Saturday, May 18, 2013

Harold Shapero

Photo: Gordon Parks for Life

I logged on to Twitter a while ago to tell Alex Ross that we won't have much Wagner in SF on the 22nd either, but before I could get that tweet off, I saw Alex's For Harold Shapero link, and knew what had happened. The composer died last night in his sleep, peacefully, from complications of pneumonia, at 93.

Harold Shapero was one of my professors at Brandeis in the 1970s. (If you didn't already know my approximate age, you do now.) When I started, he was some years into what we thought was a major-league composer's block. Over at Sequenza 21, where there's a statement up from the Shapero family, Christian Hertzog notes in the comments that Mr. Shapero "retreated from composing after being attacked by some of his peers in the late 1940s/50s."

I don't personally have any information about why Mr. Shapero stopped composing, but given the quality of his early work, that retreat, or block, or whatever it was, was a sad thing. He was a good teacher; I took electronic music and analysis with him. If you ever hear me refer to the later variations of Beethoven's Op. 111 piano sonata as "the heavenly raindrops," I'm quoting Mr. Shapero. And I think he must have been great to study composition with.

The electronic music class was a lot of fun. Brandeis had a Buchla and a Moog, and Mr. Shapero wouldn't let us touch the Moog. "You will just be writing for keyboard if you use the Moog. Go play with the Buchla." So I learned a little about what a sequencer could do. I still have the resulting tape, my only extended composition ever. It's right over there in a bookcase, and has not been played since the 1970s. And I have a '70s era music department brochure that has a photo of me sitting in the electronic music studio in front of the Buchla. (The brochure also stars David Urrows's boots.)

I was last in touch with Mr. Shapero about ten years ago, following Arthur Berger's death, and he was much as he had been in the 70s: warm, funny, sharp. That correspondence was in an old email account; it's still active, but it seems I deleted most email from 2003 at some point, owing to storage limits. He remembered me (though not what I looked like), and we had an entertaining exchange. In one of the lost emails from him, he lamented the loss of a beloved cat and said he and his wife were not getting a new cat more because he couldn't stand to lose another. He was also composing again and had been for some time, a good thing.

I pitched an interview with him a few years ago and was turned down; I should really have pitched harder. It would have been good to have a few extended conversations with him.

Hail and farewell, Harold Shapero, and condolences to his wife and daughter, who survive him. You will be missed.

Updated May 19 with links and some more comments.
Updated May 23 with more links.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this Lisa. I am trying to see if old interview tapes I have are still playable and will happily share if they are. Harold talked to me about having stopped composing. Some people tell a story about Stravinsky turning to serial techniques adn that he found that demoralizing - which is just not true. He said that he really needed models from other music to make a piece and, eventually, that ceased working for him. But he also was so self-critical (even Copland remarked on this) and he said that at some point he did not have the "courage to continue" (his words). He was composing again starting in the 90's actually - maybe you knew that.

You were at Brandeis during a real "golden age" in the dept. Things are pretty great now, and we will all miss Harold.

Eric Chasalow

Paul A. Epstein said...

I was lucky enough to study harmony and composition with him as an undergraduate in the late 50's. He was a great score reader (although he claimed he couldn't hold a candle to Lennie) and a wonderful raconteur. It's good to know he had started composing again, Eric. Are we likely to hear anything of that work?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Eric - yes, I did know he started composing again in the 90s. The long, long hiatus makes me so sad, given his enormous talent.

Being super self-critical creates certain issues for creative people; so often you're just too close to the work to judge its quality accurately. Everyone's work will vary in quality over a lifetime, even the best (see: minor Beethoven, of which there is plenty).

The 70s were a really good time to be at Brandeis! I took classes with Meg Bent, Arthur Berger, Joshua Rifkin, and sang with Jim Olesen (who is still there, I see). Oh, and David Hoose was conducting the orchestra.

Thanks, Paul, for that memory.

CruzSF said...

Thanks for sharing your memories with us at this time of your loss. And thank you for introducing me to a composer I didn't know until now.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Lisa.