80th Birthday Reflections with Composer John Harbison, Class of 1960


You may have heard John Harbison’s name recently, as he has been the subject of many a celebration this year to mark his 80th birthday. Or maybe you’ve heard his name because he is an award-winning composer, Harvard class of 1960, who has written commissions for the Metropolitan Opera, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Emerson String Quartet and more, and been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Foundation award, and the Harvard Arts Medal. To celebrate Harbison’s 80th birthday today, we’re publishing this conversation between Mr. Harbison and WHRB Classical’s Allison Pao from earlier this year, in which they discuss the Harvard music scene, cultural shifts Harbison has experienced in his lifetime, the conflicts between the jazz, rock, and classical genres, what the priorities of composers should be, and more.

P: We’re so excited to invite you to WHRB today, Mr. Harbison! Thanks for joining us.

H: Pleasure!

P: First, I want to ask you more about your time at Harvard. Why did you choose to come to Harvard? Did you already know you wanted to pursue a composition career at that point in your life?

H: I decided on Harvard for sort of a strange reason. I had been a high school student in Princeton, New Jersey. I had been used to carrying my viola around town in Princeton. I played in the Princeton Symphony and so forth, and a rather strange incident occurred sometime towards the end of my high school career, where I was walking along the street with my viola, and a couple of guys who were not in the high school but who were the tough guys in town jumped out of the car and told me to get out my viola from the case to play for them. It was hot weather, and I was worried about my instrument, so it was a humiliating experience…I had made a trip to Harvard, and one of the things I noticed is that people were carrying string instruments all around campus, and no one was bothering them. So I decided to go to Harvard based on that little incidental detail, but it felt important to me. Of course, when I got here, I definitely carried my viola around. It was the right choice for me. There was a lot of student initiative in the musical world here.

P: Yes, Harvard is definitely a welcoming place for student musicians and artists! I know during your time here you directed the Bach Society Orchestra, you also sang in the Harvard Glee Club…

H: Yes, I played a lot of jazz, I played in a band called the Royal Garden Six, which was a dixie-style band, on weekends we were out playing a lot of regional college jobs. So I had pretty diversified musical experiences.

P: Did you get into conducting while you were at Harvard through the Bach Society Orchestra?

H: I had probably conducted a couple pieces that I had written in high school with the choir. I remember I came in to have a conference with the previous conductor. He said, “conduct some of this.” I did, and then he said, “where the hell did you learn that?” I said, “reading this book.” He said, “don’t get this out of a book.” (laughs)

P: Recently, the Bach Society Orchestra performed two of your works, and I also heard you attended some rehearsals. What was it like coming back, and do you think the organization has retained its character, or does it feel really different?

H: I love coming back. I’ve actually been back on two previous occasions. Just the existence of a student-driven organization on campus is incredibly valuable. It has tremendous virtues for the people who play in it in the sense of an investment, and I always love coming back. Of course, I have a lot of memories of the building and of the people that I studied with. I learned a lot as an undergraduate there, particularly in performance. In terms of things I needed as a composer, most of it came from playing, conducting, and listening, all in the world of performance.

P: Throughout your career, you’ve balanced classical and jazz. How do you see the intersection of those two genres in your own music?

H: In terms of performance, I was very evenly spread. Even at the end of college, I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to pursue professionally. The decision was almost arbitrary taken, because at the end of junior year I applied for both the Lenox School of Jazz and Tanglewood. I was unsure where I was headed. I never felt, when I was developing as a musician, that they were exclusive from each other, but I certainly realized that professionally, they were very different. Although at that time I probably knew very little about the professional world of either, I knew some jazz musicians for whom advancement was very very hard. Tremendous changes were taking place right at that moment in jazz. Jazz, when I started to play in high school, was really America’s popular music. Miles Davis, Basie, and Ellington were tremendous stars, they would be on radio all the time and even on television. The move to rock music was just occurring. A lot of places where we had been playing turned into rock clubs. I was there in the midst of experiencing a huge cultural shift. It was a cultural shift that helped me decide that I wasn’t staying in jazz, because I felt that jazz was no longer going to be a broadly accessed kind of music. Indeed, in the 50s, it began to become much more esoteric. There were many valuable players, but they were much harder for the public to follow – Charlie Parker is harder to follow than Lester Young. I felt instinctively that my concentration should be moving to concert music, but the difficulty there was, for many years, I tried to understand how to integrate something which I think very naturally in, which is improvisation. I tried to understand the differences in what is attainable [in improvised versus composed music] and how to move between what I think of a natural jazz idiom and a more concert idiom, learning to think of them as not separate.

P: I recently heard the BSO perform Foxtrot from your opera The Great Gatsby, which included both jazz and classical influences.

H: Yes, that was a specific issue of period jazz…I had to really study the 20s jazz band.

P: You mentioned that jazz was becoming more esoteric, and I think people today would consider classical music the same way. Do you view this as a problem that classical music is not accessed by the general public as much or is this trend inevitable with the genre?

H: To a degree, it is inevitable, because the other biggest change in my lifetime was the organs of publicity…The way that it is possible to reach a huge public through all kinds of mainly electronic means were not around in the time of Beethoven and Mozart and Wagner, such that music which is more easily packaged and sent out more broadly is much more powerfully marketable. The relegation of jazz and concert music to niches – to more esoteric status – is partly a function of how publicizable they are. That’s one of the things that we as professionals must accept and find a way to work with, but I don’t think we need to think of the music as inherently that way. I still feel like I’m in a subculture when I’m conducting new music concerts or playing in a jazz concert. A larger public of three to four thousand is still possible to assemble for a symphony orchestra, but really only for large combinations and using a publicity machine that’s very much like that of Hollywood and TV. The adaptation to large media is not exactly natural to the nature of concert music, but it is something that concert music is trying to harness for its own purposes, because there are a great number of brilliant people who aspire to play concert music, perform it and write it. They’re persistently going to enter the field, and for there to be a field, the engagement of very large media is probably essential.

P: When you write your own compositions, do you have the audience, the interests of musicians or other composers, or yourself in mind?

H: That’s a good question…I’ve found more and more that what you need to do is balance your inner ear, which is what explores and makes you do interesting things to drive you ahead, with your outer ear, which is the people who are listening who are not hearing the same way you are hearing. If the composer does not have both, they will not communicate, both to their fellow musicians and to the public. Perhaps the hardest thing for composers coming out of schools where they’re thinking way too much about other composers and teachers and other musicians, is to begin to listen as someone who comes without equipment but must be reached at some level which is much more direct. That’s what I try to think about – the listener who’s not prepared in any particular direction. And of course I also remain interested in specialists, particularly the people who play the music. Because the people who play the music, if they’ve played a lot, have an acute kind of judgment. Particularly in an era during which we’re not being approached sympathetically by the listener, we need to do our part to come partway. That’s always been true to a degree, but the partway is probably a different point now.

P: Do you think that audiences nowadays are more skeptical about contemporary music than before?

H: They’re more skeptical than they were as late as the advent of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. More skeptical than they probably were of Wagner and Verdi. Their skepticism has been nourished by a kind of divide, which I think is gradually healing, which occurred at that point where the very innovative composers of the 20th century created a situation where audiences were lost. There was a period when composers, rather than confronting that situation and trying to see ways through it, tried to make an advantage of it and tried to become a guild. Both Schoenberg at the outset of his career and Stravinsky at the end of his career were really saying, if the music is esoteric, that’s the necessity of the times. What we’re living in now is a great variety of approaches from composers who are much more outer-ear driven than they have been in the past.

P: Have your own inner and outer ears changed over your long career?

H: Very much so. We all have to give some voice to what we’ve taken in, what we’ve been interested in. If you don’t, your music will sound like you’re not nursing it enough. There’s a whole generation of composers now who have grown up playing in rock bands. They need to find some direct channel through which that becomes productive for them. Just as in my generation, we were briefly jazzers. That is something we need to manifest somehow, particularly if we still stay connected to that music and if we believe that it’s necessary for our daily musical life. I’m constantly retuning and readjusting, not so much to the audience but to my own self as an audience, because I’m changing what I want to hear. And of course, that’s what we’re composing – we’re composing what we want to hear. One of the things I realized in the last decade or so is that lots of us, even if we have good performances and people keep coming back to our music, a lot of our pieces go into mothballs, and I decided I really should just go back to my pieces and recheck how they sound. One of the things we’re trying to do is not repeat – justify the fact that we produced another piece because it’s not going to be the same. That’s a challenge we need to accept by actually evaluating not only what’s around us but what we do.

P: Do you find time to listen to a lot of new music, or do you find more inspiration from older works?

H: I’ve always had a strong relationship to certain older music which I’m not going to let go of. As a performer, I’m a Bach cantata specialist, and Schütz, and Schein, and 17th century composers, so I spend a lot of time thinking about old music. But I also hear a lot of new music because of the Tanglewood connection, doing admissions, I get a huge flow of very young composers’ music. I would have to say the one thing that I haven’t time to keep up with are pieces that stay in my memory but I don’t meet them very often, which is what most of us would call the standard literature. I’m always glad when I go to a concert where Mozart or Haydn is played, because I do know the pieces but I don’t necessarily hear them very often anymore.

P: My final question is, as this is your 80th birthday, do you have any celebration plans? Are you enjoying all the concerts being played to commemorate this occasion?

H: I’m enjoying the concerts, and I’m excited about what I talked about before – reviewing some pieces coming back which I haven’t heard for awhile. My second symphony with the BSO is a piece that was a costly piece, emotionally. Every time I hear it, I think about how sometimes we pay quite a price to do something that is out there, to do something in a not easily-defined route. So some of these events have really special significance, and I look forward to those. I’m also under a deadline, which I’m very thankful for – I’m writing a viola sonata, which I’ve never done before.

P: Thanks for coming to our studio in the cold and the rain today, but it was a pleasure to speak to you!

H: Thanks Allison, a pleasure to speak to you too.

Allison Pao is a Producer for WHRB Classical and Co-Program Director for WHRB. You can hear her feature Beyond the Stage on Sunday afternoons beginning in March, 2019 (see the program guide for exact timings).