MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

John Harbison Reflects on His Retirement

The eminent American composer John Harbison, who turns 83 on 20 December, is retiring from his life-long career on the faculty at MIT. The latest edition of his newsletter offers these reflections:

Arriving reluctantly but alertly at my last day of teaching at MIT, I remember two pieces of advice from the first week, in 1969. From a composer-friend, about the large Introduction to Music lecture: “Don’t be afraid to say what you love.” And from our Director of Music, Klaus Liepmann, as he escorted me down the endless corridor: “We teach our courses as if they are equal in the student’s learning experience to physics. We have poor facilities, we have  large ambition, and a new building is on the way.”

Well, in the last instance he was premature, but his vision for what was then a small enterprise was relentlessly bold and demanding.   I had come from my first teaching experience in a quite different environment, Reed College, in Portland Oregon, 1968, on the west coast, many student occupations of the administration building, intense teach-ins and demonstrations, no grades given, radically informal behavior and attire, very inquisitive students likely to go on break for a few years. 

I returned to the Boston area to begin two jobs, teaching at MIT (new concepts: drop dates, midterms, grades) and conducting the Cantata Singers (in my previous Boston time I had conducted frequently, but only as a guest—this was a full-time Music Directorship). Like many composers, it took a while to find a way to make beginning courses in Harmony and Counterpoint express the daily happiness I found working with pitches and rhythms.  

But within a year or so I got a fortunate break when our music historian Robert Freeman left to become Director of the Eastman School.  Suddenly we needed coverage in Schütz, Schein, and Bach, and my performance and teaching worlds linked up.  In recent years I have heard from long-ago students thanking me for the “gift” of Schütz, my abiding passion of those years. 

There have been, in a half century, so many episodes that remain very fresh, it is hard to choose. But the invitation from Marcus Thompson to join the coaching force was the major crossing point.  I owe much to the students with whom I collaborated as we studied and performed with in two complete performances of Bach’s Musical Offering.  I will never forget the Pierrot Lunaire, staged, in an English translation by the staff-member singer, with one of the performers playing viola for the first time!  Or the two mountings of the Domenico Scarlatti Stabat Mater for ten solo singers and continuo group of four, an un-conducted half hour with about fifteen tricky tempo changes.

For at least fifteen years, Jean Rife and I coached—alternately and sometimes together—a self-recruiting group of madrigal singers (probably in that period the only such group in Boston). Finding their own replacements, and generating consistent initiative and enthusiasm, this cohort performed, over a couple of years, the entire Schütz Italian madrigals, the complete sixth book of Monteverdi madrigals, an entire Gesualdo concert (Jean took on that one), and Byrd’s giant motet Infelix Ego, performed in services both at MIT and at Emmanuel Church.  (This group of singers was characteristically half ROTC students, who shipped out to dangerous places after leaving MIT, part of their preparation some of music’s most beautiful polyphony!) 

My last phase at MIT was a change of scene I owe to Fred Harris, with whom many of us have experienced all kinds of fresh excursions. Fred invited me over to Jazz, where I have spent the last decade. It was fun, and challenging, to write for the first edition of Vocal Jazz Ensemble twenty-some arrangements of standard American Songs, and then later to switch to the Emerson Jazz Players, doing their own composing, their personnel a concentration of some of our most gifted musicians.

We are all in contact with our colleagues at other institutions, and I am sure many of us have noticed that it is not always easy for a group of artists to work and organize together. There are many special advantages to MIT.  We are not expected to perfectly resemble other schools.  We are in a school where making (temporarily?) useless things is part of a respected process.  We are here as artists or artist-scholars, with a growing understanding that our achievements might not “look like” scientific or engineering breakthroughs.  And we have achieved among ourselves a dialogue that along with its fragile moments maintains some resilience and imagination.  

Like my fellow retirees I will miss colleagues, students, the buildings, but I still hope some day to stagger into the New Building to witness, between fresh walls, the typical vigor of MIT Music and Theatre.
                            — JH

Filed under: John Harbison, music news

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