Henri Lazarof (1932-2013), Who Dominated My Life for Six Years

Henri Lazarof believed in working very hard to develop the tools a composer needs. For example, he knew every instrument inside and out, and insisted that we all learn them at least as well. It was difficult to argue with such an approach. He lived what he taught.

Written By


Henri Lazarof

Henri Lazarof, photo courtesy Theodore Presser Company

Nobody but members of my family have ever held such a prominent place in my life for such a long period of time as Henri Lazarof. It was 1964, now 50 years ago, late in my second year at UCLA and my first year as a music major. I was studying harmony with a very ordinary professor, who shall remain nameless; it turned out he only lasted about another year at the university anyway. I had already met my future wife, Dolly, who was in Lazarof’s harmony class. She told me that I needed to change teachers, that something extraordinary was going on there, in spite of the fact that she occasionally came out of the class in tears. Her first semester class had begun with thirty students; it ended with eight. Lazarof was brutal, demanding total commitment, but they were really learning something.

When I talked to Lazarof about transferring into his class, he made a typically sarcastic comment to the effect that it was because I wanted to be with my girlfriend. He also informed me that I had better be at a very high level if I was to join the class in the second year. My first day in his class, he devoted the entire hour to testing me, mostly musicianship skills, in front of the rest of the class. At the end of the session, he told me I could stay. Good thing.

He absolutely drove us all to our individual limits. After harmony, I was with him for pretty much every other important course I took. After I graduated, he saw to it that I received a full fellowship to continue through to my doctorate, always completely under his mentorship.

During those six years, I saw him occasionally reduce grown men to tears. He certainly left a wake of students dropping his courses in favor of easier professors. To be one of the few still standing at the end was quite a source of personal satisfaction.
He believed in working very hard to develop the tools a composer needs. For example, he knew every instrument inside and out, and insisted that we all learn them at least as well. It was difficult to argue with such an approach. During my years of intensive work with him, he served as my main source of knowledge and inspiration, and as a role model. He lived what he taught.
For several years after my period of study, whenever I wrote something I would always think, “What would Lazarof say about this?” After some years, though, when my own individual style finally took over, I no longer wanted his approval, and we were less and less in contact, though always occasionally in touch. In 1982, Dolly and I hosted a surprise fiftieth birthday celebration for him, our co-conspirator being his colleague and our “other” mentor, Robert Tusler (who is still doing well at age 93!).
Unfortunately, Lazarof’s later years went from unhappy to tragic. He was never a collaborator. He never joined any of the usual composers’ organizations—in fact, he purposely avoided them. This did not exactly endear him to other composers. He increasingly went his own way, without much interaction with the rest of the composition world.

Then came something much more serious: Alzheimer’s. At a concert celebrating his 75th birthday, he didn’t even recognize me. At that time, I didn’t know of his affliction, and it obviously upset me. When I came to know the reason, I felt both better and worse. It was complicated. We were only occasionally in touch after that, and it was increasingly difficult.

Almost a year ago, someone close to him caught me after one of my lectures for the LA Philharmonic, telling me that Lazarof’s condition had deteriorated to a child-like existence. That such a spirit, such an intellect, could be thus reduced was devastating. I can only hope that his last year was peaceful. He was truly an amazing musician and teacher.


Henri Lazarof’s Musical Lineage and Legacy
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

John Field (1782-1837)

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and Alexander Dubuque (1812-1898)
(Glinka studied very briefly with Field; Dubuque studied extensively with Field)

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
(Balakirev studied informally with Glinka, but more with Dubuque)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Fernando Germani (1906-1998)

Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003)

Henri Lazarof (1932-2013)
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
Edward Applebaum, Stephen Beck, Don Davis, Brad Ellis, Burton Goldstein, David Evan Jones,
Daniel Kessner, David Lang, Ellsworth Milburn (1938-2007), Mark E. Wilson