He’s Got a Song in His Art

David Mermelstein writes about the arts for newspapers and magazines

Driving around this city with Jake Heggie, one can feel his barely contained enthusiasm. The 35-year-old composer is just starting to reap recognition’s rewards, and he speaks animatedly and volubly about his newfound good fortune. Heggie, who works in the public relations department of the San Francisco Opera, is especially high on his adopted city, for it’s here that he has found his voice.

During the past year, Heggie’s art songs have been performed by such opera divas as Frederica von Stade, Jennifer Larmore and Renee Fleming. This afternoon, Larmore, who is making her West Coast recital debut at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood, will sing a piece by Heggie called “He’s Gone Away.” His songs, she says, “get right to the point--they are terrific to sing.”

An emphasis on melody, with easy dissonances and unusual harmonies, characterizes Heggie’s work. Von Stade lauds its romanticism, and Allan Ullrich, music critic of the San Francisco Examiner, calls it fluid and sensitive.

“Sometimes,” Larmore says, “modern song composers try too hard. Jake doesn’t have to try; he’s a natural.”


Most of Heggie’s songs are settings of American poetry--the text for “He’s Gone Away,” for example, comes from Emily Dickinson--but the composer also uses verse by English, German and French authors. As musical influences, Heggie points to composers from around the world: Vaughan Williams, Britten, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. He also cites Barber and Copland. By his own definition, his music is “very American.”

Whatever their inspiration, his songs possess an appealing sing-ability for performers.

“The key to Jake’s music is that he really loves the voice, and that’s a big thing,” Von Stade says. “That sounds like such a given, but it’s not with some composers.”

Heggie, who was born in Florida, began composing when he was a teenage piano student growing up in Ohio and in Northern California’s Contra Costa County.


“Back then, I wrote mostly because I was impressed with myself,” he says. “I was playing the piano a lot, and I’d been very turned on by showpieces and the music of Liszt. I was writing music with gazillions of notes.”

What turned him serious, he says, were composition studies with his teacher Ernst Bacon. At the time, Heggie was only 16 and still attending high school.

“He introduced me to the poems of Emily Dickinson and the joys of setting text,” Heggie says. “That’s where it all started for me, really.”

But his life took an unusual turn between high school and his current success. In the early ‘80s, Heggie was an undergraduate in music at UCLA, where he had enrolled specifically to study with pianist Johana Harris, the widow of composer Roy Harris.


“Friends of mine told me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to study with Johana Harris. She’s the most amazing teacher. She is nothing but music, from beginning to end,’ ” Heggie recalls.

In Harris, Heggie not only found an excellent teacher, he also found a wife.

The marriage, he says candidly, was controversial and hardly conventional. Heggie was 21; Harris, 69.

Heggie explains the relationship simply: “We just complemented each other so well. There was such a strong spiritual connection. She was my best friend.”


He continued to study with Harris, and the two later formed a piano duo that toured the country. But by 1989, Heggie developed problems in his right hand.

“My fingers started curling up when I played,” he says. “I compensated for the problem, which, of course, just aggravated it. Finally, I just couldn’t play.” (He eventually regained the ability to play with both hands after substantial retraining.)

About that time, Heggie, frustrated that his music career was on hold, had taken a job in PR with the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. By the early ‘90s, Harris’ health was failing, and she ultimately moved in with one of her daughters from her previous marriage. It was a difficult time for Heggie.

“I know now that I was suffering from depression,” he says. “I had stopped writing and stopped playing the piano. I realized that everything was going the wrong way. And nothing was going to change as long as I remained in Los Angeles.”


In the end, Heggie says, the “hardest decision of my life"--to move north in 1993--was seconded by Harris.

“It was time for me to start taking care of myself instead of taking care of somebody else,” he says.

Heggie and Harris never divorced, and up to the time of her death, at age 82 in 1995, he was a “great friend” to her, in the words of one of her children.

“Music was her slave,” he says with admiration. “Johana could do anything. Music was a language for her, and she taught me how to speak that language.”


Heggie left for the Bay Area with only the promise of some freelance PR work at UC Berkeley. In short order, however, he landed his full-time position at the San Francisco Opera. About a year after making the move, he began to pursue composing again. His position at the opera allowed him to connect directly with singers he hoped would be interested in his music.

While Von Stade was starring in the SFO’s world premiere of Conrad Susa’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in the fall of 1994, Heggie decided to show her some of his compositions.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to be bold,’ ” he recalls.

Her encouragement helped Heggie get up the nerve to enter an art-song competition sponsored by G. Schirmer, the music publisher, in 1995. He asked Von Stade if she would sing for his demo tape. She agreed, and he went on to win the contest. Since then, Von Stade has not only commissioned work from Heggie but has also occasionally employed him as her accompanist.


Last fall, countertenor Brian Asawa, an old college chum of the composer’s, gave the first performance of Heggie’s short song cycle “Encountertenor,” at London’s Wigmore Hall. About the same time, Heggie made a gift of a song to Renee Fleming, who was then performing in an SFO production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka.” The soprano included the work, Heggie’s setting of Dickinson’s “I shall not live in vain,” in her recitals this spring, including one at Alice Tully Hall in New York.

To date, none of Heggie’s songs has appeared on compact disc, but that will change soon. Larmore has recorded five of them for an upcoming Teldec release titled “American Dreamers.”

These days, Heggie counts himself a lucky man.

“I’m really grateful that there are people out there who are willing to take a chance and champion new music,” he says.


Still, he’s not quite ready to quit his day job.

“How many composers do you know,” he asks, “who make a living writing art songs?”


JENNIFER LARMORE, singing “He’s Gone Away” and works by Handel, Rossini, Mozart and Copland, Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Brentwood. Date: today, 4 p.m. Prices: $9-$35. Phone: (310) 825-2101.