Composer / Pianist  Sam  Raphling

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Sam Raphling

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 Manhattan.

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 Hawthorne.

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, 1988 

raphlingIn 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 . . . . .

Sam Raphling:    Don’t pay much attention to the comments on the cover, the liner notes.  They’re not correct, really.

Bruce Duffie:    [Surprised]  Why would the record company print something that’s not correct? 

SR:    Oh, that’s my publisher.  [Laughs]  That’s his company, and he gets all kinds of funny notions!

BD:    Hmmmm...  Well, then let us get some correct notes for them, if we can.

SR:    Okay.

BD:    The first piece on the record is the Concerto for Piano and Percussion.

SR:    Yes.  That was done in London by a very good percussion group and the pianist.  I don’t know who they are.

BD:    So 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 you?

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 quality of the recording of the piano that’s not the best.  So he thought he’d get around it, I suppose.

BD:    [Laughs]  Make the intent fit the actuality?

SR:    Yes.  But it puts me in a funny light, to say that I like it out of tune.  [Laughs]

BD:    Then are you pleased 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.

BD:    Then should you put a note at the top of the score saying that this is intended as a folk song rather than a lied?

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?

SR:    That’s 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.

raphlingBD:    You are also a pianist.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your own music?

SR:    No, 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 without 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?

SR:    Obviously 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 into today?

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?

SR:    I’m 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?

SR:    Yes.  They miss the point.  I’m guilty of that, too, if I hear a new piece, until I study it and maybe understand 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 a tradition?

BD:    A tradition or a lineage.

SR:    I 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?

SR:    There 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 fewer 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; they 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, or whom?

raphlingSR:    That’s a hard question.  The 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 could appreciate some of Beethoven when they first heard the symphonies.  Even 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 kind of 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 Stravinsky.

BD:    And they really don’t represent jazz?

SR:    No.  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 something that 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, where should the balance be between inspiration and craft?

SR:    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 the potential.  Anybody looking at that music without already having heard a vigorous performance would think that it’s nonsense.  It’s a childish theme.  Just two notes repeated, and they wouldn’t know what’s 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 important.

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?

SR:    Because 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 playing it.  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.

BD:    That’s 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.

BD:    Talking about recordings, do you feel that recordings are, in general, a good thing?

SR:    They’re good and they’re bad, but I think the good over-weighs the bad because if a person disciplines himself, they 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.

raphlingBD:    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 that performance?

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 somewhere.

BD:    Does this mean that this is not a complete piece, then?  There’s just the one movement on the disc.

SR:    There’s just the first movement, yes.  I had no power over the records.  Couldn’t stop it or do anything.

BD:    On the other side of the record is Remembered Scene for Piano and Small Dance Band.

SR:    It’s 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.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I would think that would be very dangerous!

SR:    Well, 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.

Oh, that’s right.  The Traumerei is not in there.

BD:    Can those be taken as ideal performances because they are the composer alone interpreting his music?

SR:    [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.

BD:    That’s very strange.  It’s really five, and it’s called “four,” but there are only three.  [Laughs]

SR:    Yes.  [Laughs]  I guess it’s unimportant.

BD:    [As a slight reprimand]  I don’t want you to think that your music is unimportant!

SR:    No, I mean the liner notes are unimportant, but the music is correct as far as the notes and all that.

BD:    [Relieved]  Okay.  Are you a writer of program notes for performances?

SR:    Not generally, no.

BD:    Do you feel that written notes are a good thing to have in a program?

SR:    They’re 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 about it.

SR:    I don’t know why it should not be that way for music.  To the layman, why do they 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?

SR:    Not 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 isn’t so.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a philosophical question.  Is music art, or is music entertainment?

raphlingSR:    Well, how do you define art?  It’s a combination of both, I suppose, and it depends what you mean by “entertainment.”

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 he’s 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?

BD:    Okay, 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 emotion.  It 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.

BD:    Is composing fun?

SR:    [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 [1985] 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.

BD:    You 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 piano.  Are they really operas?

SR:    Why not?  [Laughs]

BD:    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

President Lincoln - 4 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
Peter Bees - (Book and Lyrics by James V. Hatch) 2 Acts; Six singers; 80 minutes
Nathan The Wise - (After Lessing’s Play) 1 Act/4 Scenes and Prologue; Six singers, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Percussion (or Piano); 80 minutes
Prince Hamlet - (After Shakespeare) 3 Scenes and Prologue; Seven singers (Dancers ad lib) with Orchestra of 16 players (or Piano); 60 minutes

One Act Operas

Dr. Heidegeers Experiment - (After Hawthorne) Five singers and Woodwind Quintet (or Piano); 20 minutes
Mrs. Bullfrog - (After Hawthorne) Two singers, Piano, Saxophone, Piccolo, Percussion; 10 Minutes
Feather-Top - (After 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 - (The life and music of James Bland) Two singers and Piano; 35 minutes
Tin Pan Alley- Six singers and Piano; 40 minutes
Senior Prom - 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

Children’s Opera

Liar, Liar - 50 minutes

SR:    They’re 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 lot 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?  They only do the well-known operas.  Rarely do they do a new opera.  I have a Lincoln opera with the chorus and orchestra.  It’s orchestrated.

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 it’s difficult.

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 course.  Sure.

raphlingBD:    Tell me about President Lincoln.  Has this been performed?

SR:    No.  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 work?

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 performed?

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 after 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 why.

BD:    Animosity 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.

BD:    The people, then, are too influenced by critics?

SR:    Absolutely.  Sure.  They won’t spend money if the critics knock something.

BD:    I didn’t think the critic was that powerful anymore.

SR:    The 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 the 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.

BD:    Sure, 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 performed.

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.

SR:    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 works.

BD:    The next opera on your list is Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer.

SR:    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 been performed?

SR:    No.  No, it hasn’t.  Nathan the Wise has been performed.  That’s a fairly full-length opera that was successful.  It is a chamber opera and it worked very well.  It’s about 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 called La Diva, about opera singers and women’s liberation — a woman composer that’s writing an opera — which is very contemporary.

raphlingBD:    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]

BD:    Another 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 commercial performances.

BD:    Since 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 your 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.

BD:    That would make a nice evening, those four little pieces?

SR:    Yes.  The first one, Dr. Heidegger
’s Experiment, was done over the radio with a woodwind quintet.  The second one, Feather-Top, is with string orchestra, and Mrs. Bullfrog is with saxophone, piano, piccolo and percussion.

BD:    That
’s 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 people.

BD:    Maybe they should be done in conjunction with a class that’s studying Hawthorne — a literature class or something like that.

SR:    Yes, 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 pieces?

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?

SR:    Yes.  Every now and then I get a letter that somebody did something.

BD:    The 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 theater.]

SR:    I 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.

SR:    Yes.  In Europe, they always used to translate every opera.

BD:    Yes, but they’re getting away from that.

raphlingSR:    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?

SR:    Yes, because you get the subtitles.  I like that very much, and you get the close-ups, so you get more of an emotional 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.

BD:    Going 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 be done?

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 opera?

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?

SR:    Well, 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.

BD:    Will 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 idiom!

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 combination.

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 like a chamber opera, and that’s orchestrated for chamber orchestra, about sixteen players.  I use only the Shakespearean text.

BD:    Word for word, Shakespeare?

SR:    Yes, right.

BD:    Another 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 piece.  Nobody has staged it, but it’s been on radio.

BD:    What 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 one on the list is Henriette.

SR:    That’s on Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes.  I 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 one tenor?

SR:    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.

BD:    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?

raphlingSR:    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.

SR:    Yes.

BD:    Were you happy here in Chicago?

SR:    Very 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 with Stock.

BD:    You were a pianist in the symphony?

SR:    Yes.

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.

BD:    Was 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.

SR:    Well, thank you for this interview.

BD:    I’ve gotten a 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.

SR:    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.

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

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.