Magazine | May 16, 2011, Issue

The Right Notes

(Roman Genn)

‘I’m just so grateful,” said Lee Hoiby, in the last days of his life. “I’m grateful to have lived the life I’ve lived, to have written the music I’ve written, to have known the people I’ve known.” He died at the end of March. I got to know him in 2004, something like that. And I thought I’d say a little about the friendship we shared. First, though, a bit of biography.

Hoiby was born in 1926, in Madison, Wis. He studied with two of the outstanding pianists and teachers of the age: Gunnar Johansen and Egon Petri. Johansen had studied with Petri, actually. And Petri had studied with Busoni (no less). Hoiby opted against becoming a pianist, but he played the piano all his life. He practiced every day, on Chopin études, specifically.

What he did was compose. His big teachers in composition were Gian Carlo Menotti, Darius Milhaud, and Samuel Barber. But he had other teachers, teachers he never met, in the flesh. “It was Schubert who taught me to write songs,” he told me. And he said this of Richard Strauss: “He was the one, in Capriccio [an opera], who gave me the courage to write simple lyricism.”

Why did he need courage? Hoiby grew up in a strange time for music. To put it briefly, tonality was out, atonality was in; beauty was out, severity was in; the idea of inspiration was out, formalism was in. And the enforcers of the new order were merciless. Hoiby often said, “I wanted to grow heirloom roses, but they allowed you nothing but cactuses.” He paid a price for his nonconformity: a price in commissions, prizes, fame. But it was a price he gladly paid, for he felt free: free to write the music he wanted to write, the music that was in him. And plenty of people liked it, a lot.

A few years ago, a young composer referred to Hoiby as a “maverick.” He got a kick out of this, Hoiby did.

He wrote all sorts of music, including sonatas, concertos, and quartets. But he is best known for music involving the voice: be it songs, oratorios, or operas. His most frequently performed operas are Summer and Smoke, based on the Tennessee Williams play, and A Month in the Country, based on the Turgenev. One day, Williams and Hoiby were walking down the street, and the playwright said, “Why don’t you make an opera out of one of my plays?” Hoiby said, “Which one?” Williams replied, “Take your pick, sweetheart.”

Not every composer has the ability to write an opera. Leonard Bernstein once said to Hoiby something quite gracious: “Maybe you’ll teach me how to write an opera someday.”

It was in songs, however, that Hoiby showed utmost skill. He wrote about a hundred of them. Many have entered the standard American repertory. Their greatest champion was Leontyne Price, the soprano who retired in the late ’90s. One of the most popular Hoiby songs is “The Serpent,” which sets a comical poem by Theodore Roethke. A voice coach once said, “If you throw a brick out the window on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan], you’ll hit a soprano who has learned ‘The Serpent.’”

In February 2005, I wrote a piece about Hoiby for National Review: “Singing His Own Song.” He was grateful to have someone understand and appreciate him. Shortly after this piece appeared, I received a large envelope in the mail. Hoiby had sent me a new song — and it was dedicated to me. It’s a very good song, too. Called “Winter Hubris,” it is brief, shrewdly crafted, and moving. In my thank-you note to the composer, I referred to it as a “B-minor beauty.” And that’s how Lee would refer to the song, when speaking about it to me: “your B-minor beauty.”

#page#It sets a poem by a friend of his, who works for George Soros. Think of that: The text is by a lieutenant to Soros, great benefactor of the American and worldwide Left; the dedication is to an editor of a stalwart conservative magazine. Funny old world, and a fun one, too, sometimes.

In several ways, Lee and I were quite different. He was 1960s-ish, gay, and pot-smoking. (“Mary Jane has always been good to me,” he said, as he lay in a medical facility toward the end. I’m not entirely sure about that.) Was he on the left? Presumably, but, you know? He never breathed a political word to me. Never. And I never breathed one to him, of course. I also think of this fact: He was damned as a “conservative” — a musical conservative — by his critics all his career.

We talked about religion once, and more than once. He said he had never really considered himself a religious person. “Spiritual,” sure, but not religious. One day, he had an inspiration, as he was composing. Some compositional problem was solved for him. “And, much to my surprise, I found myself kneeling, in gratitude.” He went on to say, “When it’s really good, it doesn’t come from you.”

Far from Manhattan, where composers do their politicking, get their commissions, and keep their names and faces about, Hoiby lived in Long Eddy, N.Y. He lived with his partner and collaborator, the writer Mark Shulgasser. They lived on a ramshackle estate with a waterfall. (Lee, were he reading this, would chuckle over that word “estate.”) I visited a few times. And we talked about everything: composers, composing, performers, performing, life experiences, good and bad. Everything, pretty much.

He would tell me what Petri said, about how to close a particular Schumann piece, for example. And he would tell me what Barber said. Here is one of those morsels: “When you learn a Beethoven sonata, you must play the notes on the page. Anything else is wrong. Writing music is the same. You have to find the right notes.” Lee was always on the hunt for these “right notes.”

One composer who came up in our discussions was Ned Rorem. He was, and is, not unlike Lee: American, tonal (to use the shortest of shorthands), a celebrated writer of art songs. They should have been allies and brothers; they were not. Lee recounted something terrible that Rorem had said about his music. I can see the look on Lee’s face, full of disgust and pain. He then said that, years after the offending remark, Rorem wrote him a note, saying, in effect, “We’re old now. Can we see each other and make up?” Lee never answered. I wish he had.

We did a lot of talking, yes. But the best thing about being at Lee’s place was the music: going into his studio and singing through his songs. I would sing, and he would play. Or he would sing, or we would both sing. All the while, he would comment on his songs: how they were written, how they should be performed. You can’t do that with, say, Schubert.

Lee sent me a steady stream of CDs, scores, and e-mails, with various observations and reports. Almost always, there was an eagerness, a kid-like excitement about his life and work. “On the homefront, great happenings!” one e-mail began. Another said, “I am quasi-trembling, on the verge of really digging into the next text I shall set, an Emerson plum, which Mark found after long searching. It’s for the Vassar sesquicentennial commission.”

#page#One day, he might forward a spoof on Elliott Carter (the apostle of modernism — whom, by the way, I interviewed in 2008, just before his hundredth birthday. He’s still going). Another day, he might write something like this: “Last night, probably owing to our recent exchanges about her, I got a little scotch under my belt, took a big breath, and called Leontyne.” He and the great soprano had not communicated in a while. “To my delight, she was delighted.”

Money was often tight — this despite a “Madame von Meck,” as we referred to her, who helped him out from time to time. (Nadezhda von Meck was Tchaikovsky’s patroness.) Lee wrote, for example, “Dreading extreme cold leading to extremely expensive heat.” And, “Another day at the dentist, the bill rising another $800. They live well.”

Mainly, he wrote in his e-mails about the joys and challenges of composing — with the emphasis on the joys. “Today I got one of those ideas that are immediate, which the French call trouvailles [findings, or discoveries]. (Doesn’t sound very modest, but you know I never brag.)” He did — brag, that is. But usually in a charming and forgivable way.

Here was a note out of the blue, as so many of his were:

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep, I had some thoughts about music which recur to me today. In tonality, the tonic is Home. You can leave, go many places, have many adventures, stray where you like, but you can always come home. Without tonality, you set out, you may have a lot of fun and do a lot of things, but you have no map, you can never come home. You are lost.

I can’t tell you how grateful he was to be a composer. But he can: “I have this lovely awareness of having been possessed by one thing, all my life, and loving it.” He also wrote, “Bach didn’t grind out all those pages in the Gesellschaft just because it was his job. He couldn’t help himself, just as I have to try, again and again, to write something, even if it’s not a commission.”

One of Hoiby’s most beloved songs is “Where the Music Comes From,” for which he wrote the lyrics, too. He wrote it at a quite down time of his life: when he was really searching. It’s kind of a New Age hymn, a hippie hymn, or prayer. Many singers have sung it, including Price. But no one sang it as well as Lee. We did a Q&A once at the Cosmos Club in Washington. At the end, I asked him to play and sing “Where the Music Comes From.” He needed no arm-twisting. He croaked it out in his wonderful old-man’s voice. The performance was stunningly personal, and heartfelt, and moving. The room was kind of in suspension.

He always said he would live a very long time, coming from a long-lived family. An aunt of his died at 108. She bowled almost to the last. Lee died at 85. On meeting him, the pianist and accompanist Dalton Baldwin paid him this compliment: “Your songs are for the ages.” I suspect that’s true. Some of Lee Hoiby’s songs are among my favorite songs — by anybody, in any age. I count him one of my favorite people, too.

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