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Life at Juilliard in the ’40s

Author

​The Journal has received a number of letters in response to a series of articles on Juilliard and the military in World War II.

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After I was discharged from the Army, in 1946, I studied trumpet with Charles Colin—a child of the movies, I saw myself playing the blues in smoky nightclubs. Naïve and romanticized? You bet, although I sought a creative life. I wrote some short pieces for orchestral groups and a musician friend urged me to apply to Juilliard. I was shocked when I read the letter on Juilliard stationery, accepting me provisionally to study composition on the G.I. Bill. I had no background other than listening to and being moved by every form of music I heard since childhood. I was older than most of the other students; though they were already professionals, I believe I was admitted because I had a modicum of talent, a lot of desire, and mainly because I was a returning veteran. I guess the faculty had some hope for me, and I was given the chance.

Life there was good. The halls lined with practice rooms, each one with a Steinway grand (plus the school had a single Bosendorfer and two Bechsteins), I could hear muffled vocalists, strings, winds, percussion; music from medieval estampie dances to Bartók quartets. Most exciting and informative was being allowed to sit among the orchestral instrumentalists during their rehearsals; reading the score, nonmusical sounds all around; buzzing, clicks, fingers tapping on keys, trombonists squirting each other with their oil cans, the conductor taking the musicians through a section over and over in order so that everyone could deeply comprehend it. To this day on the rare occasion when I have the opportunity to attend a rehearsal of music or a play, you’ll find me there.

In the Juilliard lunchroom, there was excited talk of recent performances; how so-and-so screwed up that reading of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, differing views on Beethoven’s use of trumpets, and how col legno should be applied in Prokofiev’s Fifth. Occasionally, well-known musicians and dancers would glide through, hardly causing heads to lift. The food was inexpensive and very good, and at Christmastime, William Schuman, the president, a delightful gentleman, would stop to speak with every person there.

I tried to overcome my feeling of inferiority when it came to the study of architectonics. I thought that listening and feeling were all that was needed. I hadn’t yet learned that composers would copy by hand the scores of other composers in order to intimately understand their work. The composition faculty included William Bergsma (faculty 1946-63), Vincent Persichetti (faculty 1947-87), Peter Mennin (faculty 1947-58, president 1962-83), Bernard Wagenaar (faculty 1925-67), and Vittorio Giannini (’29 violin, ’31, composition; faculty 1939-64); Schuman didn’t give classes. It came to pass one not-so-fine day Bergsma announced that our class would do a detailed analysis of the second movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata (No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111). Here, two mighty powers collided. This two-movement sonata is transcendent—it has a violent first movement while the second, an Arietta in C major, sings beyond anything Orpheus could dream of. It is a simple theme with variations that build inexorably into a new dimension. The other mighty power was Bergsma. I detested him and his acid tongue and superior attitude. Of course, my dislike was based on my fear of being found to be incompetent, and when he unfolded his plan to analyze this sonata, I was terrified.

Analysis means going through the piece note by note. We all used the Schirmer edition of the Beethoven sonatas for this, and while following this dry-as-dust process, I was in agony. Hearing the music in my head as I studied the pages, it seemed to me we were committing rape. I didn’t have the courage to say so; that would have been ridiculous. I was only aware that the fearsome Bergsma was trying to destroy everything I knew to be beautiful by taking it apart.

On it went, over two days. The variations build in complexity, but without a change in tempo, with repeats of the first and second halves of the theme in each variation. I knew what was coming, and finally we turned the page to the last variation, the climax of the sonata, consisting of four trills in two hands at the octave. Just trills. The analysis stopped, we were unable to go on. We had come face to face with genius, and I felt triumphant: Bergsma was defeated, annihilated! He and my fellow students—including Jack [Jacob] Druckman (B.S. 54, M.S. 56, composition; faculty 1956-72) and Lou [Louis] Calabro (Diploma ’51, composition)—sat in silence for what seemed a long time, and as we left the room, there was no prattle, invitations to evening get-togethers, jokes, or the usual slanders.

Many years passed before I understood that Bergsma knew what he was doing. He chose that sonata movement to teach us that analysis is capable of taking us just so far—he knew and shared the experience of transcendence. [About 20 years ago] I read in The New York Times that he’d died. I wished I had been more secure within myself back then, that I would have understood he was a human being and a musician, even with his sharp tongue. I could have thanked him for what I subsequently realized was the most profound lesson I’d had at Juilliard.

 

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