Jack Beeson

and Changes in the Suburban Environment for New Music, 2009

by Leonard J. Lehrman, Critic-at-Large
The New Music Connoisseur, v. 17 #2, p. 15-16


Leonard Bernstein and David Diamond each asked Jack Beeson if he was sure he wasn't Jewish, or gay, respectively, because, they each said, he was "attractive, intelligent, and creative." The implications are left to the reader: Jack happens to be straight, and a Quaker, having been born in 1921 and raised in Muncie, Indiana, America's "Middletown," sometimes earning him the sobriquet "typical American composer."


How Operas are Created by Composers and Librettists : The Life of Jack Beeson, American Opera Composer, is the title of his 544-page memoir, with 16 photos, printed in the US, published in 2008 by Edwin Mellen Press in Wales, Ontario, and Lewiston NY (near the Canadian border), and still unreviewed by any major media. Its skimpy 4-page index is missing numerous important names mentioned in the text, among them Marc Blitzstein, Harold Blumenfeld, Pierre Boulez, Shirlee Emmons, Eugene Green, Marilyn Horne, Judith Liegner, Madeleine Marshall, Andre Obey, Kyriena Siloti, William Strickland, Joan Sutherland. Rich in stories about the creative process and creative personalities (like Bela Bartók, Brenda Lewis, Anton Coppola, and Sheldon Harnick), which everyone should want to read, it has been endorsed in blurbs by Julius Rudel and (former Beeson student) John Kander. It does not have a bibliography, which was disappointing, as I'd especially looked forward to reading what the author might say about the long interview I did with him, published by Opera Monthly, July-Aug. 1994, pp. 16-28, of which I remember him going out and purchasing every copy he could find(!).   



      I had the honor of receiving the first signed copy of the book from the com-poser himself, at the Juilliard premiere of his 1999 Juilliard commission The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, Nov. 19, 2008. The date of that premiere is not included in the book; neither is the Aug. 7, 1996 premiere I played at Heckscher Park of his Two Diversions for Piano. But 38 premiere dates are, in Appendix B, his 17-page list of 156 Musical Works: 11 solo & chamber works, 50 for chorus, 9 for orchestra, 2 for band, 74 for solo voice(s), and 10 operas. Appendix A is a 14-page listing of the complete repertoire of the 1943-1958 Columbia Opera Workshop, in which he played a major role, often assistant conducting, from 1945 on, though he neglects to include himself in that capacity in the 1951 production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning (yet virtually unheard since) Giants in the Earth by Douglas Moore, to whom Jack was very close, having very nearly married his daughter.


      I take the liberty of calling Beeson by his first name, as a friend of my family even before I was born: the woman he did marry, Nora Sigerist, was (and still is) a close friend of my mother's - from their graduate school days at Columbia. In the 1960s, Jack became something of a role model for many of us, especially regarding the Vietnam War: he had been a conscientious objector in World War II; and he was (and still is) one of the most capable, know-ledgeable, and well-connected people in all of American music, especially opera, having mastered the many different talents, as well as the nuts and bolts, needed to work in that genre.


In a diary entry of June 15, 1961, quoted in his Opera Quarterly article of Spring 1986, reprinted in the autobiography, p. 313-14, he expresses it beautifully: 


The trouble is that most "serious" composers have gained their good reputations among other composers via their instrumental compositions. Most of them have little knowledge of the voice and even less affection for it, not to mention their lack of knowledge about English word setting ... and really nobody ever stops to think that it is only in the opera house that an audience is subjected to two or three hours of one composer's music, and that this circumstance requires a broader musical palette than that proper for a symphony or a chamber work.


      In a recent phone conversation, he elaborated by recalling how Douglas Moore modestly said that composers with second-rate techniques, overall, could in fact acquire the skills to create great operas, and have done so. (Think Donizetti, Mascagni, Gounod...) But so many composers who write brilliant instrumental music think they can write opera, without having taken the trouble to learn the very different set of skills needed. This is of course not uncommon in the field. Please see my remarks on my late teacher Leon Kirchner, who blamed everyone else for his own shortcomings in opera.


      I vividly remember how that was standard operating procedure for Sarah Caldwell, too. But Jack is different. He blames no one but circumstance for the neglect of most of his works, except his relatively popular one-act Hello Out There, and his masterpiece, Lizzie Borden, which has had numerous productions, and revivals,  in the U.S. and Germany.


      As a mentor for hundreds of students at Columbia, and a sane voice on so many important music com-mittees, from the Ditson Fund to the Pulitzer Prize, he deserves more. I want to credit him for having helped solve the quandary the Blitzstein Estate, Bernard Malamud and I found ourselves in when I completed an opera based on Malamud left unfinished by Blitzstein: Jack sent us to Bob Holton at Belwin Mills, who told us how the contract should be written. I also want to credit Jack for having advised me on a particular passage in the development of Vanzetti's Aria in my completion of Blitzstein's Sacco and Vanzetti, and for also having advised me to get a contract from Blitzstein's Estate before going further, which I did. He also wrote me a fascinating letter on the question of whether to orchestrate the work in a style "south of the Alps" or "north of the Alps," i.e. with or without harp.


      Most importantly, having just read through the vocal score of it, I want everyone to know that his very first opera, Jonah, is eminently deserving of pro-duction. Written in 1948-50, and fourth prize winner of the 1951 La Scala com-petition, it is the only one of his operas not yet produced. Based on a play by Paul Goodman, it is full of Jewish humor, much like the Noah play The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets which became Richard Rod-gers' and Martin Charnin's Two by Two. Fans of Billy Budd and Peter Grimes will love the sea and sailors' music of Act II. Like Wozzeck, Madama Butterfly, Hannah, Our Town, and a number of other three-act operas, this one can be performed in two acts, and probably should be. An excerpt program - perhaps at Columbia's Miller Theatre? - should include the scene of Jonah's wife and daughter from Act I (pp. 23-25); his monologue based on the Psalms (pp. 103-105), and the mocking chorus (pp. 129-138) from Act II; and the final chorus, monologue and final duet with the angel (pp. 212-219, 232-241) from Act III.  And then Juilliard or Manhattan should really do the whole thing, while the composer is still alive!


NYSCA and the Radio


  In the space remaining for this column, let us note a few recent developments affecting the new music scene: WQXR is now the property of WNYC, and with wqxr.com becoming wqxr.org, moving from 96.3 to 105.9 FM, metropolitan NY now has 3 listener-supported stations, including WBAI, some board members of which recently sent out a survey asking listeners if they preferred reggae, hip-hop, or "European classical music," as if American "classical music" did not exist. (See the editorial in this issue.) The new WQXR signal no longer reaches Suffolk County. And a major source of funding for the arts in Nassau County, the NYSCA decentralization grants, have, despite protests, for the first time been turned over to an agency outside the county: the Huntington Arts Council (HAC).


      With HAC administering both Nassau and Suffolk, one would think that Nassau artists could apply for support of activities in Suffolk, and vice versa; but that is not happening, at least not yet. A phone call of inquiry to NYSCA was courteously returned by NYSCA Executive Director Heather Hitchens herself, who explained, and followed up with an email memo, that the Long Island Arts Council (LIAC) at Freeport was to be faulted. They had some years ago taken over the administration of the grants from the Nassau County Office of Cultural Development (now defunct, and not on the agenda to be revived, according to County Executive Tom Suozzi - I asked him directly, and he told me point-blank). Their board, she wrote, had appeared "ineffective and unable to understand and respond to NYSCA's concerns," and did "not seem to be on top [of] trends and needs in the area." The arts grants co-ordinator who had been hired by them had been "too part-time," and "the growing ethnic populations" had not been adequately represented, in NYSCA's opinion.


      On March 4, 2009, LIAC's annual Arts Awards Reception featured a performance of Chalk Marks on the Sidewalk by Langston Hughes & Elie Siegmeister (the 12th of 41 concerts honoring his 2009 centennial, in North America, Asia and Europe), the same piece featured at the Oct. 22nd opening banquet of Hofstra's Conference on Suburban Diversity, which the song celebrates in its multi-ethnic mix: "Carmencita loves Patrick. Patrick loves Si-Lan Chen.... If everybody loved everybody, we'd all be happy then!" Photos of the event show the presence of numerous people of color.


      In 1989-91 I produced a monthly program on WBAI called "Music of All the Americas." I programmed works exalting diversity by Marc Blitzstein, Elie Siegmeister, David Amram, several Native Americans, and the African Americans Ulysses Kay, Leslie Adams, William Grant Still. Yet it was taken off the air by the African American program director at the time, who called the show "too European."  Is this what we've come to now?


      How, one must ask, can we staunch the decline of classical music attendance in general, and attract more young people into concert halls, unless radio stations and other media play our music?