Remembering Halsey Stevens

From Composer/USA, Winter 1989-90
Remembering Halsey Stevens
December 3, 1908 – January 20, 1989
By Morten Lauridsen

I first met Halsey Stevens in his second floor corner studio in Widney Hall on the USC campus in the Fall of 1963. Seated near his grand piano piled high with his own published compositions, Stevens greeted me warmly and inquired about my journey south from Oregon, the piano repertoire I had recently performed and my knowledge of contemporary scores.

Like many other aspiring composers, I had been drawn to Stevens by his reputation as an inspiring and effective teacher and by his respected international standing in musicology and composition. Over the next twenty-five years, I was privileged to become his friend and colleague and to assist him in the completion, orchestration, and editing of his final works. When Halsey Stevens succumbed in January to the effects of Parkinson’s, shortly after celebrating his eightieth birthday, contemporary music lost one of its most eloquent and significant voices and Los Angeles a beloved and reassuring presence.

Stevens first attracted notice in the early 1940′s when Pierre Monteux invited him to conduct his First Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony, a work highly praised by the eminent critic, Alfred Frankenstein. Joining the USC faculty in 1946, he soon established and became Chairman of the Department of Composition, holding that position until his retirement in 1976.
Halsey was an extremely prolific composer; more than one-hundred fifty of his compositions, for virtually all media save opera and electronic, were published and twenty recorded. Intensely self critical, he also withdrew dozens of his works during his career, marking each with a large “W” on the cover.

Much of his music is characterized by a lean, Yankee sound — melodically and harmonically direct and open, imbued with a strong rhythmic vitality, architecturally clear and cast overall within a carefully worked out tonal framework. He had a distinct lyric gift and delighted in weaving complex contrapuntal lines that seemed to flow effortlessly. Above all he valued the final profile of a work, what he called the “sense of inevitability, of having to be written in the shape eventually attained.” Long time friend, Wallace Berry, writes of Stevens’ “…trait of creative integrity and depth of conviction. …an unswerving accord with long established values affirmed by underlying intent in every note he has written. ”

He firmly believed in creating music that was idiomatic and gracious for the performer and communicated with, rather than alienated the listener. In his essay, “A Composer Looks At Himself”, Halsey wrote, “I hope…that the music I write, fashionable or unfashionable, simple or complex, is capable of giving pleasure to some few people. Any future reward is an added bonus.” Our rewards include his Symphonic Dances and Sinfonia Breve, the brilliant Clarinet Concerto, sonatas for all the principal orchestral instruments, The Ballad of William Sycamore and the Magnificat, over a hundred songs, dozens of chamber works, and, of course, Go, Lovely Rose.

As his own catalogue grew, Stevens noticed similarities in aspects of his compositional approach and that of Béla Bartók. He began intensive research into Bartók’s music, even learning Hungarian and retracing Bartók’s sojourns through Europe, resulting in the 1953 publication of The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. In elegant prose:
“Had he not come quite by chance into contact with
Magyar peasant music, Bartók would probably have contin-
ued in the neo-Hungarian tradition of Liszt and Erkel,
the one molding his ideas in Germanic style, the other
leaning toward the Italianate. But once having discovered
the existence of a deep layer of native ore beneath the
pyrites of Gipsy ornamentation, he set out in 1905 to mine it…”
Stevens’ book was the first major study of the composer and remains a standard work in musicology. He additionally contributed dozens of scholarly articles to music journals, lectured at over sixty universities, wrote program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Coleman Concert Series and was visiting composer at numerous institutions, including Yale. Two Guggenheim Fellowships and grants from the Fromm Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts were among his many honors.

His graduate classes in composition and the Music of Bartók were legendary for their depth and painstaking thoroughness and for his skill in patiently guiding his students through the mysteries and wonderment of the composing and analytical process.

Beyond Halsey’s immense musical achievements, the man himself was held in an esteem bordering on reverence by his colleagues. He generated a quiet integrity and warmth and a pervading, endearing gentleness. He loved growing things and knew the Latin names for most of them. He collected exotic bells on his world travels, savoring the unique sound each produced. His editorial eye was ever active, correcting misspellings or adding a neglected accent — restaurant menus were as vulnerable as students’ papers. He never raised his voice in the twenty-five years I knew him — he preferred to disarm with a well chosen bon mot or a delicious double entendre. He was a devoted husband and father.

In the significance and eloquence of his contributions to music of our time, Halsey Stevens had few peers. His legacy will continue to be felt as we who knew him go about our lives and our Art, deeply grateful for his magnificent and enduring contributions to both.
Dr. Morten Lauridsen
Professor and Chair (1990-2002) of Composition, Thornton School of Music,
University of Southern California;
Composer-in-Residence, Los Angeles Master Chorale, 1994-2001.