Composer  Daniel  Pinkham
A conversation with Bruce Duffie


Daniel Pinkham

(June 5, 1923 - December 18, 2006)

Daniel Pinkham has created his unique "sound" from varieties of energetic, propulsive rhythms, and brilliant polyphony, while preserving a sophisticated, appealing, and modern harmonic sensibility that thoroughly suits his often subtle religious subjects. Pinkham earned his B.A. and M.A. at Harvard University, where he studied composition, conducting, and theory with Tillman Merritt, Walter Piston, Archibald Davison, and Aaron Copland. At Tanglewood, he studied with Arthur Honegger and Samuel Barber, and he took private instruction from Nadia Boulanger. His instrumental training was with Putnam Aldrich and the legendary Wanda Landowska, who taught him harpsichord, and with the equally famous E. Power Biggs, from whom he mastered the organ. His early compositions of this period (before 1950) are all in a neo-Classical style.

He then became a faculty member at Simmons College and Boston University and was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. Pinkham is also the music director emeritus at Boston's historic King's Chapel, where he actively served for 42 years and, since 1959, has been on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. There he is both a lecturer and the chairman of the department for the performance of early music.

After 1950, Pinkham began to use serial techniques combined with strong, rhythmically driven polyphony. These works, many with religious subjects, combine twelve-tone melodies surrounded by tonality, as in the Wedding Cantata for chorus and orchestra (1956); the Christmas Cantata (1957); the Easter Cantata (1961); the Requiem (1963); the Stabat Mater (1964); St. Mark Passion (1965); Jonah for mezzo soprano, tenor, bass baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1967); The Song of Jephtha's Daughter for soprano and piano (1963); Eight Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins for baritone and viola (1964); the Letters From St. Paul for soprano or tenor and organ (1965); as well as the first two (1961, 1962) of his four symphonies and the Concertante for organ, celeste, and percussion (1963).

His later pieces explore considerably more complex harmonic constructions and progressions, although maintaining the tight overall structures of his previous works; working with Robert Ceely, he also began to include electronics in combination with acoustic instruments. These compositions include the Ascension Cantata for chorus, woodwinds, and percussion (1970); Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers for mezzo-soprano and tape (text by Emily Dickinson, 1972); Concerto for Organ (1970); and Lessons for harpsichord (1971).

Pinkham is a prolific composer who has also created concerti for piano, piccolo, violin, and trumpet; several theater works and chamber operas; many tape and electronic pieces; and scores for approximately 20 television documentaries. He has been awarded Fulbright and Ford Foundation fellowships and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received an honorary doctor of literature degree from Wesleyan University, as well as honorary doctor of music degrees from the New England Conservatory, Adrian College, Westminster Choir College, Ithaca College, and the Boston Conservatory.

-- From website 

At the beginning of April of 1987, I had the pleasure of making contact with Daniel Pinkham.  Our conversation, which was held on the telephone, was lively and enjoyable.  He expressed his ideas with enthusiasm, and was quite pleased with the questions I posed.

Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Here is that chat . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are both a composer and a teacher?

Daniel Pinkham:    Oh, yes!  I’m at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I’ve been almost thirty years there, and I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people that I’m not teaching composition.  My charge is Chairman of the Department of Early Music Performance.

BD:    Have you ever taught composition?

DP:    I did many, many, many years ago there, briefly, but then when Gunther Schuller came in and legitimized our enthusiasm for early music.  At that point we set up a department — primarily a graduate department, although we do have some undergraduate students, too.  We teach a variety of instruments and early music disciplines and theory.

BD:    Is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be innate within each young composer?

DP:    That’s a hard thing.  If somebody finds that he wants to compose and has some kind of musical training, I suppose it can be encouraged.  But I don’t really think that anybody without a sort of a calling is ever going to become a composer.  That’s something you just feel you’ve just got to do.

BD:    So the teaching is really just the nuts and bolts of technique?

DP:    I think so.  A lot of people who are not composers themselves have proved to be really extraordinarily valuable teachers.  My old teacher, Nadia Boulanger, for instance wrote a few little songs which did get published, but Lord knows she had great success with people like Aaron Copland and Walter Piston.

BD:    And yourself!  [Both laugh]  What did you get from her?

DP:    I was with Boulanger over several different periods.  She was here in 1941; that was when I first knew her.  I wasn’t studying composition with her, but I was singing in a little madrigal group.  We sang a lot of Monteverdi and Schutz and Bach, and a lot of Stravinsky and a lot of her then students’ work.  Later, when I did work with her, we continued to look at a lot of music, as well as showing our works to her.  Boulanger primarily made one aware of his own style.  She was more interested in opening new doors than closing old ones to you.  In my case, she never said, “Do this,” or “Don’t do that,” but often would speak about stylistic consistency.  “You’ve started a piece of thus, so it would be better, from a stylistic point of view, to continue in this vein and not in that vein.”  She began from day one trying to make the students independent of her.  She started the weaning process immediately, which is a very valuable thing to do.  A lot of teachers, once they find they’ve got a talented student, want to hold on forever and ever and ever!

BD:    Really?  I would think that a teacher’s best concern would be to send a student off on his own.

DP:    Yes, precisely, because ultimately that’s what the composer has to do.  I had worked with Boulanger after having worked with both Copland and Piston
primarily with Walter Pistonand inasmuch as they had both worked with Boulanger themselves as students, they pretty much adopted that same approach, which had originated with her.  So I was conditioned to expect something like that, which was good conditioning.

BD:    Do you now pass these same kinds of ideas along to your students?

DP:    I try to, but of course I haven’t been involved as a teacher of composition for probably fifteen or twenty years.  So that’s something I’ve sort of forgotten about.  I’m happy that I’m not working with composition students for the simple reason that if you solve other people’s problems constantly, then you sometimes are not quite so fresh to solve your own problem.  So I’m just as well pleased to be insulated from that.

BD:    How do you balance your time between composing your own music and teaching your students?

DP:    My own composition life is really my first concern.  I would say fifty to sixty per cent of the time is involved in that, and the Conservatory functions I can get done in two good solid, packed days, or sometimes three.  In addition to that, I’m also Music Director at King’s Chapel in Boston.  That’s the third part of the life, and I enjoy that very much.  We have a wonderful building.  King’s Chapel was the very first church in the United States to have a pipe organ, so we’ve had a very distinguished history.  The Handel and Haydn Society began its life here.  They had their first concert in 1815; Virgil Thompson was the organist there, and B.J. Lang, who was a wonderful man who has been quite forgotten now — he died in 1909 — was important in bringing to Boston for the first time things like The Blessed Damozel of Debussy and Parsifal in concert version.  He did the first performance in Boston of the Brahms First Piano Concerto.  We’ve had a lot of history in King’s Chapel from a musical point of view, and we have a wonderful organ by Charles Fisk, which was the first three-manual organ made in this country that’s been in since 1964, so it’s a very important musical life we have there.

BD:    It’s a rich musical heritage.

DP:    Indeed!

BD:    You mentioned that you were involved in singing Monteverdi and other early works, and also contemporary works.  Why does it seem that so many people who are interested in contemporary music are also interested in Renaissance and Baroque music, leaving a big, gaping hole in the Classic and Romantic literature?

DP:    That’s a phenomenon which is being perhaps smoothed over somewhat, these days.  There is a lot more interest in Mahler and Bruckner than I certainly had shown thirty or forty years ago.  Certainly the relationship between the Baroque and much contemporary music is clear
the concern with economy, concern with businesslike procedure, it is rhythmically clear with textures which were not inflated.  In the Romantic period there was so much that was literary, so many things that are hung on stories.  In the Baroque, look at the Brandenburg Concerti of Bach, and things like that which exist and don’t need to be explained in terms of birds and bees and rainbows.  I hate the phrase ‘absolute music’, but the music is all that’s necessary to make these pieces work.  Just picking out two composers at random like Hindemith and Stravinsky in the early parts of this century, their allegiance to the music of Bach is certainly very obvious.  Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, for instance, is sort of like the seventh Brandenburg Concerto, with much the same kind of instrumentation and rhythms, spare textures and alertness.

BD:    Would that make a good concert, a Brandenburg Concerto and the Dumbarton Oaks together on the same half of a program?

DP:    Oh it’s been done a lot and it works very well.  Even that celebrated Nonette of Copland requires three violins, three violas and three cellos.  All you have to do is add a double bass and a harpsichord and you’ve got Brandenburg No. 3.  So that’s not entirely by accident.  And there’s a lot of those Hindemith pieces that go chug-chug-chug, like Bach, and there you are!

BD:    Do you feel you are part of a musical lineage yourself?

DP:    Oh, absolutely.  That is something, again, that Boulanger made us very aware of.  Not only are we inheritors, but in the same way we’ve got responsibility of passing on a certain sense of musical standards and taste to the next generation.  It’s a happy kind of responsibility!

BD:    Where do you see music going these days?

DP:    Fortunately that’s not one of my concerns.  I happen to be happily eclectic, inasmuch as I’m always taking in new influences.  For a decade I was in a lot of experimentation with a kind of twelve-tone music
maybe even strict twelve-tone music, but a music which was always related to tonalitywhich managed to horrify, of course, all the card-carrying purists.  Basically I’m always interested in the harmonic structure as a kind of control, so you feel tension and relaxation, which of course in atonal music, you don’t.  Then another time, another decade, I did a lot with electronic music, again in a rather personal way.  I’ve stopped doing that now because I’ve found that it sort of binded out.  I’ve found that I had to learn a great deal about how music is listened to, and that was wonderfully instructive!  But I also found that the machinery, the synthesizers and what not, became so wonderful and so exciting that it was doing all the work for me.  When I found that with this wonderful new equipment shop girls could write symphonies on their lunch break, I said, “I’ll go back and push around the notes in the C Major triad.”  [Both laugh]

BD:    Does how music is listened to change from audience to audience, or culture to culture?

DP:    I think certainly it does!  This is one of the big concerns that we have, and my students have to learn it.  For instance, if you’re working with the discipline of so-called Early Music, you have to tell your students constantly that they are going to be playing for an audience that has heard Wozzeck, that’s heard The Rite of Spring, that has heard The Fantastic Symphony and the Beethoven Fifth.  We’re not able just to simply sing a Palestrina Motet and think that it’s going to be reacted to the same way that the people might have back in the sixteenth century.  It’s perhaps a truism, but a lot of people don’t even come to awareness of the fact that the listener is not necessarily more educated, but perhaps not shocked the way the audience would have been in 1911 for The Rite of Spring.

BD:    Does this change your performance, or does this change the expectation on the audience?

DP:    It’s hard to say.  I don’t think it should change the performance necessarily, except that I think you perhaps have to perform better!  [Both laugh]  We have the experience of having so many flawless LP records or tapes or CDs.  People make those recordings and edit them and patch them together so they get something which is note perfect.  Then, if you go to a concert hall to hear people making live music, you hear wrong notes and you’re appalled!

BD:    Do the records set up an impossible standard?

DP:    That’s right!  And then, after you go through that shock of being appalled by wrong notes, you come around a hundred and eighty degrees and say, “Ah, but this is really what the essence of music is!
  You’re having something created for the very first time ever right in front of you and to your pleasure or not, which is quite different from the aim that you have to have when you’re making a recording.  I find that there is something really quite splendid and quite precious about going to a concert in which there are no microphones.  You’re going to be able to hear the piece created once, only once, and then it’s gone forever.

BD:    If they’re playing a new piece of yours, is that at all frustrating to know that it is gone forever?

DP:    Well, maybe so; maybe not.  It can perhaps get improved by a faulty memory later.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear the music of Daniel Pinkham?

DP:    Oh, I don’t know.  I won’t say I’m not concerned with it very much, but I’m very pragmatic about this sort of thing.  I find that it’s going to be received very differently in very different communities and different age groups.  I’m just back from a big festival of my music in Oklahoma, the very small community in Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation.  I suppose there’s a certain kind of provincial mindset that I have, thinking, “I’ll go out there and hear some not very good performances.”  This was my initial reaction.  Well, I got out there and found a couple of things which had literally the best performances I’ve ever heard of them, particularly a wonderful performance for wind orchestra and electronic tape.  It was just absolutely magical!  Also a small choral group that did a Norma Farber set called Love Can Be Still was so beautifully prepared and so beautifully sung and so intelligently articulated as far as the diction is concerned, I couldn’t have wished for better!  So those are some of the treasures that one looks forward to when you find them.  I don’t always know in advance precisely what I’m going to hear from the audience.  Sometimes you find that you have a piece which you think is terribly accessible, and people think it’s perfectly repulsive because it’s so avant-garde.  But that doesn’t always say much about the pieces; it sometimes says things about the audience.

BD:    Do you have an audience in mind when you’re writing?

DP:    Well yes, and that audience is me.  When I know I’ll have to hear pieces again and again and again, I will write them in such a way as to continue to get some kind of small pleasure out of them.

BD:    From your point of view, what is the ultimate purpose of music?

DP:    Oh, my!  That sounds like something that an interviewer would ask.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know.  When you’re writing and composing and spending lots and lots of time, you can always say the thing that you’re really waiting for is the paycheck.  That’s perhaps flip, but it certainly has to be true that for the professional composer, that aspect of it can’t be overlooked.  It’s a little bit like the architect who builds the house.  You want to make sure that your structure won’t collapse and that your client is happy and that it’s going to serve his functions well.  That’s got to be thought of.  The layman looks, perhaps, too much at the composer as a romantic figure.  That, I suppose, has had its place, but you’ve got to be very pragmatic about these things and realize your craft and your technique.  You’ve got to at least make the piece work, and then if it gives pleasure and communicates something to somebody, fine.  But what it communicates to someone else will be not necessarily be the vision of the composer.  Walter Piston, my old teacher, had a wonderful trick when people came up to him and asked, “Mr. Piston, what’s that piece mean?”  He would invariably say, “What’s far more important is that you tell me what it means to you.”  Of course, they’d be enormously pleased that he had the interest in their reaction!  But it’s a way of deflecting; a kind of answer which may not have any relevance whatsoever in the situation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask about inspiration and technique.  Where is the balance between those two?

pinkham DP:    Inspiration is probably some place in the realm of experimentation.  There are a certain number of things that one does intuitively in front of the material which is on the printed page.  In other words, as a piece goes along and you get halfway through it, you should have enough know-how from your experience to know how to proceed.  The way you proceed from a given point may be quite different from somebody else.  I don’t know if you call it inspiration; it certainly could be called a mark of personal style.  But I think that technique is just knowing what your craft is and the general kinds of procedures to make things work.  If they work in a particularly happy way
or maybe a little bit bizarre waythen people tend to call that inspiration.  It may just simply mean that you made a mistake.

BD:    Do you ever write anything into your scores to purposely shock people or to be bizarre?

DP:    That’s not really the essence of my procedure.  A lot of friends and colleagues certainly have, but that’s not something that comes as a design for me to do.

BD:    You mentioned the business of commissions.  How do you decide which commissions you will accept and which commissions you will decline?

DP:    I have never had so many that it has been a big problem for me!  When people do come to me and say they want to have some new or such and such a piece, I sometimes listen to them and say, “Yes, now let me propose something a little bit different which will give me greater pleasure to work with.”  Most of the time that works out very well.  Stravinsky used to say that the greatest trick was to know exactly what you wanted to write and have somebody commission you to do it!  In a way that’s true.  I once had a commission proposed to me by a university in Illinois.  They had gotten a brand new pipe organ in their hall, and they also had a wonderful chorus and a big orchestra which was pretty good.  The town was the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, so I was to write a piece which would feature the organ, the chorus and the Americana of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and make the orchestra sound fine.  I realized immediately that this was quite an impossibility, so I said, “I think the best thing to do is to divide up this money,” which was not inconsiderable, “into three different commissions, and get three people to write pieces which would feature each of these aspects.”

BD:    You would have them turn it into a small festival!

DP:    Yes.  Anyway, they decided no, they didn’t want to do that; they would rather have me do it.  So finally I wrote an organ concerto, or a piece for organ and orchestra and tape, which is called The Seven Deadly Sins, which has nothing to do, as you can see, with either a centennial or Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else.  But it turned out to be a good piece!  [Both laugh]  I don’t always manage that kind of sleight of hand.

BD:    I would think that the people giving the commission would realize that if the composer is more enthusiastic about something, they’ll get a better piece.

DP:    I think that they should; they don’t always.  I often have had to tell people, “Look this kind of piece that you’re talking about simply doesn’t work in terms of my enthusiasms.”  When I was younger and hungry, I did write some pieces in which people gave me the text.  I did a piece, for instance, on poems of Emily Dickinson for a college here in Massachusetts where Dickinson had been a student at one time.  The poems were picked out by the Chairman of the Music Department on the basis of their relevance to education.  That’s not the way I find I can work very well.  It was a decent piece.  It wasn’t a scandal, but I would have been much happier to pick out some poems which I felt were more appropriate to sing, and would have sung better than these pieces, which were rather complicated as far as the images were concerned.  I think that particularly when you’re going to be singing, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got a text which is not so complicated that it won’t come through.

BD:    You don’t want to disown that piece, do you?

DP:    Oh, no, no, no!  Not at all, but it was something that I had to struggle with.  I really would have rather chosen some other text because the piece would have come out differently.

BD:    I assume that there are none of your older pieces that you are ashamed of or wish to disown?

DP:    No, not really.

BD:    That’s good.  Do you view them a little differently now, twenty, thirty years later?

DP:    Oh, very, very much so, particularly when I have to perform them, because I’m a different person now.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise them?

DP:    No.  They don’t change once they’re on a printed page; they come out to be exactly the same.  But I find I’m taking some of those earlier pieces, which I’ve looked at as sort of classical and aloof, and find now that I want to make them into warmer pieces in the performance.

BD:    Do you make them warmer, or do you write a new piece?

DP:    It’s the same way you take a Handel score or a Haydn score.  As performer, you can change the way you look at it without changing the notes.

BD:    It’s a matter of interpretation?

DP:    Yes, exactly.

BD:    Are there ever times when performers or interpreters find things in your music you didn’t even know were there?

DP:    Oh, yes, constantly.  Sure.

BD:    Is that a good feeling?

DP:    No, I’m mostly entertained!  For instance, the recording by the Louisville Orchestra of the Second Symphony, the program annotator identified two tone rows, and wrote something about it on the jacket.  [Laughs]  Well, I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t planned it that way, but it gave him pleasure to find those.  So maybe they’re there.  But I thought to myself, “How clever of me to have done something so erudite without realizing I was doing it!”  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the performances you hear of your works?

DP:    Some, yes; some, no.

BD:    Have you got a good batting average, I hope?

DP:    Yes, I think so.  I write for the performers.  This is maybe a very curious kind of statement, but I was asked in a radio interview some years ago if I felt unhappy or discouraged that I did not have many recordings of my pieces in the Schwann Catalog, considering my large output.  It never occurred to me to even react one way or the other, and I had to say, “But the difference in some way is that I have so many performances constantly, because I am interested in writing for performers.  Whereas a lot of my friends write music which is so enormously complex and so difficult, the best thing that they can do is to get a recording, take a lot of time and a lot of money on that recording, and then disseminate that recording which will be the performance.”  It’s different, you see.  I don’t think that from an aesthetic point of view it’s anything necessarily better or worse.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings of your works which are out there?

DP:    Yes, some very much so.  I’ve had a wonderful, marvelous, performance that Joan Lippincott did of Epiphanies.  Also the recordings that Carol Balm and Doriot Anthony Dwyer and Jim Christie did.  That’s another very good recording, and the recent Christmas Cantata that John Aller did on Northeastern is a good performance.  Actually, the old Signs of the Zodiac is a pretty good performance.  I don’t like the Symphony No. 2 very much.  That’s not something that I felt worked very well in the recording, but then, maybe I don’t have such enthusiasm about the piece as I did about others.

BD:    Would it surprise you, then, if someone came up to you and said that it was wonderful or it was the best thing they’d ever heard?

DP:    I would just say, “How kind of you.  Thank you.”

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about the particular joys and sorrows of working with voices.

pinkham DP:    It’s mostly joys.  I’ve always worked with singers all my life, and I find still that I’m more touched by a good vocal performance than I am by any possible instrumental performance.  I still find that a good song recital can work wonders on me
and choral performances toobut the solo voice primarily is the most touching.  It’s got to the done by really awfully good singers with good voices and wonderful diction, but I’ve been blessed by having very good colleagues with whom to work. 

BD:    You bring up the point of diction.  When your works are performed in Europe, do you want them translated?

DP:    My pieces don’t work in translation.  They are so particularly English language pieces and are so wedded to the gnosis of the English language that they can only be sung in English.  But the translation certainly should be supplied on the program.  That’s important.  The only exceptions would be, perhaps, some of the theater pieces, like some of the little operas, for instance, where the poetry is less important than the story line.  Right now I have a little opera for children.  Basically it’s how, once Noah and the ark sailed away, the people who were left behind built Mount Ararat so they could be safe.  It’s having performances in England, and there are so many little Americanisms that I said to the producer, “Make sure that this is translated into British English, so that these things will make very simple sense to the kids over there when they hear it.”  Some of the fish which are mentioned in the score are not fish that the British kids might know, so some of those things will have to be substituted.  In that case, it really doesn’t make any difference so long as the story line is complete; if you make some little translations or substitutions it is perhaps more to the point.  But certainly, in what you might call art songs, the very positioning of vowels on certain high notes certainly can’t be translated into another language and have them really work without a lot of unfortunate problems.

BD:    Tell me a little bit more about the operas.

DP:    I’ve done a battery of theater pieces, operas, really a whole chain of little short pieces, usually under an hour.  I have one called Garden Party, which is a very naughty piece about Adam and Eve and snake and Gabriel and other people in The Garden.  It is a comic opera.  Another work is called The Dreadful Dining Car, a piece which was commissioned by the University of North Dakota in Grand Fork, which was having its hundredth anniversary.  It’s based on a Mark Twain short story called Cannibalism in the Car, and it’s, again, a very funny piece.  The one about Noah is The Left-Behind Beasts, and then most recently there was something which they called a children’s opera — about a half-hour piece, maybe a little longer — called A Mask for the Unicorn.  This is a Revolutionary War story which took place in 1778.  It’s about a British ship which was dismasted in an April gale and goes into a small port at what is now Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard.  They demand the big flag pole, called the Liberty Pole.  Three little girls, knowing that they were going to take away their Liberty Pole, go and blow it up in the middle of the night rather than having it fall into the British hands.  As a result, the British don’t get their mast and the ship is captured, so the kids are the heroines.  All of this is based on history, in fact.  I really enjoy doing theater pieces; that’s great, great sport.

BD:    Are they designed for regular theaters, or for churches, or little assembly halls?

DP:    The little children’s pieces have been done primarily right in school situations with the small halls there.  I’ve seen actually four or five productions, and they’ve happened consistently in the auditorium of the school. They don’t require an enormous amount of scenery and whatnot.  They have had sets and, of course, full costumes and all that.

BD:    Have you ever thought about writing a full-blown opera for a big opera house?

DP:    I have.  I’ve been approached a couple of times, but I’ve also been practical enough to know that unless they can come up with not only a substantial amount of money for the commission but also a guarantee of mounting it, it’s not going to work.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve written a lot of these smallish pieces, because the cost of putting on and rehearsing a big orchestra, big chorus for a big opera is so enormous!  Even if you get everything together, it would be so terribly expensive.  Even at the Met they’ve sometimes complained that they’re under-rehearsed.  That’s why all these little pieces I’ve done have a so-called orchestra of maybe five or maximum six players, so you can get really good people, and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until you get everything the way you want to do it, without breaking the bank.

BD:    Is there a possibility that music can be over-rehearsed?

DP:    Yes, I think that’s a possibility.  Sometimes unwittingly, if you have a long, long run of a musical piece, there’s a certain kind of boredom which sets in on the part of the players.  Take Messiah, for instance.  If you go around Boston, you’d see by the twentieth of December some of the players who will have done five or six different performances find they’ve had it really quite enough.  It’s no longer a challenge to them; it’s rather perfunctory, and it takes something rather extraordinary to light the fire again for yet another one!  I suppose in some ways that’s responding to your question.

BD:    Yes, that is one way of looking at it.  On another matter, do you feel any different when you’re writing the sacred work as opposed to a secular work?

DP:    No, there’s no difference at all.  Choosing the text is the base that you start off with, and if I weren’t writing a sacred work, I probably would try some other kind of legend.  One of the reasons that I enjoy working with sacred texts — particularly those which have story lines — is that very frequently the story is already known to the listener.  So they’re concerned more with your treatment of it, rather than just finding out how the story is going to come out.  It’s the same, let’s say, with operas on the Orpheus legend; you don’t go just to hear how it’s going to come out.  You go simply to hear how the composer’s going to treat the material.  Or the same way that if somebody’s writing a mass, you don’t go there just to find out what the words are about because you, as an educated listener, are presumed to know what these are.  So you listen to the way in which the composer is working with the text and the musical material.

BD:    Is composing fun?

DP:    Well, I think it is!  It’s also extraordinarily difficult work.  I find it enormously fatiguing, at least when I’m starting off a piece.  It has to be that you set up things
the ground rules and the material.  That’s the difficult part.  Then after a while it really has to sort of finish itself.  So in a way, yes, it’s fun, but of course it’s work.  It’s like an architect designing the house.  I suppose it’s fun, but it’s also part of his métier, his work.

BD:    How do you know when the piece is finished?

DP:    When I write ‘finished’ at the end of it.  [Both laugh]  No, there’s never a question.  From a structural and harmonic point of view, you certainly know.  There may be refinements of things like editing marks, substituting tenuto for staccato, or longs and shorts and things like that which are primarily cosmetic.  For instance, I have three marches
Three Inaugural Marches they’re called, because they were, in fact, written for inaugurations of presidents of colleges.  I found that the young tuba player was not able to comfortably play a high tuba part I’d written in one of these marches.  So, after reflecting on it for a while, I thought to myself, “Considering the fact that these pieces are basically quite simple, quite accessible, perhaps it would be better just to re-score those five measures and put a trombone in there which can do it very easily.”  I just made that tiny bit of adjustment so that we would be able to have more performances which would be done elegantly and easily without having to be compromised by having a tuba player who has to struggle unnecessarily with that.  So, was the piece done?  Yes, the piece was done, but this is a question simply of a little substitution for reasons of practicality.

BD:    You would rather have the tuba player do it if he can, but if he can’t, make that change?

DP:    I would rather make the change myself.  I would rather design the tuba player’s part the way I know it’s going to work and it pleased me, instead of having him butcher it and/or make up his own variant.  I would rather make the variant myself.

BD:    I’m king of looking down the road now...  A music historian finds this and says, “We have this new version and then we have the urtext.”  Which do you want performed?

DP:    I always want the later version to be used.  In fact, whenever I’ve set out a piece before it’s published — once it’s published, then you don’t tangle with it — but before it’s actually printed and engraved, I would put dates on all these things.  So if I’ve made any little changes, then people coming along later will automatically be instructed to take the latest date, because usually the later dates come not so much from an inner conviction, but because I’ve learned something from a performance!  Some performer along the way might do a slightly different dynamic or tempo, and it will seem to be perhaps better or make the piece work better with that variant.  So immediately that will be reflected in the score.

BD:    Is this more than just practicality?

DP:    I’m not sure.  It’s like Betty Crocker.  You have all those recipes which are so-called ‘kitchen tested’, and if my pieces can have that extra benefit of a good performance, then that’s something which I want to incorporate into the score.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

DP:    Oh, I don’t know.  I’m not going to be around that long.  I’m just really concerned with what I’m doing these days.  Some people certainly seem to be concerned about where we’re going, but I just sort of do it day to day.

BD:    Do you expect your music to last?

DP:    Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.  I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  I think a few pieces will have a certain predictable future at least until the end of this century.  But beyond that, I don’t know.  We’ve seen so many substantially good composers quite forgotten.  You might mention Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance.  It took seventy-five years after his death before anything was really done about looking at any of the big pieces.

BD:    It was Mendelssohn that brought him back, wasn’t it?

DP:    That’s right!  Sure.

BD:    What do you have to say to the Mendelssohn a hundred years from now who’s bringing back the literature of Daniel Pinkham?

DP:    I don’t expect I’m going to be around to see that.  I just hope he makes some money off it.  [Both laugh]

BD:    What is next on your calendar?

DP:    I’ve got two pieces that are signed up.  One is a small commission from the National Endowment.  There are three boy choirs that made a consortium
The American Boychoir, which used to be called the Columbus Boychoir, which is now in Princeton, New Jersey; Glen Ellen, which is out in your part of the world; and the Phoenix Boychoir.  They got together and asked three composers to write piecesMilton Babbitt, Ned Rorem, and myself.  Those pieces are not to be delivered for maybe nine months or so.  I haven’t found text yet.  It’s just for boychoir with piano.  I’m sort of hoping that I can do some kind of little theater piece because that’s something I think I can do well and comfortably.  And then I have a piece which will be done in October, for which I’ve not yet found the text, but we know it’s going to be for a very fine soprano called Daisy Newman, with small chorus and brass quintet and harp.  That’s a combination I’ve wanted to work with for a long time.

BD:    You haven’t found the text.  You have no qualms about making deadline?

DP:    Oh, no.  This will be a fifteen minute piece, so that’s not terribly long.  And once I’ve found the text, the piece is mostly written.

BD:    I want to be sure and ask you about the piece you wrote to test the acoustics of Philharmonic hall.

DP:    [Laughs]  All right.  First of all, I want to make a disclaimer.  It’s not true, no matter what people may say, that it was my piece that ruined the acoustics of the hall.  [Both laugh]  On the contrary!  This piece, which was commissioned by Bolt, Beranek and Newman, the original acoustical architects for the hall, literally tests the acoustics.  The title is, as you know, Catacoustical Measures
Catacoustics, according to my Webster’s Dictionary, is the study of reverberations and echoes and measures.  One of their then senior acousticians, Ted Schultz, who himself is a good musician, produced five or six chords, which basically were designed to excite the hall, in either high, low nor middle registers.  These chords were to be sounded for four seconds to get it really red hot, followed by four seconds of silence, in which you could test the decay, or the survival of the sound.  The idea was that you could hire — as they did — the New York Philharmonic to play these chords, but you also want to make sure that the paying audience — after all, that’s the final arbiter — would be available to act as guinea pigs.  We didn’t want to tell them that they were acting as guinea pigs, so it was done in such a way that this could be thought of as a concert piece.  In fact, Leonard Bernstein did the premiere for the audience in the first week of concerts, and they weren’t told that they were there to help measure the acoustics of the building.  I must say, I thought that hall had some really wonderful things, but unfortunately there was too much hype about how glorious it was going to be, and before the Bolt, Beranek and Newman people could get around to do what they knew had to be done, they got fired.  So, that was that.

BD:    So they would have made the changes that have been made since?

DP:    I think so.  But that piece is still used a lot by acoustitians to test new halls, to find out about how the hall responds.

BD:    I think it would be good to play it again now that they’ve re-done the hall two or three times.

DP:    [Laughs]  Right. Yes, exactly!  Oh well, that’s another story, I think.

BD:    I want to thank you for being a composer, and for spending this time with me today.

DP:    Well, Bruce, it was good to talk with you, and thank you for being so attentive!


Daniel Pinkham, 83, Composer and Organist, Dies

Published: December 21, 2006 in The New York Times

Daniel Pinkham, a prolific composer, organist and fixture on the Boston classical music scene who taught at the New England Conservatory for nearly a half-century, died Monday at the home of friends in Natick, Mass., the conservatory said. He was 83 and lived in Cambridge, Mass. The cause was chronic lymphocytic leukemia, said his partner, Andrew Paul Holman.

The breadth of Mr. Pinkham’s music-making was striking. As a harpsichordist, he was active in the beginnings of the early-music scene in Boston in the 1950s and ’60s. He was in charge of music at King’s Chapel in Boston, which in 1713 became one of the first American churches with a pipe organ. He performed as an organist and harpsichordist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was also a conductor.

But above all he wrote countless pieces of music, including symphonies, stage works, a large body of choral works and songs, and some 50 chamber pieces.

“He was one of the very few organ composers who were also mainstream composers, writing for just about any idiom possible, in the tradition of J. S. Bach,” said Barbara Owen, an organ historian and librarian at the American Guild of Organists. “He never forgot his fellow organists toiling away in small churches, and wrote a lot of lovely pieces that were accessible and likable and have been played by organists all over the country.” That accessibility was common to much of his music.

Mr. Pinkham is also survived by a brother, Christopher Pinkham, of Brookfield, N.H., Mr. Holman said.

Mr. Pinkham was born in Lynn, Mass. His great-grandmother was Lydia E. Pinkham, who gained fame for her Vegetable Compound patent medicine, a solution of herbs, roots and 18 percent alcohol aimed at curing “female complaints.” Mr. Pinkham often told the story of Mae West, who after drinking her first bottle said, “I feel like a new man.”

He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. It was there that he heard the Trapp Family Singers, and was deeply affected. “Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity, thin textures,” he said in a 1981 interview with The Boston Globe. “It shaped my whole outlook.” He attended Harvard College and studied with Walter Piston and Aaron Copland. Other teachers included Wanda Landowska, the harpsichordist, and E. Power Biggs, the organist. He also studied composition with Nadia Boulanger.

In 1958 he became music director at King’s Chapel, and a year later he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory, where he taught composition, music history and harmony.

Much of his church music was written for King’s Chapel, and he often wrote the texts himself. The church’s minister, the Rev. Earl Holt, pointed out on Mr. Pinkham’s death that one of his lines, from “Uncommon Prayers,” read, “And, at our journey’s end, grant, O God, a gentle landing.”

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on April 4, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and again in 1996.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

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.