anton Webern, only not as good!  By the time you’d heard the flutter tongue for the twentieth or twenty-fifth time, it got rather wearing.  So it’s true, I’m very, very heartened by this.  Another thing, just in passing could be mentioned, was that although Cornell is a relatively small department, I think the word did get around.  I mention this because at our festival this last year, I heard  approximately thirty years of students dating back as far as the late ‘50s.  They come back and are present at the festival, and have their music played.  Many of them didn’t know each other, and were hearing the music for the first time.  I hadn’t seen many of them for a long while, and some of those students told me, The reason we came to Cornell was that this was a place we can write our own music.  We didn’t have to write this way, or that way, or some other way.  My aim as a teacher was to bring out their styles, their own individual personalities, which seemed to me to make a lot of sense.  So I am very heartened.  The only thing that I’m concerned about is that I hear composers trying to write tonal music who are virtually inexperienced.  That is, they haven’t been writing tonal music.  They’re taking old ways of writing tonal music, which seems to me somewhat inept.  I’ve worked very hard to perfect my tonal language for forty years, and I try to keep adding to it and trying to expand it in various ways.  Yet on the other hand the impulse is right.  Music was trying to be composed with far too limited resources, when all these sort of resources were always there.  The thing had to eventually break down just out of necessity it seems to me.

BD:    Then what do you feel is the real purpose of music in society? 

RMP:    [Smiles]  That’s a large order, but I’ll do what I can.  It seems to me one of the things that is important is that the artist, in whatever area he works, has to somehow give a personal vision of what is going on.  For my particular way of thinking, this should be something which combines a certain universal humanistic factor with factors that have to do with the culture in which you are living.  A very complex issue, which we would need a lot more time to go into than we have now, has to do with the whole business of being an American composer, or an American poet, or whatever.  The whole idea was easier in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when you had a simpler but stronger form.  This certainly became compromised as we went through various wars, particularly the whole Vietnam experience.  The whole idea of nationalism became compromised, and therefore if you are an American artist you must figure out how to deal with this.  You must deal with this compromising of the whole idea that once had a certain validity, particularly in the minds of young people.  One of the tragedies is that this whole idea has acquired a certain cynicism because of what has happened to us as a nation.  This is a huge issue, and has been raised once or twice before to me.  On the other hand, I still retain something of that early feeling of what being an American artist could have been, or should have been, or even should be.

BD:    Have we gotten permanently derailed, or can we pull it back?

RMP:    I think we can pull it back, hopefully as we get back our national spirit.  Maybe artist can regain more of the qualities that they had originally by creating some of this feeling to help toward it.  This is something I really wouldn’t want to get into here, but I know that it meant a great deal to me, and I still consider whatever significance my music had is connected to the fact that I have continued with that whole school at a time when it had virtually died out, or at least was not paid very much attention to.


BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

RMP:    [Pauses]  That’s another biggie.  What I would hope is that musical performance, that is live performance, learning piano, violin, whatever instruments, the orchestra in some form as we know it, and the sort of human side of music-making can still continue to be the base.  It does seem to me that matters of all the sophisticated technology isn’t really the essence of a thing.  It’s perhaps an enhancement, but this is really a deeper issue which has to do with the technologization of our society as a whole.  It involves the invading of certain human areas by technology by what some people have called scientism.  There are areas where this is legitimate, but there are areas in which certain fields emulate the sciences where this is not necessarily in the best interests of certain human development.   Here we’re really getting into something, but I have devoted a lot of thought to these problems.  On the other hand music, in my estimation, cannot be divorced from the situation of the culture as a whole.  So I don’t describe myself.  I’ve been thinking about this a long time, so I would say how I would describe myself as a composer is that I am a super-tonal holistic structuralist.

BD:    Is it necessary that you put a label on it, or should the music just speak for itself?

RMP:    I think it does speak for itself, but the point is that there are labels on so many other things, and I’m bothered by the fact that people keep calling me a neo-classicist.  This really drives me up the wall.

BD:    You don’t like that?

RMP:    I don’t think it applies.  I do use older structures, but then so does Bartók, and so did a number of other people who are not called neoclassicists.  My music is tonal, but it is tonal in an original way.  I have my own harmonic language and my own melodic language which I’ve evolved, and it doesn’t help simply to lump it with the followers of composers of the ‘40s.  I talked to other people about this recently, and no one has really dealt with the music or what is unique about it in any very serious way.  William Austen did a wonderful article about me in the Musical Quarterly some years back, and he certainly did as much as anyone who has dealt with it seriously.  Music is tonal, but it’s not the old-fashioned tonality because people now are redoing Mahler and redoing Schubert, whereas, as many other early twentieth century composers did, I tried to carry tonality in a new direction, and to connect one thing with one another and to use many of the old things, but in a new way.  Music has to have directional force, and a great deal of the music of the twentieth-century proceeded along directions in which that whole quality pretty much disappeared.  At least it disappeared for me.  I didn’t see any particular way that one thing followed another.  It just sort of went from here to there, but in a non-directed way.  Now there are other composers whose philosophy is non-directional.  This is another big dichotomy in between being and becoming.  These are two of the big philosophical positions.  The Eastern philosophy tends towards being in the present, and so Eastern music often just goes along without much development.  It’s just there, whereas Western music starts but has a goal.  Leonard Meyer here at University of Chicago talked about teleological music which starts but has a goal, and moves towards the goal.  He was implying that teleological music was coming to an end, that somehow in the twentieth-century this was going out.  I am one of those people who understand that idea, and I believe in it.  The future of music does lie in that direction, but at the same time one can’t say that the other music can’t exist too.  [Laughs]  It took me a long time to come to that, but I say,
“Okay, what’s the problem with the teleological music?  That’s fine.  Music is a big universe, you know.

BD:    Is it anytime too big?

RMP:    It is possible that people’s attention or listening habits can be directed away.  There was an article by man named Clifton Fadiman.  Now you have to be my generation to remember who he was.  It was called ‘The Decline of Attention’ [Saturday Review, August 6, 1949], and my father was especially impressed with it.  Fadiman said that we have so many stimuli coming at us in so many areas that we have lost the ability to respond; that our ability to respond has become blunted.  I haven’t heard much of it yet, but there’s a new kind of thing that comes over the speakers in the supermarkets.  It’s a kind of very quiet, sort of pleasant sound...

BD:    [Interjecting]  I call it ‘wallpaper music’!

RMP:    Yes!  It’s wallpaper music!  And if you were to hear too much of that, you might lose the ability to attend, let’s say, a Mozart quartet or a Bach fugue.  It might get to be too much effort.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Or a Palmer quartet?

RMP:    Or a Palmer quartet, precisely, exactly!  I don’t know if this is what you were getting at, but I think this is something one needs to think about.

BD:    It’s one of the aspects of it, surely.  So what advice do you have in a general sense for the younger generation of composers coming along today?


RMP:    I would suggest two basic things, which are probably the same that I suggested to my students.  One is to have as wide an experience of music as possible.  In other words, get to know not only the standard classics, but to expand into the Bach and the pre-Bach, and the mediaeval.  Also listen to as much twentieth-century music of the whole century, not just the most recent, which is what young composers tend to do.  Some of that ought to be in performance.  A young composer who is experienced only through listening is at a disadvantage compared to someone who has practical musical training, preferably in something like piano or some other instrument.  Secondly, they need basic technique.  They have to learn the essential disciplines of music so they can handle simple materials and more complex materials in some kind of order, no matter what they’re going to do.  I’ve seen so many composers come to me with real ideas and without technique, and their piece falls on its face.  They get started but they’d have no technique to carry it on, or they carry it on too long.  If we’re talking about the basic points of view, those would be the two most important.  Of course there are many others.

BD:    Where is the balance in music, either in yours or others
, between the inspiration and the technique?

RMP:    This is a problem with some music in which it is difficult to divorce the theoretical basis of the music from the music itself.  There is some music in which there is almost no borderline.  There are certain areas of music in which one first reads an article about the music and then listens to the piece.  This seems to me to be somewhat at one extreme, and at least most of the music I have heard of this particular type has been pretty dry.  On the other hand there is the what we call the ‘romantic’ stream.  That is the stream of music where one simply pours out tons of emotion, and the nineteenth century itself perhaps reflected those dimensions.  Exciting as it might be at the beginning, that kind of music gets to be tiring after a while because that’s not focused.  You get this stuff pouring out, and I suppose I’ll have people down on my neck about it, but Berlioz affects me that way.  I realize that there are people who would have my hide for saying that!  [Both laugh]  I’ve always been very impressed with the story of Mozart, who went as a teenager, thanks to his father’s sense, to Padre Martini, who put him through the most grueling training.  Most composers would be ground up in a meat grinder if they had to go through a fraction of what Mozart did.  But then, as someone pointed out, he could forget that and write the Jupiter Symphony finale with its five-part counterpoint.  You have to learn enough technique so that you can use it without thinking about it that much.  You have the technique there.  I always say it’s not that different from cabinet making or any other kind of real craft.  You just have to spend so many years with the tools, learning the wood and what to do with it so that you can make a beautiful cabinet.  If you don’t know enough to do that, you’ll never will arrive.

BD:    You don’t view music, though, as useful in the way that the cabinet is useful, do you?

RMP:    I think music is necessary for the basic health of the human race.  There are elements of music that go back 20,000 or 30,000 years in some form.  It seems to be  necessary.  Are the songs of the birds necessary to their survival, really?  Who knows?  [They laugh]  I put music somewhat in that category.

*     *     *     *     *

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

RMP:    Well, of course they varied a great deal.  I’ve been fortunate in certain instances.  In general, on the whole I have had quite good performances.  I’ve had some which certainly didn’t measure up, and a few that have been disastrous, but very early in my career I was fortunate enough to have my First String Quartet played by the Walden Quartet of the University of Illinois.  Actually they were not at Illinois in those days, but rather they were members of the Cleveland Orchestra.  They played my First Quartet at Columbia back in the early ‘40s, and then for one year they were at Cornell, and after that they came to Urbana.  They played all my early quartets, and they understood them and played them beautifully.  More recently I’ve had this young group called the Tremont, who in a way are functioning somewhat in my later life as the Walden did, and it’s one of the reasons I’m writing string quartets again.  John Kirkpatrick has been mentioned because my association with him goes way back to the time when I was still a student at the Eastman School.  I showed him an early sonata and he was very interested in it and kept badgering me to finish it, which I eventually did.  Then he came to Cornell for seven or eight years and worked through many of my piano works with me.  He always performed them beautifully and played them widely.  Ray Salvatore is doing something now these days to play my piano music.  Of course I did write my big Third Sonata for him, and he has understood the music performed it beautifully.  [See box below.]  Other people also have also magnificent performances.  I remember the Speculum Musicae did a beautiful performance of my Clarinet Quintet, and individual people have played other pieces very well.  So I’ve been rather fortunate with this.


To read my Interview with John LaMontaine, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Hunter Johnson, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Paul Bowles, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Yehudi Wyner, click HERE.

BD:    What do you expect of the audiences that comes to hear a piece of yours, either a new piece or a piece that is not particularly new?

RMP:    I have a theory about this.  I think it’s original, but music in general is based on other music, and people’s reactions to new music depends on how much musical background is in their mind.  It’s cumulative, but if they have only experience with a limited body of music, then that is the basis in terms of which they can relate.  This can’t be carried out too literally because people who have a relatively limited body of musical experience can still react strongly to something.  I’m not saying that you have to have a huge background, but the more you have the better it is, and the more responses can be evoked.  Now of course, if a composer is writing basically a language which tries to erase tonality, which is arrhythmic, which is melodic only in a fragmentary or single-pitch sense so that relationship of the pitch is disjunctive, there is relatively little connection between that music and anything in the person’s mind already
unless he’s had a wide experience with that particular kind of music, which would be rather rare.  In my music there is a fair amount of a traditional basis.  That is to say my music is based a great deal on past music, prior centuries as well as this one.  There’s something for the listener to grasp, and I try to take those still further.  Contemporary music that is meaningful to me does the same thing in a different direction from mine, so I feel that the listener needs to have an open mind and needs to listen to a certain amount of my music in order to have the basis to respond to it.  They have to go along with it, and I try to make the music directed enough so that it will carry them along from one thing to the other, even if they haven’t had a lot of experience with it.  I have found, in general, a fairly strong reaction from audiences.

BD:    Good or bad, or just strong?

RMP:    Mostly good.  On a number of occasions, someone has said to me,
I really didn’t think I liked contemporary music, but I certainly like your music!  That’s important to me, especially with young people.  I had a wonderful thing happen to me about twenty years ago in New York.  There was a concert with the usual assortment of various styles.  This was not a concert of extreme music, but there was some rather dry music.  I’ve forgotten what particular piece of mine was played — it might have been the Piano Quartet or maybe one of the piano sonatas — and this young woman came up to me and said, You know, Mr. Palmer, I have almost gotten to the point of not coming to contemporary music concerts.  I’ve been coming over and over, and I liked your music very much.  There’s only so many times you can put the bucket down to the well, and bring it up dry!  I’ve never forgotten that.

BD:    Obviously you provided her with some refreshment.

palmer RMP:    I think there was a little water in the well!  [Both laugh]

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, are you in control of the pencil, or are there times when the pencil is really in control of you?

RMP:    That’s an interesting one!  There have been times when the circumstances were so good, were so favorable that the piece went extremely well.  In 1952-53 I had my first sabbatical leave, and we decided we wanted to be in a small place but near a large city.  After various tries, we decided on Marble Head, Massachusetts, which is on the ocean, a few miles north of Boston.  The previous fall I had the whole year off and we stayed in Ithaca.  Two of my former students, both pianists who had been in Philadelphia for many years, had a piano four-hand duo, and they said there were not that many twentieth-century works, so they asked me to write a work for them!  They’d both been my students and they were good friends, and I had my first sabbatical so I wrote what I think is quite a substantial piece for them, for four hands piano.  Then that spring we were in this beautiful New England coast town, and I wrote my First Symphony, but I didn’t complete the orchestration until a few years ago when some friends prevailed on me to finish it.  But I still think it’s one of my best works.  Another case was in 1954 when the Stanley Quartet asked me to write a quartet for them.  [See box at right.  See my Interviews with Leon Krichner, Elliott Carter, Ulysses Kay, and George Crumb.]   For this I spent my only time at the MacDowell Colony which had absolutely ideal working conditions.  I had planned to write just the first movement, and by the end of the first week I had completed it.  Then another composer there kept egging me on to just finish the whole thing.  He kept asking me how many measures I had done, and I ended up actually during the last week writing the final bars.  That work, in a sense, wrote itself.  There have been a few other cases like this, but this last quartet was the most unusual in this respect.  For one thing, I had a very short time in which to do it.  The deadline basically was November first, and I worked through the fall.  From the opening day that I started working on it, I started with this wide spacing of the instruments at certain intervals.  I had planned to bring the spacing from a wide spacing into a very narrow spacing.  That was my technical idea, and as I started it turned out that the outer voices were mirror-writing, and I wanted to see what would happen with the middle voice.  Then the middle voice was mirror-writing, and it was echoing the mirror-writing of the other voices.  The inner space answered the first line, and this created a very intense harmonic language, which was exactly what I was looking for.  Then I  tried it through the second line and it kept continuing.  I wondered how this could happen.  It couldn’t possibly be right.  I’m wary of these kinds of things, and sometime on the third line it was the time to break it, so it went into a kind of free harmony.  I think I wrote that whole first page during the first couple of hours that I worked on the quartet, and from there the whole thing went.  Working conditions there were not ideal.  I was trying various places to work and sometimes I was interrupted.  Then I ran into problems.  There’d be a little problem and I would bring it home.  So I’d go again, and in  two minutes, bingo, it’d just be there.  That was the first time I really felt as if the quartet was there and I was writing it down.  It’s never that way, but I had no leeway for any major road block.  It just had to go, and it did.  I had a very clear formal idea of the thing right from the beginning, which helped.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise scores?

RMP:    Oh yes!

BD:    Is that a good idea?

RMP:    It can be.  I don’t do a great deal of that.  I’ve done a lot of correcting of scores where there have been all sorts of errors, and in some cases I have revised the most remarkable instances of this.  Had I been a composer who changed styles every five or ten years
which has been true of some twentieth-century composersthis might not have worked, but my changes have been somewhat evolutionary.  During the period of 1940-43 I wrote my Second String Quartet, and it was on a simply an enormous scale.  Certain compositional ideas were from Harris and there were some ideas of my own.  In the first movement I had been very much interested in fugal and other free uses of fugal and passacaglia forms, baroque forms, which partly were an outgrowth of my work with Harris.  Also I worked on things like this, but I was working with him in a more tight way.  So I had this incredible plan for the first movement, which was a normal exposition, a normal development that was quite contrapuntal, then a transformation of the themes which is the third sectionwhich were the first and second themes but they were transformed into a different kind of expression.  Then the second development, which was fugal, and then an expositiona fifth section that was like the first.  That was all very well.  There were three themes in the exposition, the third of which was diminution of the first regular rhythms which were even rhythms.  What happened was in this second development section I went way overboard.  It was way too long.  This is the only instance that I know of where the scheme carried me away.  Also the last movement had some things that seemed to me to not be quite right.  At the first performance in New York in the mid-‘40s, some very good friends came over and said it was just a marvelous quartet, but it was just too long!  There’s too much of a good thing!  So what I did was take it back to the drawing board and chop out the entire second development.  What I had then was the exposition, the development, the transformation and the recapitulation.  The whole fourth section was basically missing.  For a number of years the work was always played that way.  It was successful enough, but it bothered me.  I knew it wasn’t right.  I made some incisions in the last movement which stayed because I had one too many sections there.  So the last movement was okay.  Now mind you, this is the middle ‘40s we’re talking about.  So in 1978 or 1979, I met the Tremonts.  They came and played a program, and while we were having lunch they asked if I had any ideas.  I said, What about the American quartet literature of the ‘30s and ‘40s?  It’s almost totally neglected.  Think of the quartets of Quincy Porter, of Walter Piston, of Roger Sessions, of Roy Harris.  Who’s playing those?  Nobody!  So they said they’d look into it.  Then I said, “By the way, while we’re speaking of this, I have a quartet from the same period which I really need an excuse to revise.  I’m going to think about this, and I’ll get in touch with you.  So basically I made a deal with them.  I said, If I put this quartet right, will you play it? and they said that they would.  They saw what I had, so I took a week off.  I’d retired in June, and I had a week to put myself back in the musical language of the mid-‘40s.  It was something I was very close to, and I loved the quartet.  So I put back some of what I had cut out of that fourth section, left the part that was excessive out, and had to make joins.  I had to make links to connect all that up, and that made it just right.  They played it and just loved it.

BD:    If someone wants to play the old version with the part missing or the complete version with everything in it, would you object to that?

RMP:    I think I would.  I know they’re doing this with Beethoven and some other composers, but I would object violently because the first version is truncated and therefore doesn’t really fill the form of structure.  There’s something missing there, whereas the original version I don’t think they can even recreate.  I don’t think the score even exists anymore, but if they could would be too much.  It really was excessive.  This version is just right.

BD:    In the end, is composing fun?

RMP:    I enjoy it, yes I really do.  It’s hard work.  Sometimes, when I’m in a very difficult spot, maybe I think I should try some other line of work [laughs] but generally it’s rewarding, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about Quincy Porter.

RMP:    I discovered his music at Eastman, particularly the Piano Sonata, which I still think is one of the really neglected masterpieces.  It’s a very, very fine work, and it’s virtually out of the repertoire, yet it was recorded on a couple of commercial recordings in the past.  When I was at Eastman, probably in 1935, he and Walter Piston came with the old Roth String Quartet to one of the Eastman festivals.  Piston’s Second Quartet and Quincy Porter’s Fifth were both on the program.  They were both brand new works and both of them were there, and I met them both.  I was particularly interested in Porter’s music.  Then there was another circumstance having to do with my grandparents who lived in Poughkeepsie in the Hudson Valley.  Porter was teaching at that time at Vassar, and I asked if I might come and see him.  So the following summer, when I was at my grandparents, I went to his house and he played some things and showed me other scores.  We had a really good meeting.  I was just starting then, and he looked at some of my music and criticized it, and was very, very kind to me.  He gave me a copy of his Fifth String Quartet, which is one of the ones that was not published.  He was a violist and a very fine chamber music composer, and the whole idea of string quartets and chamber music texture in general interested me; also his harmonic language, which was extremely personal.  He’d been a pupil of Bloch, and many people thought that he’d been influenced by him.  I always felt his language was very personal, especially the harmonic language, and I think that my early music was somewhat influenced by this.  He was part of a group of composers who were instrumental in the early days of Yaddo, and I would see him there. 

BD:    Aside from being an influence on you, were you able to learn from him?

RMP:    I learned something about the transparency of quartet writing from studying his music.    My personal contact with him was limited... just those few visits, or meeting him occasionally at the Yaddo festivals.  So although some articles list me as a pupil of his, I was not actually directly a pupil, but rather an informal contact.

BD:    By the way, how do you pronounce his first name?

RMP:    QuinSy [kwin-see]!

BD:    Not QuinZy [kwin-zee]?

RMP:    I’ve never heard it pronounced that way.  There’s a funny story about that.  I’ve forgotten who told me, but it might have been Aaron.  Apparently he was going back and forth to Paris, as so many of the composers were at that time, and this was the USS France.  Apparently Porter was being paged, and so this French steward was going round calling,
Can-see por-tay, can-see por-tay!  [Both laugh at the French pronunciation of the name.]  I always got a kick out of that.


BD:    Is there any chance we’re developing too many composers these days?

RMP:    That is something I’ve thought about, and it’s a hard question to deal with.  There certainly are enormous numbers, and one wonders how one can keep up with them.  I just don’t know.  It’s awfully hard to deal with the question without getting into rocky territory.  The standards of what it took to be a composer, at least in the time when I was growing up, were fairly rigorous ones, and it took a fairly long time.  If you were going to have a kind of broad spectrum approach to composition you had to master melodic writing, counterpoint, harmony, textural variety, and all this kind of thing.  Now music has changed a great deal, and actually one can write music without having to do this kind of thing at all.   In effect there are two schools of thought.  One says that broad spectrum music is passé.  It’s not very difficult to write music which consists of just a few elements, so that approach certainly has led, to a certain extent, to a proliferation of composers.  Like with any technique, how many of these can lead to a strong personal style I don’t know, and that need not depend on any particular thing.  An outstanding talent will rise above the rest.   It’s a question I’d almost rather not get into!  It’s just too controversial.

BD:    What is perhaps the most interesting thing, or the most surprising thing that you’ve noted in music over the 73 years you’ve been around? 

RMP:    Could you narrow that down just a bit?

BD:    Are there any trends or any developments that either you knew would come or you never thought would come?  That doesn’t narrow it very much, I’m afraid.

RMP:    No, but I see what you mean.  One thing is the whole development of chance music, or you might call it texture music, in which there are certain static states which are prolonged over several periods of time.  I hadn’t anticipated that, although some of that probably stems from an interest in non-western music, particularly eastern and oriental music.  That is one of the developments that is not that surprising, but what I had anticipated was that composers who were working in a general twentieth-century style, but with individual stylistic differences, would eventually result in some common language and arrive at a certain consensus.  This would be particularly with the American School, but we wouldn’t be limited to that.  As a matter of fact, probably the opposite has happened.  Music has proliferated into more and more separate categories, and this convergence has not necessarily taken place.  On the other hand, maybe it will sometime in the future.  If we can rediscover the whole central area of musical resources that have been somewhat bypassed in recent decades, such a convergence might take place.  But that’s just pure speculation.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer and for spending the time with me this afternoon.  It’s been a great pleasure to meet you and speak with you.

RMP:    Well, thank you.  I have enjoyed it enormously, and I am very impressed and happy with this whole enterprise that you’re engaged in.  That’s been a great pleasure.


To read my Interview with Neva Pilgrim, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Richard Wernick, click HERE.

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 14, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and again in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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.