When Sunny Gets Blue—Remembering Harold Shapero (1920-2013)

When Sunny Gets Blue—Remembering Harold Shapero (1920-2013)

It is hard for me not to see the departed Shapero as not only the bristling, often vulgar man I remember, but as the end of an era, the period on a sentence, the final clause in an important but also completed chapter—and yet I will try to not calcify him into a notion or a trend or an idea, because he deserves better.

Written By

Daniel Felsenfeld

Harold Shapero

Harold Shapero, photo from the Library of Congress collection, courtesy Peermusic Classical

“You kids,” Harold Shapero brayed in his trademark voice that sounded like a Boston Brahmin gone extra to seed, or Lenny Bernstein had he smoked even more cigarettes, “you don’t know your harmony. If Nadia Boulanger were alive, she’d be dead.” Or something like that. “When I was in school,” he would say (as eyes rolled near-audibly) “we had to know our harmony.” Harmony, harmony, harmony, apparently we kids—who were not an undistinguished, and were a by-no-means-harmony-ignorant crowd—seemed not to care. Oh sure, he would bristle, we knew our dodecaphony (not a serialist in the bunch), we knew how to work our notation programs (few actually did; this was two decades ago) but we did not know our—say it with me—harmony. Such was the acerbic nature of this graceful and elegant composer, an elder iteration of a young Turk from an era of some pretty astonishing young Turks, wizened but also wise, a composer of a slim but important catalogue, a composer whose career might not have been as expansive and all-important as his early promise showed (whose is?), but more than anything, to the very depths, to the marrow, a perceptive, sharp, elegant, witty, and profound composer. Like many who leave us, he leaves me with that complicated feeling that this was a difficult man and that I wish I’d known him better.

I had the chance to attend classes led by “Sunny” Shapero (or was it “Sonny”?) for a single, important semester in a graduate composition seminar at the New England Conservatory in the mid-1990s—he had been borrowed from nearby Brandeis University, and I was beyond thrilled. I had rolled into Boston the previous year to take my master’s degree, and through my hefty box of Bernsteiniana, Copland-obelia, and Stravinskyologia, Shapero’s name was one I knew well. As the composer of the award-winning Symphony for Classical Orchestra, a close friend of Igor Stravinsky, and, closest to my own vocal-music-loving heart, a dedicatee of one of the songs in Copland’s masterful Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, a piece that I wrote many a paper on and even played in public, to the anguish of the notion of pianism (though I suppose I held my own), the name and work of Harold Shapero were known and mythological to me. Much like Arthur Berger, my own teacher at the time (who also had his own Dickinson song—I was racking them up!), Shapero was a name I knew well as a kind of sideman to history, part of a world into which I was dying to be accepted, a world that had vanished before I even had a chance.

Like every reminiscence for the dead, this elegy stands for the living, the dead being gone and therefore disinterested, stranding the author as ill-equipped camera and lens looking at a faded snapshot of someone gone too soon—because everyone is gone too soon. And it is hard for this living composer not to see the departed Shapero as not only the bristling, often vulgar man I remember, but as the end of an era, the period on a sentence, the final clause in an important but also completed chapter—and yet I will try to not calcify him into a notion or a trend or an idea, because while I am still alive and he is gone, he deserves better. He was, while he walked among us, a vastly talented and flawed and wonderful person, in whose once-a-week presence I now understand how fortunate I was to be that important semester so long ago. I cannot believe I have come so far from that, so long has passed, that Shapero has written his last composition and my stories of him—which are legion, some unrepeatable in respectable company—are the last I will have.

Mr. Shapero did not leave us much—two dozen pieces, give or take. More curious (devastating?) was the sad fact (was it?) that he spent the years from 1960 to 1988 quietly not composing. In the words of one of my beloved teachers Malcolm Peyton, discussing that crucial moment when Stravinsky went twelve-tone, the “sky fell out.” And there is truth to this, too much truth. The sixties in sepia retrospect seem really great, but they had to have been also truly terrifying, and maybe Shapero, with his punchy neo-classic dissonances and capacious gifts with a graceful melody, lost his corner of the sky to what must have seemed an ugly and menacing threat coming down the block. It is easy to depersonalize this, or to see the trends of the Great Metanarrative of history as a clean, clear inevitability, but one wonders (if one was not actually there) how personally scary this must have been, to have the toe-hold Shapero had (Rome Prize, pals with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland) and to watch it all potentially sink into a kind of pit of obsolescence—to watch Xenakis, Carter, Boulez et al. ascend the “throne” and likely feel that their world was wrapping up quickly. My then-principal teacher Arthur Berger handled it one way—he went there, composing “with intervals” as he liked to call it, he who coined the word “octatonic” and who wrote some truly astonishingly beautiful works with similar thrust to Shapero, to Copland, to early Elliott Carter—while some, like Ned Rorem and Shapero’s much-vaunted ally Bernstein, simply soldiered on doing what they were doing. And then there was Shapero, who for reasons I was too terrified to ask him (and now wish I’d had more courage) just stopped.

A memory: Stravinsky’s amanuensis Robert Craft came to talk about, yes, Stravinsky, and who joined him in heckling our illustrious host that afternoon, a composer whose name I shall do him the courtesy of omitting. Yes, Sunny Shapero, along with the grumpy set of Arthur Berger, Leon Kirchner, and Craft himself, formed a kind of Statler-and-Waldorf mélange and grumbled their displeasure in a kind of 20th-century charivari. A memory: Shapero, walking along the hallway in the far building, stops to look in a classroom, then stops to contemplate a fire extinguisher for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time, then proceeds. A memory: when I confused a piece of Irving Fine for something Shapero himself had written, and I was vastly embarrassed—he found this hysterical, and complimentary. A memory: Arthur Berger, when in a lesson I told him that I was taking Shapero’s seminar, said that I would not be able to get away with anything because Shapero was that perceptive, something I hold he was both spot on and totally wrong about. A memory: Shapero had been down to Florida and had heard Symphony in Waves by Aaron Kernis, and came back positively raving. Only when he put on a recording of the slow movement, at a certain point, with the movement dragging he felt, he screamed “oh COME ON” at the stereo as the CD spun and spun…
That is not the end of the story. Shapero did return to his work, and when we met him he brimmed with enthusiasm about exactly two things: the trumpet concerto he was writing for Doc Severinson, and his newest love, Finale software. This was, to him, beyond astonishing (and mind you, this was the mid-1990s, when Sibelius was a fledgling software available only on a dedicated Acorn machine and affordable only to the likes of Michael Tilson Thomas). We kids knew this quite well, and many a long, painful seminar hour was passed in discussing these mechanics—at the time, I used only a pencil and a ruler, so this meant little to me. Fine, fair enough, he was entitled to be enthusiastic about a new toy, but one crushing moment happened, one I will never forget. Flush with the excitement of being able to play us his concerto before he submitted it to Mr. Severinson, he brought a CD recording of a MIDI reduction, beaming. And before he hit play, he overran “you kids are about to have your socks knocked off because this sounds like a real orchestra, a little tinny perhaps, but a real goddamn orchestra. You won’t be able to tell the difference.” Needless to say, what came out of those modest speakers on that snowy day in the Boston of my youth sounded nothing—nothing—like a real orchestra. It sounded like an angry video game calliope. I don’t know if furtive glances were actually exchanged, but I will probably never forget that feeling. It felt like rust.

This is also not the end of the story. I do not know what became of the concerto, but a few weeks later I was able to hear the world premiere in Jordan Hall of his woodwind quintet, a piece called Six for Five, and it was genuinely something, frothy, ebullient, spiky—all the watchword Shapero thumbprints were readily in evidence. He fumbled around in the middle of the hall, nervously hectoring his wife to be certain the recording device was working properly. But as usual, once one saw past his coarse exterior, one could tell that something lighted in him, that he was in his element. He smiled broadly as he bowed, left the stage, and though this was years ago, I only saw him one more time. It was in the hallway, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, you were one of the members of our ill-fated class. Did you ever learn your harmony?” I did, Mr. Shapero, thank you, I really did.


[Ed. Note: Though mostly remembered today for his 1947 Symphony for Classical Orchestra (which was recorded by both Leonard Bernstein and André Previn), Harold Shapero also composed several piano sonatas as well as a formidable sonata for piano four-hands, a significant sonata for trumpet and piano, several chamber works for strings, a wind quintet, a work for jazz ensemble that Gunther Schuller conducted, and a handful of vocal pieces. New World Records has issued two recordings devoted exclusively to Shapero’s music and has also included additional works by him on various instrumental collections. Below is a recording of the last movement of his String Quartet (featured on one of New World’s all-Shapero recordings), which was composed during his undergraduate years at Harvard and is dedicated to his teacher, Walter Piston. (The entire piece is available on CD from from Amazon and for download from iTunes. The score is available from Peermusic Classical. Hopefully more interpreters in the future will discover this extremely well-crafted and rewarding music.—FJO]