Program Notes

Program notes for Purcell Room series, March 14, 17, 19, 1983

Not unlike many composers of my acquaintance, I imagine, I began by writing songs and small piano pieces at an early age, but I received no instruction in composition until I reached the University, where I studied with William H. Berwald. As a pupil of Rheinberger and Faisst, he related to German composers of the generation of Richard Strauss; Elektra was the avant-garde to him; the names of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók were totally unknown, so far as concerns my own studies, and I was thus late in becoming acquainted with the music of my own generation. One result was that my stylistic commitments were comparably late in formulation; at a time when one might have expected some sort of “personality” to emerge, I was still dependent on rather conservative models.

Around 1945 I became somewhat concerned about the directions my music was taking, and took nearly two years off to effect a “reformation.” In the meantime I had had a few lessons from Ernest Bloch, who provided no ready-made solution of my problem, but did encourage me to seek further, in the hope of rescuing myself from the rather static devices that had usurped much of the structural function — such things as pedals, ostinatos, and canons, which are omnipresent in the First Symphony, the Quintet for flute, piano, and strings, and the Suite for clarinet and piano. Two of these, the Suite and the Symphony, I later revised extensively, but the Quintet was already in print and has remained unrevised.

The music I wrote in the next three or four years may be considered transitional, and much of it has been withdrawn. It shows the composer in the process of revitalizing both vocabulary and content, eliminating much that contributed to the stationary quality, and seeking elements of progression — of leading meaningfully from premise to premise. Eventually I found that I could partially solve my problem with recourse to a process of “theme transformation” not unlike that of Liszt and Bartók (though I did not know Bartók’s music until I had already discovered methods which are in many ways similar to his).

Since about 1950 I have pursued a course which seems to me consistent, which retains connections with the music of the past while at the same time it takes cognizance of the music of the present. The forms of this music are in the main clear-cut, almost classical (which is not necessarily to say neoclassical); reprises are seldom literal, but usually considerably varied. “Themes” constantly grow, chameleon-like in their transformations. Rhythm plays an important part in the developmental process, and very often obviates other kinds of motivic treatment. Tonally, there are clearly defined areas, though scales are of many varieties — modal, mixed modal, chromatic, arbitrary, including octotonic, and of course diatonic and pentatonic forms.

I have sought usually for instrumental parts which are idiomatic for the instruments specified, without becoming a slave to fingerings and embouchures.

Except for works with a text, I have written nothing of a programmatic nature; most of my titles are of the simplest kind: sonata, suite, studies, leaving the listener free to imagine his own program –which may be as fanciful as he likes.