In Praise of Halsey

From Transcript, University of Southern California
In Praise of Halsey
The School of Music honors one of its favorite sons in his 80th year

January 9, 1989
By Tom Waldman

Halsey Stevens, professor emeritus of music, made most of the gifts for his own 80th birthday party.
Throughout the fall, the School of Music has honored its newest octogenarian by performing some of the pieces he has written since the 1930s. At the most recent concert, held just before Christmas, an enfeebled Stevens, his body wracked for 20 years by Parkinson’s disease, rose unsteadily on his wife Harriett’s arm to acknowledge the cheers of a Bovard Auditorium audience that had just listened to Daniel Lewis and the USC Symphony play the west coast premiere of a 1968 composition called “Threnos.”

Earlier in the semester the USC Wind Ensemble had performed Stevens’ “Te Deum,” “Songs from the Paiute,” and “Venite, exultemus at St. John’s Episcopal Church; the USC Chamber Singers included three Stevens’ songs in a Hancock Auditorium concert; the Contemporary Music Ensemble performed his “Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Piano, and Septet”; and pianist Armen Guzelimian accompanied baritone Charles Roe in a faculty recital of “Siete Canciones.” Additional concerts are being discussed for the spring.

Compositions, however, are but one leg of the triad that makes Halsey Stevens special.  The music world also praises him as a distinguished scholar and an outstanding teacher.

His 1953 book The Life and Music of Béla Bartók (Oxford University Press) is still considered the classic assessment of the 20th-century Hungarian composer. “It’s the best book on Bartók after all these years,” says Alan Rich, music critic of the Los Angeles Examiner, “because of its erudition, honesty, and love.”

Like his fellow American composer Ned Rorem, Stevens proves in the Bartók book that he is capable of elegant prose:
“Had he not come quite by chance into contact with Magyar peasant music, Bartók would probably have continued 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 once having discovered the existence of a deep layer of native ore beneath the pyrites of gypsy ornamentation, he set out in 1905 to mine it…”
 Stevens wrote the 366-page book after noting similarities between Bartók’s music and his own.  That a composer born in Scott, New York, would share many musical ideas with a Hungarian national fired Stevens’ sense of irony.  As preparation for the book, he learned Hungarian and delivered a memorable series of lectures following performances at USC of Bartók’s string quartets by the Hungarian Quartet.
In 1967 Halsey and Harriett visited Hungary, where they were feted by a musical community excited by any contact by its counterparts in the West and terribly proud that an American would write about one of its national treasures. “They rolled out the red carpet – but what other color could it have been?” joked Harriett.

Stevens’ music is what consumes his former students these days. Professor of composition and theory Morten Lauridsen has spent countless hours running what he calls “musical errands” on behalf of his former mentor. His latest project involves locating Stevens’ scores and performance tapes for a music publishing company.

In collecting Stevens’ works, Lauridsen came across “Threnos,” the piece performed by the USC Symphony in December. He brought it to the attention of Daniel Lewis, who included it in a program with the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99 by Dimitri Shostakovich and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony.

Stevens’ music makes a strong case that art is an extension of personality. The same man who by everyone’s account is a joy to know wrote pieces that Lauridsen says considered the listener’s and performer’s feelings first. Concertgoers did not walk out on performances of Halsey Stevens’ music muttering angry words about the arrogance of artists.

“He wrote solid, well-thought-out music,” says Robert Linn, chair of the department of theory and composition and another former Stevens student. “His reputation is on the basis of writing music that represents the classical style” – just the kind of familiar sound that would keep an audience around until the finish.

Lauridsen remembers Stevens taking the unusual step of consulting with a violinist during the writing of a piece for solo violin. “I’ve never heard anyone complain about playing a piece by Halsey,” he said.
At USC, any discussion of Stevens’ musical life inevitably starts with his professorial skills. Stevens is loved for his warmth. He was too much of a gentleman to ever play the role of the musical dictator who crushes egos as he harangues one sensitive performer after another. His classes may have been demanding, but his manner was inevitably kind.

A session with Stevens left a young composer in search of new ideas, not swearing revenge on the teacher.

Lauridsen, a vocal music composer who studied under Stevens in the late 1960s and early 1970s, recalls early frustrations trying to solve the agonizing problem of applying words to music. Stevens spent many hours helping his student see the relationship between the overall style of a piece to the text, and the manner in which each word is set.

What Lauridsen describes in a wider context as Stevens “wonderful reputation for patience and guidance” eventually turned frustration into hope. This former student has since been able to return the favor.
A few years ago Stevens, who has been physically unable to compose music since the late 1970s, asked Lauridsen to complete his “Seventh Piano Sonatina,” a task Lauridsen gladly undertook. “My solution was to carefully analyze what he had done, continue the form, and use as many of his notes as possible,” he says.

The result, performed at a recital by professor of keyboard studies James Bonn, baffled even expertly trained ears. “No one has been able to spot where he stops and I begin,” Lauridsen says. “It’s our private joke.”

Along with the individual attention, Stevens also cared deeply about getting composition students together in a formal setting to share musical ideas. He not only conducted forums for the students at USC, but also regional events with other universities. Students were encouraged to play their own works for their peers.

It is his kindness and consideration that has endeared Halsey Stevens to his former students, who are thanking him this year with an extended musical tribute. There can be no better way, they feel, to honor a composer than sharing his music with those he taught and loved.