Halsey Stevens, composer, conductor, scholar and head of the composition department at the USC School of Music for many years before his retirement, died Friday in Long Beach of the complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 80.
Stevens, a significant contributor to music culture since 1946 and an internationally recognized expert on composer Bela Bartok, had during his career composed more than 150 works that were performed worldwide, including "The Ballad of William Sycamore," a work commissioned in 1955 for the diamond anniversary of USC.
Last month the West Coast premiere of his 1968 composition "Threnos" was presented at USC's Bovard Auditorium in honor of his 80th birthday.
In a 1976 review of another Stevens gala at USC, where colleagues, friends and musicians gathered to honor him, Time critic Walter Arlen lauded the composer's fully developed diatonic style and found his "Sonata" for French horn and piano "a tightly constructed, terse statement in idiomatic musical terms with movements given over to the consistent development of clearly defined moods."
Eleanor Russell, a one-time student of Stevens' and now professor emeritus of music at Cal State Northridge, said after his death: "What all of us who have been students of musicology and theory agree upon is that Halsey was a master of the use of words, who knew how to express himself verbally unlike many other composers, and a person whose personal and professional integrity was absolute."
Stevens, who was born in 1908 in New York, studied theory and composition with William Berwald at Syracuse University, then served as an instructor of music there from 1935 to 1937. He later was a member of the music faculty of Dakota Wesleyan University and the College of Music of Bradley Polytechnic Institute in Illinois.
After serving in the Naval Reserve, he studied composition with Ernest Bloch at UC Berkeley. In 1948 he was appointed to the USC music faculty, where he remained until 1976, when he became professor emeritus.
He had also been a visiting professor at Yale University and guest lecturer at several other universities. Among his students were Ramiro Cortes, Robert Lunn and James Hopkins.
In an interview on his 75th birthday, his intense self-criticism surfaced. Speaking of Alfred Wallenstein, the late conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he said, "He did my Second Symphony--and not very well."
Then he recalled another "not good" reading of another of his works by no less a figure than Leopold Stokowski. "It wouldn't have mattered if it had been good. The piece wasn't," he said.
But he also talked with great affection of certain other works, the songs on poems by "Machado" and the "Lorca" group. Among his other works was the "Sinfonia Breve."
Praised by students for his warmth as a teacher as he was by musicologists for his work, Stevens was much interested in folk music and was so fascinated by the fieldwork of Bartok that he learned the Hungarian language and retraced Bartok's travels. In 1953 he published the biography, "The Life and Music of Bela Bartok."
Throughout the years, the composer received numerous grants and honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Survivors include his wife Harriett, a son, two daughters and five grandchildren.