Composer Paul Pisk
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Amadeus Pisk was born on May 16, 1893, in Vienna, Austria, and
died on January 12, 1990 in Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate in
musicology from Vienna University in 1916, studying under Guido Adler.
Afterwards he studied conducting at the Imperial Academy of Music and
the Performing Arts graduating in 1919. His teachers there included
Franz Schreker (counterpoint). Pisk also studied privately with Arnold
Schoenberg from 1917 to 1919. He then taught at the Vienna Academy and
gave adult education lectures, especially at the Volkshochschule
Volksheim Ottakring, where from 1922 to 1934 he was director of the
music department. He also taught at the New Vienna Conservatory from
1925 to 1926 and the Austro-American Conservatory near Salzburg from
1931 to 1933.
He was also a board member, secretary, and pianist in Schoenberg's
Society for Private Musical Performances. He was among the founding
members of the International Society for Contemporary Music and from
1920 to 1928 was coeditor of Musikblätter
des Anbruch and music editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung.
Dr. Pisk immigrated to the United States in 1936. He taught at the
University of Redlands, where he served four years as director of the
music school. He joined the faculty of The University of Texas at
Austin in 1951, teaching until his retirement in 1963. After that he
was a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis until
An internationally renowned composer, he completed thirty-six opuses
between 1920 and 1936. The String
Quartet, Op. 8, was awarded the Composition Prize of the City of
Vienna in 1925. Twenty-four critically acclaimed works were premiered
in Europe. He also published operatic, orchestral, ballet, folk dances,
ballads, and works for piano and chorus.
In addition to his work as a composer, Pisk was a music critic. He
co-authored A History of Music and
Musical Style, a music theory book.
Paul A. Pisk: Essays in his
Honor, a collection of 26 pieces written by colleagues and noted
musicologists, was published by the College of Fine Arts in 1966. He
was awarded a golden doctoral diploma by the University of Vienna in
1967. A prize named in his honor is the highest award for a graduate
student paper at the annual meeting of the American Musicological
Without citing hard numbers, it can be assumed that there are quite a
number of people whose middle name is Amadeus. It seems, however,
that when one of them goes into the music profession, the idea of
pre-destination always pops up. Such is the case with this
composer and teacher, Paul Amadeus Pisk.
Having been born in 1893, he is one of the oldest of my interview
guests. Only Dame Eva Turner (March 10, 1892) and John Donald
Robb (June 12, 1892) preceed Pisk on my list. There are several
others born in the late-nineteenth century, and the rest arrived in the
twentieth. Perhaps in another few years I will interview someone
born after January 1, 2001, in order to account for people born in
three different centuries and two different millennia.
No matter, though. It was a distinct pleasure and honor for me to
make contact with Pisk in October of 1986. He permitted me to
call him, and we spent nearly an hour discussing quite a number of
musical topics. In his 94th year, he was very alert, and
considered his responses carefully.
Here is that very special encounter . . . . . . .
You were for quite a number of years a teacher of composition?
Musicology and composition. In Vienna, I studied composition with
Schoenberg, and musicology with Guido Adler, who is one of the founders
of modern musicology.
BD: What did
you learn specifically from Arnold Schoenberg?
PP: I learned
the technique of composition. I already had my degree from the
Academie in Vienna, where I had other teachers, and felt that I didn’t
know very much, so I went to Schoenberg, and he accepted me as a
student. I’m one of the two or three surviving students from his
Austrian time. There are others still alive who studied with him
in Los Angeles, of course, but I went twice a week to Mödling,
which is about thirteen miles from Vienna. I had to go up
very early because he wanted to teach early, and I can say that
everything I know in compositional technique I owe to Schoenberg.
quite a high tribute.
Yes. I consider myself in the same line as Berg and Webern, whom
I knew very well, personally. As kind of an outsider, the
personality of Schoenberg I accepted, but the twelve-tone system, not
BD: Did it
surprise you at all how he continued to write the way he did?
PP: No it
didn’t, because he very convincingly proved that his technique is a
natural following of the Romanticists. In his early works he was
partly Wagner and partly Brahms, whom he highly respected.
He gave up the tonality long before he constructed, in his twenties,
his twelve-tone system.
BD: Do you
think that the public has begun to accept these works much more now?
this is a very interesting question. As a composer, I write to
follow the line in the way that the form of the emotional content of
the music is continuing. But through the development in modern
times, everything is, if I can say, so mixed up. Presently we
have not only the predominance of the popular music, the jazz, the
rock, but we have also the prevalence of the Romanticists. The
Classic and the Romantic composers all are performed, but the modern
line doesn’t follow the same work of the second classic school in
Vienna. They don’t follow it, but they experimented, partly with
electronic music and partly with so-called Neoclassicism. That
means a step back to the tonality of the nineteenth century, or even
the minimalists, the new group of composers which take very little
motifs and repeat them incessantly.
BD: Are all
of these new concepts good concepts, or do you think that some of them
PP: If I may
say, personally, I think they are wrong-headed, but you can never know
the development of the general stream of the music. At the
moment, when you consider the concert repertoire along with the
records, ninety percent are Classical, Romantic, or Bach.
So-called modern music has a small part in it. Not only that, but
the small part is divided, too. You can’t follow a certain line,
a development which in Schoenberg was so clear. Schoenberg came
from the Romantic. His early compositions are like Brahms, a
little Wagnerian. Then gradually he gave up the tonality, which
already was lessened by Wagner, through the chromaticists. Then
the atonal period came, and Schoenberg, as a classicist, found there
had to be a system in which the atonality is organized. This is the
twelve-tone system — the
row system. This is followed in a different way than Berg and
another way by Webern and also other composers
— for instance Dallpiccola, or Carter in America.
[See my Interview
with Elliott Carter.] But it seems that his line, which I
follow, too, is losing, because the younger composers have either
Neoclassic tendencies — for instance, going back
to tonality even if you are modern — or they will
go way above it by using the technical advantages of electronic
synthesizers and so on. So in my opinion, the development of
modern music is just uncertain.
BD: Then are
you optimistic about the future development of music?
PP: It is
very hard to feel optimistic if you belong to a group which really
regularly loses momentum. For instance, Boulez has developed and
formed tonality to his new style, which is, I can say, very, very hard
to understand or to analyze. The musicologist in me likes to
analyze and find out everything that is behind this music.
When you get into a Stravinsky or a Schoenberg, you can do that very,
very well, but in this new music, especially from the young people,
it’s kind of a lawlessness. At least we old people had a score to
love, which dominated. [Laughs]
BD: Being both a musicologist
and a composer, did understanding musicology help you be a better
PP: Not to be
a better composer, but to be a more discerning composer. When we
analyze Beethoven and see the wonderful technique — not
only the emotional and spiritual, but the technical content
— we can apply this in our music in a different style, even
if this is chromatic or twelve-tonal. For instance, let’s say the
sonata form. If you analyze Schoenberg, you can find in some
movements exact elements of the classic sonata form. It doesn’t
sound like it, but you see it if when you analyze it. But in this
so-called electronic music there are other rules, and it is described
but it is not analyzed so far. So I would prefer not to predict
anything, because I think the whole development is in flux.
BD: Let me
ask this — in musical composition, where should
be the balance between inspiration and technique?
PP: No music
is worth anything if there is not inspiration and emotional
content. Even Schoenberg said it. He called it the Great
Master. That means he considered inspiration as a kind of a
religion. People don’t understand his music, and therefore it is
not quite accepted. In the music of Berg, for instance, there are
parts in the Violin Concerto
where you feel the system. You feel the same emotional and
spiritual qualities which you felt in the music of Mozart or Beethoven.
BD: When Berg
and Schoenberg and Webern were writing, did they have audiences in
mind? Who were they writing for?
wrote for the public, which was not up to it. There was always
the thinking that the modern music is not great because nobody
understands it. If you go back to music history, you know that
when they lived, all the Haydn symphonies were performed and all the
Mozart operas were performed. That was, for that time,
contemporary music. In our time, Mozart is still the greatest
composer, but he belongs to the eighteenth century.
Schoenberg and Berg writing for their century?
wrote for our century. Schoenberg was always fond of new
music. By the way, when we talk about myself, I was among the
founders of the International Society for Contemporary Music. It
was founded in the early twenties in Salzburg, and went to
international music festivals all over the place. It is still
existing today. I was the Secretary of the Society. In my
day, every new piece of new music which seemed to be valuable was
performed, not considering the style. For instance, we performed
first works from Weill, first works from Bartók, first works
that are classic modernist today. Today, the same society prefers
only the last development — call it electronic
music or call it technical music or computer music. It is all,
for me, strange... not that I am not trying to understand it, but I
have not the gifts. I don’t think that many average students know
exactly the content of this music. The books that I read about
it describe the sound and the instruments and the new possibilities of
things — for instance the double tone in the
woodwinds or clapping on the string bodies. That can be
described, but the emotional impact is, for me, fragmentary.
BD: When you
were writing, for whom did you specifically write?
PP: I have
two types of music. The name Gebrauchsmusik
means music for general use. It is a term which was represented
in Hindemith, who was a friend of mine. Hindemith wrote pieces
which are modern and difficult, but he also wrote quite a few pieces
for the general understanding. I came to this country fifty years
ago. In this country, right in the midst of the modern society is
the Composers Alliance, and new music is to be consumed by more than an
elite. Therefore, I also wrote pieces which have been published
or performed which are not radical or experimental. In my youth,
being a student of Schoenberg and writing atonal, I was in the avant-garde. But now I am in
the derriere-garde because I
don’t insist that my composition use modern technical devices.
been teaching composition for awhile.
musical composition something that can be taught, or must it really be
learned by each individual on his own?
PP: You never
can teach the real inspiration. You can teach what to do with
it. For instance, when you have a theme, you have to develop it,
and there are many ways to develop it. By analysis of works by
Mozart or Beethoven or Bach or Mahler, then you see what can be done
with these ideas. This you can teach a student. I was
teaching composition for twenty years in universities, and had students
who are now in the dictionaries as composers. They have real
ideas or originality of thought, which you can’t teach.
BD: Who are,
perhaps, your most famous pupils?
Leinsdorf. He was seven years my student in Vienna. [See my
Erich Leinsdorf.] Also Guglielmo Ratzer who is in South
America now, and Gerhard Krapf, who is in Canada, teaching at the
University of Alberta. I have influenced some of my students, so
I know that my work was not for nothing.
|Gerhard Krapf was born on December 12, 1924
in the small German town of Meissenheim. After many years of piano and
organ instruction, Gerhard was drafted into the German army in 1942. He
was wounded four times during his course of military service and was
unaware that the war had ended when he was captured by the Russians on
May 10, 1945. Years of hard labor followed. During this period of
mental and physical agony, Gerhard began composing. Paper was in short
supply, so he wrote his scores on old cement bags! Although he believed
that his life would end in central Russia, he was freed on July 3,
1948. By 1950k Gerhard had completed his music education and received
the Staatsexamen-Diplom in organ and music theory from the Hochschufe
fur Musik, Karlsruhe.
Gerhard then came to the United States to study at the University of
Redlands where he received his Master of Music degree in 1951. His
limited visa forced him to return to Germany, but he was able to
immigrate to the United States in 1953, attaining citizenship in 1959.
He taught in Michigan, Missouri, and Wyoming prior to his appointment
in 1961 as professor and head of the organ department at the University
of Iowa. Following and invitation by the University of Alberta, Canada,
he taught at this institution from 1977 to the year of his retirement,
1987. He was renowned for his significant contribution to church music
with prolific compositions of organ, choral, and vocal works; for the
designing and supervision of the 1978 Casavant organ in Convocation
Hall at the University of Alberta; scholarly works on the organ; and a
decade of teaching at the University of Alberta (1977-87), for which he
was named professor emeritus. He contributed significantly to the
development of the graduate programs in keyboard and library resources
at the University of Alberta. He died July 2, 2008.
must give you a good feeling to know that your legacy will be carried
especially in the way of combining the musicology with the historical
aspect. Schoenberg believed that his music is a natural
development of Brahms. He wrote articles concerning this.
That means not formal organization, but it means the spirit and the
technique of orchestration, the technique of combining the things which
is the same in Schoenberg as it is in Richard Strauss or Wagner.
BD: Was he
correct in his own assessment of his music?
PP: It’s very
interesting. Schoenberg was convinced that he was a genius or a
great composer. But Webern developed the twelve-tone system that
is now much more famous. He never believed in himself. He
said, “Oh, well, it’s experimental. God knows how it will come out.”
taught a great number of people. Are there, perhaps, too many
young composers coming along today?
PP: Not really. Not real
composers. Many people compose but shouldn’t.
[Both laugh] But the young people are the leading
composers. In my time, for instance, Ives was a great composer,
and in my opinion Carter is a fine composer, along with several
others. But there are young people coming up who, I think, have
not enough direction. Somebody composes like the minimalist
Philip Glass, and somebody composes like Milton Babbitt with electronic
instruments. [See my Interview with Milton
Babbitt.] So we cannot — at least I cannot — find
a line of continuation historically because there are too many
different paths which are like the strings of a piano when they are
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances you have heard of your
PP: In the
old country I was played much more than the new country because I was a
newcomer. But I had several performances by Symphony Orchestras,
for instance in St. Louis, in Austin, in Oklahoma with different
orchestras. And chamber music was widely played mostly in
evenings of new music in Los Angeles or in New York with the New Music
Group. So it is slow. If you think that among the music
which is played on recordings, ninety percent is Classical, Romantic,
or Baroque, and maybe ten percent is contemporary. Of this ten
percent you can’t say one composer has great
success and has many performances, and another is a more valuable
composer. You don’t know.
BD: There are
some recordings of your music. Are you pleased with those
very. The composer’s alliance, the ACA recordings, are not made
in this country. The Passacaglia
was done in Zurich because the orchestra there is cheaper than an
American orchestra. Another piece of mine which is also recorded
is Three Ceremonial Dances,
and that was done in Warsaw by the Philharmonic of Warsaw. They
used the orchestras which were not so expensive. Of course, it’s
only for modern music, because all American and European companies
record Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven and Bach, which is wonderful
because this is greatest music. But it doesn’t help the
BD: What do
you look for in a piece of music before you can call it great?
PP: That is
very interesting. It is the unique confluence of the inspiration,
the technique and the sound. If there is a great inspiration,
then it is joined with a wonderful technique, which means the working
out of the musical thought. If this is perfect, the piece is
great, whether it is Palestrina or Bach or Mozart or Schoenberg.
Any time when you find the confluence of these elements in one work, it
is a great work.
BD: Is there
any competition amongst composers today?
yes. There is very, very fierce competition! Everybody
wants performances. Everybody wants commissions, and that means
for a foundation or for an orchestra to write a piece. I had
small commissions. I was too outside the mainstream so I had no
great sponsors, but smaller commissions. William Kraft, who is a
Californian composer, has so many commissions for all kinds of
orchestras that he says he is not to do anything else except compose
those for a few years before he runs out of money. [Both
laugh] [See my Interview
with William Kraft.]
BD: Are you
are still composing?
PP: Yeah, a
little bit. In my age, the inspiration is still there sometimes,
but I had a suite for solo cello performed. Have you ever heard
of the Moldenhauer Archive?
Moldenhauer is a friend of mine, and arranged to have performed this
new piece, which I just wrote, in a concert setting. I have a
tape of it. So once in a while I get a notice from the Composer’s
Alliance if my piece is played there or there or there. You have
to take what you get.
BD: When you
were composing more regularly, did you work on more than one piece at a
time, or did you concentrate on one piece?
PP: It was
really a concentrated on one piece, but very, very fruitful were my
summers in the MacDowell Colony where you have occasion in quiet and
peace. I was usually called a summer composer because in the
winter semester I had to teach, and when you teach you can’t
compose. You have too much other activity. So on Christmas
vacation I would compose, and summer vacations, always.
brought you more pleasure, the teaching or the composing?
is my gift, and I love to teach. My students like my
teaching. I introduced a Ph.D. in Music at the University of
Texas, and all my students, who were my doctoral candidates, have
outstanding positions. One is a dean in Ohio and one is a
president of a section of the University of Texas. So I have
known that my teaching was not in vain.
BD: Did your
teaching change over the years?
not, because I taught not my ideas, but the ideas which I found in the
composer’s work. My last teaching assignment was one semester at
the University of Southern California, but I taught the same way as I
taught in Saint Louis at Washington University, or in Texas. I
had the good fortune that I had so much time in each university.
BD: Was your
teaching the same in the United States as it was in Vienna?
Vienna, the development of modern music was very limited. It was
a very conservative city. Through the foundation of the Society
of Contemporary Music and also the Society for Private Performances,
which Schoenberg founded to make audience familiar with contemporary
music, some of this contributed very much to the dissemination of the
BD: Tell me a
bit about your works with texts.
PP: I wrote
very many songs and choral pieces. One cantata was at the Music
festival in Vienna. In Prague they played an orchestra piece of
mine, and in Amsterdam they did a piece of mine. In Europe I had
very, very many connections, but when you come to a new country you
have to start from scratch.
BD: Did you
write any operas?
PP: Yes, a
one-act opera, but it wasn’t performed for political reasons. The
opera was written at the time where in Germany the Nazis started, and
all modern music was not performed any more. It is only a one-act
opera, so it is in the archives now.
BD: Do you
wish that it would get performed, or no?
because this type of libretto is passé. I concentrated in
the last years more on chamber music for wind instruments, for strings,
and for chamber orchestra quite a bit. Smaller groups make it
easier to get performed. If there’s an occasion to have a big
orchestra piece performed, it’s very minimal. If you want to have
it be performed, the publishers expect much better results from smaller
works. I have about thirty-eight or forty things at different
publishing houses — piano pieces, sonatas,
suites, string quartets.
people perform your music, do they ever find things in your music that
you did not know were there?
PP: No, I
don’t think the people who play this kind of music find things.
You have to tell them.
BD: You also
worked as a critic. Tell me about that.
PP: In Vienna was a big daily
called the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers Newspaper). It was an
organ of the Social Democratic Party, and in Vienna I was the
representative for public music from the Social Democratic Party, and
was music critic for this time with the consent of Schoenberg.
Schoenberg was very autocratic, and I had to ask him if I can accept
this. He said, “This paper doesn’t accept the advertising of
concerts and concert agents, so you can go there and be
objective.” He knew that I was for new music, and this journal
was very widely read because in Vienna it is a plurality. Still,
the city of Vienna is Social Democratic. So I wrote reviews,
sometimes for Schoenberg — which was kind of
audacious — and several others.
BD: What is
— or should be — the role of the critic?
Objectivity is the role. No favoritism, but no emphasis of things
which don’t belong to the essence of the work. Of course, if you
write about the soloists, you write about the voice or the piano.
But if you write about new compositions, you should write about the
content of the new composition, whether it is an opera or a symphony or
a chamber work. You should not be prejudiced. Many critics
were — and are — prejudiced
against modern music. I read some articles in the American
dailies — not in New York or Los Angeles, but in smaller towns
— and you would be amazed how much conservative prejudice
there is against modern music.
BD: Is there
any way of fighting this?
[Laughs] A critic is independent. You can’t find him.
In that way, the critic is powerful. If
somebody writes something in The New
York Times, you should try to write a letter to him and say you
don’t agree with his notion.
BD: Is there
any way, though, of fighting the prejudice against modern music amongst
yes. That is done in musical journals quite a bit, especially the
young people to try to get publicity not only for music, but also in
writing. They write good articles, or progressive articles, in
the musical journals, so it is in general quite aggressive.
BD: What do
you feel are the basic obligations of a composer?
PP: To be
true to himself. It’s very simple, very simple. If a
composer writes what is given to him, he’s fine, but if he tries to
make something up, construct it from that which is not really inspired,
it is not good. So, if he’s true to his real self, then it will
be good music, in my opinion.
BD: I can
assume, then, that you have been truthful to yourself in your
Yes. When I wrote something, I believed in it. When I hear
modern music — even when the composer’s
conservative or modern or ultra-modern — if I
feel that there is a fidelity, then it is good music.
BD: I want to
thank you for spending the time with me this evening.
I’ve been delighted, and thank you for this. I hope it is what
you wanted. I am very grateful you’ve
given me the occasion to let off some steam.
-- -- -- --
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© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on October 22,
1986. Segments were used
on WNIB in 1988, 1993 and 1998. A copy of the unedited audio was
placed in the Archive of Contemporary
Music at Northwestern
transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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