Composer / Pianist Sam Raphling
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Composer Sam Raphling was born in Fort Worth, Texas. He received
his Master of Music degree at the Chicago Musical College, where he won
a fellowship for European study and a Steinway grand piano. As a
pianist he played under Toscanini, Rachmaninoff and Stock with the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
His wide variety of compositions include President Lincoln, an opera in four
acts; several one act operas based on The
Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne; numerous sets of poems and texts
by Whitman, Poe, Steven Vincent Benet and Edgar Lee Masters; five
symphonies, numerous choral and piano works, rhapsodies, concerti,
string sonatas and works for contemporary instruments. His Suite for Strings and Piano Sonata No. 1 won first prize
in two national contests, and his Overture
Ticker Tape Parade had performances by the Denver and Detroit
Symphonies. His operas and instrumental music have been performed
throughout the United States.
Other credits include the publication of The Rite of Spring: Complete Ballet for
Piano Solo by Lyra Music Company, and the release of his first
record, Music of Sam Raphling
on the Serenus label (STS-12061).
--Brief biography sent to
BD by the composer
-- -- --
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Sam Raphling, a composer and
pianist, died Friday of heart failure. He was 78 years old and lived in
Mr. Raphling was born in Fort Worth on March 19, 1910, and studied in
Chicago and Germany. He was active for many years as a composer,
teacher and pianist in Chicago, and also taught for a time at the
Greenwich House Music School in New York. His compositions included
works in many genres, including a ''Cowboy Rhapsody'' for violin and
orchestra, an ''Introduction and Workout'' for French Horn, and a short
chamber opera, ''Mrs. Bullfrog,'' based on a story by Nathaniel
He also made a virtuoso piano transcription of Stravinsky's ''Rite of
Spring'' that attracted considerable attention when it was played and
recorded by Dickran Atamian. [See
photo of CD cover at right.] Peter G. Davis wrote in The
New York Times
that ''Mr. Raphling's edition would undoubtedly have won the approval
of Liszt himself - he has made an amazing amount of the score's complex
rhythmic, harmonic and contrapuntal detail available to 10 agile
fingers.'' [Part of the score
is shown near the bottom of this webpage.]
-- Uncredited obituary in The New York Times, January 14,
In the late summer of 1986, I had the pleasure of
contacting composer/pianist Sam Raphling [pronounced RAY-fling].
As can be seen in one of his letters (reproduced
at left), we corresponded back and forth, and he agreed to let
me call him for the conversation. He also sent me recordings and
printed material, though, as you will immediately see, some of which
was not accurate!
While we were settling in for the chat, I mentioned enjoying the LPs,
both the music and the information . . . . .
Don’t pay much attention to the comments on the cover, the liner
notes. They’re not correct, really.
[Surprised] Why would the record company print
something that’s not correct?
that’s my publisher. [Laughs] That’s his
company, and he gets all kinds of funny notions!
Hmmmm... Well, then let us
get some correct notes for them, if we can.
BD: The first
the record is the Concerto for Piano
Yes. That was done in London by a very good
percussion group and the pianist. I don’t know who they are.
Gramiston [or Graviston
— both spellings are listed on the jacket,
front and back] Montague is not the pianist, nor is it
the London Percussion Ensemble?
SR: No, I
don’t know who the pianist was. He
made up the name of the pianist, but that’s unimportant.
BD: It’s not
SR: No, I
didn’t go to London. He wanted me to
go, but I didn’t. It was recorded in London, but who the
pianist was is relatively
unimportant. But he makes a statement that I wanted a piano that
was out of tune. The reason he said that was because there’s a
of the recording of the piano that’s not the best. So he thought
he’d get around it, I suppose.
[Laughs] Make the intent fit the actuality?
Yes. But it puts me in a funny light, to say that I like it
out of tune. [Laughs]
BD: Then are
with the recording as it came out?
SR: It’s not
bad. I have a tape that I did in
New York with a very good ensemble, but it’s a private tape; it’s not
for recording. But I guess the record is all right.
BD: Are you
generally pleased with the performances
you hear of your music?
SR: It all
depends. Sometimes yes,
sometimes no, but that’s true of every composer.
BD: Have you
got a pretty good batting average?
SR: I think
so, if I have a chance to coach the
pianist or singer. Mostly I coach singers when they do my work,
if it’s in New York, so I’m lucky that way.
BD: Do you
like getting very involved in performances
of your work?
SR: Yes I do
because I have ideas, as every composer
has. People take everything very literal, you know.
They don’t see what’s behind the notes. I remember, for instance,
the bass-baritone William Warfield. He did a song of mine on his
debut in Town Hall, in New
York, on a poem of Langston Hughes called “Homesick Blues.” He
approached it as he does art songs, and I
said to him, “I want this to sound like a folk song.” Of course
he immediately did it right. [See my Interview with
William Warfield.] So there are you are. Singers are
influenced by what we tell them.
should you put a note at the top of
the score saying that this is intended as a folk song rather than a
SR: Then you
run the danger that they overdo it
in that direction. Every composition can be done, I
suppose, many different ways. Different facets come through.
BD: Is there
ever a case where a performer will find
something in the music that you didn’t know was there?
true. You do things
subconsciously, and if they exaggerate something that changes the idea,
you realize that it is important. But I don’t think it
comes through that different, unless they change the rhythm or the
notes. In the classics, unless it’s done with a lot
of enthusiasm or a lot of vigor, sometimes the piece falls flat even
if it is by Beethoven.
BD: You are also a
Are you the ideal interpreter of your own music?
unless I practice real hard! [Both laugh] By that I mean I
have to study as I
would another composer’s work — how to project it to the audience
changing anything. Very few composers will sit down and
really study it as a concert pianist will. So unless I do that, I
don’t think I do the best performance.
BD: For whom
do you write?
for myself, but I want other
people to enjoy it, too. In other words, I think one writes for
one’s own taste, and hopefully one’s own taste projects to other
people’s sense of the same taste. Unless the
composer wants to show off how much he knows, but I
don’t think that’s real music.
BD: Is that a
trap that many composers are falling
SR: I think
so. If people don’t feel
anything, they go the other extreme. They write very fancy music
hoping that will cover up the omission of their feelings.
But who am I to say? You
can tell in a piece, when you write it, whether you felt it or
not, and if you didn’t feel it, you destroy it and
you don’t continue with it. There has to be an impetus for it.
BD: Are your
pieces mostly commissioned, or are
these pieces you just feel you have to write?
SR: I’ve had
very little occasion to
write for commissions. I don’t know if I’m lucky in that sense,
or unfortunate. So I’m always writing just for myself. If I
want to write a piano concerto, I write a piano concerto if I think I
have ideas for it.
BD: What do
you expect of the public
that comes to hear your music for the first time?
fortunate because my public always
reacts. I guess I don’t write such complicated music. I’m
always pleased, and that encourages me to be a composer.
I’ve always had good reactions. I prefer reactions from people
who are not composers. Composers are set in
their own way of thinking.
BD: So they
have different expectations?
Yes. They miss the point. I’m guilty
of that, too, if I hear a new piece, until I study it and maybe
the style. So I think the audience reaction is good, if the
performance is good, to reveal what’s behind the music. All the
great composers have had a reaction, what we
think as the classic composers from Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky
and so forth.
BD: Do you
feel that you are part of a
line of composers?
SR: You mean
tradition or a lineage.
suppose. I don’t know. I
don’t strive for originality in the sense that a lot of composers today
are trying to do. They won’t write a note unless they think it’s
so different than anybody else’s. So I suppose I am in the
lineage of that way of thinking.
BD: There are
many, many composers today. Are
there perhaps too many composers writing music today?
were a lot of composers in the past,
but only a few remain. In the past
you really had to show a great talent. Rich people didn’t become
composers, but today, if you have a lot of money I guess you can
become a composer — especially with
electronic music. [Laughs] I
sound facetious, but you can get away with a lot of murder that
way. In other words, the poor man could not be a composer in the
past unless he showed tremendous talent. So I suppose there were
composers, and they had to be performers in order to make a
living. So if they weren’t gifted, they wouldn’t make a living;
couldn’t be composers. But today we have a lot of people who
have the luxury of having the means to write music if they want to,
whether they’re talented or not.
BD: Not all
of these people have something to say?
SR: I suppose
not. But who can judge?
It’s impertinent for me to say that.
BD: Then who
should be the
judge of music — other composers, or the public,
SR: That’s a hard
person himself should have enough background to realize what goes into
composing, and why it’s important or why it’s unimportant. If
he’s willing to devote himself, he should show some signs of feeling.
BD: Is the
public right in its judgment?
SR: Not right
away if it’s somebody that has a
very new style. It takes time. Stravinsky wasn’t recognized
right away, although he had, I imagine, some success early on.
But it’s hard to say. In the past, originality wasn’t
such a reason for writing music. The idiom was there so they
appreciate some of Beethoven when they first heard the
though they may have thought it was a little advanced, they
understood the idiom. They understood the Germanic folk idiom, so
it wasn’t strange to them.
BD: So you
then deliberately set out to write music
that is in a familiar idiom?
SR: No, but
it’s in your background. You have
the country you live in, and your whole feeling of
culture around. I don’t write jazz, but I certainly am
influenced by American music. My whole life has been hearing that
music, so it’s natural. But when one does things
deliberately I don’t think it comes through. It’s not
sincere. For instance, Stravinsky tried to write jazz
pieces. They’re nice pieces but they really don’t represent
BD: And they
really don’t represent jazz?
They’re never played much, like the Ebony
Concerto and things like that. This is
in relation to his origin, to his own work, his own style. It’s
kind of a curiosity if you try to write with another culture
that’s not in your blood, so to speak.
BD: Is music
can be taught, or must it be something that is just inbred?
SR: You can
learn the craft, but most great composers have been performers.
They have studied other people’s music, and you learn a lot from
that. I always say I learned from Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, even
though I don’t write like they do. But you get a sense of form
and how important variety is, and all those things that make a great
composition. The craft is always
interesting, which is why I can’t understand this minimal music that
keeps repeating one phrase for fifteen minutes. It’s
boring. The great composers always try to have enormous variety
of texture. So you
learn from that, and if you don’t believe in that, well, that’s another
approach, I suppose.
BD: In music,
the balance be between inspiration and craft?
Inspiration is the nucleus and the rest is
a lot of hard work to bring out that thought. People just think
that a whole symphony was written in a half-hour because the person was
inspired. The sketches are inspired. The composer will put
down maybe four notes, or a harmony or something, but that’s the cue
for him to elaborate on it and bring out what’s behind that.
Take, for instance, Beethoven’s Fifth
Symphony. He probably just
said “Dah-dah-dah-dum, Dah-dah-dah-dum.” That was all he probably
sketched in his sketchbook. But he knew there was a powerful
thing behind that, and how he was going to develop that to bring out
potential. Anybody looking at that music without already having
vigorous performance would think that it’s nonsense. It’s a
childish theme. Just two notes repeated, and they wouldn’t know
behind that music. Only the
composer knows what’s behind those few notes, and how to make that
powerful enough so the audience reacts to it. So craft is very
BD: Is there
is ever a chance that something, such as the Beethoven Fifth that we were talking about
momentarily, gets played too much or too often?
of recordings, one can play it over
and over again. But I remember when I was raised in Chicago we
heard the Fifth Symphony
maybe once every season, and we looked forward to Frederick Stock
So it was always fresh, but nevertheless, even if you hear it
many times, it’s amazing how fresh it sounds. So that’s
another way of telling what a great piece of music it is.
what constitutes a masterpiece?
SR: I think
so, yes — also when it’s not overloaded
with a lot of notes, so that you have to bring something to it when you
hear it. An un-gifted composer writes a lot of notes
and the audience doesn’t bring anything to it, so it’s only admired
maybe by other composers who admire all the craft. But that
doesn’t make a great piece of music.
about recordings, do you feel
that recordings are, in general, a good thing?
good and they’re bad, but I think
the good over-weighs the bad because if a person disciplines himself,
won’t play the record a million times. But it’s a great way to
study, and a chance to hear new music. I hear a lot of new music
over the radio because they play new records. The only thing is
that a performance, with all its imperfections, is more real,
somehow. Some records are too perfect, and they lose the humanity
of the music, but that’s neither here nor
there. Records are very important.
BD: There are a
couple other pieces on your Serenus record [jacket shown at right]. In
the Movement for
Piano and Brass Quintet you are the performer. Because you
were there, then is it safe to assume that you are more pleased with
SR: Yes, I
think that went well. In fact, the
first trumpet player is Gerard Schwarz, who’s a conductor now.
[See my Interview with Gerard Schwarz.]
I think it was a good performance. We
rehearsed it a lot, and I practiced! [Laughs] Actually,
there are two
more movements to that which we taped, but he didn’t put on the record
because there wasn’t room for it. But I guess we have the tape
BD: Does this
mean that this is not a complete piece,
then? There’s just the one movement on the disc.
just the first movement, yes. I had no power over the
Couldn’t stop it or do anything.
BD: On the
other side of the record is
Remembered Scene for Piano and Small
really not a dance band, but it has a
little bit of a jazzy quality. It’s a fair performance; doesn’t
have the vitality that it could
have, but when they record in Europe, I don’t think
they have a rehearsal. They just sight-read everything, so it’s
amazing that it’s as good as it is.
BD: I would
think that would be very
maybe they ran through it
once, but there’s no real rehearsal.
BD: The last
couple of pieces on
this record are simply you playing the piano — your Sonatina, and apparently three of
the Four Indiscretions.
that’s right. The Traumerei
is not in
BD: Can those
be taken as ideal performances because
they are the composer alone interpreting his music?
[Laughs] I could’ve played the
Minute Etude a little faster
if I’d have practiced harder.
BD: So you
really want it to be
a minute, not a minute and fifteen seconds?
SR: No, it’s
just the idea that it’s a take-off on the Minute Waltz of Chopin. In
the Traumerei I used the same
notes of the melody, except I put them in different positions — higher
and lower — which creates the sound of twelve-tone music. It is
interesting to show that you can use
the same material and make it sound individual of your own style.
BD: Why was
that not put on the record?
SR: I guess
there wasn’t enough time on
the record. Actually, I think there are five Indiscretions.
One is on a Mozart, which he didn’t use.
very strange. It’s really five, and it’s called “four,” but there
are only three. [Laughs]
Yes. [Laughs] I guess it’s unimportant.
BD: [As a
slight reprimand] I don’t want you to think that your music
SR: No, I
mean the liner notes are unimportant, but
the music is correct as far as the notes and all that.
[Relieved] Okay. Are you a writer of program notes for
BD: Do you
feel that written notes are a good
thing to have in a program?
good for background, but not to
try to explain what the music is about. People don’t have to have
a recipe of some food that they eat — you know, what goes
into the cooking. They just want to taste it and enjoy it.
BD: That’s an
interesting way of thinking
SR: I don’t
know why it should not be that way for music. To the layman, why
explain that the second theme does this and the first theme does
that? The composer wants the reaction in his music. He
doesn’t want you to know what tricks he has used to make you feel that
way. But those are all things that go on these days.
BD: You don’t
feel that knowing a little more
about it will give more enjoyment, perhaps on a repeated listening?
unless you know more about music
itself; I mean have more of a background. But just
to read that the second theme does this or that? I suppose
there’s no harm in it, but it gives the listener an idea that
things are written according to a precept, a recipe, which
BD: Let me
ask a philosophical question. Is
music art, or is music entertainment?
SR: Well, how do
you define art? It’s a
combination of both, I suppose, and it depends what you mean by
BD: I think
it is the difference between serious
and light intent.
SR: Some of
the greatest pieces are light. That’s another misconception about
the symphony. I’ve
talked to a lot of performers and they don’t realize that the
composer writes a scherzo,
that he’s in a light vein, that he’s having
humor. He’s tired of being serious in the first movement, and
showing his attitude of humor and life and jokes and so forth and so
on. They think he just has to write a third movement, so he
writes a scherzo. So
that’s where your idea of art and
entertainment comes in. It’s a combination of seriousness and
lightheartedness. After all, music expresses the emotions.
If it doesn’t do that, then what’s the use of music?
what is the ultimate purpose of music?
SR: It’s to
make you react to things in life,
whether it’s love or fate or whatever. A march is a piece of
stirs you up. You hear the Stars
and Stripes Forever and it’s a piece
of art. It may not be the most serious thing in the world, but it
stirs something in you emotionally. Why do some marches stay with
you and others are just ordinary marches? There has to
be a difference, but it stirs you up.
[Laughs] Well, it’s a joy, if you call a joy
fun. It’s a joy if you think you’re going to succeed in
expressing yourself; something worthwhile that other people might
enjoy. In that sense, I suppose it’s fun, but it’s not fun
in the sense you’re solving a puzzle.
BD: Is that
the craft, the solving of the puzzle?
SR: Yes, and
the unexpected coming through that you
yourself didn’t realize was in there. In fact, you don’t know how
good a piece is until you put it away and come back to it. Then
you’re surprised if it’s still alive. I wrote a little opera
thirty years ago that I just put away in my drawer. It was
performed last year  at the Houston Opera Company in the Texas
Theater, and it was such a joy to see that it was a worthwhile
little thing. It was a one-act opera called The Cowboy and the Fiddler for
three singers, violin,
percussion and piano. The audience enjoyed it,
and although it was humorous, there was a point behind it.
BD: How long
a work is it?
SR: About ten
minutes; very short.
sent me a list of your operas [see
box below]. Some of them are
longer, and some of them are very short and can be done with
Are they really operas?
Okay. That’s a good answer, but why are they not
called “dramatic scenes”
or something like that?
Operatic works by Sam Raphling
[List compiled by the composer and sent to BD]
Full Length Operas
Acts/9 Scenes; Large cast with chorus; 2 hours
Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer
- (After S.V. Benet) 2 Acts/9 Scenes; Large cast and chorus; 2 hours
- (Book and
Lyrics by James V. Hatch) 2 Acts; Six singers; 80 minutes
Nathan The Wise
Lessing’s Play) 1 Act/4 Scenes and Prologue; Six singers, Oboe,
Clarinet, Violin, Percussion (or Piano); 80 minutes
Shakespeare) 3 Scenes and Prologue; Seven singers (Dancers ad lib) with
Orchestra of 16 players (or Piano); 60 minutes
- (After Hawthorne)
Five singers and Woodwind Quintet (or Piano); 20 minutes
Hawthorne) Two singers, Piano, Saxophone, Piccolo, Percussion; 10
Hawthorne) Five singers and Strings (or Piano); 25 minutes
The Great Stone Face
(After Hawthorne) Five singers and Brass Quintet (or Piano); 15 minutes
Carry Me Back
life and music of James Bland) Two singers and Piano; 35 minutes
Tin Pan Alley
singers and Piano; 40 minutes
- 5 scenes;
Eleven singers and chorus with Piano; 50 minutes
Henriette (or Women as Savants)
- (After Molière’s Play) Five Women (or 1 Tenor) with
Harpsichord (or Piano), Flute, Cello; 35 minutes
The Cowboy and the Fiddler
- Three singers, Violin, Percission, Piano; 10 minutes
Liar, Liar - 50 minutes
operas in the sense that they’re
all sung. I didn’t orchestrate some operas. If I had an
opportunity to have a performance with
orchestra, I would orchestrate them. But my idea now is to have a
of chamber operas that are easily done. You don’t need a big
opera house or the big chorus and all that. I have
about four full-length
operas. How can I get an opera house to do one of them?
do the well-known operas. Rarely do they do a new opera. I
have a Lincoln opera with the chorus and orchestra. It’s
BD: For some
of these little operas, especially, say, 25 or 50 years from now, would
you be pleased if they were orchestrated
by someone else?
SR: Yes, I
guess so. I don’t see why
not. They’re not that complicated that they need a personal
orchestration. An orchestration by the composer is important
because he creates a style that he wants for the music, and somebody
else may not understand the music that well. He would
just do an orchestration by rote. That has happened
to Boris Godunov. So
BD: What if
someone studies your orchestral works
or some of your other chamber works and learns your style, and then
orchestrates in that same style?
SR: Yes, that
would be the best solution, of
BD: Tell me about President Lincoln.
Has this been performed?
It was going to be performed at
Southern University in Illinois, and things happened down there.
They couldn’t get money to do it, and so I was disappointed.
BD: How long
did you spend writing this
SR: I did a
lot of research because the words are
all Lincoln’s and a lot of the source material is accurate.
Actually, the music I wrote took, I suppose, less than a year.
The orchestration took time, so I don’t know
definitely how long it took.
BD: Is this
something you still hope would get
SR: Yes, I
hope so. The piano-vocal score is printed.
BD: Is there
anything that a composer
can do to help get more performances of works such as this?
SR: You have
to be very aggressive, which I am
not. [Laughs] Don’t tell anybody! You have to run
people and so forth. A lot of it, I suppose, is luck, too.
There’s so much animosity against American opera. I don’t know
from the companies, or from the public?
SR: From the
companies and the critics. They
will never back an American opera. And the people go by what they
read in the paper, you know.
people, then, are too influenced by critics?
Absolutely. Sure. They won’t spend
money if the critics knock something.
BD: I didn’t
think the critic was that
general public has no other way of
judging. As you may know, Pelléas
et Mélisande was a big failure
until one critic wrote a long article and stirred up all kinds of
interest. Then they played again at the opera and it became a
success. I was interested in reading the
letters of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. In one he said, “We must get
critics together before we put on this opera, and tell them what it’s
all about and give them a seminar, because
if they make a remark, it’ll go down in history and nobody will ever
challenge the false remarks they make.” You know, they used to
print the entire libretto
before the opera was ever produced. People would read it.
that was a common practice.
SR: So there
was an interest for
native operas, which we don’t have in this country. But of
course that’s no guarantee that my opera would be a success if
BD: No, but
it should have a chance.
SR: It should
have a chance, right.
BD: I assume
that’s all that any
composer can ask — that a new piece be given a chance.
Right. And you learn a lot in
rehearsal. After all, Verdi made all kinds of changes during
production. A composer learns by repeated performances of new
BD: The next
opera on your list is Johnny Pye and
Yes. That’s on a Stephen Vincent Benet story,
which is a marvelous story. I have a lot of faith in it
because it has a lot of interesting ideas in there.
BD: Has this
No, it hasn’t. Nathan the Wise
performed. That’s a fairly full-length opera that was
successful. It is a chamber opera and it worked very well.
the three religions, a famous German play. Also, one of my
Hawthorne stories was done at New York University. It was very
successful; a little comedy called Mrs.
Bull Frog. I think that’s the only comic story that
Hawthorne ever wrote. It’s a very interesting little story.
It runs ten
minutes. These make good curtain-raisers, I
think. Even for a classic opera, it would be nice to have a
little curtain-raiser. Recently I’ve written a fairly long opera
La Diva, about opera singers
and women’s liberation — a woman composer
that’s writing an opera — which is very contemporary.
BD: Once you get an
opera written, do you then go
around looking for performance?
SR: I don’t
do enough looking, I’m sorry to
say. I guess I’m the typical composer, always eager to start
my next work. [Both laugh]
opera on your list is Peter Bees.
SR: That’s a
contemporary opera about marriage and
divorce. The librettist is a very good writer. We tried it
out privately and it worked very well, but we haven’t had any
this runs 80 minutes, would it
be good to put two of your works together, or would it be better to put
one of your works with another contemporary work, or perhaps one of
works and Pagliacci, or
something like that?
SR: Of course
that gives a lot of
variety, but I would like to have my four Hawthorne stories put
together because each one has a different orchestration.
would make a nice evening, those four little
Yes. The first one, Dr.
Experiment, was done over the
radio with a woodwind quintet. The second one,
Feather-Top, is with string
orchestra, and Mrs. Bullfrog
with saxophone, piano, piccolo and percussion.
an interesting way of scoring these things.
SR: Well, it
makes nice contrast, orchestrally, the
different colors. And of course, I choose it because of the
content of the story. The last one, The Great Stone Face, is
a brass quintet. Those are wonderful stories. In general my
thoughts are all very
American, very of this culture, so it should interest American
they should be done in conjunction with a class that’s studying
Hawthorne — a literature class or something like that.
that’s true. That’d be worth it.
That’s a good idea, yes.
BD: You say
that your music is very
American. Is this trait in all of it, or just these specific
SR: I guess
my music is American, in the
sense that it’s not obvious thought, but it’s the natural way I
write. I don’t
try to write European music.
BD: Has your
music been performed in Europe?
Yes. Every now and then I get a letter
that somebody did something.
question that comes up specific
to these operas — if they’re done in Europe, should they be
translated? [Note: This
interview from 1986 was at the dawn of the use of Supertitles in the
suppose, yes, but I haven’t had any
operas done in Europe.
BD: But would
you prefer that they be translated?
SR: Yes, I
think operas should be done in the native
language that is being done.
BD: This is
the big fight that’s going on in
the big opera houses now, to do them in original or in translation.
Yes. In Europe, they always used to translate every opera.
BD: Yes, but
they’re getting away from that.
SR: I think that is
because of recordings. People
have the records and librettos, and they more or less know all the
words by now, so they can do that more.
BD: You don’t
feel that creates a certain
snobbishness on the part of the audience?
SR: I guess
so. The prices have gone up so
high, I understand, in Europe that it’s only the rich people can go to
the opera. So it must be snobbish. But English has
become a second language, more or less, in Europe so they do Porgy and Bess all over
Europe, and they wouldn’t translate that.
BD: Do you
feel that opera works well on television?
because you get the subtitles. I like
that very much, and you get the close-ups, so you get more of an
impact then. You realize the singer’s really emoting, whereas in
the theater they’re so far away, you just go by the
sound of the voice. You don’t see the physical part. Yes, I
like television operas very much.
back to our idea of translation, is the
use of subtitles an ideal compromise, then?
SR: In the
opera house? I haven’t seen that, so
I don’t know. I think it must be too distracting. It’s all
right when they’re just talking about something, and in the classical
operas there’s so much
talk. But chamber operas would be the next step
because you get the words more, and the singers don’t have
to be such virtuosos with tremendous voices.
BD: Is there
any way of encouraging more of these works to
SR: I think
so. They were trying to do that in
Houston. They’re trying to do a series of these short operas
which would be complete stories and have one aria that was the
principal aria in the story.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of
SR: Yes I am,
especially with television. I
think operas could be done more on television than in the opera
houses. It’s easier for the public to see it, of course.
BD: You mean
operas that are set up and recorded in
the studio for television broadcast?
either way. But the idea that you can
sit at home and see the close-ups and the words, the subtitles, I
think provides a way that a lot of people can enjoy it that wouldn’t
enjoy it in the opera
house, unless they had background and knowledge.
having more opera on the television
encourage more people to come to the opera house?
SR: Oh, I
would think so, yes. Sure. In
fact, I recently wrote a short little opera showing the difference
between a character who doesn’t like opera and one who does. He
said he likes to go to a
play where he understands what they’re saying, versus his girlfriend
who is crazy about opera. I have a little conflict there,
where he gets so excited he begins to sing. So in a subtle way,
I show that opera is
emotional. It’s just as natural as speaking. [Both laugh]
BD: Sort of
poking fun at yourself and the
SR: Yes, in a
way. But so many
intellectual people make fun of opera. They say, “Why do people
sing? In real life, people don’t sing. When they say, ‘How
are you?’ they don’t sing.” They
miss the whole point of what opera’s all about.
BD: Okay, for
you, what is opera all about?
SR: It’s a
great emotional thing. You have
not only the great singing, but you get the acting, you get the
orchestra and the chorus and the scenery. It’s a marvelous
BD: The way
you go on about it, I’m surprised you didn’t become
a full-time opera composer.
SR: I should
have. I think I have a great
feeling for it. But it’s so difficult to get a performance that
one is discouraged...
BD: Tell me
about a couple other works on the list — Prince Hamlet?
SR: Yes, I
did a little over an hour version of
Hamlet, sticking to the
principal story. All the side
issues I leave out. It is surprising; I did it in a very
original way. Maybe I shouldn’t tell; somebody’s going to copy
it. [Laughs] Anyway, I did an hour version of it, sort of
chamber opera, and that’s orchestrated for chamber orchestra,
about sixteen players. I use only the Shakespearean text.
BD: Word for
is Tin Pan Alley.
SR: That was
one of the first operas I ever wrote. It is a
one-act opera which we did on radio. That is about a pop
song composer who can’t write because his girlfriend left him. I
used my idiomatic way of writing
a classical pop song. [Laughs] It’s kind of a nice
has staged it, but it’s been on radio.
about Senior Prom?
SR: I wrote
that for schools. It hasn’t been
done. The children’s opera musical, Liar, Liar, has been done a
lot. That’s a kind of a nice way of introducing opera to
children, because when the characters get involved in something, they
sing their emotions. So it’s really opera, in that sense.
BD: The last
on the list is Henriette.
SR: That’s on
Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes.
don’t know how to translate it in English, but I thought of calling it
The Wise Women.
BD: It’s for
five women or
Yes. I guess it should be a tenor
for the poet. That’s a wonderful play, but I shortened
it. I just used the principal idea, but it’s really up to
date, about women’s liberation.
Sure. Molière was very ahead of his time.
SR: Yes, what
a marvelous playwright!
BD: I can’t
leave this interview without asking you
about your days in Chicago. How long were you here?
SR: I came at the
age of six. I was born
in Texas, and I stayed in Chicago until I left in ’45.
BD: That’s a
good part of your life, then.
BD: Were you
happy here in Chicago?
much. I liked Chicago very
much. I was in the conducting class, under Stock, and I conducted
the Civic Orchestra. That was a
great experience. I learned orchestration that way, and I played
BD: You were
a pianist in the symphony?
BD: Is that a
rewarding experience, to
be a keyboardist in the symphony orchestra?
SR: It is,
and it isn’t. You have to learn to
be a slave. If you want to be a symphony pianist, you have to
subject yourself to somebody else’s ideas. But you
don’t have that important a part. If you’re playing a
concerto, naturally you have your own ideas. I played when
they had Toscanini as guest artist. I played the piano part in
the Fountains of Rome.
I also played when Rachmaninoff conducted The Bells.
Toscanini all that he was cracked up to be?
SR: Yes, he
was. He was so sincere, yes. I don’t think he heard
everything despite the stories about him hearing everything right
away. But it was funny to watch him before
he went out onstage. He was so scared! But it was
wonderful to watch his face. He was really so wrapped up in the
music that when the orchestra played I guess they were
frightened. It was a nice experience.
BD: I want to
thank you for
being a composer.
thank you for this interview.
lot of interesting insights into your thoughts and your music, and I
look forward to putting together a program, and playing more of your
music on WNIB.
Wonderful. Thank you so much.
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© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on September 6.
1986. Segments were used (with recordings)
on WNIB in 1987, 1990 and 1995. The
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
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.