Composition Teacher Bait and Switch

Funny how Robert Palmer’s name comes up three times in a week, and then Howard Hanson’s twice. That Americana school sucks me back into their vortex occasionally.

Two weeks from tonight I’m giving a talk on William Duckworth at Bucknell University, where he spent his teaching career. So for the first time I’m listening to the six hours of interviews I did with him while he was dying, which I had avoided doing for fear I would get too emotional. In going straight from East Carolina University to the University of Illinois in the mid-’60s, Bill went from the heart of neoromantic Americana to post-Cage conceptualism, and skipped over the 12-tone movement entirely. He related a story his teacher Martin Mailman had told him about studying with Hanson.

Apparently when a student would bring Hanson a 12-tone score, Hanson would place it on the piano and look over it carefully, play a chord on the piano, and ask, “Is this the chord you want right here?” The student would say, “Yes it is.” “Are you sure you want this chord?” “Yes.” “Well, then why didn’t you write that chord, because this is the one you wrote!”, and he’d play a different one. The point being that he didn’t think 12-tone composers could hear the music they were writing.



  1. Michael Golzmane says

    It’s interesting. If some 12 tone composers can’t even tell if a particular harmony they’re hearing is actually what they’ve written, how could they or anyone else really hear the more complex 12 tone and serial relationships built into such pieces?

    KG replies: Well, they couldn’t. But I’d be loathe to take Hanson’s Eastman students from the 1950s as standing for the entire breed. I’ll admit I thought it said more about Hanson than about his students, and more about that particular generational divide than about either of them.

  2. says

    The Hanson story is definitely a keeper. I do hope at some point you might find your way to publishing from the interviews with Duckworth. I first learned about Duckworth through his book, Talking Music, one of the first books I read to learn more about 20th/21st C American music. It’s a book I cherish; it has taught me much and still has more to teach. On the subject of the 12-tone movement, he elicited this comment from Ben Johnston (which has served me well in many a discussion): “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible.” Amen to that.

  3. says

    My audition for Juilliard included an interview with Persichetti, Carter, and one or two other faculty. At some point, Persichetti moved to the piano and played sequences of notes, asking me to name the intervals. He began to play faster, he started to add chords, I kept naming the intervals, until suddently I recognized what he was playing: “Hey, I wrote that!”

    He smiled broadly and showed that he was indeed playing from one of my scores, explaining that “we just wanted to make sure you could hear your own music.”

    KG replies: Wow! What a publishable story!

  4. Arthur says

    You might want to look at Bill Duckworth’s essay in the 1987 New Music America Catalogue. I recently found myself watching some videos of performances we did. Tough to take.

  5. says

    Interestingly, I remember reading that Mahler admitted that he couldn’t hear twelve tone scores in his head. While Mahler pushed music right up to the edge, he wasn’t prepared to go over the cliff.

    • kea says

      That could have been because the first twelve-tone scores were not written until a decade or so after Mahler’s death, of course 😉

      • says

        I meant “atonal” rather than “12 tone”. Regardless, regarding Schoenberg Alex Ross writes in “The Rest is Noise”, pg. 53: “Even Mahler had trouble accepting the “necessity of this development”, in Schoenberg’s words. “I have your quartet with me and study it from time to time,” Mahler wrote to Schoenberg in January 1909. “But it is difficult for me. I’m so terribly sorry that i cannot follow you better; I look forward to the day when I shall find myself again (and so find you).” When Mahler saw the Five Pieces for Orchestra, he commented that he could not translate the notes on the page into sounds in his head.” Nevertheless, Mahler was supportive of Schoenberg’s music.

        KG replies: A natural enough mistake, I should have been more vigilant.

  6. Alan Fletcher says

    Being a Juilliard contemporary of Eric Grunin, I’d add this: I don’t much admire Hanson’s tactic of trapping a student. Persichetti had an incredible ability to play an unknown score (by a student, so more than likely unplayable) – and he would play exactly and only what was notated. When the student suggested nuances, changes, interpretation, Persichetti would happily offer the chance to add those to the score. A purely positive (which was Persichetti’s nature – what a lovely person!) approach, as opposed to Hanson’s “gotcha” method