The story of Michael Hersch is one of the most amazing you’ll ever hear — in music or out. He is an American composer, born in 1971. He is one of the most honored and lauded composers before the public today. He deserves this recognition too (say I, as a critic who has covered him for years). Why is his story so amazing? First, there is his extraordinary talent. Second, there is the fact that he started in music at a late age — and rapidly soared to something like the top.
Here in Cleveland, he is premiering two works. To put it differently, and maybe more accurately, the Cleveland Orchestra is premiering one of them, and he is premiering the other, as a pianist. Before the concert, there is a “pre-concert concert.” Hersch takes the stage as he usually does: shyly, almost apologetically — as if to say, “Sorry to bother you, your applause is so embarrassing.”
He sits down to play his massive and monumental piano work The Vanishing Pavilions, which he completed in 2005. It is apocalyptic, visionary, and staggering. And it takes approximately two and a half hours to play. Hersch does not play it all, in this pre-concert concert. He plays excerpts, a little suite. And he plays it with his prodigious technique, one that draws gasps. Apparently, his fingers can do whatever his brain commands.
Which brings us to another reason Hersch’s story is amazing: He could have a big, big piano career, which would only boost his fame as a composer. But he eschews it — playing only his own music, and that very rarely.
After the excerpts from The Vanishing Pavilions, he premieres his Two Lullabies. These are not what you might call traditional lullabies, tunes to put baby to sleep. The first is marked “Tense, disquieted” (as well as “restrained”). Both are formidable piano pieces, not easy to play. But there is definitely a lullaby aspect to them. The composer wrote them, he has explained, in response to the death of his closest friend.
That is true of his Night Pieces, too, the work premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra. It is a kind of trumpet concerto (with the Cleveland’s principal, Michael Sachs, doing the honors). The audience showers this work with applause. Hersch is willing to take a couple of bows, but he is eager to get off the stage. I know composers who could have milked that applause for a good five minutes more. A soprano worth her salt, ten more.
The next morning, I sit down with Hersch, for a long talk. He describes what a premiere feels like, to him: “The music is sort of safe in your mind. And then it’s out there, naked.” This gives a composer “a feeling of incredible vulnerability. That’s why, for years, I didn’t go to concerts of my music. George Rochberg once said, ‘A composer needs an iron stomach.’” (Rochberg was an American composer, living from 1918 to 2005.)
Hersch grew up in Virginia. His family divided their time between Reston, on the outskirts of Washington, and a place deep in the mountains, on the West Virginia border. “Was this a weekend home?” I say. “More like a weekend tent,” says Hersch. “What do you mean, ‘tent’?” I say. He says, “I mean, a tent, with little stakes in the ground.” The family had a tent on their farm for more than ten years. Finally, they built a house. Hersch says that his life in rural Virginia “shaped who I am. I carry that place with me all the time.”
He has two younger brothers: Jamie and Eric. Their dad, Jay, once worked for the federal government, but then he went into the beef business. Their mom, Pat, is a writer. Michael remembers going around with his dad “in this refrigerated truck, and we’d stop by slaughterhouses — which was, you know, a little traumatic. We’d stop by grocery stores and try to sell our wares.”
Hersch’s parents weren’t musical, and there was no piano in the house (either house, or tent). An uncle played the guitar; Jamie played the French horn. The family would listen to the radio on their frequent car trips: bluegrass, rock, Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Michael appreciated everything he heard. “I joined the KISS Army in 1978,” he says. He would have been six or seven then. There were also bands like Bad Brains and Corrosion of Conformity.
Hersch is extremely reluctant to talk about his abilities, but Jamie has talked about them, publicly: If Michael heard a song, even once, he knew all the words, forever. And all the notes, forever. He could also draw things with photographic realism. Jamie was progressing on the French horn, and is, in fact, a professional today. He pestered his older brother to listen to some classical music, which he finally did — at age 18. It was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in a videotaped performance by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Michael knew what his life would be.
Ordinarily, music is a child prodigy’s game. Think for a second about what 18 means. Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, “the Spanish Mozart,” died at 19. Lili Boulanger died at 24. Schubert, greedy, had 31 years.
Hersch does not feel at all disadvantaged, having started when he did. “I didn’t look at it as, ‘I have so much to catch up on.’ People sometimes say, ‘You started so late, it must have been daunting.’ But I wasn’t thinking in terms of chronology or lost years. I was just overjoyed at my luck. I had found this world, and I had it all to explore.” His parents, he says, have “caught a lot of flak from people who think, ‘What if he had started at four or five?’ Well, maybe I would have burned out.”
He quickly learned to play the piano. He wrote his first composition at 19, a piano fantasy. (Mozart wrote all five of his violin concertos when he was 19.) As the music critic Tim Page wrote in 2005, “Hersch discovered, as geniuses will, that he somehow already knew what he was doing.” Hersch himself will allow only this: “My mind works for music.”
“Miraculously,” he says, he was admitted to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. He earned two degrees in composition there. He started teaching at Peabody in 2006, when he was 34; he became chairman of the department (the composition department) four years later. But we’re getting too far ahead in our story.
After studying music just a few years, he started to win all the prizes: a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, etc. Veteran and famed composers were agog at what he could do. Some of the top performers took up his cause, including Mariss Jansons, the conductor. In 2008, I did a public interview of Jansons in Salzburg. I asked him which living composers stood out for him. He first named three septuagenarians: Penderecki, Pärt, and Kancheli. And then he paused to make special mention of this young American, Hersch.
He has written music of virtually all types: symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs. The only thing that’s missing is opera, which will no doubt come. Much of his music is intense, as though communicating something urgently important. I’ve often said, “He writes as though his life depended on it.” Few notes are wasted. Nothing is for show. The music is unyieldingly honest. “Uncompromising” is a word several of us have used. Also, we’ve said, “When you’re at a Hersch premiere, you feel like you’re at something historic. Like you’re hearing, for the first time, something that will last.”
Be aware of something else about Hersch’s music: It can be practically unbearable. In person, Hersch is a sunny, pleasant, affable type. But his music tends to express pain and despair. Of one of his symphonies, a critic wrote, “Nearly unbearable, it spoke to the kind of injury from which one does not heal.” Already in 1996, when Hersch was 24, Rochberg commented, “His music sounds the dark places of the human heart and soul.”
When he was about 30, he decided he wanted to write some very big and long pieces, such as The Vanishing Pavilions. These would take years to write, each of them. No one commissioned them. He recalls that people said, “You’re not doing yourself any favors, you know — writing these pieces that no one is going to program. That have no commercial appeal.” He knew. But he could do no other, by his lights. When money got tight, he worked part-time for his father, selling beef. This was while he was teaching at Peabody, and had umpteen international prizes on his shelf. He would finish a lecture on Bruckner, then go to the phone to call federal penitentiaries, talking up beef.
A colleague said to him, “You’re the most own-drummer person I know” — an excellent observation, and a high compliment.
Because of his own-drumness, he won’t, as I’ve said, accept piano engagements. People have said, “Why don’t you play a Brahms concerto on one half of a program and one of your own on the other half?” He will not. Curious, I ask whether he has to practice the piano (because I suspect he doesn’t). Does he have to practice, like mortals, or can he play whatever he wants, whenever he wants, cold? He won’t say. I browbeat him until he at last confesses: No, he doesn’t have to practice. He can just play at will.
But what he wants to do is compose. A bout with cancer, in 2007, only increased his determination to release the pieces that are in him. He lives with the two girls he loves: his wife, Karen, a classicist; and their daughter, Abigail. Abby was born on January 27, 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. His favorite time to compose is at night, when they are asleep. “It’s better than any artist’s colony.” Among his gifts is the need for very little sleep — about four hours. One can get a lot done, in 20 waking hours.
He does not struggle to compose, but he does need time. He cannot be rushed. He works on a piece in his head until it’s ready. Then he writes it down, with no revision. It took almost a year to write down The Vanishing Pavilions, which runs more than 300 pages.
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask, “Do you care if they listen?” The allusion does not have to be explained to him: In the 1950s, there was a famous essay by Milton Babbitt called “Who Cares If You Listen?” Hersch, somewhat to my surprise, says he does care. “If people listen, and they connect with my music, it’s deeply meaningful. And if they don’t like it, it’s hurtful. But I’m gonna write it anyway.”
Shostakovich liked to quip, “I like all music, from Bach to Offenbach.” Hersch is the same way — a man who devours music from Gregorian chant to this week. When I press him about favorite music, he says, “For me, late Schubert piano music is where it’s at.” He adds, “The thing about music is, you can go for years without listening to a given composer, and then suddenly have a need to hear him. The music is lying dormant, waiting for you. You can activate it anytime, simply by engaging with it.”
Like most artists worth paying attention to, Hersch is grateful to be doing what he’s doing. He considers himself incredibly lucky — lucky to have been exposed to music, even at a late date (or an untraditional date, let’s say). And “it just anguishes me that there are so many people out there, possibly, who could have been like me, or are like me, who weren’t fortunate enough to have a brother who would say, ‘You need to sit down and listen to Beethoven.’ What about all the people who are just as talented as I am, or more talented, and didn’t have the opportunity?”
There you have some of Michael Hersch’s greatness: not just a mind that “works for music,” not just what people unblushingly call his “genius,” but a humanity, evident in his music and in his life at large.