7-29-09: Russian Tea Time

7-29-09: Russian Tea Time

My 3rd or 4th composition teacher (depending how you define the words “composition” and “teacher”) was the late Ralph Shapey at University of Chicago. No, I didn’t attend U of C, but my 2nd (or 3rd) composition teacher, one John Austin, a wonderful man and composer whom I studied with privately, was kind of enough to use his influence with Mr. Shapey to arrange for me to take a composition class with the cranky old U of C neo-serialist. This was in the immediate year or two after I left Indiana U (1982-84) where I suffered from a kind of environmental exposure to too many bombastic opera singers belting out mindless, earsplitting, vibrato-laden arias,  and too many pseudo-virtuoso pianists hacking their way through Chopin’s Etude Révolutionnaire. It was before I matriculated as a legitimate composition major at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where I studied with my 4th or 5th composition teacher, Warren Benson,who was friends with Alec Wilder, a songwriter, and curmudgeon who wrote a book about American song that I generally liked, but found absurd in the end because he pretty much dismissed anything after 1956 or so (e.g. Beatles, Simon, Dylan, Wonder) as amateur hour.

There were three of us in Shapey’s composition class, all boys. I don’t remember anything about the other two. I do remember three things about studying with the crabby old man. One, he was genuinely cranky, as only a Philadelphia-born disciple of the twelve-tone way could be. But it was almost a Hollywood-character-actor level of crankiness that was truly a joy to behold in person—and in truth, there was a playful wit behind it. With Shapey, of course, you needed to be very careful about completing your assignments correctly and on time. He had no problem with saying, “What is this fucking shit?”, if you didn’t. (One time I failed to show up for class because I hadn’t completed a one page analysis of something or the other, and he actually calls me up and says, “Where the hell were you today, and where’s your paper?” I, of course, said that I was sick. He said, “Well you should have called.” He was right, and I wasn’t sick: just afraid of his wrath.)

The second thing I remember was purely musical. He had taken Schoenberg’s basic serial technique and developed it into a freer, perhaps more musical, more American compositional system. I absorbed quite a bit of this technique and used it in several compositions. I still use it when I need it (not often), both in my improvisations and extended compositions. Though, in the end, I still didn’t like much of his music, it did sound better than Schoenberg—not so deterministic, not so old, not so tired. More improvisational, actually.

The third thing I remember was Tchaikovsky. No, unfortunately, he wasn’t one of my classmates, but Shapey was a huge admirer of the great Russian. He put him right up there with Beethoven himself, and by the time I was studying with him, I was on my way to feeling the same. Shapey, in affect, pushed me over the edge and allowed me to embrace my inner Tchaikovsky. To this day, I think his Pathetique Symphony is one of the greatest things every written. So did Shapey.

What I particularly admire about Tchaikovsky was his enormous skill at composing musical autobiographies sans words. It’s not that composers didn’t do this before him, just that Tchaikovsky, in a very Russian way, put a degree of emotional intensity into his work that is astonishing. It could have easily devolved into the kind maudlin sentimentality that characterizes so much movie music if it weren’t for his microscopic attention to the details, necessary to the making of great composition. Some critics still find Tchaikovsky’s music to be excessive, over the top. They are entirely missing the point: Tchaikovsky did wear his heart on his sleeve, but he did it with such consummate artistry that it is a truly beautiful thing to behold.

The autobiographical character of this piece reminds me of Tchaikovsky in so many ways, particularly the dramatic ending. It reminds me again how once a great artist perfects way of communicating ideas and emotion, as Tchaikovsky did, we are all given the freedom to partake in that technique. When great artists open up new vistas, they are exposing a corner of universe we’ve never seen before. We, the progeny of that great artist, are all free to go exploring in these regions.

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