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Reflections of an American Composer

Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 277
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  • Book Info
    Reflections of an American Composer
    Book Description:

    In this engrossing collection of essays, distinguished composer, theorist, journalist, and educator Arthur Berger invites us into the vibrant and ever-changing American music scene that has been his home for most of the twentieth century. Witty, urbane, and always entertaining, Berger describes the music scene in New York and Boston since the 1930s, discussing the heady days when he was a member of a tight-knit circle of avant-garde young composers mentored by Aaron Copland as well as his participation in a group at Harvard University dedicated to Stravinsky. As Virgil Thomson's associate on theNew York Herald Tribuneand founding editor of the prestigiousPerspectives of New Music,Berger became one of the preeminent observers and critics of American music. His reflections on the role of music in contemporary life, his journalism career, and how changes in academia influence the composition and teaching of music offer a unique perspective informed by Berger's abundant intelligence and experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92821-3
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The decision to write conventional memoirs is something I have scarcely ever had to contend with. To make interesting reading out of one’s personal life requires the craft and skill of a fiction writer, which I am not sure I possess. Also I am not convinced that my origins, childhood, and amorous pursuits would be of sufficient interest to most readers even if they were to be conveyed through the most elegant writing. I do however believe that as an actual participant much of the time since about 1930 (more specifically, 1929, the year of the notorious Wall Street Crash)...


    • 1 Composers and Their Audience in the Thirties
      (pp. 9-20)

      When Arnold Schoenberg, having fled Nazi Germany, came to Boston in 1933 to teach at the short-lived Malkin Conservatory of Music, a story made the rounds to the effect that Richard Burgin, concertmaster and assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had had a conversation with the celebrated composer in which he proudly announced that some years earlier he had given the first Boston performance ofPierrot Lunaire.Schoenberg expressed surprise that so difficult and “advanced” a composition had been played in Boston. But there was not the slightest display of gratitude or pleasure; instead, Schoenberg looked perturbed. It seems...

    • 2 Nationalism
      (pp. 21-34)

      It was a happy coincidence that the cultivation of a music with American character should be a major concern of American composers in the decade of the WPA for since about the mid-twenties they had been advocating that it was time for American music to “come of age”—a catch-phrase that I recall encountering rather frequently when I came onto the scene around 1930. One of the first achievements necessary to reach that goal, some of us were pretty well convinced, was to establish an identity so that the music would be recognizable as American in the way that French...

    • 3 Is Music in Decline?
      (pp. 35-49)

      The prophets of doom who see every innovation in music as a decline or even a harbinger of the death of the art have a long history. Nicholas Slonimsky regaled us with numerous examples of their scurrilous attacks in his book A Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven’s Time.¹ In the past century there has been a particular orientation that may be traced back many decades to British critics like Ernest Newman, who established a tradition that has strongly colored the opinions of some of the most influential American critics. What characterizes this tradition is a...

    • 4 Rendezvous with Apollo: Form Is Feeling
      (pp. 50-68)

      What some of us who have been avid listeners of Stravinsky have always heard as being most significant in his works composed between approximately 1920 and 1955 are not his references to older music but rather the subtlety, ingenuity, and inventiveness of every aspect of composition. The subject is not the compiled Classical material, but what is done to it. (Specifics on this later.) I would not want to give the impression that I believe the Classical allusions vanish with this approach and are not apprehended as such—not only Classical, but Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and so on. In the...

    • 5 Reinventing the Past: Pastiche, Collage, or “Criticism”?
      (pp. 69-82)

      The seeds of simplification as a reaction against the growing density of Romantic and early modern music were beginning to sprout at the dawn of the twentieth century at about the same time that a new complexity was gathering momentum in the early music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Erik Satie’s achievement of a pared-down texture that gave him the undeserved reputation of being trivial dated back as far as the eighteen-eighties, the time during which he wrote the familiarGymnopédies. It was well in place when the two twentieth-century giants started out with what was regarded as their blasphemous modernism....

    • 6 Serialism: Composer as Theorist
      (pp. 83-92)

      When I paid a visit to Arnold Schoenberg in 1941 at his Hollywood abode I found I had to approach the house through an ornate massive iron gate behind which, next to a small pool, two huge St. Bernards were barking menacingly at me and Esther who accompanied me. We were fearful (at least I was) of the dogs, so instead of opening the gate and walking in, we rang the bell, and when there was no answer we drove to the nearest gas station and phoned. Schoenberg said that because of the wet weather the bell wasn’t working, but...

    • 7 Rapprochement or Friendly Takeover?
      (pp. 93-98)

      In the fifties the two leading camps in the world of contemporary composition, the followers of Schoenberg and those of Stravinsky, who had inhabited opposite sides of the barricades for well nigh half a century, finally made peace. The eventuality was sometimes referred to as a “rapprochement,” but for some composers, Stravinsky among them, it was actually more like a friendly takeover on the part of the serialists. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that for Stravinsky and the others it started as a rapprochement (for example, in a work likeAgon, completed 1957, in which twelve-tone canons...

    • 8 Postmodern Music
      (pp. 99-108)

      Musicologists, critics, and even the public are usually so eager to codify, categorize, and label that it is quite surprising the slogan “postmodern” has accumulated so little mileage among them.¹ The attraction of a label for any movement in the arts is the function it serves to encapsulate its reason for being. As Wallace Stevens observed in remarks quoted earlier, modern art “has a reason for everything. Even the lack of a reason becomes a reason.” Where postmodern music is concerned, just what was subsumed under the rubric was not altogether clear to many of us at first and may...


    • 9 Virgil Thomson and the Press
      (pp. 111-121)

      A short poem by T. S. Eliot with the title “The Boston Evening Transcript” starts as follows:

      The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript

      Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.¹

      TheBoston Evening Transcriptwas a grand and sedate old conservative paper addressed to the Boston brahmin but read by a somewhat wider audience, and it was for that paper that I reviewed music events while I was a graduate student at Harvard in the thirties to supplement the stipend from my fellowship. With its very small type, its simple, sober layout, and its minimal and...

    • 10 Music on My Beat
      (pp. 122-138)

      My career as a journalist had modest beginnings on two school papers, one at Townsend Harris High School (New York), the other at the College of the City of New York with which the high school was affiliated. I left CCNY after two years since it had no music program and music was the field I had decided to major in. I enrolled at New York University—the School of Education since it was the Depression and I wanted some assurance I would get a job, even if it were nothing more than one in a public high school for...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 11 PNM and the Ph.D.
      (pp. 139-149)

      In the mid-fifties while I was on the faculty of Brandeis University, Benjamin Boretz was a graduate student of mine in theory and composition, and I once told him about the little music periodical I had edited while I was a graduate student at Harvard,The Musical Mercury—a magazine of modest proportions which could still be found tucked away on the least frequented shelves of a few libraries, but otherwise was pretty much forgotten. I have always been under the impression that after I told him about my own experience Ben found the idea of a student editing a...

    • 12 A Tale of Two Critics: Rosenfeld and Haggin
      (pp. 150-158)

      I normally resist naming the “best” of anything in the arts where what matters most is not whether one work is better than another but the different qualities they purvey, so that someone who had a surfeit listening to Bach might find it refreshing to listen to a much less grand composer like Shostakovitch or Hindemith, or even one of the young composers starting out with all their faults at a composers’ collective. I am no more inclined to pick out the best in any other situation, but were I threatened with physical harm by someone if I refused to...


    • 13 Do We Hear What We Say We Hear?
      (pp. 161-172)

      Until not so long ago the cleavage between adherents of absolute music and program music could become at times as wide as the more recent one between adherents of tonality and the serialists. It would appear that one could take the program (i.e., the plot or story) of a given work and apply it just as easily to another. The hopelessness of seeking a one-to-one correspondence between the music and the story line has been demonstrated again and again. Donald Francis Tovey refers to “the human foolishness of apriorithinkers” and remarks: “The experience of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony shows...

    • 14 New Linguistic Modes and the New Theory
      (pp. 173-184)

      A faithful account of the musical thought that was current in the sixties must necessarily reflect the diverse ways in which some of us were searching, at times tentatively, clumsily, or inscrutably, for a new theoretical approach, motivated by a profound reaction against the woolly, otiose attempts at explanation and the inflexible definitions that had been allowed to achieve the sanctity of divine law through the sheer inertia of almost everyone concerned with music. What seemed to be taking place in a domain to which the designation “theory” or even “analytic theory” could be applied only provisionally, is curiously reminiscent...

    • 15 The Octatonic Scale
      (pp. 185-198)

      During the course of the last three centuries or so, with significant and well-known exceptions, the prevailing scales have been the major and minor. Indeed, a good case could be made for the contention that Western music of all genres (pop, folk, and serious) has been dominated by one scale, the major, and that minor has figured prominently only by virtue of its borrowing substantially from the major. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, “new” scales started to appear (often of ancient or Far Eastern origin) at first in an auxiliary role, that...


    • 16 Backstage at the Opera
      (pp. 201-208)

      Opera, as everyone knows, is a colossal undertaking with activity in its preparation on many levels. Reporters do well to keep alert for any wisp of scandal, which is as likely as anything else to be a case of the acting up of a diva or world-class tenor declaring her or his privileges. I seem to have accumulated some memorable experiences that have little or nothing to do with the music or anything else essential that goes on during performance. (Opera by virtue of its libretto and stage business can be involved with worldly events and come into conflict with...

    • 17 A Tale of Two Conductors: Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos
      (pp. 209-219)

      During Serge Koussevitzky’s lifetime I would find fault from time to time with the freedom he would take with the scores he conducted, but as I look back I think those transgressions were immaterial relative to his essential contribution and I find I appreciate him more. As a newspaper reviewer I was in a position to make my feelings known, and I became aware of his absolute intolerance of criticism of any kind. But as a composer I now am convinced that he was a big man, and it is difficult to find anyone of his stature and influence who...

    • 18 From My Diary: Brief Encounters
      (pp. 220-230)

      The harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe invited Esther and me to dinner with the Stravinskys (Vera and Igor). Many were the travails associated with the occasion. He had called earlier to ask what kind of wine there would be, and she told him there would be a very fine Chianti. “I will bring my own wine.” He carried his bottle of Burgundy (his favorite type of wine) with him when he was not at the table. Sylvia served a leg of lamb of superb quality and cooked to the proper shade of pink-red, but he pushed it away, “Je mange pas d’ail”...

  9. APPENDIX: From My Scrapbook
    (pp. 231-240)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 241-256)
  11. Index
    (pp. 257-270)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)