Samuel Adler: Knowing What You’re Doing
At 87, Samuel Adler remains steadfast in his determination to preserve and build upon the Western classical tradition–as the composer of six symphonies, five operas, a dozen concertos, tons of sonatas, and ten string quartets (eight of which he still acknowledges), as well as a teacher for 63 years and the author of definitive tomes on orchestration, choral conducting, and sight singing.
March 12, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is more steeped in the tradition of Western classical music composition than Samuel Adler. The author of six symphonies, five operas, a dozen concertos, and ten string quartets (eight of which he still acknowledges), plus a ton of sonatas and choral pieces, Adler—now 87—remains steadfast in his determination to preserve and build upon this tradition.
“I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe … we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition,” exclaimed Adler when we spoke to him at the German Consulate to the United States before he began sifting through scores submitted by composers hoping to study with him in Berlin this summer.
Adler proudly asserted that he has now taught for 63 years, “first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard.” Teacher-student relationships have been among the most important interactions of his life. His own teachers are practically a who’s who of 20th-century American music—Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Serge Koussevitsky. Throughout our conversation, he brought up people he has taught as well, including Barbara Harbach—for whom he composed a formidable solo harpsichord sonata—and Kevin Puts, the premiere of whose new opera, The Manchurian Candidate, Adler travelled especially to Minneapolis to attend the day before we spoke.
I’m very inspired by my students … I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. … I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas.
Beyond his own students, Adler has had a significant impact on countless others as a result of his writing definitive tomes on orchestration, choral conducting, and sight singing. Imparting these basic musicianship skills has been as central to his life’s work as his composing. He firmly believes that composers who eschew craft do so at their peril. But don’t assume that Adler believes the path to writing a successful piece of music is about merely following his rules or anyone else’s. Adler insists a composer also has to take risks, which is why in the 1960s and ’70s he dabbled in serialism, indeterminacy, and even electronics, though never in an austere or overly rigid way.
“I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own,” he explains. “I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give.”
Sometimes in order to do that, you actually have to break the rules.
“That’s how you compose—you cheat!”
Samuel Adler: This makes it international. We’re not on American soil.
FJO: Technically we’re not. And this is very interesting because even though you’ve spent the majority of your life in the United States and created your music here, you actually were not born on American soil.
SA: That’s true. I was born in Germany in Mannheim, in a house where Mozart lived. There was a plaque on the hospital where I was born, and it said, “Here was the Weber House.” He married Constanze Weber, who was a Mannheim girl, related to Carl Maria von Weber. My mother took a picture of the plaque and said to my father that there is no chance that our boy won’t be a composer. It was predestined by birth. So that’s my claim to fame.
FJO: But it was a little more complicated than that. As far as I know, you didn’t start writing music until you came to this country.
SA: Well, I was writing music so my sister could sing the songs, and if she didn’t sing them well I’d beat her up. That’s a very bad thing. But no, seriously, my father discouraged me from writing music before I had a background in theory and counterpoint. So after we came to this country, at eleven, he sent me to Boston every week to Herbert Fromm who was a student of Hindemith’s, and we did very strict harmony and counterpoint and sight singing and ear training, until I went to college.
FJO: It’s interesting that your father discouraged you from writing music, since he was a composer himself.
SA: That’s right. But he said you shouldn’t just write anything that comes to mind. You should know what you’re doing. The more I’ve taught, the more I think he was right because there are too many people, especially today, who sit in their basements with their computers and think they’re composing. I just feel that that’s leading people astray. Some people are lucky and are very talented with the computer and can do it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there is too much of that.
FJO: So what are the things that a composer should be doing?
SA: In the first place, a composer should play an instrument. I think that’s very important, no matter what it is, to have some tactical input into music. It doesn’t have to be a piano. It doesn’t have to be the violin. It can be the marimba. It can be the accordion. Then I think if a person is really interested in creating something, he or she should first steep themselves in music of previous times. I’m not just talking about yesterday’s music. Not only tradition. For instance, if you’re interested in folk music, you can start with that. But you must not come to the study of composition without any preparation.
If you’re really interested, you should have a year of preliminary exercises—in harmony, counterpoint, perhaps melody writing, which most people can’t do anymore. I feel that way every time I speak to high school students. Let’s say I want to get going in physics. I’m going to go to the best school, either MIT or Harvard. No other schools. I go to the head of the physics department, I say, “Sir, I want to major in physics.” “Have you had trigonometry?” “No. But I love physics.” “Well, can you add and subtract? “No, but I love when Einstein goes to the board and puts all those figures on it. That turns me on.” That’s how too many people go to music school—not knowing the fundamentals! For instance, everybody hates sight-singing classes, especially singers, and that’s one of the most important things. I have taught now for 63 years, first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard. I know that singers get jobs if they can read. But nobody seems to be able to convince people going through their first year in music school that that is the most important thing, or that you really also need to know what a cadence is.
I get around this country, and I know what’s going on. We have thousands upon thousands of music students. In many places you are admitted if you love music. That’s a problem. Sometimes I resented my father, of course, but he was right. I feel much better that I had a background in something, that I could hear something. I feel that’s an important thing.
FJO: Your father was a composer, primarily of liturgical music, and he was a cantor. I’m curious about the music you were exposed to during your childhood.
SA: I was a violinist, and my father was an excellent pianist. We played every sonata from Bach to Bartók that we could get our hands on. That’s the music I heard. I played it. I had wonderful friends in high school. We had a double string quartet. Not an octet, but a double string quartet. I never played the Mendelssohn Octet, I’m sorry to say, until in college. But we played twice a week, three hours of quartet music. So I really got the message. I can’t thank my parents enough for the encouragement to do these things and the help that they gave me to do them.
FJO: And when you say Bach to Bartók, that’s when Bartok was new music.
SA: Listen, I went to the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. I want to tell you a very funny story about it. Koussevitsky did it in Boston in 1944. My father took me to the Friday afternoon concert. Being a young, aspiring composer, I went back stage to get his autograph. Well, he was very sick at that time; he was sitting bent over and was hardly able to say or do anything. Koussevitsky came in all energized, sweating all over. It was difficult for him because of all the changes of meter. That wasn’t his thing. But he did it, and he did it with great confidence. He came in and said to all the reporters gathered, “Boys, there sits the greatest composer in the world.” Bartók looked up to him and said, “Serge, didn’t you say last week it was Prokofiev?” Well, last week it was Prokofiev because he did the first performance of the fifth Prokofiev [symphony]. So, that was the greatest composer in the world. That was a great period in Boston. When I went to school in Boston, every week there was a premiere, and mostly by American composers: [Walter] Piston, [Roger] Sessions, [Randall] Thompson, [Aaron] Copland. Those people.
FJO: And you studied with almost all of them.
FJO: And you also studied conducting with Koussevitsky.
SA: And composition with Hindemith.
FJO: But you’re more comfortable with changing meters.
SA: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I’m always accused of doing that too much. In September, we’re going to record my Sixth Symphony, and in the last movement I don’t think there are two measures alike. I’m not so worried about it because I think it gives a focus to the accent that’s better than just putting an accent. But a lot of people disagree, especially conductors.
FJO: Will you be conducting?
FJO: So someone’s going to have to deal with it.
SA: José Serebrier’s conducting. And he is a composer himself. He knows what it’s about.
FJO: Good. Now, I had some thoughts about your studies with Hindemith. You were just mentioning that your first instrument was the violin.
SA: And viola.
FJO: Yes. I remember reading in the program notes you wrote for Randolph Kelly’s recording of your Viola Concerto on Albany that the viola was your first instrument.
SA: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. Today we’ve got a glut of violists. But in those days, there were none. The first violist in our high school orchestra, which was the size of the Boston Symphony, left. He graduated. So on Friday, the conductor said, “Sam, here’s a viola. Monday you play viola.” I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that clef. In desperation, I called a friend of mine, and he said, “Listen, just don’t even worry about the clef. Play third position as first position and you got it.” And it’s true. I never learned the clef.
FJO: You certainly know it now.
SA: Of course. I’m joking. But in those days, I didn’t need to. I just did that.
FJO: Well, what’s interesting about playing viola—and I think that’s what gives Hindemith’s some of its gravitas and particularly its really strong internal logic, and I would dare the same is true about your music as well—is that since you both played the viola, you were both more attuned to the middle register and had a better vantage point into the orchestra overall.
SA: Mendelssohn said it’s the soul of the string quartet. Because it is. You can hear all the other voices. A friend of mine who is a great colleague and an excellent composer, Gunther Schuller, really learned how to orchestrate because he sat in the orchestra and, when he wasn’t playing [French horn], he looked at the score. And he heard all those things. The greatest experience for a composer is to play in an orchestra or sing in a choir. As a matter of fact, you should do both. Because one will teach you that it’s not so easy to find the pitches that you think they should have. I wonder if Webern could have sung his cantatas in a choir. They’re terrific pieces, but they’re difficult because it’s not what you can see or hear.
FJO: An area we didn’t talk about yet, which seems appropriate for a conversation we’re having in the German consulate, is the difference between European and American musical culture, which is definitely something you could speak to because you travel back and forth so much and even teach a summer composition course in Germany.
SA: In Berlin. And I just had a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, which was very nice. It was in a program called “Violins of Hope.” It was a commemoration of the freeing of Auschwitz. They did a fantastic program and included my Elegy.
Of course, the first difference is that in most countries like Germany, the state helps. You don’t need philanthropy all over the place to get enough money for the orchestra or the opera to function. Now, that’s good and bad. I think we have a culture of giving in this country which is rather wonderful. And many people are committed to classical music, to opera, to pop, to jazz, whatever.
Another thing to consider is the patronage of the composer in Europe versus America. In America I must say, speaking from personal experience and from the experience of let’s say 90 percent of my colleagues, the universities are our patron. And it’s a very good patron considering that, once you have tenure, they can’t throw you out because they don’t like your music. While Mr. Esterhazy could throw away Haydn’s music because he thought that Haydn shouldn’t play this. So, I mean, we don’t have that flip kind of thing.
There is also one other thing in particular. I think we in America have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to our own music. Sure, our pop music pervades the world. There’s nothing like it. But we also have classical music—which is a terrible term. We also have concert music. We have hundreds of orchestras in this country. And what do they do? Most of them completely neglect our tremendous heritage. For instance, I think if you can count them up, more symphonies were written by American composers in the 19th and 20th centuries than in Europe or any other place. I’ve been to China four times. They really love our music. I’ve conducted Piston, Harris, Copland—they love that music. We don’t. At least we don’t show that we love it. And I think this is a very big shame. Can you imagine in Germany them not playing Beethoven? Or not playing Brahms? Even the 20th century composers—Hindemith is a rock star even today. Less so than he was in the 1950s, because he went back himself to conduct, but they still do the music. [Karl Amadeus] Hartmann, who’s a wonderful composer, is done by the major orchestras. I feel that’s one big difference.
We also have another inferiority complex when it comes to audiences. Look, I’m now 87. I’m old, yes, but I still can get around. I even got here this morning. And the thing about graying audiences, well, I have two daughters. They have families. They can’t afford it. Every once in a while they go, but the prices are high, babysitters, and so on. The graying audience is there to stay. It’s wonderful. I’m glad they’re coming. What’s really bad and that is what Europe also doesn’t have is a wonderful educational system in music, which we had. When I went to school, America had the very best music education in the world. We had orchestras and we played all the Brahms symphonies in high school. We played all the Beethoven symphonies except the Ninth. Now that’s really something. Plus, our conductor encouraged me to write a piece for the orchestra every semester. They don’t exist anymore, but I got that experience.
I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at 15 I was playing in the Worcester Philharmonic, which was a town-gown kind of orchestra. I wrote a piece during the war called Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier. We actually performed the piece. The New York Times even ran a review. A very excellent publisher in those days, Mills Music, called me the next day. I should come to New York. So I came to New York. A cigar-chewing man, Max Stark, was the head of the company here, and he had Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson, Roy Harris, and Zez Confrey—you know, the guy who wrote “Kitten on the Keys.” They were all there to convince me to go with the company. They took me out to lunch. When we came back, he said, “Sam, we’re going to publish everything that you write from now on, including the Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier.” I don’t know how I got home! But, of course, I couldn’t sign the contract. My father had to sign. And when I got home, my father said, “I’m not going to sign this contract.” “It’s making my future; this is my future.” He said, “Look, the pieces you write now in five years, you’re going to be sorry to see again.” As my grandsons say, I was bummed. Of course, I’m always reminded of that because they did publish one piano piece called Arabesque, which is the worst piano piece ever. I’m not kidding. And I can see it, and I know how right my father was.
FJO: So there’s no score of Epitaph.
SA: No, and no score of my first two string quartets, nor the first violin sonata, nor the first cello sonata. Look, one has to be judicious. Now Brahms I think was too judicious because I think he was a much better composer at that time. I’m glad Mendelssohn didn’t throw away all those pieces he wrote when he was 12, 13, 14, because those are masterpieces. I was not a masterpiece writer in those days. It was, you know, music. But bad.
FJO: But you said you got a good review in The New York Times.
SA: Oh, and how. And the Third String Quartet, which is now my first, really convinced me not to have the other two because The New York Times said this is a new voice in our musical horizon. Well, that’s nice.
FJO: If that convinced you to eliminate the other two, why did you keep calling it String Quartet No. 3?
SA: Because it was published already.
FJO: But the other two weren’t.
SA: The other two were manuscripts, so I could easily throw them away.
FJO: But if you call something number three, everybody wants to know what happened to one and two.
SA: Well, that’s for the musicologists. You know it’s wonderful for them.
FJO: So there are no manuscripts hiding out somewhere.
SA: No, because I’m old enough to have experiences with fallen colleagues’ wives. You know, colleagues who have died, and their wives find a piece and say, “This is a masterpiece my husband wrote.” Always, it never fails. If he was a friend of mine, they call me and say, “Sam, this must be published.” What are you going to say? She was in love with the man. That’s great. But the piece shouldn’t be published, you know. So I make sure that it doesn’t exist.
FJO: Now hang on. You say these pieces shouldn’t be published, but you also said Brahms went too far. Isn’t it helpful to aspiring composers to see the failures as well as well as the successes?
SA: You’re absolutely right. But it’s a little embarrassing, I think. I mean, it would be for me. Look, Brahms’s early works, Opus 1 to 8, those fantastic pieces for piano, these are already mature masterpieces. Mine were not. I have to admit that, and why not admit it and get rid of it. I’m very proud of the Third Quartet. I think it’s a decent work, it works very well. People love to play it. Great.
FJO: Now the earliest piece of yours I know is the Horn Sonata.
SA: Yeah, that is the earliest. I fell in love with a horn player and wrote this for her junior recital, as a matter of fact. It was also the reason I wrote so many brass pieces in those days. I’m very sorry about them. And you see, those pieces were immediately published because my theory teacher was Robert King of Robert King Music, music for brass. So whatever I wrote, he published right away, including the Horn Sonata. Now I’m not ashamed of the Horn Sonata. It’s very Hindemithian, and I know that. I’m not ashamed of the First Symphony which is a combination of influences from Copland and Piston. I was very happy to write it and I still like it. For my 80th birthday, there were ten performances of it. And I must say, the tenth performance I actually liked.
FJO: I’m curious about what the attributes are for a piece that you think is truly you and how you are able to sense it as a composer.
SA: That’s a tough question because at one point you just feel that it’s going—it’s saying something. That’s really all I can say. I have to be a little abstract about it. You just know that this is a piece. And also, it comes from the performer. The first two string quartets I played myself and I was always dissatisfied, but I didn’t know what to do about it. By the way, the performance of the Third Quartet that was hailed here in New York, it’s not the way the string quartet is now, because it was re-done five, six years later. I usually don’t re-do pieces. I’d rather throw them away. But I think that was worth doing and, as a matter of fact, the second movement is the elegy that was played in Berlin. That was written before the Third Quartet was redone.
FJO: So was the Third String Quartet the piece in which you feel you found your personal voice as a composer?
SA: No. The Second Violin Sonata is the first piece that I think is me. The Horn Sonata is not. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it works. I just heard a beautiful recording of it by the principal horn in the Houston Symphony, William VerMeulen. He plays it as if he were playing the Hindemith sonata. The Hindemith is very good and unfortunately, this gets coupled with it all the time. Some people like it better. Most people don’t like it better. But that’s alright.
I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give. What it is should be the composer’s secret. I’m very much against telling too much to the audience because the result that I have seen, if I’ve said too much, is, “Well, it doesn’t mean that to me.” This is a danger, you know, like the whole idea of “Do you think I’ll remember this melody when I leave the concert hall?” Look, you’re going to remember Schubert Unfinished because you’ve heard it six thousand times. Of course, when you hear it again, you’re going to know it and sing it on the way out. I’m not for writing melodies like that necessarily, but I do feel that part of it should be communicative. The music should say something, give an experience. All I ask of an audience is not that they like the piece or don’t like the piece. All I want is for an audience to have an experience with me, an adventure, something new, something different. I cannot have them expect a piece that sounds like Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms or Debussy or Stravinsky. It may have parts of all of these things, but I want it to be an adventure. Most of our audiences don’t want an adventure because they’re told they shouldn’t like the piece in the first place, instead of just letting them enjoy it.
FJO: I think one of the problems—and this is truer with orchestra concerts than with other formats—is that the new piece has to co-exist on a program with older pieces that are already familiar.
SA: Which actually I like. I don’t like new music programs, because most of them are the same. That is, it’s all music that is new to everybody. I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe. This started in the ‘60s, the whole business of new music groups. It said that our music has to be anaesthesized, and I don’t think so. At least I would hope not. They’re wonderful, and I love them, and I write for them, and again I love them. But we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition.
FJO: Well, most of the pieces you have composed clearly fall within this tradition—six symphonies, a dozen concertos, sonatas for all different kinds of instruments, ten string quartets minus the two that you’ve hidden from us.
FJO: Yeah, five operas—we’ll get to those soon. But before we do, these are all types of pieces that have hundreds of years of history behind them. When you call something your Symphony No. 4, not only does it automatically reference your previous three symphonies, but everybody else’s symphonies. It makes the piece part of a continuing dialectic, and because of that I think it gives listeners an expectation about what they are going to hear.
SA: Well, my Third Symphony is altogether different because it’s for wind ensemble and is only two movements. As for the rest of them—you mentioned the Fourth Symphony. In the Fourth and Fifth symphonies there were really experimental things, especially in the Fifth Symphony. I was going for 12 years through a period of being influenced by serial music, aleatoric music, and so on. I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own. I think Webern sounds very different from Schoenberg and Berg sounds very different from Schoenberg or Webern. No people’s music can sound more different than mine from my closest friend in the last years at Juilliard, Milton Babbitt. And yet, he could talk to me about my music like nobody else. He didn’t have to write like that; he actually loved that music. And I don’t have to write like him to love his music.
What is difficult today for an audience is not that name “symphony.” It is that they don’t know what’s coming and therefore I, for instance, feel that an orchestra that’s doing a new piece should send out to its subscribers a CD of that piece before they come. Again, I go back to the Schubert Unfinished. I have 20 recordings of it at home. Well, I don’t, but some people do—you know, Karajan, Ormandy, this, that, in order to get different perspectives on the piece. Well, if you know it that well, of course you’re going to love it when you hear it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all those recordings. I feel that that’s very important for a new piece. When I go to an orchestra that does a new piece, I always ask the orchestra to record certain portions of it. And when I give my pre-concert talk, I use those. For example, in the Viola Concerto, the first theme you hear eight times, so I’d say, “Look, you’re going to hear this eight times” and I play it for them. I play it for them on the piano. Then I have the viola play it and the oboe play it. Well, they know what to expect then. The more complex parts, I play for them because I feel what music does is to give the composer’s view of his time, the energy of his time. Most people don’t want to hear the energy of our time because they’re afraid of it. But we have to be true to ourselves.
FJO: I want to go back to what you were saying about Babbitt’s music being so different from yours. As you know, Babbitt was somebody who was very embracing of a much wider range of music. A lot of people are unaware that he actually encouraged people who studied with him not to write music like his.
SA: Look at Sondheim.
FJO: Well, before Babbitt started writing serial music, he had written a musical theater work. And for the rest of his life he maintained a love for Tin Pan Alley music.
SA: He knew more Tin Pan Alley than anybody else.
FJO: One thing I found so intriguing was the little piano piece you wrote honoring Babbitt.
SA: For his birthday. That’s on his name.
FJO: It’s part of a cycle, which also included pieces for Ned Rorem, David Diamond, and Gunther Schuller. What I found so interesting about them is that in each you created pieces that evoked their music but you did it basing the material on letters from each of their names. Babbitt starts B-A-B-B. There are all of these Bs, so whatever music you create from that should instantly sound tonal, yet you still managed to compose something that sounded serial, even though it isn’t serial.
SA: That’s right. Well, you can do B both ways: you can do it as B-natural or you can do B as B-flat. We don’t use H, like in German. In America, we use B. But in German, B would be B-flat. Then [since A is the first letter of the alphabet and C is the first letter of the musical alphabet], if you can count C as the first one [e.g. A], B [which is the second one] would be C-sharp. So you have three ways of doing it. That’s how I got its 12 tones.
FJO: Ah, so you cheated.
SA: Of course. That’s how you compose—you cheat!
FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that because one of the things that you’re known and revered for is for writing one of the most definitive books on orchestration, which is the opposite of cheating. It is a bible for many composers, the book people turn to for the answers on what works and what doesn’t work.
SA: Oh well, I was kidding. The orchestration book I did as a tool because I had to teach orchestration. I could never see an orchestration book without every note being recorded so that students could hear it. By the way, the fourth edition is coming out and it will have streaming of all the music, so you have it on your computer. All you have to do is click and you hear the piece. We’re going into the 21st century and that has to be. The fourth edition is ready, but it’s going to take a little time because it’s so big. It’s going to have almost a thousand pages.
SA: We added a long chapter on the band, which is necessary, I think.
FJO: Well good, that was actually what I wanted to talk about with you next—the difference between writing for orchestra and wind band. You’ve written a lot for wind band. You already mentioned your Third Symphony. You talked about people being able to hear 20 different interpretations of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s very rare for that to happen with a new piece.
SA: Except when it’s wind ensemble.
SA: That’s why we write for wind ensemble. I’ve written 19 pieces for wind ensemble. I just finished a new one for a consortium of wind ensembles. It’s wonderful because, number one, you get lots of rehearsals. Number two, you get young people who are very excited about doing a new piece. My first wind ensemble piece, Southwestern Sketches, was written in 1960. An orchestra piece gets, if it’s lucky, one performance every three or four years. This gets a performance every week some place, you know. So, it’s worth doing.
FJO: But even though there have been some extremely high profile composers who have written for wind band—Persichetti, Karel Husa, Copland, Hovhaness—there’s been a huge amount of really high-quality repertoire for wind band. But there’s still a stigma about it. I remember when Corigliano’s Third Symphony had its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall.
SA: I was there.
FJO: That was a very exciting performance, but because it was part of the CBDNA conference, and was performed by a student ensemble, The New York Times wouldn’t cover it.
SA: Oh, wow. I don’t really want to say much about The New York Times except one thing. I think they have some knowledgeable people as music critics, but I cannot understand how these people can let the arts section, when it says “new music,” be all pop. I think once a week they have a whole page that says new music, but they only discuss the new albums by pop singers. New music to me means more than just pop music, at least I hope so. And that’s why I think your endeavor is so important. I think this has created and I hope creates more new audiences that listen.
It’s wonderful to have a birthday these days because either it’s honored on National Public Radio or my wife puts it on Facebook. They have birthday celebrations on NPR stations and you’d be surprised how many people write to the composer then. I got a slew of letters last week because, for instance, the Oklahoma system and the Minnesota system had celebrated my birthday. That’s a wonderful feeling. I think if we did more like that in the newspapers, focus on new music not just music that sounds so different that nobody every wants to hear it again, but music that’s written by hundreds of wonderful composers, young composers—I just came back yesterday from Minneapolis where I heard a new opera by my former student, Kevin Puts, The Manchurian Candidate. I thought it was just a terrific piece. What’s interesting was what the comments were. An opera cannot be one style. Even Wozzeck, one of the great operas of the 20th century, changes styles quite often. Kevin did the changing of styles just beautifully and, of course, he was criticized for it, which I think is wrong. When you have a band marching on the stage, you have to write music with the band marching on the stage. So they said something sounded like John Philip Sousa. Well, good. He’s a great composer of marches, you know. I think so much great music is being written, and we should not feel that we need to apologize in any way.
FJO: We didn’t really touch on your operas yet. You wrote five operas, but I have not heard any of them yet.
SA: One you can hear streaming on Naxos—The Wrestler, the second opera, which is a 12-tone opera by the way.
FJO: Wow. Five operas is a formidable amount of work, but it’s interesting that you haven’t written one in nearly 40 years. Something must have made you stop.
SA: Well, I have an opera lying on my shelf which can’t be done. It’s based on a story, and the author objected to the libretto, so we can’t do anything with it. I’m in negotiations with him. Maybe I can move him a little bit. I sometimes see him. But you know, I can’t be sued for five million dollars. I don’t have that.
FJO: So this is something that you wrote more recently.
FJO: So you are still interested in writing operas.
SA: I am. As a matter of fact, I would like to do a children’s opera. In Germany they commissioned a piece for children on a subject that I’m sorry American children don’t know, but every child in Germany knows, and that’s Max und Moritz. It’s been very successful in Germany. It’s for narrator and large orchestra. It’s like Peter and the Wolf, except everybody knows the story Peter and the Wolf. Max und Moritz is a darker story. They get ground up at the end. They’re bad boys, and so.
FJO: You’ve also written a great amount of choral music.
SA: Too much.
FJO: Well, one thing that I find fascinating is that you’ve written a lot of sacred choral music, including what I think is an extremely effective setting of a mass. But you’re not a Christian.
SA: This was an ecumenical mass and it was commissioned for a specific purpose. As a matter of fact, I have two. One commissioned by Notre Dame in 1975 called We Believe. And the other is the mass that you’re referring to. I feel that religion has very few boundaries when you get on the basic level of it. Even though I am a practicing Jew, sometimes anyway, and I believe in my religion, I can also see other religions and they mean something to me. Especially I’ve studied a lot of Christianity. My father, being a cantor, was also a great expert on the literature of Christianity, and I have steeped myself in that, too. I had a teacher at Boston University who for two years taught us chant, starting with Gregorian chant, going all the way through Lutheran and Episcopal chant and everything else. And of course I’ve studied Jewish chant and this influences some of my writing.
FJO: But despite what you’re saying about religion having few boundaries, we’re living at a time where we’re seeing a very extreme interpretation of religion, and there’s a great rise in intolerance all over the world that is triggered by the extreme interpretation of religious beliefs. Now more than ever it seems important to stress that there can be a much broader ecumenical view.
SA: Yes, especially here in America. Europe is becoming much more secular, but religion does play a part. I had a commission by the Bach choirs of Germany, to write a cantata on Jonah. It’s in German, but it’s been translated and it’s going to be done in New York next year in English. It was first done in my home town, Mannheim. I went to the morning service, and there were hardly any people there. There were 30 people in a church that seats 1900. Well, I thought, “Oh my God, nobody’s going to come this afternoon.” So I talked to the organist who commissioned the piece and he said, “Sam, just don’t worry. The place is sold out this afternoon. We have a concert every Sunday afternoon because people don’t come in the morning, but they will come to music things in the afternoon.” It was packed.
FJO: Absolutely fantastic. All this discussion about being ecumenical and embracing things that are not of your immediate background reminds me of the last time we spoke with each other, which was after the New York premiere of your Tenth String Quartet. That performance was part of the Kyo-Shin-An Arts concert series and everything else on the program incorporated Japanese traditional instruments. We talked at that time about places your music would go, and places your music wouldn’t go. At that time, you said that you don’t really know the workings of these instruments, so you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing for them. This spirals back to the beginning of this conversation where you were talking about getting expertise in different instruments if you’re going to be a composer. So I’m curious about the level of risk you’re willing to take, things that you would set out to do in your music and things that you wouldn’t do and why.
SA: Well, I do take risks. You referred to the sonatas; I’ve also written a series of concert etudes for 22 instruments, including everyone in the orchestra. I tried to make those people take a risk to the nth degree of their ability. That’s the kind of risk I like to take. My heritage is European, from a religious point of view, Jewish, and also Western religions. That influences me and I feel comfortable writing for all these things. I’ve had many Chinese students, Korean students, Thai students, from all over. And I think they should write not only for Western instruments, but also for others. One of my students is the vice president of the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Xiaogang Ye, a wonderful composer. He has written a ballet on a subject of the 13th-century Dalai Lama, for Hong Kong, which has an orchestra and a Chinese orchestra. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t grow up in that tradition. He did. I’m too old now. Even if I were younger, I think it would be sort of fake for me to do that. Debussy once said, “A composer writes in his language.” That’s very true. And composers should take care of that. I can write in my language—a language I feel comfortable in, the language that I speak. I speak three languages, so I feel at home writing in those languages. While music doesn’t express any particular thing necessarily, there is a big difference between Debussy and Hindemith. Even though his Viola Sonata Opus 11, No. 4, starts out sounding like Debussy, very soon, after the fifth measure, it sounds like Hindemith. And Hindemith spoke perfect French, by the way. But that’s not his native language, nor mine, you know.
FJO: But you have written music for instruments that are outside your native language, so to speak. For example, you wrote a wonderful solo harpsichord piece. Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it’s very different from what one expects in terms of the sound world of a harpsichord.
SA: Right, that’s why I wrote it. There are two recordings of it, and both are excellent, but the new one on Toccata Records is fantastic. I’ve never heard anybody play it that fast. It’s amazing. But you know, that’s the risk I take, you see. Bach is my favorite composer, but I don’t want to write like Bach, because that’s not me. So I write like I think we can do something today with it. So, that’s my risk. I wrote it because I had a student who is a wonderful harpsichordist and organist, Barbara Harbach, who wanted a piece for harpsichord. She also recorded the piece. Anybody that wants a piece gets a piece.
FJO: So if somebody does want a piece for koto or pipa?
SA: Well, then I’d have to think about it. I’d have to first really study it, because it’s not easy to write for. I love these instruments, don’t get me wrong. But other people should write for it. The literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Five of my students have written pieces for pipa and also for koto, and they’re very good pieces.
FJO: What about electronics?
SA: Well, I love people, and I love what comes out of people when they play or sing. I don’t necessarily want to do electronic things unless there’s a definite reason, like in The Wrestler. I need to feel that it’s organic in the music. To add electronics, that has to have a very special reason. And I have not felt that I needed it. In The Wrestler, because I feel Jacob is wrestling with himself rather than with the angel, the angel is there but never speaks. It’s a distorted voice of Jacob that sings the angel’s part.
FJO: You’ve brought up a number of your students throughout the course of this conversation. Teaching has certainly been a very important part of your life for more than half a century.
SA: Sixty-three years of teaching.
FJO: So I wonder, aside from the incredibly generous activity of imparting your knowledge and experience to others, how this interaction fuels your own creative work.
SA: I’m very inspired by my students, especially because I’ve been able to choose my students, and they’ve been just great. I can’t think of the student that I wouldn’t have wanted to teach. I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. And then, slowly, to see if he or she can be moved to be something very special. And many of them can and do. I’m very happy with the result if you don’t immediately say, “I only want 12-tone music” or “I only want tonal music.” Let them bring you something, and go from there. You talked about Milton Babbitt. I feel exactly the same way. He never imposed his very strict system on anybody. If they wanted it, certainly. I had students who, after studying with me, went to Milton at Juilliard and also at Eastman, because we had Milton up in the summers to teach at Eastman. He never changed somebody’s style just because it should change. That’s the way I feel also. I think you have to be very careful with students because they’re volatile, and I am very careful because the most difficult thing in music is to create music. And after all, this is what they’re there for.
FJO: So how has teaching influenced your own music?
SA: I think I’m more careful. I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas. This has inspired me all my life.
FJO: And having taught for 63 years, that’s an incredibly long time.
SA: Yes, it is.
FJO: You don’t have to teach anymore. You can do whatever you want, but you’re still teaching.
SA: Well, I’m teaching in Berlin, that’s six weeks out of the year. And I go around the country doing masterclasses. I really quit Juilliard because of the commute. We live in Ohio. I commuted every week. That’s a tough thing. I did it for 18 years; I thought that was enough. The other thing is, I really would like to have more time for myself. I’m composing and I’m reading what I want to read a great deal. I’m actually practicing the piano, which makes me very happy. I’m the worst pianist, but it makes me very happy to have that tactile experience. And so every day I practice the piano, and I do a great deal of reading on all kinds of subjects. And I’m writing an autobiography with somebody, and so that takes up some time, too. So, I’m always busy.
FJO: Well, I’m glad that you made some time to talk to us today.
SA: It’s a great pleasure. I thank you for doing it.