Courting the Muse in the 20th Century : Despite a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant, contemporary composer John Harbison still has to fight the good fight


Composer John Harbison is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient and teacher in the music department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But with all those credentials, he still finds his music has a tough time getting attention.

Aside from such superstars as Philip Glass and John Adams, or even the usually pop-oriented Andrew Lloyd Webber, today’s serious composer usually fights an uphill battle. Although Harbison’s music may be considered conservative, the 51-year-old composer still must contend with a world where concert audiences are skeptical about new music.

Harking back a few years to his residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Harbison remembers how distressed he would get when he saw how many Philharmonic subscribers stayed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s lounge areas during contemporary premieres. He figured that at least in Los Angeles, a place he finds to be “an incredibly active center for composing new music,” audiences would be more receptive.


“I might understand it better if it had been pieces they knew, but it seemed so strange because they didn’t know anything about the works,” says Harbison, whose Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra will be given its premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Pavilion on Thursday. “Maybe we’re trying too hard, but 25 minutes in the presence of something disconcerting isn’t fatal. It would probably do them a lot less harm than having another drink.”

Worse still, Harbison sees the lack of interest in new music as just another sign of a general cultural illiteracy. As he told an MIT audience a while back, and reiterated in the program of a concert he conducted here three weeks ago: MIT is a laboratory for the future and the fact that most of the faculty and students there “continue to regard work in the arts and humanities as second class, unuseful and merely ornamental,” is something that must be taken very seriously.

Consider the plight of the contemporary composer.

No kings, queens or princes support 20th Century composers. Even such successful people as Harbison live patchwork lives, traveling the residency circuit, hustling work and interest in new music at a time when traditional classical concerts often find it difficult to attract audiences.

“Making a living as a composer is not so easy,” says fellow Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom, a member of the University of Michigan faculty. “Most of us have to teach, perform and do any number of things to make a living.”

Very few composers today get as much as $50,000 for an orchestral piece that may take a year of work. And several months of that year and several thousand dollars of that money will go toward copying the composition.

“In this society,” Harbison says, “there isn’t a big demand for what we do. So the demand has to come from inside. In Mozart’s time, people wanted his large level of production. I’m not David Lee Roth--people want three discs a year from him. I don’t know what motivates Roth, but I would feel strange writing five string quartets a year even if I could because I feel there’s an inner mechanism that tells us whether we’re being answered at the other end.”


Conductor Andre Previn was listening to his car radio one night in 1981 when he heard a piece of chamber music that he couldn’t place. Yet “the more I heard, the more I liked it. I arrived at my destination but the piece wasn’t over, so I sat in the car until it was. I thought ‘this is a composer I want to remember.’ ”

The piece was Harbison’s Piano Quintet, being broadcast from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. And the timing was right. Just after that, Previn says, “the question of a composer in residence came up with the Pittsburgh Symphony, where I was music director. When I heard he was available, he is precisely who I asked for.”

Harbison, who Previn later brought to Los Angeles as well, “has his own language and it’s unmistakable. Whether he writes very introspective pieces or his much more extroverted ones, they don’t sound like anybody else. There are very few people of whom you can say that. It very clearly speaks to me, and the more of his music (I am able to) conduct, the happier I am.”

Previn, who will conduct Thursday’s Los Angeles premiere, says he still tries to program Harbison’s music in concerts both here and abroad. Harbison’s wife of 26 years, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, considers the Previn connnection “the beginning of a public life for John that suits him very well.”

Then came the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. His reputation had been building since the late ‘60s and he had already received commissions from symphony orchestras in San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta, as well as the Kennedy Center Friedheim award. So, by the time the Pulitzer rolled around, Harbison says, “I was already pretty established and had as much work as I could do.” The Pulitzer did get him a better salary at MIT here, and a better teaching schedule, but as Time Magazine music critic Michael Walsh wrote at the time, “the prize only certifies what many in musical circles were already aware of.”

There have now been more than a dozen recordings, two of them sold out and temporarily out of print. And at New York-based music publisher G. Schirmer, where Harbison is one of about 20 prominent American composers under exclusive contract, they are currently working on 13 commissions for him, a number that vice president Susan Feder says compares with three or four for most of their other composers.


Harbison has also spent a lot of time on the road in recent years. Every year or two, Harbison packs up his red VW Rabbit convertible to head off to another in a series of residencies that have taken the Harbisons to such cities as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Only three dozen of more than 30,000 composers nationally have enjoyed such Meet the Composer residencies with American orchestras, and probably fewer still have landed such international invitations as his residency with the American Academy in Rome.

With recognition, however, has come increased responsibility toward his profession. Harbison writes articles, lectures and coaches in addition to his teaching and conducting work. The schedule can get hectic. During a recent afternoon, Harbison went from teaching his composition class at MIT to a local cable TV interview to coaching two students at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

The work doesn’t stop when he goes home. On several shelves of his Cambridge home are dozens of tapes which have come in during his various residencies and which he keeps because he’s often in the position of recommending composers for commissions. By helping other composers get their own careers started, says Minnesota Composers Forum executive director Patricia Ingle, Harbison has been “a champion of new composers and young talent that he believes in.”

Harbison figures his ombudsman and other activities limit him to an average of four months a year for composing. He does some of that composing here in Cambridge, heading off to the small basement studio in his warm, cozy home. Just over his desk are two small ceramic heads--a comic mask “to cheer me up” and a bust of Verdi “which is probably for the same reason.”

But mostly he composes at the 110-acre dairy and horse farm where his wife was raised in Token Creek, Wisc., 10 miles north of Madison. There’s a stream, woods where Harbison walks and thinks through his music, a converted barn where they live and a smaller, isolated place out in the woods where he works.

Calling himself “very superstitious,” he confesses that he relies on dreams, astrology and the benefits of the full moon. He believes strongly in a muse for inspiration.


“Whether someone can compose (music) or write a poem depends more on whether they can get in touch with what beams it to them than whether or not they can understand rhythmic chords and other techniques,” says Harbison, who has degrees in music from both Harvard and Princeton.

And when all the forces are in the right order? Well, then, says the composer, he can turn out 45 minutes worth of finished music a year.

Previn and others say Harbison’s music looks deceptively uncomplicated. “When you first look, it looks very easy,” says the conductor. “But my God, is it ever not.” Even Harbison’s wife Rose Mary says the violin concerto she played in Boston last year may have been written for her “but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

During a recent interview on a Cambridge cable TV show, Harbison told interviewer Virginia Sindelar that his work appears simple, but “has been known to fool people.” He has a complex oboe piece he begs people not to play, he said, adding that one player played it at Aspen and fainted and another required aerobics to build up the strength to play it. So he “sort of shelved it. You have to challenge but you have to be within the realm of reward.”

His unimposing appearance and quiet demeanor are similarly misleading. Given his wire-rimmed glasses, tousled hair and conservative dress, the youthful-looking Harbison blends in well with the other faculty and students at MIT, where he’s been teaching since 1969 and at one point chaired the music department. (He feels MIT is the perfect fit since there are no graduate composers left in the lurch whenever he takes off on a six-month residency.)

Yet he is a man of wide intellectual and social interests. Books lining his walls here include sets of Thomas Jefferson’s papers, Shakespeare’s plays and Beethoven’s letters as well as individual books on composers, artists and Greek and Roman mythology. He has referred publicly to his participation in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 as one of the four major influences on his life, and his Pulitzer Prize winning cantata “The Flight Into Egypt” was inspired in part by the plight of the homeless.


That piece also drew its text from the Bible, and Harbison’s interest in religious music comes despite his reluctance to consider himself a religious man. His father, a history professor at Princeton, was Harbison’s first teacher and introduced him to the Bach cantatas and other church music that influenced his later work. “Egypt” was first performed by Boston’s Cantata Singers, who he conducted and served as music director for several years, and he has long been leading Bach cantatas and other music as principal guest conductor at Boston’s Emmanuel Church.

Other life experiences also wind up in his music. He majored in English for a while at Harvard because he felt music was too narrow. “Beowulf” killed that interest, he quips, but he did win awards in poetry, and his studies helped him later in dealing with texts for his work. Many are choral and incorporate poetry not only from the Bible, but from John Donne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson and others. A 1986 commission for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is called “Remembering Gatsby: A Foxtrot for Orchestra.”

He didn’t ignore the pop music he grew up with either. Besides Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky and Bartok, he was also listening to Kern and Gershwin songs, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, the Four Freshmen and Nat King Cole. His father wrote school shows at Princeton, a couple of his uncles are pop writers, and Harvard-based composer Walter Piston even advised him to concentate on pop music. He played jazz piano alone and in groups as a teen, saying “that’s a big part of the way I hear. What we give back artistically is what hit us when we were 13.”

His conducting experiences also go back to high school, and for a while, he says, he even thought he would give his composing and conducting interests equal attention. “But it takes me a long time to learn scores and I feel one big program (like one he recently conducted in New York for the Music in Our Time organization) is equivalent to not writing one piece. A standard-repertory concert is not as taxing because we know that language. But with a new piece, you have to learn not only how it goes but what it’s about.”

Forget all the labels the press has given him over the years, Harbison urges. He can’t figure out where the term “neo-Romantic” came from, he says, and he says that when one critic called him “the most radical of the conservatives,” he was equally pleased with how the comment was later misquoted as “the most conservative of the radicals.” Harking back to Bach and other influences, Harbison makes up a label: call him “neo-early Baroque.”

Last year, Harbison received a MacArthur Foundation grant, a no-strings award for $305,000, over five years, given to creative individuals to allow them to pursue their particular talents without having to worry about making a living. Asked if he has particular goals for his grant, Harbison says that although he took the last year off to write in Genoa, Italy, he had this year set up already and couldn’t change much in terms of teaching and conducting. And, he admits, “The problem with the MacArthur grant is that you’re supposed to write something more significant than you ever did before.”


He wrote two operas in the mid-’70s but feels he doesn’t connect to where opera is now. “It’s very involved in topicality and (current events) but my idea of theater is ritual--what I want to see are images that stir up emotions and are not dependent on events. I’m interested in myths and that isn’t something that opera production people are interested in. I’d like to stay away until things change although I’m not sure I’ll be able to.”

At one point, Harbison also hoped to explore writing for a rock ensemble during this period. He has spoken and written often of his “affinity” for the heavy blues orientation of such early rockers as Little Richard and Bo Diddley.

But his notion of writing for a rock ensemble has already been shelved for now. A few weeks ago he conducted composer Fred Lerdahl’s piece “Eros” for Boston’s Collage New Music group. After working with two electric guitar players on “Eros,” he concedes that “my rock piece is getting dimmer and dimmer.”

Rock musicians just aren’t experienced in performing classical contemporary music, he laments. “I had to fire the first guy we hired and auditioned a lot of kids. One guy said he didn’t need the money, just score him some crack, and I wasn’t sure Collage was prepared to enter that arena. Another wanted $9,000 and they may pay that in the commercial world, but (we were paying) $450 to $500. The people we got could play it, but they’re in such a tiny pool, it made me aware of the problems.”

He is simultaneously aware of the pay-off, however. In speeches, writings and conversation alike, Harbison worries that today’s composers of serious music simply can’t ignore “the degree to which virtually the entire potential musical audience is preoccupied with rock. . . . I empathize with distant colleagues of the Middle Ages--stain glass makers, or translators of Ovid, or carvers of gargoyles, as their art lost its centrality and became unnecessary and obscure.”

Even successful classical composers and performers should be looking over their shoulders, he warns. There may be greater public acceptance today of new music, but classical music generally is “in more jeopardy. Audiences are getting older and young people are exposed to it less. In that sense, although composers are part of the flow, they are more likely to go down with the ship if it goes down.”


What can be done? For one thing, join forces and encourage rock music that is less superficial and more like what he considers the richer, more enduring pop music of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. And while he may be a “pre-rock composer,” he sees a need to acknowledge the importance of rock music and not condemn younger composers who try to integrate aspects of rock and pop into their music.

The composer is still planning to try and write for a standard big band--he did one such arrangement as a teenager--and is completing commissioned works for the Baltimore Symphony, the Juilliard Quartet and the Santa Fe Chamber Festival. The Harbisons will this summer launch a new chamber music festival, which they bill as “the smallest chamber music festival in the world,” at their Wisconsin farm. And next fall, Harbison will be assuming the post of Creative Chair with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Another measure of his success is the amount of bookkeeping he has to do. He didn’t have files on performances of his work before, he says, but he is now particularly aware of present and future performance income. “I think almost none of us who are concert composers can live on commissions, unless you’re very fast. For me, two substantial pieces a year, or maybe three, is quite a solid year. It’s why so many of us teach.

“But I am tantilizingly close. I’m now on the MacArthur grant, but I want a long-term solution. (Meanwhile,) I take the commissions that fit in best with what I want to do. I have to live to 1992, or I’ll owe people some advances. After that, I’m a free agent.”

Tom Lutgen in the Times Library contributed to the research for this article.