The Singing Composer

June 27, 2010

I once heard a famous composer express the conviction that all composers are frustrated singers. No friend to such blanket claims in general, I nevertheless began to form an interesting list in my mind; so I ventured: “It might support your suggestion to recall how many recent composers have been excellently sympathetic pianists in performance with singers: you, Britten, Poulenc, Barber, Bernstein, Hoiby, Bolcom, Musto.” Those were, I believe, the names that I suggested. For some reason, the composer sneered and said, “I don’t see your point.”

Well, I — and he — could have gone further. Samuel Barber, the centenary of whose birth we observe this year and who wrote magnificent songs, was not only a notable accompanist but was able to sing his own songs beautifully:

Deer and antelope really can play together.

Even occasional readers of these virtual pages are aware that conventional reviews are not their métier. While we are not exactly living in a golden age of the reviewer’s art, I do not consider that the greatest lack that we labor under, nor do I feel it my vocation to fill that breach. What I reckon there is a market for is something for which I’m much better suited: that of the enthusiast — a relatively informed enthusiast, it is to be hoped, but a nonetheless energetic pointer-outer of good stuff.

In that vein, I want to point to two events last week that gave me various kinds of hope. First was a night at Zankel Hall in celebration of the 4Oth anniversary of the invaluable Oral History of American Music project at Yale. That phenomenon has been singled out here before, but now we had a deftly-concocted concert that combined the virtues of the recorded, spoken medium with the live means of a concert. When you have more-than-life-sized images of Leonard Bernstein being, yes, an enthusiast for Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations on a sofa beside their beaming composer, then immediately lights go up on a piano and pianist who deliver a vivid performance of the work … well, this is very valuable indeed. Most of the evening went that way, and there were many highlights. Those highlights are detailed in the review already given in the New York Times.

The Yale University School of Music, which is home to the OHAM and some of whose students, faculty, and alumni gave the concert, is the only conservatory in the Ivy League. Founded in 1894, it first provided one-year professional finishing for the men who had already concentrated on music in Yale College, and it certainly turned out a good many remarkable musicians who were oriented to both the liberal arts and to the creation or execution of music. The first name to come to mind in that connection was also the first subject of the OHAM, Charles Ives. But, as time went on and as even women were accepted into its courts, the school became a small and select conservatory and is now the only American one besides the Curtis Institute that doesn’t charge fees for instruction. Bard College, which has its own claims to distinction, has decided to make the idea of a liberal-arts grounding paired with musical professionalism its own. It is a courageous thing to found such a program in these times. Oberlin College and its Conservatory have cultivated that ground (as well as having pioneered coeducation) for more than a century and a half, their Conservatory being the oldest continuing one in the country. So starting something new along these lines is a brave thing.

The aims and the likelihood that the new Bard College Conservatory of Music will achieve them were, if we’re all lucky, exemplified by the performance of George Perle’s magnificent Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra by Melvin Chen. Dr. Chen, who also is Associate Director of the Conservatory, is a Ph.D. in chemistry (Harvard), holds two master’s degrees from Juilliard (in piano and in violin), having earlier received a Yale College degree in chemistry and physics. The work, from 1990, was conducted in a remarkably wide-awake fashion by the well-known President of Bard, whose own diversity of gifts and practice need no praise from me. But, lest other virtues of the concert by this already-remarkable orchestra be insufficiently emphasized, I point to another Times review.

In that same paper today, there is a feature article on a seemingly unrelated topic that nevertheless comes to mind here. It details the exploits of a journalist who disobeys prime statutes of the field, since he participates in and promotes, rather than objectively “covering,” the social life that surrounds the international world of fashion. Like this blog, he doesn’t claim any responsibility to expose all aspects of what he sees and hears: “I don’t lie,” he says. “I just try to find what was positive and only speak about that.” I know just what he means.

Passing on the Flame

January 7, 2010

Last night I went to the memorial for a recently-deceased colleague. There were several fine musical performances and touching personal talks about what the much-missed friend meant to various people. But an eminent composer stood up and talked movingly about the man in terms that laid before us facts about our friend that were universally applicable in our own lives.

He spoke of how people in music need to stay in touch with that initial enthusiasm that got us into this stuff to begin with. Enthusiasm, of course, isn’t everything. That very morning I had begun listening to the 11-hour PBS documentary Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, in which the unique maestro emphasizes how much sweat and toil went into the making of the composer-conductor-pianist he was. However renowned he was for charisma and energy, he commendably wanted the world to know how much grueling effort goes into the making of a Bernstein.

The composer speaking last night told of an interesting technique he has when his energy is flagging as he sits alone in a room with his pencil and music-manuscript paper: he says that, from time to time, he thinks of our departed friend and of how fresh his relationship with the art remained. And it brings him back to the place where he belongs.

In some sense, for those of us who are deeply committed to music as a way of life, this kind of rebooting is the same as returning to our true selves. It is melancholy that the loss of a fellow-traveler on the road was the occasion for this reminder, but if the crowd made up largely of musicians there took the point to heart, then — if for no other reason — our lamented colleague left us a valuable legacy.

Most, if not all, of us would do well to have such a signal to self that reminds us of why we do what we do and live the life we live.


A memorable part of Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures at Harvard, in which he gave a masterly elucidation of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, came when he recomposed the first movement as Mozart would have done had he been merely a master of musical materials and not a genius. Everything was perfectly thought-out, symmetrical — but without that spark of life that genius lends.

Ever since that revelation, I have now and then been struck by the same principle being displayed by a great variety of the best composers (whether or not to Mozart’s degree is another question) . To take an example that revealed itself to me a few days ago: Puccini’s “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly. It would be difficult to come up with a composer more distant from Mozart in many ways. But in the aspect of creativity that Bernstein was dealing with, they are blood-brothers. Here is a take-home assignment: look at or listen to “Un bel dì” and rethink it as perfectly well-behaved, very regular, tune. My efforts produced a perfectly charming tune for a popular song — which simply revealed why people are so enchanted with the much less predictable tune that Puccini came up with.

To take one example that occurs right off the bat: the mediocre composer (maybe me) might have ended the first phrase, “Un bel dì, vedremo” with “-mo” held for three beats and followed it by a perfectly balanced consequent phrase. But the conflicted Butterfly gets to sing something far more interesting. Just as she utters her “-mo,” the orchestra continues the melody immediately, to be joined by the unhappy geisha two beats later. There are so many intricate things going on here that reward close examination. But for now, I just want to register my delight at this general way of thinking, which I was led to years go by Bernstein’s infectious and intelligent love for Mozart’s great edifice in G Minor.

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