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

MR. HOIBY WAS born in 1926, in Madison, Wis. His father was a used-car salesman who liked to play the ukulele, and his mother worked in a laundry; her grandfather had been a violinist in an opera orchestra back in Denmark. The family story has it that Lee, when he was about 4 or so, stood next to his mother’s piano bench, tugged at her skirt and said that he wanted to learn to play. He proved to be something of a prodigy, though for years he couldn’t read music, and he gradually set himself on a course to becoming a concert pianist.

It happened to be a very good time to be in Madison and interested in music. In the ’30s and early ’40s, with increasing political tensions and the outbreak of war in Europe, the University of Wisconsin had become, unexpectedly, one of the major classical music centers in America. Mr. Hoiby studied with the renowned Danish pianist Gunnar Johansen, who was an artist-in-residence at the university, and heard weekly recitals of the Pro Arte Quartet, which had been founded by the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who was Arnold Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and was also in residence. The quartet performed the great 18th- and 19th-century works of Haydn, Brahms and Schumann but also more recent works by Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

It was Mr. Hoiby’s first encounter with atonal music, and he reacted with visceral revulsion. “If music doesn’t have melody and harmony and rhythm as I understand it,” he said, “I’m not interested. A lot of that stuff sounds like wallpaper to me.”

He had moved to California to work on his master’s degree at Mills College when a friend, visiting from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, saw some of the music that Mr. Hoiby had been composing, somewhat guiltily, in his spare time. He insisted on bringing it back to show to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, then a professor at Curtis; shortly thereafter, Menotti summoned Mr. Hoiby to study with him. It wasn’t the kind of call you could reject, and Mr. Hoiby was soon in Philadelphia.

After Curtis, Mr. Hoiby moved to New York-a ninth-floor apartment on 108th and Amsterdam, for $82.50 a month-and led his isolated writing life, assisting Menotti and Samuel Barber, Menotti’s partner, with copying and transcription. Menotti arranged for the successful premiere of Mr. Hoiby’s first one-act, The Scarf, at the inaugural Spoleto Festival in 1958, and was doubtless instrumental in the work’s production at New York City Opera the following year. (City Opera also presented the New York premieres of Mr. Hoiby’s next two operas.) Menotti also set Mr. Hoiby up with a rich student, an heiress to the Harkness oil fortune and an aspiring composer, whose support was crucial in those early years.

Menotti is now a marginal figure, but he was perhaps the leading opera composer of mid-century America. He won the Pulitzer Prize for two of his operas, including his 1950 masterpiece, The Consul. Menotti’s style–tonal, lyrical, sophisticated yet straightforward, derived from 19th-century European models but far more self-consciously restrained–was a profound influence on Mr. Hoiby’s. Through the 1960s and ’70s, as the academic, serial style became the establishment standard, the smoothly tonal work of Menotti and Barber began to feel more and more reactionary–well crafted but somehow irrelevant, the classical music equivalent of Bing Crosby. Barber’s output slowed after the failure of his opera Antony and Cleopatra at the Met in 1966, and he died in 1981. Menotti lived until 2007, and while he continued to exert influence as an opera impresario, the popularity of his own works gradually waned.

Mr. Hoiby began to cry as he recalled his midlife crisis of around this time, in the late ’60s, while he was working on Summer and Smoke. The breakdown propelled him to a search for spiritual fulfillment; he joined a New Age group called Pathwork, which was how he met Mr. Shulgasser, a writer and astrologist. “He’s the Jewish intellectual that I’ve always wanted,” Mr. Hoiby said with a smile.

Mr. Hoiby’s identification with a fading style, combined with his unwillingness to change course or ingratiate himself with the establishment, kept him from gaining a wide audience. His operas, largely through-composed, lack the sweeping arias of Carlisle Floyd’s cannily pseudo-folksy Susannah, or of Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe. And while he had participated in some Dadaist experiments with avant-garde composer Harry Partsch back in Madison, it was not in Mr. Hoiby’s style or temperament to join the postmodernists or minimalists, who irritated him almost as much as the academics and atonalists did. (The thing he remembers most about Einstein on the Beach is the hamburger he left the performance to eat.)

He never had great success as an orchestral or chamber music composer; those worlds were particularly dominated by the serialists. That he was known at all was due to singers, who loved his art songs. “It was the singers, not the instrumentalists,” he said. “The instrumentalists didn’t know who the fuck I was. I didn’t have any instrumental music played. Singers, you can’t fool them. When they hear a song, they can tell right away if it’s going to make them sound good. And mine do.”

One singer who agreed, and whose advocacy is largely responsible for Mr. Hoiby’s reputation, was Leontyne Price. She was introduced to his songs through a mutual friend and included them in practically all of her recitals from 1964 until her retirement, in 1996. “She sang them,” he said, “and I didn’t know that they were that good.” Indeed, it seems likely that his songs-whose brilliant and varied texts, chosen by Mr. Shulgasser, range from Bishop to Roethke to Stevens to Rilke-will be what last the longest of his work. Perfectly honed little worlds, they benefit most from his modesty. Small shifts, like the opening into ecstatic brightness of the third stanza of “The Message” (set to a John Donne poem), take on a kind of humble grandeur.

 

THIS SMALLER, less pressured quality made songwriting more appealing to Mr. Hoiby than symphonic music or even opera. When he first met and charmed Tennessee Williams in 1964, Williams offered Mr. Hoiby the adaptation rights to any one of his plays. (“Take your pick, sweetheart,” Mr. Hoiby remembers him saying.) Williams had never before granted such permission.

It was the opportunity to court greatness; the selection of The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or, of course, A Streetcar Named Desire would have been obvious for almost any composer. But Mr. Hoiby says he was simply flummoxed by the idea of setting to music Stanley Kowalski’s climactic cry of “Stella!” and he chose the minor Summer and Smoke instead. Streetcar would have been a major statement and a lofty risk–while it can take tremendous courage to resist the mainstream, it can also take courage to join it, with the attendant pressure and expectations. The conspicuous insignificance of Mr. Hoiby’s reason for rejecting the play points to a mysterious aversion to taking the plunge, to that attention.

But perhaps it’s not so mysterious after all. The thing that unites all the disparate living spaces that Mr. Hoiby described-the ninth-floor apartment in Morningside Heights, an airy penthouse on Washington Street in the Village with views of the twin towers and the Empire State Building, the studio perched on a hill in the house in the Catskills–is a sense of floating, calmly and quietly, above the world. It’s what he has done his entire career, and there is something refreshing about his reticence, his separateness, in the context of a contemporary music scene that can sometimes feel glutted with networking and socializing, with the creation of work that is intended largely to please and impress one’s colleagues and friends. Mr. Hoiby himself has little contact with other composers; his work is for himself, his commissioners–Vassar has asked him for a setting of lines from Emerson’s Nature for its 150th anniversary next year–and the future.

He looked out the dining-room window toward the waterfall that prompted him to buy the property. His face has grown fleshier with age, but in profile, his delicate, well-defined features are nearly identical to those in a photo, taken in the early ’60s and now taped to a wall in his studio, of a handsome, serious young man looking down at the camera.

“I don’t take any of this for granted, Zachary,” he said. “My life is to me continually miraculous. Just to have good health is a great thing. But to be able to do what you love to do, that’s the highest blessing.”

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