[Article #2 in a series of writings published on this website in celebration of ACA's 75th anniversary year.]
THE STRANGE LIFE OF BEN WEBER (2012)
When ACA Director Gina Genova asked me to write an article about Ben Weber in honor of ACA's upcoming 75th anniversary celebration, I spent a lot of time staring at my computer, wondering how to begin. Should I start with a description of the highly eccentric man who rarely left his apartment, yet played a major role in New York’s musical life in the 1940s and 50s? Or with some words about the music; or perhaps with stories about my study with him in the four years before his death in 1979? As Ben’s life was full of contradictions and ambiguities, not easily encapsulated in a few catch phrases or sound bites, I decided the best strategy was just to plunge in, do some of each, and hope that what emerged would be a portrait of this unique artist that gives a sense of his true place in American music.
Ben Weber was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1916 and died in New York City in 1979. A self-taught composer, he was the first American to adopt the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg. Musicologists consider him one of the most important and influential composers of his generation, and the list of performances and recordings is long and impressive. Orchestral works include pieces premiered and recorded under the batons of Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein; his chamber and piano works were performed by the instrumental virtuosi of the day, artists and ensembles such as Alexander Schneider, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Joseph Fuchs and the Juilliard Quartet.
Among his contemporaries, he gained the admiration of composers from vastly different musical camps —for example, a retrospective concert of his music at the Miller Theater in 1999 included musical tributes written for the occasion by composers as diverse as Ned Rorem, Lou Harrison and Milton Babbitt. Although almost all his works are written with reference to a twelve-tone row, his music has none of the austerity of Schoenberg and his later acolytes. When I mentioned to the critic Edwin Denby that I was studying with Ben, he remarked, “Ben is the only twelve-tone composer with a sense of humor!”
Ben never taught composition at a university, but I was one of the few—along with Jackson MacLow and Michael Colgrass before me—who had the privilege of studying with him as a private student. At 22, I had just begun composing seriously, and was studying piano with the German émigré pianist Grete Sultan. Grete had encouraged my early efforts at composing, and had come to The Theater for the New City to hear one of my first efforts, Hoosick Falls, an off-off Broadway musical. She liked the music, and suggested that I study composition with Ben if he were willing to take me on as a pupil. I hadn’t heard much of Ben’s music at the time, but I had heard Grete perform his Intermezzo at her Town Hall piano recital that year, and I had been struck by its uncanny beauty—a sort of Brahmsian trip through the looking-glass is how I remember thinking about it at the time. At Grete’s prompting, I called Ben, and in the course of our talk he asked me who my favorite modern composers were. I said that I was very drawn to Schoenberg’s music, but that, of the three Second Viennese School composers, I felt closest to Berg. “Well,” he said, “I think we will get along very well.”
Like his friend John Cage, Ben didn’t believe that you could teach anyone how to compose, which made him a brilliant composition teacher. He never made any attempt to impose a style, or to show you how to write your piece as he might write it—something that I did experience later on in my graduate studies! He had a very light hand. One of the first pieces I brought to show him was a song cycle on poems by D.H. Lawrence. He read through the piece (Ben read music as easily as someone else might read the newspaper), turned back to a measure midway through and said, “You know, you might put a trill on this note.” What might seem like a very minor suggestion opened a window for me, much more so than if he’d made a more direct criticism. It led me to think that the music could breathe more naturally; that I might look for ways to vary rhythmic patterns and not have so many events occurring on downbeats. In short, it truly gave me a way to rethink the piece.
In the 1970s, when I knew him, Ben was living in an apartment on 103rd Street and Central Park West in New York City. He’d moved there in the 1950s, but twenty years later, the neighborhood had deteriorated, and people were reluctant to travel that far uptown. Since Ben had always preferred to stay home and have people come to him, he was pretty isolated in those days. Ben’s health was precarious, and as a result, he’d often call and cancel on the day of a lesson. His good friend Miriam Gideon (who lived only a few blocks down from him on Central Park West, and was one of the few people who did actually come and visit) emphasized to me what I already knew—that what I had to gain from these lessons was more than worth the effort of braving the crime-ridden IND subway train and re-adjusting my schedule to come uptown when Ben felt up to teaching.
For all his physical ailments, Ben had a gentleness and a lightness of being that I remember with great fondness. Much of his communication with people at that point was by telephone, and he’d often call quite late at night. There was the time when he phoned around midnight and told me to stop whatever I was doing, go outside and look at the full moon, which I guess he’d seen from his window overlooking the upper reaches of Central Park. I’ll always be grateful that I had the opportunity to study with this truly great artist, at a time when I was just starting out in music, and to do it in the traditional way of a musical apprenticeship.
Ben emphasized the value of finding ways of encouraging your unconscious mind to lead your thinking and, with luck, take you to places where you might never have consciously planned to go. For example, he suggested beginning work on a piece by writing a list of words—not poems, just words. Adjectives were his choice. He said he often used this technique to get his creative thoughts flowing. To illustrate, he chose two words, “peripatetic” and “voluptuous,” and wrote a line of music inspired by each word.
I’ve used this technique many times when beginning work. It’s a brilliant way of confronting Mallarmé’s blank page. Shortly after Ben died, I wrote a piece called Column: In Memory of Ben Weber for English horn and string orchestra. I used the music Ben wrote for “peripatetic” as the theme material for the middle scherzo, and quoted the music for “voluptuous” at the end of the piece.
His music is a fascinating combination of highly structured form and an almost mystical abandon. I think that he used twelve-tone techniques very much to these ends. In talking about a twelve-tone row, he said that working with a row was like walking into a forest: at first, everything is a blur, but as you enter and walk on, you gradually discover what is most beautiful and most interesting. He used twelve-tone rows in very much the same way that John Cage used chance operations; to move out of conscious thought and to create a music that he hadn’t heard before. His interest in rows was, of course, more than causal—for his last completed work, Caprices for cello and piano, he used the same row that he’d used fifteen years earlier for his Piano Concerto. He said, “I just keep finding more and more in it.”
Almost all of Ben’s music is written with reference to a twelve-tone row, but the harmonies he creates are lush, bittersweet, ambiguous-- and often frankly tonal. So much so that the headline of his New York Times obituary read, paradoxically, Ben Weber, Tonal Composer. While his works contain sections of dense contrapuntal writing, they are always written and orchestrated with a transparency and lightness that plays against the complexity of the musical thinking—very different in effect from the dense constructs to be waded through in the music of some of his contemporaries.
Ben once told me the story of his first connection with the twelve-tone system. In Chicago, in the 1930s, he attended a concert featuring the music of the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek. He didn’t care for Krenek’s work, but thought that he wrote cogently about music. As he read Krenek’s program note about twelve-tone writing, Ben was inspired: he’d been looking for a way to break through in a new direction with his music, and felt that in the twelve-tone system, he’d found what he had been searching for. Working with this new system to guide him, he set to work on a series of Bagatelles for piano. In the program notes, Krenek had described various row techniques, and for each of the Bagatelles, Ben tried to utilize one of these procedures. The Bagatelles are the first published piece by an American composer to use a twelve-tone row, and the opening page bears the legend, “All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg.” At the time, Ben was working as a secretary for pianist Artur Schnabel. Schnabel looked at the first piece and said, “But there’s something wrong here, there are only eleven tones.” Ben had to agree that he’d left out a tone. “Well,” said Schnabel, “you will have to amend your statement and say that these pieces are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg, except for the first which is composed in the eleven tone system of Ben Weber!”
A very vivid memory of studying with Ben is of the times when we would listen to music together. He would play a recording and we would listen through with the score. As the music proceeded, he’d make the occasional comment; pointing out a detail of structure, harmony, or orchestral technique. One of the first pieces of his own that he played for me was his Symphony on Poems of William Blake. He liked that it got quite wild in the Mad Song, and was pleased with the way the small forces he had chosen created such a big sound. Of particular interest to me was the way that he’d used a single cello to successfully create the sound of a full string section.
The Blake Symphony is one of Ben’s most powerful works, and we listened to it in the fabulous recording conducted by Leopold Stokowski, with his Symphony Orchestra and baritone soloist Warren Galjour. When we’d finished listening, Ben reminisced about the craziness surrounding the sessions for that RCA Victor recording. Stokowski, for some unknown reason, had become very angry with Galjour. So, when a comment needed to be made, Stokie, as Ben called the famous conductor, would turn to Ben and say, “Would you please tell Mr. Galjour such and such, because Mr. Stokowski is not speaking to Mr. Galjour.” As I listened to Ben’s story, the contrast between now and then was a bit haunting. Here I was, sitting in that cramped and dusty apartment with the creator of this phenomenal piece of music, now someone who barely ever left his rooms—and many days probably didn’t even get out of bed—hearing him tell tales about working with the legendary Leopold Stokowski.
Stokowski was part of the magic of Disney’s Fantasia, the cartoon popular with children in the 1940s and 50s, and these days, kids are enthralled with magic via the Harry Potter series. At age 22, I had the chance to pay many visits to someone who was truly a wizard. Ben lived as a recluse in a dingy, crowded apartment, but, like Prospero in The Tempest, he could transform the atmosphere around him into something “rich and strange.” His living room, perched high above what was then a dangerous and derelict Central Park, became a spacious, magical place, full of light, where one could absorb profound thoughts and feelings about art, music and life itself.
One afternoon, we listened to all of Gurrelieder. The vocal score we used had been signed by Schoenberg. This was a piece which went to the heart of Ben’s musical and philosophical thinking. At one point, he said, “I learned everything I know about composing from Gurrelieder.” The section where King Waldemar curses God was a strongly personal metaphor for Ben. When someone asked him why Schoenberg needed ten horns, he said, “Well, you idiot, it’s so he could have a whole chorus of the same instrumental color.” Listening to Gurrelieder with Ben was a moving experience. But it took an extraordinary effort to keep my focus on the music, as Ben’s intense emotions connected to this music were so much in the air and right on the surface, pervading the atmosphere as the recording played and he turned the pages of the score.
Throughout his life, he supplemented his income as a music copyist. Of course, it was partly from financial need, but I suspect that there was something in Ben that was drawn to the work. I had the sense that it appealed to him almost as if he were a monk in the Middle Ages, copying manuscripts; it seemed to soothe his soul. He copied the revision of Four Saints in Three Acts for his friend Virgil Thomson, and his own music is exquisitely presented, hand-copied in what is now pretty much a lost art. He was also a musical autographer. In those pre-computer days, autography was a method of copying music to make it look exactly like an engraved score, utilizing a combination of hand-drawn elements and press-on type. When I knew Ben, he wasn’t copying other people’s music any longer, but still did the autography for the short musical examples printed in the New York Philharmonic program notes.
As I’ve tried to make clear, Ben lived what I guess can be described as a fairly eccentric life. It’s good to remember that this has historically been the way of so many of our great artists. Even early on, when he was younger and in good health, he seldom left his house. As Ned Rorem remembers, even though Ben rarely went out, he, nonetheless, was a major presence in the musical life of New York in the 1940s and 50s. This was before he moved uptown, and people who knew him then talk about the amazing dinner parties that he’d give in his Greenwich Village apartment. Ben was an accomplished French chef, and his cooking was legendary. Milton Babbitt describes these “constant meetings and social gatherings which always seemed to take place in his apartment… lively professional meetings of composers, performers and others in or close to music, most of whom have probably seen little of each other since Ben ceased providing the place, occasion, and reason.” (Milton Babbitt, Memorial for Ben Weber)
Apropos of Ben and cooking, one day I showed him a short cello piece that I’d been working on for several months, and which was about to have its premiere performance. “Yes,” he said ruefully,” it’s like cooking a dinner for guests; you spend one day shopping and preparing, the next day cooking—and they come and eat it up in half an hour.”
Of course, there were times when he did go out. There’s an interesting photo of Ben from 1959, taken at the President’s Black Tie Ball at the National Press Club in Washington. As president of ACA, Ben is shown presenting the ACA Laurel Leaf award to Jack Benny, honoring his tireless efforts to raise money for symphony orchestras with his comedic violin playing. Vice-President Richard Nixon (who had accompanied Benny on the piano as part of the proceedings) completes the group.
When I knew him, musical tastes were changing, and Ben’s music less frequently performed. Shortly before his death, however, he received the news that his Fantasia was the most performed piece at a recent Kennedy Center piano competition. I think it pleased him to know that this piece, originally written and recorded by his great friend William Masselos, had now solidly entered the piano repertoire.
The other piece that he wrote for Masselos was his Piano Concerto (premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1961 with Leonard Bernstein conducting). He was having trouble completing the piece, and told me that, one day, while out walking with Masselos, he told him that he wouldn’t be able to complete the commission. They were on 57th Street, and Masselos said, “Well, we’re right near Herbert Barrett’s office (Barrett was Masselos’s manager), so let’s go in and tell him that the piece won’t be finished.” But as they rode up in the elevator, Ben realized that he couldn’t do it—there was no way that he was going to walk in and tell Herbert Barrett, the man who had nurtured the careers of so many distinguished musicians, and who had saved Carnegie Hall from being torn down, that there wasn’t going to be a Piano Concerto by Ben Weber. They went into Barrett’s office, shook hands and sat down. Barrett looked expectantly at Ben, and Ben mumbled something like, “Oh, we were just passing and thought we’d stop by and say hello.”
So then he had to get the piece written. He told me that his only recourse was to get out of bed each morning and just stand naked at the piano and compose. He did this every day until the Concerto was finished. Ben was portly, and the image of him standing naked at his piano, pen in hand, is endearing. Michael Colgrass recalls the same story in his memoirs and writes that thinking of Ben “standing naked at the keyboard, composing furiously” helped him through many deadline crises (Michael Colgrass, Adventures of an American Composer). But, humorous aspects aside, it seems to me that this is the true archetype of the artist: standing naked before the world, stepping into the unknown, one note (or word or brushstroke) at a time.
Words are hard put to describe the strange magic that Ben’s music achieves. Structures are often traditional ones: sonata form, a chaconne, a series of variations. But the structure is never obvious. It’s hidden, in an almost Debussy-like way. The music seems to flow out of some completely natural process. And there’s an almost alchemical change that happens as you listen, a sort of magical displacement in time and space. It feels as if the music is taking you to one place, and suddenly you’re in some other blissful and enchanted world. I’m reminded of Webern’s comment about modulation—“I go out into the hall to knock in a nail. On my way there I decide I’d rather go out. I act on the impulse, get into a tram, come to a railway station, go on traveling and finally end up in America!” (Webern, The Path to Twelve Note Composition)
Any visit to Ben was quite an occasion. When I arrived, sometimes bringing some groceries he’d asked me to pick up for him, there was the ritual with his two large dogs. They’d be wildly excited to see a visitor, and Ben would give them each a biscuit to calm them down. Ben’s hands were swollen with arthritis, and he’d fumble with the biscuit jar while the dogs jumped around, barking loudly. The dust that covered the surfaces of the tables and the piano would swirl around, one of the dogs might knock over a chair, and the whole process was quite a circus (the poet Stephen Stepanchev describes it in one of his poems). I remember a day when, looking up from giving Helen her biscuit, Ben said, “Someday, Roger, you’ll write a memoir entitled The Strange Life of Ben Weber.”
With ACA about to present one of Ben’s major works on June 23rd, this seemed like the time to do just that. Ben was my mentor, my friend and a mysterious and wonderfully endearing person, full of the contradictions and complexities that make up the human condition. It’s moving to have the opportunity to remember him this way, as the person he was. But what is most important is to recognize the beauty and power of his music, music which will most surely live on, bringing delight and revealing secret truths about the universe to many generations to come.
© Copyright 2012 Roger Tréfousse. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
Roger Tréfousse is at work on a biography and critical study of Ben Weber and his music.
*On Saturday, June 23, 2012, hear a rare performance of Ben Weber's Concerto (piano, cello) Op. 32, performed by Orion Weiss, Fred Sherry, and the Orchestra of the League of Composers, presented by the American Composers Alliance at Symphony Space.
For tickets, call the box office 212-864-5400 or use this link.
Many of Ben Weber's music scores are available through the ACA Custodial Management Plan Archives, a program of ACA that offers preservation and continued distribution of ACA-published music scores into the longterm future.
[Photo of Ben Weber courtesy of Roger Tréfousse. ACA Bulletin cover and Laurel Leaf 1959 photo, courtesy of The American Composers Alliance Archives, at Special Collections in Performing Arts at the University of Maryland.]