The Lonely Composer: Lee Hoiby Spent His Career Alone and Against the Grain. Will That Make His Music Survive?

The composer Lee Hoiby lives deep in the Catskills, up a series of curving two-lane highways and a 20-minute drive past the end of cell-phone reception. A small, utilitarian metal bridge over a stream leads into his gravel driveway, which winds a hundred feet or so up a hill, branching left toward the big red house and right toward the garage. Atop that structure are the rooms where Mr. Hoiby works and sleeps. He can sit at his desk and through the large windows look down the hill, past the stream and out to the road.

His existence up here is far from bourgeois bohemian country living. The main house, which has the kitchen and dining room and is where Mr. Hoiby’s partner, Mark Shulgasser, sleeps, is charming–the view from the dining room is of a man-made pond and an idyllic waterfall at the edge of the property–but not quite cozy. It’s drafty and raw, with a backwoods feel. Though Mr. Shulgasser claims that the area, with a recent influx of gay residents, is becoming “Fairy Lane,” there’s an obscure sense of hardship, a note of isolation.

‘All I did was compose. I never went anywhere, I didn’t know anybody. I never went to any parties. I never met anybody. I’m basically not interested in social life.’

That feeling of isolation is not so radically different from Mr. Hoiby’s account of his early years in New York City in the 1950s. “I hardly ever went out,” he said softly, sitting next to Mr. Shulgasser in the apartment above the garage, surrounded by a piano, old computers, scores, pictures of his beloved Schubert and posters advertising old productions. “All I did was compose. I never went anywhere, I didn’t know anybody. I never went to any parties. I never met anybody. I’m basically not interested in social life, I guess.”

At the age of 84, with his gentle voice and milky, pale-blue eyes, his modesty and his sometimes startling emotional transparency, Mr. Hoiby has a pure, almost saintlike affect. For a long time–well over half a century–he has separated himself, proudly but not without some ruefulness, from the various mainstreams of American “serious” music, from atonal serialism to minimalism to eclecticism. But after years of being profoundly out of step with musical fashion, his sincere, lyrical, tonal work finally sounds closer to what young composers are doing, to what’s popular today. His songs are widely performed, and his operas are done with regularity, mostly at regional houses and conservatories; his vocal lines, clean and clear, are doable challenges for developing voices.

After reviving Mr. Hoiby’s opera A Month in the Country in 2004, the Manhattan School of Music has just completed a three-performance run of his Summer and Smoke, from 1971, based on the Tennessee Williams play. The opera–emotional but unsentimental, like all of Mr. Hoiby’s work–shows the influence of Samuel Barber, whom he knew and idolized, and Benjamin Britten; in his remarkable facility for setting “talky” conversation to music, Mr. Hoiby resembles the Richard Strauss of Intermezzo and Capriccio. But those lush, tuneful pieces came decades after the brutal early operas, Salome and Elektra, the spikiness of which Strauss for the most part worked out of his system. Mr. Hoiby’s career hasn’t featured a similar reaction to any period of youthful wildness; there was no flirtation with dissonance. He freely acknowledges that he’s never really composed any differently, that in 60 years his composing may have deepened but his style has barely changed. And, indeed, while his operas each have their unique aspects, they are remarkably consistent: unassuming, intimate, with their most memorable moments coming in flowing, expertly crafted ensembles. (A Month in the Country closes with a gorgeous octet; Summer and Smoke contains a beautiful, witty quintet.)