Composer / Administrator  John  Donald  Robb

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


John Donald Robb (June 12, 1892 – January 6, 1989), professor emeritus of music and dean emeritus of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, was responsible for the growth of fine arts at UNM in the l940s and l950s and, in turn, for the impact that UNM had in the fine arts throughout the state. Robb, a composer of stage, classical, and electronic music, is also known as a collector of folk music. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and died in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Robb had a first career as a lawyer. Educated in eastern schools, Robb graduated from Yale University in l9l5. He taught in China for one year and served in the armed forces for two years during World War I (l9l7-l9l9). After completing his legal training at Harvard Law School, Robb practiced law in New York City and in Europe from l922 to l94l. Musical activities and studies, particularly the art of composition, were, however, Robb's constant avocation.

In l941 Robb began his second career as professor of music and head of the Department of Music at the University of New Mexico. He became acting dean of the College of Fine Arts in l942, and was appointed dean in l946. He retired from this position in l957. While at UNM, Robb was instrumental in the ultimate building of the Fine Arts Center and the establishment of a folk music archive. He was also active as a composer, while continuing to build support for contemporary music throughout the state.

robb During his retirement years, Robb was active primarily as a composer and lecturer, although Robb's long-time interest in law and politics prompted him to run for Congress in l960. During l962 and l963, he taught composition as a visiting professor at the National Conservatory of San Salvador under a grant from the Secretary of State, and he also made a music tour of Central America, conducting the national orchestras of Venezuela, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In later years, Robb appeared as guest conductor of various American symphony orchestras, and made several record albums featuring folk and electronic music.

Robb had been intensely interested in music since his teenage years. During his years as a lawyer, he composed music and played the cello, meeting informally with friends every week to play string quartets. He began the study of composition with Nadia Boulanger in l936 and he participated throughout his life in master classes with such leading American and European composers and teachers as Roy Harris, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, and Horatio Parker. His more than 200 compositions range from solo instrumental and vocal music to music for small and large ensembles, operas, musical plays and dances. He was also a pioneer composer of electronic music, beginning in the l950s.

Always fascinated by folk music, Robb made recordings in the field and transcribed over 3, 000 songs and dances from areas as diverse as Nepal, South America, and the American southwest. This collection forms the nucleus of the more than 25, 000 items that comprise the John Donald Robb Archive of Southwestern Music. One of the most extensive collections of southwestern music and oral histories, the Robb Archive is housed in the University of New Mexico's Center for Southwest Research.

Robb published numerous articles on both legal and music subjects in national and regional journals and newspapers. The first of his two books, Hispanic Folk Songs of New Mexico, was published by the University of New Mexico Press in l954. In l970 he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the preparation of a book of Hispanic folk music of the Southwest. This work resulted in the publication in l980 by the University of Oklahoma Press of Hispanic Folk Music of New Mexico and the Southwest -- a Self Portrait of a People.

Robb received numerous honors in his lifetime. Among them was the Award for Achievement and Excellence in Music bestowed in l975 by the New Mexico Arts Commission. In l980, the UNM Alumni Association, recognizing Robb's legacy, honored him with the Bernard D. Rodey Award. In l986 the University of New Mexico granted him an honorary doctorate degree. The l989 UNM Composers' Symposium was dedicated to the memory of Robb, whose leadership and sponsorship had been in part responsible for the international scope and success of the annual symposium.

John Robb and his wife Harriet Block Robb were married in l92l. Nearly seventy years later, and within ten days of each other, John and Harriet Robb died in January l989. They were survived by three children: Priscilla McDonnell, John Robb, Jr., and Nancy Briggs, and their families.


In mid-April of 1988, Robb allowed me to interview him on the telephone.  Even though I had explained myself, he asked about the exact purpose of the conversation . . . . .

John Donald Robb
:   I’m curious to know what use you wish to make of this interview.

Bruce Duffie:   I have a long series of programs on WNIB devoted to music by American composers, and I would like very much to use your music and parts of the interview in that series.

Robb:   Oh, how wonderful!  It sounds good.  I’m honored.

BD:   Believe me it’s my pleasure.  I’ve listened to a couple of things which I have here, and then Max Schubel
[composer, and founder of Opus One recordings] is going to be sending me some other recordings.  So I should eventually have quite a bit of your music.  I want to begin by asking you about your major change in career.  You started out as a lawyer, and then became a musician?

Robb:   That’s correct.  I started as a lawyer.  [At this point he gave details of his upbringing and early career, many of which are included in the biography above.  A few of the others are presented here.]  During my artillery career, I was in the 11th Field Artillery, and was sent to Peoria, Illinois, to learn how to pull a tractor.  That’s where I met my wife.  She was the daughter of a family which owned a big department store there.

BD:   How did you decide to go into law?

Robb:   The decision came upon me when I was in China.  My father was a veteran of the Civil War.  He was born in 1845, and I have a reverence for Abraham Lincoln which prevailed upon me.  So I decided, by Jove, I was going to study law, which I did.  I went to the University of Minnesota one year in order to be with my old folks, and that’s the way I got started.  When we came to Illinois, I got a job at one of the prestigious law offices.  I stayed with them for about six years until I started my own firm.  It had various names as its partnership changed, but it ended up as Robb, Clark & Bennett.  While I had practiced law there with the earlier firm, I was involved with the Federal Trade Commission when they brought suit against Paramount.

BD:   Is this civil law or criminal law?

Robb:   Civil law.  They accused our clients of block-booking and ownership of theaters, and having a tendency to create a monopoly.  They went all over the United States to give testimony.  We had very interesting witnesses on the stand, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.  We went from San Francisco to Dallas, to all over the country.

BD:   Did you win your case?

Robb:   I don’t think you could call it either winning or losing.  It partly didn’t end their case, but it was tremendously expensive litigation causing all that trouble.

BD:   During the time you were practicing law, when did you get interested in music?
Robb:   I had been interested in music all the time because I had a very musical upbringing.  There were eight children in our family with differing maturity.  One of them was my brother Jim, who had a prodigious faculty of playing by ear.  He could hear a piece of music for the first time, and then go over to the piano and play it.  On one occasion, my older sister, Emma, had an Italian band master and his wife as her guest after a concert in Minneapolis.  She asked Jim to play the piano for them.  He was about sixteen years old, and he played a piece that this band master had just composed and played for the first time, called Souvenir Mazurka.  The maestro went up and embraced my brother, and called him Bambino.  [Both laugh]  Jim couldn’t read music, but he could play almost anything.  He memorized practically the whole score of Madam Butterfly.
BD:   Just by hearing it?

Robb:   Just by hearing it!  It opens with a fugue [sings the opening].  He didn’t know what a fugue was, but he could play it.  So I was introduced to a lot of music that way.  Another thing that had a strong influence on my life was that my sister Emma’s husband played the cello.  I had a chance to take six lessons with Carlo Fischer, who was with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra at that time, and that started me in a habit of playing chamber music.  I organized a little string quartet which used to meet at my house every week, and we would play through the whole quartet literature.  We didn’t try to perfect the pieces, but we played to learn the music.

BD:   About what year was this?

Robb:   Well, this really started around 1922 when I moved to take that first job.  We lived in Pelham for several years.  I remember traveling through Pelham on the railroad, and thought it was the nicest looking town on the way to New Haven.  I saw a little English house there that was so beautiful, and I bought the house for $26,000, which was much too much, but I loved it.

BD:   That was a lot of money in those days.

Robb:   Yes, it was a lot of money.  I sold it later on after my children grew up.  I had three children, John, Priscilla and Nancy, and they went to the public schools there, which were very good.

BD:   All this time you kept your interest in music?

Robb:   All this time I was playing quartets once a week, and I was writing music, too.  I wrote a string quartet, and a symphony [Symphony No. 1 for String Orchestra, Op. 16 (1947)].  From a 1988 performance, which was part of a Composer’s Symposium at the University of New Mexico, David Noble stated in the Albuquerque Journal that it was a hauntingly beautiful symphony’.

BD:   This was the first time that it had been played, even though it had been written so many years before?

Robb:   Part of it had been played and was recorded.

*     *     *     *     *

:   All this time you were practicing law.  At what point did you decide to leave the legal profession and go seriously into music?

Robb:   In 1936 I decided to go over to France and study with Nadia Boulanger.  I had a very wonderful relationship with her.  The very first week she said, “No doubt you are a composer!” and that was the kind of medicine and encouragement I needed.  So I wrote my first violin sonata over there [recording shown above-right], and I went back the next year for another session.  By that time I had established my own law firm, which was on the sixteenth floor of the Kuhn-Loeb building in New York.  I had the corner office because I was the senior partner.

BD:   Did you still have to go to the other partners and say,
Pardon me, but I’m going to write some music for a few months”?

Robb:   [Laughs]  I was writing all the time, some small things and some large things.  I felt this gnawing desire to compose, and after nineteen years I reached the point where I could look back and survey my career, and what stood out for me was the music that I had written.  That meant a lot more to me than the legal activities that I’d engaged in.  So, I had lunch with Douglas Moore.  He was the composer of The Ballad of Baby Doe, a dear personal friend of mine, and my classmate at Yale.  We used to do harmony and counterpoint exercises together.  He had a place on Long Island, and I had acquired a lovely place on Shelter Island which we went to in the summer.  I had lunch with Doug one day at the Columbia University Faculty Club.  He was the head of music department at Columbia at that time, and I told him that my music had meant more to me than my legal activities, and that I’d like to get into some university teaching position if possible.  It seemed impossible, but he said, “I don’t know that it is.  One of the rarest birds in academia is a good administrator, and with your legal experience you ought to be marvelous at that.”  He continued, “The University of New Mexico has written to me asking for a recommendation as head of the music department and professor of music”  I said, “They wouldn’t consider a New York lawyer for that job, would they?”  He said, “Well, I don’t know.  I’ll recommend you anyway.”  So, as things transpired, the Dean was William McLeish Dunbar, a cousin of Archie McLeish who, incidentally, was another classmate of mine at Yale.  After I became the Dean of College of Fine Arts, I found a letter in the academic files from Archie McLeish.  He had answered a letter from the then-Dean, and he said, “I haven’t seen much of Don Robb for twenty years but I know him.  He was a man of character, and I don’t think character changes very much.”  So, that was a pleasant surprise.  But at any rate, I was recommended, and went out there on the railroad.  I went down through the Indian country, past the Santo Domingo Indian reservation.  It was exciting and thrilling to see that marvelous south-western country where they have adobe houses, and red chili on the walls.  At any rate, I was accepted and went out to cover my duties there.  I was playing tennis in the Carlisle Gymnasium tennis courts when somebody said that the Japanese had struck Pearl Harbor.  This was an awful blow, and the government commandeered the Dean, who was an architect, for the purpose of designing a hospital for the Navy.  So, he called Ralph Douglas, one of the arts professors, and asked him if he would take over as Acting Dean, and Douglas said yes, but asked how much more he would be paid.  He was told there would be no raise in pay, so he said no.  So, they sent for me, and asked me if I would take over as Acting Dean.  This is only two months after I’d arrived there, and I didn’t ask that question about the pay.
BD:   You just accepted?

Robb:   Yes, so he appointed me.  My friend, Walter Helfer [brief biography is shown below], who was the head of music Hunter College said, “That’s the most electrifying academic career since Bob Hutchins!”  [Both laugh]  You know about Bob Hutchins, don’t you?
BD:   He was President of the University of Chicago.

Robb:   Yes, but he graduated from Yale, and almost immediately was made Dean of the Law School at Yale!  He appointed Bill Douglas [later Supreme Court Justice] to the Yale Law School [in 1925].  He did that at a dinner at my house one night.  [Pauses a moment]  I’m rambling a lot here...

BD:   [Re-assuringly]  No, this is fascinating.  Now we’re up to 1941...

Robb:   It was 1941 when I started my academic career.  Ten years later I wrote a piano concerto.  Andor Földes, the Hungarian pianist, commissioned me to do it, and he came and played it in the University Gymnasium.  It was a big success, and there was a big party afterwards.  I also wrote an opera called Little Jo [1947-48], based on a work by Robert Bright.  Bright was a writer who was living in poverty among the Spanish American people, up near Ranchos de Taos.  He was earning his living by hand, but he wrote a beautiful book.  His work among them has given him such an understanding, that Im sure it’s the finest book on New Mexico that’s ever been written.  At any rate, I wrote the opera called Little Jo based on his story The Life and Death of Little Jo, which is published by Doubleday.  The University staged my opera [shown in photo at left], and they put on ten performances.  It was quite a success, and it was repeated just a couple of years ago by the Albuquerque Opera Theatre (now Opera Southwest), and was quite beautiful.  I loved it.

BD:   It seems then that whether you were a lawyer or an administrator, you always made time to compose.

Robb:   I always found time to compose... except lately I have not done very much.  The last large composition that I wrote, was written when I was 90 years of age.  That was my Requiem Mass, which has had several performances.  [Recording shown at the bottom of this webpage.]

:   How long did you stay as Academic Dean?

Robb:   Altogether, I was at the University for fifteen years when I retired in 1957 at the age of 65.  As Acting Dean it was four or five years maybe, and then the Dean had aged parents he felt he had to take care of.  So, they called in lots of candidates for the job and I was one of them.  As Acting Dean they knew me, and I thought it was strange that they put me through the grueling just like everybody else.  During that time, I had to run the college.  This College of Fine Arts was made for the University, but the academic faculty felt that the President, Dr. [James Fulton] Zimmerman, had pushed a little too hard, and they wanted to abolish the college.  Dr. Zimmerman was a wonderful man, and the College of Fine Arts was his brainchild.  When he died, the deans were appointed to take his place.  They functioned as presidents, and during this time some of the academic representatives brought up the idea that we should abolish the College of Fine Arts because there were not very many students.  We had to fight them on that.  In fact, they all voted to abolish us, but the Dean of the College of Arts and Science, Dr. Knode, spoke up and said, “Gentlemen, you’ve acted hastily.  You should leave this decision to the new President that was to be appointed.”  That motion carried.  So, I still had a College of Fine Arts!  [Both laugh]  But that was very interesting.  We parted on good terms.  We have a very fine faculty there, and one of the very nice things that had happened during that time was the establishment of a club for the faculty called the Twenty-One Club.  This was because the university was then small, and had twenty-one departments.  We would have two or three meetings a year, and each meeting was graced by a speech by one of the members.  It’s still in existence, but now it has about fifty members, and they even admit women, which I opposed bitterly at the time.

BD:   [Somewhat shocked]  Why did you oppose it???

Robb:   Because I like the atmosphere of an all-male club, as they had at Yale.  I thought it freed things up, and was better way that way.  I don’t know exactly why this was, but let me tell you that I changed my mind.  They proposed to admit women, and this motion carried over my opposition.  Then I met one of these women, who was the Dean of the Graduate School, and she was such a charmer that I just changed my mind.  I felt that if they’re going to be as good as that, I won’t oppose it any longer.

BD:   Then you retired in 1957?

Robb:   In 1957, yes.
BD:   After you retired, did you devote your time just to composition?

Robb:   Yes, until I finished my Requiem Mass.

BD:   Were there lots of commissions during that time?

Robb:   [Sighs]  Not many, no.  But a music critic came to town, and he liked my music.  He started to write very fine reviews about me, and that’s given me quite a bit of prestige that I would never have had otherwise.

BD:   Mostly you just wrote pieces you felt you had to write?  [Vis-à-vis the biography of Helfer shown at right, see my interviews with Normand Lockwood, Virgil Thomson, and Otto Luening.]

Robb:   That’s right.

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

Robb:   Yes, I’ve had some good performances, and of course a lot of mediocre ones.  [Both laugh]  My First Symphony was the one that brought the rave review.  Now they’re going to do another one of my things in St. Louis, my Second String Quartet, but it’s going to be in a string orchestra version.

BD:   How about the recordings?  Are they particularly good?

Robb:   Oh, I think they’re quite good.  Max Schubel likes my music apparently because he’s recorded about ten of them.

*     *     *     *     *

:   Let us go back just a little bit.  When you were the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, did you also do some teaching?

Robb:   Oh, yes!  I taught harmony, counterpoint, history of music, form and analysis, but I didn’t teach very much.  I’d teach one or two courses at a time.

BD:   Have you taught composition?

Robb:   No, I never have taught composition.  I have studied with some eminent people including Nadia Boulanger.  Paul Hindemith was then teaching at Yale, and so I decided I was going to go to him.  I took a bottle of Rhine wine with me.  [Laughs]  I asked him if he’d take me as a student, and he said, “I can’t teach composition!  Nobody can teach composition!  Composition is nothing but repetition, variation and contrast.  Either you can do it or you can’t.  However, I’ll teach you theory.”  So, I studied theory with him.  He operated on a rather unique plan because he made me write with a stopwatch.  He wanted me to learn to write harmony just as easily as I spelled words, and it was quite a nice discipline because I learned to write much faster than I had before.  Our lessons lasted about two and half hours and ran through his lunch.  I was shocked at the way he was living in a very common-place little house.  His study was just a little bedroom on the second floor, and he had an upright piano.  I thought a great composer like this ought to do better than that, but they did appreciate him at Yale.  I had a nice last meeting with him.  The year I retired, I took a trip around the world.  I took a whole year off, and went to over twenty different countries with my wife.  It was just sort of hit or miss, by bus, boat, train and anything that worked.  Hindemith was conducting his opera Die Harmonie der Welt in Munich, which is about the life of Johannes Kepler the great astronomer.  We went to that with David Van Vactor, who also studied with Hindemith.  The opera had a very charming climax because the image of Kepler was borne off the stage, while simultaneously there were characters dressed in the costumes of the sun, the moon, and all the constellations.  This was set to the music of the great passacaglia.  I thought that was a most interesting literary choice.  At any rate, it was a great evening, and we said goodbye to him.  He died four years later.

Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World) is an opera in five acts by Paul Hindemith. The German libretto was by the composer.

The title of the opera is taken from Harmonices Mundi by the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) who is the subject of the opera. Hindemith used the planetary system as a metaphor for his own musical arrangement of the chromatic scale.

The opera was completed in May 1957, and first performed on August 11. Hindemith had previously composed a symphony of the same name in 1951.

This symphony was created out of Hindemith's fascination with the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler, and the title is a German translation of Kepler's Harmonices Mundi (1619), famous for explaining Kepler's Third Law of Planetary Motion. In this book, Kepler also explored theories of physical harmonies in the movement of the planets and provided a scientific explanation for the idea of the Harmony of the Spheres. Though it might have seemed far-fetched, Hindemith was fascinated by the mystical side of it, which is an aspect of his creativity that is often shown in other great works by the composer.

Hindemith started thinking of writing an opera about Kepler in 1939, and he kept mentioning the project in his letters throughout the war years. Hindemith probably created full structures and portions of the opera before he began writing them on paper. However, in 1951, the composer offered Paul Sacher the premiere of a "preview suite" of his future opera to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra.

The symphony was first performed on January 25, 1952, by an expanded Basel Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Sacher. Even though Hindemith had stated on more than one occasion that the symphony was drawn from musical fragments of the opera of the same name, the opera would not be completed until 1957, six years later than the symphony's date of completion. In fact, Hindemith only began a serious endeavor to complete the libretto for the five-act opera in 1955, which he finished on September 1, 1956. This was also the case of Hindemith's Symphony: Mathis der Maler, which was also finished years prior to the opera's completion.

BD:   You say that Hindemith had the idea that you couldn’t teach composition.  Do you subscribe to that theory?

Robb:   No, I certainly do not, but frankly I did have this feeling.  I also studied with Darius Milhaud, and there was a difference from Boulanger.  Nadia gave everything.  She had nothing to hide, and I felt these other fellows had their own business to conduct.  I always felt that maybe that’s an idea I ought not express in public.  They were very charming.  I loved them all, especially Milhaud, who was such a gentleman.  He had a good sense of humor.  One day I went out to Mills College where he was teaching.  He had a nice composition class there, and one of his students was a fellow by the name of James Ming, who came from the University of Wisconsin.  [To read the citation given to Ming when he retired in 1982, click HERE.]  Ming had written a piece to be played by four hands at the session of the composition class.  He played the first part, the upper hand, and then in the middle of the piece, he switched with the girl who was playing the other part, and played the lower hand from then on.  When they switched, Milhaud looked up and said, “Do you come back?”  [Both laugh]  Everybody got the big laugh out of that.  He was so agonized by arthritis that it was terrible, but when the class came, somehow the color came into his cheeks and he forgot all about his arthritis.  This was always so exiting.  Something was happening to him every day, or some new record of his music was being sung by some famous singer.  Fame was happening to him all the time.  We got a feeling of the aura of greatness. 

BD:   You say you never taught composition, but I do want to ask what advice you have for young composers.

Robb:   Every composer has ideas of inspiration, such as my attraction to the work of Robert Bright.  My advice is to tell the students to go and write what they like, and insofar as you can help your students as you go along, do that too.  Make them comrades.  My most famous student is Johnny Lewis, a black man who had the best dance band we ever had at the University of New Mexico.  It was wonderful, and he had his own ideas about music.  Later he was quite famous.

More than any musician of his era, pianist John Aaron Lewis (1920–2001) aimed to blend Bach with bebop, to infuse jazz with some of the forms and “respectability” of classical music, taking it from nightclubs to concert halls – which he did to worldwide success for four decades as musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Referring to the pianist’s use of fugues and other Baroque forms, English critic Max Harrison said that Lewis had “succeeded where all others have failed in grafting a number of classical devices into the technique of jazz without doing violence to the spirit of the music.”

Born in 1920, Lewis was raised in New Mexico, learning piano from a young age via classical music and, later, dance bands. Encouraged after making friends with drummer Kenny Clarke in the army, Lewis moved to New York in 1945, earning a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music and entering the bebop scene alongside Clarke. The pianist joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band and played on historic Charlie Parker recording sessions; he also worked with saxophonist Lester Young, who had starred in the well-honed Count Basie bands that were a formative inspiration for him. As pianist and arranger, he figured prominently in the Miles Davis nonet’s influential Birth of the Cool sessions of 1949. Lewis established the Modern Jazz Quartet in the early ’50s, seeking to blend blues-inflected improvisation with polyphonic arrangements in an airy, chamber-jazz style; once solidified in 1955, the lineup of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay ran until 1974 and then again from 1981 to 1993. (The group reunited occasionally with different drummers after Kay’s death in ’94.) The foursome recorded for Prestige and, most successfully, Atlantic Records; they collaborated with the likes of Sonny Rollins and symphony orchestras, filling formal halls first in Europe, then North America and Japan. Although some critics tired of the band’s tuxedoed academicism and ever-dulcet sound – its “music identifiable from the first bar even if it drove some hardcore jazz fans into the nearest bar,” as The Guardian put it – the MJQ enjoyed a duration and popularity exceedingly rare for a small jazz ensemble.


As a pianist, Lewis was known for his soft touch, blues feeling and subtle swing, as well as a predilection for understatement and economy — believing that improvised solos should be “at the service of the melody.” Along with composing extended suites and film scores for the MJQ, Lewis wrote such hit tunes for the band as “Django,” which became an instant, oft-covered jazz standard. He also created a soulful, shimmering arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s modernist ballad “Lonely Woman,” as well as versions of classical pieces by Bach, Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo and entire albums devoted to Duke Ellington and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Beyond the group, Lewis composed several works aligned with the jazz-meets-classical Third Stream movement in the 1950s, prime among them Three Little Feelings, a mini-concerto for Miles Davis. He helped establish the Lenox School of Music in Massachusetts, a vital incubator for ambitious jazz talent in the late ’50s. Lewis was music director of the Monterey Jazz Festival from 1958 to 1982, and he directed the American Jazz Orchestra, a pioneering jazz repertory ensemble, from 1985 to 1992. After Jackson’s death ended MJQ reunions in 1999, Lewis recorded a widely praised album of solo piano, Evolution. He passed away two years later. Veteran critic Leonard Feather appreciated the MJQ’s “devotion to affirmative values of order and reason — melodic invention, harmonic beauty, subtlety of rhythmic pulse,” a summation that could serve as a motto for Lewis’s art. —Bradley Bambarger

==  From the Steinway website  

When we went around the world, I ran into him twice.  One time in Moscow, in the great store called GUM on Red Square.  I was buying some records of Russian operas, and there were several boys that clustered around and spoke English.  They asked me if I liked jazz, and I said no, not particularly, but I said that my most famous and successful pupil is a jazz player.  They asked who it was, and I said John Lewis.  They screamed, “John Lewis!!!  Are you the teacher of John Lewis???”  Then they asked how they could come to study in America.  I said, “The man who has charge of all of that is staying at our hotel, the National,” which was practically right on Red Square, “and if you would come over at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon, I’m sure he would tell you.”  They said they would come, but the next day at four o’clock, a little boy called up and said they wouldn’t be able to come.
  I guess they were afraid.  There was still the aura, the feeling of the tyranny of Stalin.  We had another amusing experience there.  On our tour, they said, “Don’t let them put you in just any place.  Tell them you want to go to the National Hotel.  It’s right there by the Kremlin.  So we went in, and my wife said to them, “I understand Mrs. Roosevelt was here last week.  I’d like to have that room.”  We were traveling Deluxe because we wanted to be able to travel alone, and that’s the only way you could travel alone.  So, they did really try to do everything for us, and they gave us a suite with a grand piano in it.  I was so touched.  I asked the guide who with us all the time we were in Russia, “Did they know I was a musician?  Is that why they had that grand piano?”  She said, “But, of course!”  Later I opened up the piano and the strings were all broken.  It was a mess.  So, I knew they were lying!  [Both laugh]

[From my interview with Alexander Toradze...]

Toradze:   In Russia, I would play many times on pianos with broken strings or broken keys.  Many times I would have to put a piece of rubber in-between strings so they wouldn't sound.  It's a pitiful situation.

BD:   An 85-key piano!  [The standard paino has 88 keys.]

Toradze:   You're lucky if you got that!  I would frequently have to play big concerts on upright pianos.  I don't want you to hear irony in my voice.  It was a pain!  Such a rich country with phenomenal culture, but good pianos (which are not simple things) don't exist unless you're in a major hall in a major town.


BD:   It was just there for looks!

Robb:   Right, it was just there for looks!  We had that kind of accommodation, however.

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BD:   Let me ask a great big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

Robb:   To me, it’s food for the soul.  We had a nice concert last night played by William Wood, who is a professor at the University of New Mexico.  He did Debussy’s La Mer, and then the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with a man by the name of Rodriguez as soloist.  It was a very exciting program, and good for the soul.

BD:   With all of this food for the soul, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Robb:   That is another development which is there, and it’s always evident to me.  Also, it has a great social aspect.  Somebody was saying to me last night, “Everybody dresses up at the Symphony!”  At least they did pay that much respect to it.  As a matter of dress, I don’t approve of the varying informality that people are prone to indulge in these days.  They used to dress like it was special.  Nadia Boulanger said she could never get over women wearing slacks to the Paris Opera.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Should we be reverent toward the music?

Robb:   I think so.  I feel a reverence to the people who are fortunate enough to have ideas to express.  A lot of fine music is being written, and the musicianship in the performing arts is the thing that is most impressive in the University of New Mexico.  They’ve shown tremendous development of the performing arts.  It’s marvelous! 

BD:   I want to be sure and ask you about one more part of your career, namely your composing of electronic music.

Robb:   In 1960 I saw an advertisement from the University of Toronto, stating that they wanted ten composers to come up and work with the electronic equipment that they had amassed.  So, I wrote and was accepted.  I went up there two summers, and worked with the very expensive electronic equipment that they had there, most of which has been superseded by later and cheaper items, but it’s all still very expensive.  I built an elaborate setup in my room, and I wrote two big works and a few other small pieces.  After those, I faded out on that form.  I still have most of my stuff in the laboratory, but I have stopped writing for it.  The machine which I bought had a rather large memory, but now the computers have made all that machinery obsolete because there is no limit to the memory you can have with those computers.

BD:   I have a recording of one electronic piece of yours, Collage, on the Folkways LP sent to me by Jean Ivey [who also has a work on that record, and it is shown on her interview page].
  Is that the only commercial recording of an electronic piece?

Robb:   No, there is another full record called From Razor Blades to Moog [shown at right].  Do you get the significance of that title?

BD:   Sure.... razor blades are for the splicing of tape!

Robb:   Yes.  The first one was a series of exercises.  I thought they were new pieces as well, but nevertheless, it shows how you could compose music with tape.  Before I ever got into it, a young man came and asked me, “Have you ever thought of composing with tape?”  I said, “Oh no, how could you?  You couldn’t compose with that unyielding stuff.”  But I was very stupid about it at that time, and I learned to do just that.

BD:   [Noting that we had been talking for over an hour, and remembering he was nearly 96 years old]  I hope Im not taxing you too much...

Robb:   No, not at all.  You’re on my favorite subject!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Good.  Let me ask one last question.  Is composing fun?

Robb:   Oh, it is!  It’s exciting when it works, but in recent years I putter away at it, but lately I don’t seem to have any creative instinct left.  I’m practically dead in the water!

BD:   Oh, but you’ve given us quite a bit of great material.

Robb:   I have in the past, yes, and I’ve done an awful lot of stuff that I hope is going to be dug up now.

BD:   I certainly will air some of it in Chicago.  [This would include full programs with interview in 1992 (for his centennial) and again in 1998, as well as individual pieces scattered occasionally in the regular programming.]  It’s been a great pleasure to speak with you on the phone.  I have learned a lot and it’s been a privilege to speak with you.

Robb:   Oh, you’re very kind.  I’m so glad that it worked out.  Thank you very much, Mr. Duffie.  Goodnight.

BD:   Goodnight.



When this interview was posted in August of 2022, I sent the link to the Robb Trust at the University of New Mexico.  Immediately I received a lovely reply, and it is reproduced here (with permission) . . . . .

Dear Bruce,

What a jewel this is!  It will be a terrific addition to the Robb Archive at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Libraries' Center for Southwest Research & Special Collections. Thank you so much for sending it our way.

I am a long-time member of the UNM John Donald Robb Musical Trust Board of Directors.  The Trust was established after the deaths of Dean Robb and his wife, Harriet, in 1989.  Prior to that time, I was a freshman at UNM during the last year (1957) of his tenure as Dean.  Although, as a student, I didn't have close contact with him, Dean Robb was always an imposing figure wherever he was!  After his retirement, he maintained an office on campus in the Fine Arts Building, and was an influential force, especially always interacting with and encouraging students.  During that period of time, as a violist, I was fortunate to play several of his compositions which afforded intimate contact with him.  Your interview reinforces over and over his kind, gentlemanly demeanor which so characterized him.

The Trust's Board of Trustees has no term limits, and as a continuing board member, I find interesting and enriching things about Dean Robb over and over again.  All of that helps us shape the mission and vision of The Trust and its board members.

Once again, thanks so much for enriching Robb's legacy with this masterful interview, and generously providing it for us!



James E. Bonnell, Secretary
University of New Mexico John Donald Robb Musical Trust

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 16, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992 and again in 1998.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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