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Great minds … compose at Brandeis

Published: February 26, 2010
Section: Opinions


Brandeis University opened its doors to its first student in the fall of 1948. Less than three years later, Arnold Schoenberg passed away at the age of 76. Schoenberg is often considered the last great composer of the art music canon, one whos work was so innovative that it created new modes of thought about music but who still achieved the widespread recognition to make his music a vital part of the art music repertoire.

Through his twelve-tone system, he broke the final rules of tonality, but what seemed like a shocking new development at the time soon became a curse. For the first time, it seemed that all the new vistas in art music had been explored, and the attempts of subsequent composers to push the boundaries of art music even further turned it into a largely academic art form, one that could not be appreciated without extensive training. Since Schoenberg, art music has never regained its position of primacy in mainstream cultural importance.

Brandeis, therefore, just missed the long gilded age of the European art music tradition. However, our music department still has a very long, rich history to brag about, and the list of respected composers who have served on the Brandeis faculty is as impressive as that almost any school in the country.

No one has been more important to music at Brandeis than Irving Fine. Born in Boston in 1914, Fine attended Harvard University and earned prestigious positions on the Harvard faculty and with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1950, he moved to the fledgling Brandeis, founding the School of Creative Arts. He remained at the university until his untimely death in 1962, and his legacy lives on in the institution he created and in the professorship, performance ensemble and tribute concert that bear his name. Fine’s melodic music also earned him great praise, including a Fulbright and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

One of Fine’s greatest triumphs was the quality of composers he brought to the Brandeis faculty. He was very well connected, and he became one of the members of what would later be termed the “Boston school”, a close-knit group of area composers containing some of the biggest names in the art music world. Through Fine’s influence, several prominent Boston school composers would begin long tenures at the university.

Arthur Berger was one of these, and when he accepted the title of Irving G. Fine Professor of Music in 1969, he began an association with Brandeis that lasted until he died in 2003. Berger explored a serial, Neo-Classical style that united the styles of Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, rigidly shunning the more mainstream path taken by his close friend Aaron Copland. Apart from his composing, Berger also gained fame as a music critic, writing for several Boston and New York newspapers and founding Perspectives on New Music, now the second oldest scholarly journal on music theory in the country.

Harold Shapero also came from the Boston school, and his 37-year Brandeis career included time as the Chair of the Department of Music. Shapero was (and still is) interested in the new field of electronic instruments, and his leadership helped to grow the very unique Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio into the nationally-respected facility it is today. His “Symphony for Classical Orchestra” is still regularly performed, and his record of international prizes is extensive.

The most famous Boston school composer, and the man most recognized as being associated with music at Brandeis, is Leonard Bernstein.

One of the seminal figures in 20thcentury music, Bernstein is famous world-wide for his popular works for stage like West Side Story and Candide and for his extensive tenure as the music director for the New York Philharmonic, during which time his Young People’s Concerts made him a household name. His recital hall compositions are less well-known, but he left behind three symphonies, several conventional operas and a number of other works for symphony, chamber groups and solo piano.

Bernstein joined the Brandeis faculty in 1951 and remained there until 1956, subsequently becoming a University Fellow and a member of the Board of Trustees. In 1952, Bernstein premiered his opera Trouble in Tahiti at the university’s first commencement, and he established and directed the first Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, an event which still occurs annually.

Outside of the Boston school, several other noted composers have taught at Brandeis, and any list of them is bound to be incomplete. Wayne Peterson was at the school for several years; he would later win the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Alvin Lucier was a student at Brandeis and later joined the faculty.

He has gained some fame for his quirky sound experiments that attempt to manipulate and explore the nature of sound waves themselves. Yehudi Wyner is probably the best-known member of Brandeis’ current music faculty, and his accomplished career of exploring his Jewish heritage through music culminated in the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his piano concerto “Chiavi in Mano.”

Despite its late start, the Brandeis Department of Music has managed to attract some of the greatest minds in the art music world and to build a very strong reputation. Though the composers it has attracted have been of diverse musical minds, they helped to develop a sound and movement that is uniquely American and uniquely Bostonian. Perhaps art music will never again serve as the medium for relentless experimentation at the forefront of culture that it used to be, but Brandeis University has and will continue to ensure as it is not a spent force.