Composer  Roger  Nixon

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


rogernixon Roger Alfred Nixon (August 8, 1921 – October 13, 2009) was an American composer, and professor of music. He wrote over 60 compositions for orchestra, band, choir, and opera. He received multiple awards and honors for his works, many of which contain a feel of the rhythms and dances of the early settlers of his native state of California.

Nixon was born and raised in California's Central Valley towns of Tulare and Modesto. He attended Modesto Junior College from 1938–1940 where he studied clarinet with Frank Mancini, formerly of John Philip Sousa's band. He continued his studies at UC Berkeley, majoring in composition and receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941. His studies were then interrupted by almost four years of active duty in the Navy during World War II, serving as the commanding officer of an LCMR [an omni-directional radar system] in the Atlantic.

Following the war Nixon returned to UC Berkeley, first receiving a M.A. degree and later a Ph.D. His primary teacher was Roger Sessions. He also studied with Arthur Bliss, Ernest Bloch, Charles Cushing, and Frederick Jacobi. In the summer of 1948, he studied privately with Arnold Schoenberg.

From 1951 to 1959, Nixon was on the music faculty at Modesto Junior College. In 1960 he was then appointed to the faculty at San Francisco State College, now San Francisco State University, and began a long association with the Symphonic Band, which premiered many of his works. Most of Nixon's works are for band, but he has also composed for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo piano, choral ensembles, as well as song cycles and an opera. His most popular and most-performed work is Fiesta del Pacifico, a piece for concert band. [Nixon commended the recording shown at left. Also, see my interview with Carlos Surinach.] 

Nixon received several awards including a Phelan Award, the Neil A. Kjos Memorial Award, and five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was elected to the American Bandmasters Association in 1973, the same year he won the association's Ostwald Award for his composition Festival Fanfare March. In 1997, Nixon was honored by the Texas Bandmasters Association as a Heritage American Composer. At his death, he was Professor Emeritus of Music at San Francisco State University.

Most of my interviews were done in-person, face-to-face, but when a guest was not coming to Chicago, I would arrange to speak with them on the telephone.  This conversation with Roger Nixon is one of those phone-chats.

He agreed to allow me to call him at the beginning of 1988, and while we were getting set up for the recording, he mentioned a performance of his Twelve Preludes for Piano, and lamented that the work was not available (at that time) on a commercial record . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Let’s talk a little bit about the Twelve Preludes for Piano.  You mentioned that they were composed over a series of years.  Are they still to be considered a unit?

Roger Nixon:   Oh, yes.  In 1977, I decided to make them to a unit, and I used a tone row as the basis for unifying them.  The tone row is first presented in the first couple of measures of the First Prelude, then these notes become the tonal centers of the twelve pieces.  So, they are unified in this way, and I use the source of the row frequently in the pieces, although not in all the pieces.  They’re also unified by my own composing style, and they are kind of a chronology of musical interests that I have had at various times, and things that I was attracted to.  At various times I would write a piano piece, and then in 1977 I decided to make a complete set, and dedicated it to William Corbett-Jones.


BD:   How much tinkering did it take to integrate each one of the old pieces into the new piece?

RN:   Very little, because they were my own pieces in my own style.  So, I used them pretty much as they were at the time of composition.  You could take music of almost any composer, and this would work out.  You could take his early works, particularly for keyboard, and you would sense the unity of style even in later works.

BD:   Is that one of the hallmarks of a great composer, the fact that there is unity, rather than trying out different things, and present a scatter-shot group of compositions?

RN:   I wouldn’t say that you have to do this to be great, or that you’re not great because you do it.  I don’t think that is the fact, but it is often the case with composers that there’s a continuity in their composition that one can sense.  They don’t really change stripes when they turn thirty-eight, or anything like that.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Let me pursue this just a little bit further.  What, in your opinion, constitutes greatness in music?

RN:   I would suppose it’s the expressive quality, and the sense of communication that it contains.  It largely is the way in which this communication is received by many persons.  If it’s a sense of communication received by a great many persons, the composer’s music will be widely known and widely played, and he will be considered more important than a person whose music does not communicate so well to so many persons.  But that’s just off the top of my head.  If I thought about it for a few weeks, I could come up with a better definition, but everyone has their own idea of greatness.

BD:   Is this something that you strive to put into each piece of music you write?

RN:   Of course, I do the very best job I can, and in each case I write the best music of which I am capable of writing at a given time.  The craftsmanship has got to be very, very good, or I will redo it, or I will cast it aside.

BD:   Where is the balance between the inspiration and the craftsmanship?

RN:   They are really inseparable.  All of my music is inspired, and all of it has craftsmanship.  I just couldn’t imagine one without the other because there are so many kinds of inspiration.  For instance, when you’re dealing with harmonies you maybe inspired harmonically, or moved by a certain chord-progression.  This a small matter, but it is part of a whole, and it’s part of the inspiration.  It’s not always a theme, or always a bass line, or always one or the other.  It’s all those things, so I wouldn’t differentiate too much between craftsmanship and inspiration.

*     *     *     *     *

rogernixon BD:   You’ve done some teaching of music.  Is this theory and composition?

RN:   Yes, and I’ve also been a conductor.  I conducted orchestras, bands, choral groups, chamber groups, you name it.  I’ve had quite an experience as a conductor.  Also, I was clarinetist and I was a recitalist.

BD:   So you’re a really well-rounded musician!

RN:   [Laughs]  I like to think I’m fairly well-rounded, but there are some gaps.  I’m not a very good pianist.  That’s the thing that bothers me the most.  I was a singer, too, so I can empathize with the vocalist, and I was a choral director so I empathize with the choral groups.  It all helps, and it’s a full ambiance, shall we say, for the creation of music, but it doesn’t substitute for the musical ideas themselves.  This is the composer’s world.

BD:   Is that the world you feel most comfortable in?

RN:   Well, I don’t know about feeling comfortable.  [Laughs]  Sometimes it’s torturous.  But I’ve had a lot of experience in that world.

BD:   Is composing fun?

RN:   Sometimes it is.  It’s always exciting.  Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s a challenge, and sometimes it’s frustrating.  So there are many moods, at least for me.

[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, Nixon is in great company.  See my interviews with William Revelli, Alan Hovhaness, Morton Gould, Vaclav Nelhybel, Karel Husa, Norman Dello Joio, Ross Lee Finney, William Schuman, Gunther Schuller, Leslie Bassett, Ron Nelson, and Alfred Reed.  The Fiesta del Pacifico is included in Volume 1, another six-record set which features a similar group of composers as in Volume 4, including Vincent Persichetti.]

BD:   Coming back to teaching for a moment, is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be innate with any young composer?

RN:   This is a tough one.  In a sense it cannot be taught.   You cannot really teach creativity, but you can encourage it, and you can foster it, and you can offer a great deal of advice having to do with craftsmanship which the composer will need in order to bring his ideas to fruition.  This can be helpful, and is valid in terms of teaching, but you just can’t teach creativity.  That has to be there.  There’s an old saying that you need ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration, but the ten per cent inspiration has to be there.  You can’t just get along with ninety per cent perspiration.  However, it’s that perspiration part that you could help as far as teaching is concerned.  But the inspiration comes from the person.

BD:   You’ve been teaching for thirty-five years or so.

RN:   That’s right.

BD:   How have the young composers changed over this time-span?

RN:   They’ve changed in terms of their styles, but they have found their way.  They go their individual way, and I have been very pleased that my students have functioned very well in the musical world, and they continue composing... that is, those who went as far as the master’s degree.  Graduate students that worked with me in contact with me from time to time, and they’re very individual.  They don’t follow any pattern, one to the other, so I wouldn’t describe them collectively, except to say that they’re individual.  They each go their own way.

BD:   Are there any big names that we would know amongst your students?

RN:   Oh, I doubt if you would know them.  For one thing, they would be too young to be known, and they wouldn’t be big names.  Most of them have gone into teaching, or are playing in church jobs, and things like that.

BD:   Is there any chance that we are getting too many young composers coming along?

RN:   I don’t know about too many.  It depends on who is judging that.  When you say too many, this is a negative judgment.  Certainly, they cannot make a living as serious composers.  You can do pretty well sometimes as an arranger, or writing for television and the movies, but in a sense of being able to earn a living, I suppose there have been too many for a long time.  That’s a tough question because it depends on the value of the person who is judging more than on the value of the composer whom he’s judging.

BD:   Let me another big philosophical question.  Where is music going today?

RN:   Music is going where the best composers are taking it.  The musical world today is awfully fragmented, so that’s more difficult to ponder.  We have serial composers, composers of free dissonance, electronic composers, experimental composers, minimalists, and traditionally-orientated composers.  Then we also have jazz, and rock, and folk music, and music for movies and television.  You’ve got all those various forms which co-exist today, and each of them is different.  So, we have a fragmented musical world.

BD:   Is it good that there is so much diversity?

RN:   I suppose so.  Again, when you say ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it really depends on your perspective.  One thing is that it provides a great deal of variety.  There is no doubt about that.  On the other hand, you don’t have the sense of commonality, or a common practice that has been so valuable in the past.  The common practice period
that is the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries primarily, and the earlier Sixteenth Century, as well as the Renaissanceproduced the high points in our musical literature.  They were not fragmented at that time.  The composers used very similar material, learning from one another, building on one another, if you will.  It takes such to reach these high points of the arts, and we may be sacrificing that in our variety, in our search for novelty, but who knows?  You have to wait a hundred years and look back.


BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you have heard of your music?

RN:   [Laughs]  Not always.  They are often done very, very well, and I have no complaints about that.  Most of my music has been given good performances, but since I’ve had quite a bit of music published, and it’s gotten around, there have been lots of performances which probably are not all that good.  I try to avoid the ones I don’t think will be good, and go to the ones I think will be good.  Sometimes I’m wrong, and I have a torturous experience listening to a performance which is poor.  It’s very irritating, so I try to avoid those experiences.

BD:   Do performers ever find things in your scores that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

RN:   I don’t hide things there, but there are different interpretations that are possible.  I’ve learned quite a bit from performers who have given the works good performances, and have added some of their insights.  In a sense it’s true that I’ve learned from the performers.  Usually these aspects of the piece will be nuances of tempo and of phrasing rather than the harmony and counterpoint.  But I’ve also learned from performers that there can be many, many more than one good performance.  Different performances will have their own values.  Tempi is a big thing.  Some conductors will use faster tempi, but they’ll both be good.  They will just be different.  So, quite a wide variety of good performances is possible.

BD:   Having been a conductor, are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

RN:   [Laughs]  Not necessarily.  William Revelli’s done some beautiful things in Michigan with my band music.  [See six-record set shown above.]  It’s really quite remarkable. I don’t think I could create as good a performance as he can, even of my own music.  When Joseph Krips performed my music with the San Francisco Symphony, it was the same thing.  He could make it sound much better than I would be able to.  He’s just a better conductor and a better orchestral person by far.  If I got up there on the podium, it wouldn’t nearly be as good.  We composers respect conductors and performers.  They can play better, and they can conduct better, and the results are better.  What I really like to do is to work with them, have them learn for me about the interpretation of my music, and I’ve been very, very pleased to do that on many occasions.  Then they take it from there, and make it into their own, and the result is a composite which is superior than it would be if they just went on their own, or if I had to do it myself.  As they say, it takes two to tango.

BD:   Sure.  What about the recordings?  Are you pleased with them, because they will get a lot more circulation than live performances?  [Nixon had sent me a few examples of works that had been recorded.]

RN:   Oh, yes.  The performance you have of Fiesta del Pacifico and the Eastman Wind Ensemble is extremely good.  [This is the recording shown in the bio-box at the top of this webpage.]  I had many years as a band conductor, but I couldn’t have done as well as they do.  It’s really a marvelous recording.

BD:   How does that differ from the one with the Baylor University Ensemble?


RN:   The Eastman is really a professional performance, and we feel this.  Also, they had the Decca engineers there, so the recording itself was better.  The recording of the Baylor group was done on location, and it was not quite as good.  But some of their things are just really marvelous.  The way they did the Solemn Procession was the best I ever heard.  The second movement of the Pacific Celebrations Suite I’ve never heard played any better anywhere.  Each performance will have its own quality.  They also did a fine version of Reflections.  Some things are better than others at various times, with different pieces and different performing groups getting different balances, and different recording ambiences.

rogernixon BD:   What about the couple of Christmas pieces that you sent me?

RN:   Those are delightful, yes.  That group has a really talented conductor, Ralph Hooper.  He was very good.  He came from Washington DC to San Francisco, and has a very fine professional choral group who are very dedicated.  He just does wonders with them.  I’m very pleased with those two Christmas albums [one of which is shown at right].  Choral groups often make Christmas albums, so I was fortunate to find a place on each one of those.

BD:   Did they tell you beforehand that they were going to include your pieces, or did they just send you the record when it was published?

RN:   They told me they were going to do it, but they made the tapes when I wasn’t there.  I had gone over the pieces with them, so they weren’t completely alone in their interpretation.  We’d worked together in rehearsals, but I wasn’t actually at the recording sessions.

BD:   Can I assume you didn’t have to tell them too much?

RN:   Oh, no.  They’re wonderful, and the things in themselves are fine.  This is the San Francisco Choral Artists, and these are professional singers in the San Francisco area that usually have several other places they sing.  Some are in the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and they’ll all have a solo church jobs, or they’ll be teaching.  All are involved in music, and they perform the Choral Artists group.  It’s a select group, not completely volunteer because they do get paid for their performance, but they don’t get paid as much as would be needed to compensate for the time they put in.  But they’re really quite good, and they’re eager to try new things.  They have wonderful ears and good voices.  It’s a very good aspiration to be able to work with them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   On the subject of vocal music, I want to be sure and ask you about your opera.

RN:   This is a setting of Stephen Crane’s The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, which is a short story.  Ray West is the librettist, and we’re colleagues at San Francisco State.  He was Head of the Creative Writing program for a long time.  The opera’s been done several times.  Probably the best performance was done by the New Jersey State Opera, when they did it as a gesture to the centennial of Stephen Crane’s birth.  He was a native of New Jersey, and so they gave the opera as part of a week’s long celebration.  It was quite good.  They’re a professional opera group, and they had their own orchestra and fine singers.  They’re really very good.  They don’t tour.  They just do their performances in New Jersey, but it was very fine, and that was quite nice.

BD:   Was it commissioned, or was it just something you wanted to write?

RN:   It was commissioned by Eastern Illinois University, but I wanted to write it.  They’d originally asked me to write a piece for band, because they knew my music for band.  However, I’d had written enough for that ensemble, and I wanted to write an opera.  So I asked if they would commission me to write an opera.  I told them I’d do it for the same price that I’d do a band piece.  It happened to strike a chord with them, because they were trying to start an opera program, and they used this work to inaugurate their opera program.  So, it worked out well for them, and they gave a nice performance of it.  It was packed house.

BD:   What’s the running time?

RN:   It’s about fifty minutes.

BD:   So it’s half an evening?

RN:   Yes.  It’s four scenes, and it should be programmed with either another short opera, or other music.   It’s about half a program.

BD:   Would you rather it be programmed with another contemporary work, or perhaps with Pagliacci?

RN:   Either one is fine.  I would be happy in either case.

BD:   Do you feel that opera works well on television?

rogernixon RN:   Oh, yes, very much.  That’s very impressive.  In the abstract, I suppose it would be the ideal medium for it.  The only thing about television is that you do have the electronic reproduction, and you don’t get the live performance.  Being in San Francisco, I hear lots of opera.  We have the San Francisco Opera, which is very, very fine.  It’s one of the finest in the world, and I really enjoy their live performances.  I can hear much more of the orchestra than when somebody’s turning knobs in a studio.  It’s also much clearer.  It’s the difference between looking at the reproduction of a painting and looking at the original.  You can really see more when you see the original than you can from a reproduction, even though the reproductions can be quite fine.  They are certainly wonderful if you can’t have the original.  [Laughs]  It is better to have a good reproduction.  This is the way I feel about television, but that’s because of the appalling sound.  In terms of the dramatic impact, the television is really better because you can see the performance close up, but the music suffers.  The sound of the music suffers because of the speakers in your home, and everything that has to do with electronic reproduction.

BD:   I assume, though, that you feel it is improving?

RN:   Oh, sure.  I love television. We watch it a lot, and there are different things on television that I like.  I like sports very much on television.  I love to watch football on television.

BD:   Rather than going to the stadium?

RN:   Oh, my God, yes!  The camera is just marvelous.  It gets up close to the players, and they show replays, and you have the cameras at different angles from above and below.  It’s fascinating!  Just wonderful!  But, you see, it does much more for football than it does for the symphony orchestra.  A symphony orchestra suffers with television, as compared to the live performance.

BD:   You don’t like zeroing in on the oboe player when there is a solo?

RN:   No!  [Laughs]  It’s the sound.  The cameras are fine, but it’s the sound.  For football, the sounds are not that vital a part of the viewer’s experience.  You can get a general sound of the crowd, but you have don’t have to hear the crowd in detail in order to appreciate its presence.  In the orchestra, you need to hear the instruments, and the balance, and all these things in great detail to get the full message of the music.  There it’s very important, and television doesn’t come off so well.

BD:   Do you like this new gimmick of the supertitles in the theater?

RN:   Yes.  We have those now in San Francisco and it’s really very revealing, because even when operas are sung in English, you can’t always hear the words too well.

BD:   Were you conscious of this when you were writing your opera
to make it so that the diction could always be heard?

RN:   I tried, yes, and it was a good performance.  It went off very well.  But obviously, when you talk of supertitles, I was thinking translations of operas in foreign languages.  That is now very appreciated.  Even though I know the operas pretty well and I know the story line, I can pick up the language pretty well.  But it’s sung, so it is distorted, and there are many distracted sounds.  So, it’s helpful to have the supertitles there.  Being part of an audience, I notice that audiences respond more to things, particularly having to do with humor when you see supertitles.  Whereas, if you didn’t see those words, it just goes right by.  With the supertitles they get the point, and also get the point of the musical relationship to the words at that particular moment, and they appreciate it more.

BD:   Now the question for the composer.  When your opera is being done in France, or Italy, or Germany, would you rather it be sung in French or Italian or in German, or would you rather have it sung in English with the titles above?

RN:   Either one as long as the titles are there, and as long as the audience can understand the text.  That’s the main thing.  If the titles are there, it’s fine to be in English.  But if they can understand it better in their own language, and prefer it, that’s okay with me.  Sometimes the translations can be a little awkward, but that’s really up to the audience.  I’m happy if they just listen to the music anyway.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

RN:   It has many purposes and lends itself to so many different ambiences.  It lends itself very well to the religious world
the world of church and all the religious institutions.  Many different kinds of religions have their own music which tends to enhance the religious experience.  So, it is useful to the church and to the congregation in that regard.  Music also functions in association with the stage, with drama.  Opera is one of the main things, but also incidental music is very helpful.  Background music can underscore dramatic situations, so it’s a sister art.  Then, of course, it functions very well with dance.  Music and dance are just intertwined so closely that it functions in association with the dance very effectively, and always has.  Music also functions well in a marching array, or pageantry, and this aspect of musical life has a great deal to do with music.  Different kinds of music function in different kinds of ambiences.  So, when you say music, you’re talking about a very, very large subject.  You don’t mix up the different kinds of music very successfully.  You couldn’t imagine playing Stars and Stripes in St. Peter’s Cathedral, and you also wouldn’t want to use a Palestrina Mass when you’re marching in the 4th of July Parade.  These two kinds of music match perfectly within their own ambiences, but don’t necessarily function otherwise.  There are different kinds of concert situations, and music has developed, particularly since Bach, in the concert situation whereby it doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with something else in order for it so function well.  It can function simply in concert without any association with the dance, or the drama, or whatever.  When music got to that point, that was a big step.  There are many different kinds of concert situationschamber music, large ensembles, small ensembles, the solo recitalall of which relate to particular kinds of audiences.  I remember Aaron Copland saying, when he was talking about writing for his audience, or writing for the listener, that he wrote differently for different kinds of audiences.  One kind of audience was the contemporary music audiencewhat he called the same three hundred people who came to hear performances of contemporary music in New York City.  It’s the same two hundred people in San Francisco, and I don’t know how many in Chicago.  You probably have close to three hundred, but it is the same group of people who go to these concerts.  There are potentially more, but his point was very well made that it’s for the small audience that is interested in new music, and they’re the people who go to those concerts, and they want those kinds of things.  The audience which will attend a symphony concert will probably really want to hear Beethoven.

BD:   What advice do you have for a general audience that comes a symphonic concert, and all of a sudden is confronted with a piece of yours on the program?

RN:   I hope they survive!  [Both laugh]  I wish them well, but I feel a little sorry for them.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Why???

rogernixon RN:   One piece on a program is not too much to ask, but if they came to a symphony concert hoping to hear a symphony played, they bought their ticket, and if the whole program would be unfamiliar to them, I think they would be disappointed, and that would be too bad.  I don’t think they should be betrayed that way.  If they want to hear Brahms, they should hear Brahms.  I would never want to have a piece of mine used to display something the audience ought to hear because it was good for them.  If we’re going to have a concert of contemporary music, it should be advertised as that, and people should know what they’re getting before they buy their ticket.  They shouldn’t buy their ticket to hear one thing, and then be confronted with another.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But I assume you don’t write your music to be played only on contemporary concerts.

RN:   No, I write different kinds of music to be played wherever there is a performance.  I certainly have had pieces between the Eroica Symphony and Lincoln Portrait, and that’s fine.  I haven’t gotten any bad vibes from that.  But I’ve heard bad vibes from people who are subjected to a lot of that.  They buy a season ticket for symphony concerts, and there’s just so much contemporary music that they don’t enjoy it, and they really get turned off.  The management of the music organizations are aware of these things.  They will conduct a survey of their audience, find out what the audience wants, what they respond favorably to, what they respond negatively to, and try to please them... or at least not to irritate them all the time.

BD:   Is the audience right in its judgment?

RN:   They are right for them.  In San Francisco, I tend to know some people, so I can’t talk to them without their knowing who I am.  If they know that you’re an American composer, they know you have an ax to grind, and want your music to be played, and they don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying that they would rather hear Schumann.  [Laughs]  So, you may not get their truthful reaction.  But I’ve been a very interested.  When I was in New York, I went to a concert by the New York Philharmonic, and I went into the lobby just to buy a ticket at the last minute.  I got one from a man whose wife hadn’t come, and sat by him during the evening.  It turned out he was a member of the Board of Directors of the New York Philharmonic.  This was when Pierre Boulez was their conductor, and the man spent some time between pieces and during intermission telling me how they felt about having so much music of Webern, and Schoenberg, and Alban Berg programmed on the basis that Boulez thought that the audience should hear it.  This man said to me, I know what I want to hear.  I don’t have to have anyone choose programs for me.  I am well aware of the symphonic literature.  I’ve been going to concerts for years.  I don’t have to have Boulez tell me what I should hear!  He was a very sophisticated older man, and he was not about to be told what was good for him.  He knew perfectly well.

BD:   [With eternal optimism]  Had he never had a pleasant surprise?

RN:   I didn’t interrogate him in detail, but I was happy to talk to him because he had no idea who I was, or if I was a composer, and might have all kinds of feelings because I had studied with Schoenberg myself.  I have warm feelings for Schoenberg.

BD:   As far as he was concerned, you were maybe a CPA (certified public accountant)?

RN:   I was just any person.  I just happened to buy a ticket, and I purposely didn’t share too much information because I just wanted to get it straight from someone.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What did you learn from Schoenberg?

RN:   He was a great inspiration.  He was probably the greatest artist I’ve ever met personally.  He had a sense of mission, and a sense of dedication to the arts.  He knew who he was, even though at that time he was not widely recognized.  This was in 1948.  He was living in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic would play his music, though Alfred Wallenstein didn’t like his music and he wouldn’t play it.  The critics would give it horrible reviews whenever his music was played.  He was really very much on the defensive at that time, yet he was a man of very great courage because he knew who he was.  He would rise above this, and had a wonderful sense what a composer is.  He had a sense of being a kind of artistic leader, or spiritual leader, though not in the religious sense.  It was just marvelous to have lessons with him every week.  [Laughs]  I was writing a string quartet [shown above], and he was using Mozart’s string quartets as examples.  I wanted to talk about his own string quartets.  I was quite taken by his Fourth String Quartet, and studied it, and analyzed it by picking out the rows.  There were many things I wanted to ask him about this, so we spent time, and the lessons got to be as long as two-hours.  One time, as I was leaving, I said off-hand,
What do you think it would have been like if Mozart had used the twelve-tone technique?  He smiled one of his rare smiles, and said, It would have been perfect.  [Much laughter]  He just adored Mozart and Beethoven, and yet he realized his method of composing with twelve tones related to one another, as he called it, was quite a break from the tonal tradition.  But he really admired them tremendously as colleagues, and of course, they were from Vienna, too.

The received wisdom on Schonberg’s groundbreaking Chamber Symphony No. 1 is that it is all about an approach to concision and brevity, an act of ruthless, purifying compression in reaction to the late-Romantic giganticism represented by Mahler’s symphonies and Schoenberg’s own Gurre-Lieder and Pelleas and Melisande, among many others. Schoenberg pared the grandiose orchestral forces down to 15 solo instruments and encapsulated the standard multi-movement symphony into a single composite movement.

That was the form in which the Chamber Symphony, completed while vacationing in Bavaria in July 1906, had its premiere in February 1907, and it is in that form that it became a modernist icon, inspiring many similar works. With its thematic use of superimposed fourths and whole-tone scales that worked vertically (harmonically) as well as horizontally (melodically), the work became a famous pointer to the future, a harbinger of things to come for Schoenberg and much of 20th-century music.

Yet the work looks backward as much as forward, something brought out more clearly when Schoenberg arranged it for full orchestra in 1935. This was a period during his early years in Los Angeles in which the composer reflected on the relationship of his own style with music of the past, arranging and adapting works by Monn and Handel, and two years later the Brahms Piano Quartet, and writing the Suite “in Old Style.” Schoenberg conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere of the full orchestra version of the Chamber Symphony in a program of his own music, December 27, 1935, in Bovard Auditorium at USC, where the composer was then lecturing. (The other works on the program were the Suite and Verklärte Nacht as arranged for string orchestra. The Chamber Symphony, incidentally, was listed then as Op. 9-A.)

And the brevity of the Chamber Symphony is relative to other contemporary works, including Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and his D-minor String Quartet, both also in a single movement. (The Chamber Symphony is longer than many whole multi-movement symphonies by Haydn and Mozart.) Schoenberg cites Liszt as an inspiration for the idea of an encapsulated form (and Liszt was following the model of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy). In the Chamber Symphony, this single movement is subdivided into five very distinct parts, though they are played without a break.

--  From (recent) program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic by John Henken, Director of Publications for the L.A. Philharmonic  

*     *     *     *     *

Alfred Wallenstein (October 7, 1898 – February 8, 1983) was an American cellist and conductor, born in Chicago, Illinois.

At the age of 17, he joined the San Francisco Symphony as a cellist. He subsequently played cello with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before becoming principal cello of the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini in 1929. He frequently performed with these orchestras as a soloist.

Toscanini, also a cellist, advised Wallenstein to become a conductor. He conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and then conducted frequently on the radio. From 1943 to 1956, he was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He later taught at the Juilliard School in New York, where he died in 1983 at the age of 84.

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

RN:   We’re all children of our times.  You just can’t get around it, or should even try to get around it.  We are here at a certain time, and we are influenced by those who came before us, and we’ll probably influence those who come after us.  So, we are part of this kind of lineage, shall we say, whether we like it or not.

BD:   What advice do you have for the young composers coming along?

rogernixon RN:   I try to encourage their creative spirit, and I try to encourage them to make their way in the world so that they can provide space for their own artistic development.  Often times, composers are forced to write entertainment music, or educational music, or music to be used for this or that or the other thing which, in a way, emasculates at least part of their creative potential, and that’s unfortunate.  I try to warn them about that, and let them see various ways in which they will be able to function by precept as well as by observation.

BD:   In concert music, where should the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

RN:   That’s really up to the composer.  The composer can and should write the very best music in which he’s capable, and his audience, in a sense, will find him.  You don’t write for a specific audience, or to entertain a specific audience.  If an audience finds what you’ve done amusing, or entertaining, or rewarding in some regard, then that’s fine.  But if you start just catering to them, or bending to them, or writing something you think they’ll like, you cut off the flow of your inspiration, and is unfortunate.  Sometimes it might not make much difference.  I know I’ve had quite a bit to do with composers who write for band, and when they write for school groups they consciously avoid writing anything difficult
something a third clarinet player in a junior high school band would have trouble withbecause they want to sell their music to that group.  They want people to be able to play that, so it serves a certain function, and they curtail their musical ideas to conform with the capabilities of the students at that level.  The students at that level have to have something to play, so that renders a social service to provide it, so those composers who choose to do that bypass the idea of writing hard music, or doing the very best creative work of which they’re capable.  That used to bother me some, but when I’ve gotten to know these people, I find they probably didn’t have anything more to say anyway!  [Both laugh]  They might as well do that with their talent.  If that’s what they’re good at, that’s what they want to do, and they make the decision not me.  I’m not going to pass judgment and say they should never have done that.  That would be ridiculous.  It works out that the best they do is what they do.

BD:   What advice do you have for the conductors and performers coming along, regarding new music?

RN:   They should, if possible, get to know the composers, and work with them.  Get the composer’s views of the performance of his or her music, and then play the music that they really like.  If they don’t like a piece, don’t play it.  I know they’re under tremendous pressure to either play or not to play pieces.  They just really have to do as much as they can do of what they really want to do.  It’s awfully hard to tell them that because they have a Board of Directors putting lots of pressure on them.  They’re also under pressure from the music critics in their own area, and from foundations which may support them
provided they play so much American music, or so much contemporary music.  They often provide a grant to them on the condition that they will play this composer’s music in order to support him.  If it’s a happy marriage, that’s wonderful, but if it’s not a happy marriage, it’s hell.  So they just try to find a solution.  One time, Stravinsky was asked about commissions, and whether he felt he should write or not write on commission, and if he took a commission, would it affect his music.  He said, The thing to do is to write what you want to write, and then find someone to commission it.

BD:   This is how you’ve tried to function?

RN:   Oh, yes.  Whenever I can, I do that.  This is why I wrote my opera.  They wanted me to write a band piece, and I wanted to write an opera, so I asked how about commissioning an opera, and they bought it.

BD:   We spoke of new music, but what general advice do you have for conductors?

RN:   I don’t really have too much advice to give conductors.  I don’t think they need advice from me.  They’re perfectly capable of finding their own way in the world.  I haven’t really had conductors come to me for advice unless they were going to play my music, and then the advice has to do with mostly interpretation of my music.  I’m very free with that advice, but it’s always very specific.  There have been some conductors who have been a great inspiration to me, and actually they all inspire me when they play my music.  [Much laughter]  Of course, I would get to know them better when they play my music, otherwise I might not get to know them very well, and would have no occasion to get to know them at all.  So the ones I’ve known well have been those with whom I’ve shared experiences, and I find that very rewarding.  One of my favorite conductors was Colonel Arnald Gabriel, who was the conductor of the Air Force Band for many years, and he played a lot of my music.  We had quite a long association, and this was really wonderful.

BD:   This has been fascinating speaking with you.  I’ve learned a great deal about you, and I always get enthusiastic about playing the music of my guests.  I do what I can to get as much of it on the air as often as I can.

RN:   That is important, and I think it’s wonderful.  I hope this conversation will prove to be valuable to you.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on January 16, 1988.  Because of this meeting, some of his music (without interview) was used as part of the in-flight programming aboard Delta Airlines the following September/October.  A full program of music and interview was presented on WNIB in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website early in 2020.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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