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A composer admired by Copland and Bernstein has gone to rest

Hannah Shapero has mailed the following notice:

‘My father, composer Harold Shapero, passed away today (May 17) at around 5:15, of old age, 93 years. He had been struggling with health problems for many years. His ordeal is over and he is now finally at peace.’


A friend of Aaron Copland’s, Shapero made his breakthrough when Leonard Bernstein conducted his “Symphony for Classical Orchestra” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947. He progressed from neo-classicism to other musical genres, but his greatest renown came as a teacher of the next three generations of composers at Brandeis. Here’s a college appreciation.

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  1. SergioM says:

    I have a recording of his Symphony for Classical Orchestra (Previn and L.A. Philharmonic) It’s a fantastic work that’s both modern and accessable. I wish it was performed more regularly

    • I heard the Phil & Previn perform the piece, I suppose the week they made that recording. It remember it as being a fine and sympathetic account–Previn seemed to have an affection for it.

      I have the old NY Phil/Bernstein recording (on LP).

      • James Forrest says:

        I, too, still have my copy of the old Bernstein Columbia lp. Shapero was a great pedagogue and I recall, during my years in Massachusetts seeing him often at musical events–at Brandeis and elsewhere. A life well lived!

      • Daniel Farber says:

        Strictly speaking, the Bernstein recording is with “the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.” Shapero told me that it included a good many members of the NY Phil and also prominent NYC free-lancers and that on the day of the recording, Bernstein was very sick and running a high fever. Compared to the Previn, the strings especially sound a little scruffy–it was a smallish complement–and, of course, the quality of the recorded sound is comparatively crude, but what amazing energy it has. You can hear LB’s commitment in every measure.

    • R. James Tobin says:

      I have found the Symphony for Classical Orchestra exciting for over half a century, since I came across Bernstein’s recording by chance. It should be in the repertoire. I strongly believe it is a great work.

      There will be a memorial concert of Shapero’s Piano Sonata in F minor, his Piano Variations in C minor and his Four Hand Sonata at Brandeis university on September 28. Sally Pinkas, an internationally known soloist and a one time student of Shapero’s will be performing these works.

  2. Nicholas Brown says:

    Thanks so much for posting this Norman. The Shapero family and the Brandeis community very much appreciate it.

  3. I am deeply sad to hear about my friend and teacher Harold Shapero’s passing. He was a model, a mentor, and a major influence on me as a composer and musician. Harold could not have been a greater support to me as I was beginning my career as a teacher. It was an honor for me to perform his music in the United States, in France, and in Russia. His musical legacy lives on through me and I hope that I have transmitted to the many hundreds of students who might of talk and to the musicians in the many symphony orchestras I have conducted.

  4. I love his early piano/harpsichord sonatas, the string quartet (which I’ve played), and his Symphony for Classical Orchestra, which along with Irving Fine’s Symphony gets my vote for most unjustly neglected American symphony.

    In my one year at Brandeis (’67-’68) my first-year theory class happened to be held in the room next to the electronic music studio. This was a period that Shapero wasn’t writing anything, but he was always in that studio playing with the Buchla synthesizer (the Moog wasn’t for him). Our forays into species counterpoint were accordingly punctuated by Shapero’s bleeps and bloops.

  5. Daniel Farber says:

    Sergio, I agree with you, but it is a deceptively difficult work, especially in matters of rhythm. I was once a student of Harold Shapero, and wrote the article on him for the Dutton Dictionary of Contemporary Music and a a profile of him for Boston’s Jewish Advocate newspaper. Copland was right: he WAS the most talented composer of his generation–the F Minor Piano Sonata is wonderful too but never performed–but for a variety of reasons did not fulfill his early promise.

  6. Bob Thomas says:

    The Previn/LA Phil recording came out of an initiative funded by AT&T called “American Encore” (I think). Its purpose was to give a new hearing to pieces that had received their initial performances and then dropped from sight. They symphony received glowing reviews both for the L.A. Phil concerts and the recording but the work quickly faded again from memory. Too bad, because it is a wonderful work.

  7. Joanna Fine, MD, MA says:

    This is so wonderful that people are sharing their unique and precious memories of Harold. I know it will mean so much to his wife Esther Geller, and daughter Pryra Hannah.
    I have so many memories as a child, since we were with them and they were with us, both families with homes in Natick. I remember listening to the amazing improvising and transposing on our 2 pianos at nights of get togethers of music, hors d’oeuvres, martinis with pickled onions. When not playing outside on the swings, I would be transfixed, listening from under the piano, to the music, the debates and the beauty of their creations. (Kids got to eat the hors d’oeuvres and stay up late, too)
    I was always learning something from “Sonny,” whether it be about music, birds, photography, electronics, computers, food or medicine. He even recently, in one of our visits to Boston, made efforts to teach my daughter Alicia, how to compose on his computer, while offering generous quantities of food, he had stocked up from Costco!
    I agree with Roger Lebow ( Hi roger !), about Harold and my father’s works not performed enough. Nicholas Brown, who posted above, a recent graduate of Brandeis, is now working at the Library of Congress, has been very helpful to nurturing my father’s, Irving Fine, legacy and now, is helping us memorialize Harold. A complicated, brilliant man, with insights, charms and zings that will resonate in the lives he touched, forever. I will miss him; my heart and hugs go out to his family.
    It’s like the end of a golden era of music, ” the gems of Boston.”

  8. I’m glad I’m not the only one out there is a big fan of Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra. It’s a great piece and it’s neglect by (especially American) orchestras continues to mystify and frustrate me. I had hoped he would live long enough to see it achieve prominence in the repertoire; well, let’s hope the effort continues.

  9. George Laase says:

    Just listened to his 4-hand Piano Sonata for the first time. Has anybody thought about orchestrating this?

  10. Martin Bookspan says:

    And wonderful, too, Joanna, is the fact that some attention is also focusing on your father’s wonderful Symphony, 1962. I had been a violinist intending to Major in Music at Harvard 1943/44. Irving Fine was my Music 1 Section Man and gave me the best professional advice I ever had. “As a music major and non-pianist, you’ll have a very difficult time. Why not major in something else, and take whatever courses in the Music Department appeal to you. That way you’ll avoid those courses you’d have to take as a Major—-and enjoy your time in the Department!”

    Irving and I became immediate friends then, and shortly afterwards he was invited to form the Music Department at Brandeis. I was delighted to have him as a guest on my radio program on WCOP when he returned from his year in Paris, 1949/50, to discuss a phenomenon then bubbling on the French music scene. “Musique Concrete” it was called and it sought to discover musical elements in all sounds surrounding us. That was probably one of the earliest exposures to Musique Concrete in the United States.

    Munch had conducted the premiere of the Symphony, 1962 in its world premiere in Boston in the 1961/62 season and scheduled it for Tanglewood the following summer. When it came time for the Tanglewood performance Munch asked your Dad to conduct it. Following one of the rehearsals your Dad and I walked across the Tanglewood lawn from the Shed to the cafeteria to grab a quick lunch. The performance went well and I was
    delighted to see how pleased your father was. About 10 days later I was crushed to have one of our announcers bring a piece of copy from the newsroom teletype machine into my office reporting the death, at the age of 48, of noted American composer, Irving Fine.

  11. Eric Benjamin says:

    Wouldn’t it be great for the Boston Symphony to make “theirs” the Shapero and Fine works mentioned here? It would be much in keeping with the BSO heritage and, while the families and former students and colleagues still live in the area, good pr. This 4-hand sonata is classic American and so wonderful. Thanks for posting it.

  12. I am sorry to hear about Mr. Shapero’s passing. I, like many others, think the Symphony for Classical Orchestra is terrific. It is also, as Mr. Farber says above, a tricky piece to perform and remember that fact coming up when the LA Phil played it back in the 80s. Hopefully that should not turn off others from taking up the work since it is worth it.

    I’m glad too that the mention of Irving Fine’s Symphony has come up. I had forgotten about that piece (sadly many others have as well). I actually have the score to that piece, will pull it off the shelf and have a good look at it.

  13. I have performed Mr. Shapero’s charming “In the Family” (the flute and trombone version) many times. A wonderful piece by a wonderful man who will be missed.

  14. Karl Miller says:

    It was a little over a week ago a friend of mine sent me a recording of the 3 Hebrew Songs and Shapero playing his Piano Variations. True, he wrote relatively little, but each work is brilliant. Some months ago, the same friend sent me a copy of the Whittier Songs, a wonderful performance of the Serenade for String Orchestra and a recital which featured the Violin Sonatas of Shapero and Fine.

    On the subject of Fine, perhaps one day someone will issue the Bernstein performance of the Fine Symphony. For me, the Shapero and Fine Symphonies are not just great American works, but they are amongst the great symphonies of all time.

    Hopefully, one day, we might find out the status of Shapero’s Concerto for Orchestra, certainly a work that needs to be heard.

    • Daniel Farber says:

      To my knowledge, he never completed his Concerto for Orchestra. He told me once that it was the first work of his that had gone “a little crooked”–that was the way he put it. It had a very ambitious schema, as I recall, and the music paper was in many different shades of yellow to white as would be consistent with a piece that he had worked on from 1950 to 1991 (when I saw it), and he thought then that he had an idea of a way he could complete it. When I last saw him in 2010, it was still unfinished and it seemed he had moved on to other pieces (like the lovely Whittier Songs of 2007).

    • Nicholas Brown says:

      It’s wonderful to see so much interest in Fine and Shapero! Lots of great plans are in the works for the Fine Centennial in 2014, with some opportunities to revitalize Harold’s music as well.

  15. Martin Bookspan says:

    ‘Fine and Shapero”. In another context, there’s a delicatessen on West 72nd Street in New York named “Fine and Shapiro”!

    • Joanna Fine says:

      My father and Harold talked of the deli Fine and
      “Shapiro”",” ( spelled differently,) often, a joke between the families.
      Years later, after my father passed away, my mother and my sister Emily moved to NYC, 1/2 a block away from the deli, and ate there, in homage to Dad & “Sonny,” or if we wanted the traditional, heavy, deli, huge sandwich and half-sour pickles lunch. I always felt we should have put a picture of them, for those of us, who got “the joke.”
      Today, Harold Shapero is being laid to rest. I hope in months to come, people will share lots of stories about Harold and his colleagues, peers, mentors, and students, to keep alive the wonderful era of music.
      I love the dishes story about Aaron Copland at our house and then Stravinsky doing dishes!!

      • Daniel Farber says:

        Joanna Fine, There is still no full-scale obituary notice in either the New York Times or the Boston Globe, despite my having forwarded to the music critic of the latter (Jeremy Eichler) the Shapero family write-up that appeared on Norman Lebrecht’s blog. Do you know if it is, in fact, the family’s wish NOT to publish a big piece in newspapers?
        I was a student in his (heavily anecdotal and wonderfully funny) Composition in Traditional Forms course back in 1966-67. At the end of the course, I dropped off at his office my Haydnesque sonata, thinking that he would take it and skim it at his leisure, but no…He cared enough to come out from behind his desk and spent 45 minutes going over it with me. His bottom lines—”Not bad….for a musicologist!” and “Ya know, it’s actually more like Carl Maria von Weber than it is like Haydn” were worth the entire tuition and, alas, all too true. Earlier that year, he rescued me from an ice storm on South St. outside the Brandeis campus and drove many miles out of his way to get me safely to Watertown Square. I’ll never forget these gestures of kindness, or him, or his wonderful, elegant music.

        • Joanna Fine says:

          Re the ny times
          See link today

          The Boston globe there was a short Obituary placed by family and I heard from BG music Ed by email Jeremy Eichler and gave him my cell in my response and I had hoped to hear from him back as he requested an AM call
          I gave him the daughter email too; but no word. Nicholas Brown has been helping out enormously ( Brandeis grad and now at LOC). I will let this site know, as I know. There will be many personal memorials to come from faculty, students and friends, and I hope we can collate it all. There is a memorial concert at Brandeis in September, so hopefully, some wonderful stories music and photos will be unveiled

  16. Mather Pfeiffenberger says:

    Yes, wonderful to read these reminiscences about about Shapero and Fine. I once had the good fortune to meet Harold Shapero at a Carnegie Hall Symposium on the Copland-Sessions Concerts in NYC in March 2000. He was on a panel that included Arthur Berger, Frederick Prausnitz, and Tony Tomassini. The moderator was Ellen Taafe Zwillich, Carnegie’s Composer-in-Residence for that season.

    Mr. Shapero was a funny, boisterous man and a great raconteur. He told a story about his two composer-mentors Copland and Stravinsky that I must share. Apparently, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s at Tanglewood, one night Copland, Irving and Verna Fine, Leonard Bernstein, Shapero, and some others were finishing up dinner at the Fines’ home. They were all helping to clean up, which included Copland washing some of the dishes. As he was doing this, he remarked to Shapero, “I wonder if Stravinsky does the dishes?”

    A few months later, Shapero was invited by composer-pianist Leo Smit to come out to UCLA, where Smit was teaching at the time, for a recital by Smit that included Shapero’s music. During his visit, they were both invited to dinner at the Stravinsky home, and suddenly at one point, Shapero realized that he was going to get to answer Copland’s question. When dinner was finished, Shapero waited expectantly to see what would happen. Stravinsky and his wife Vera got up, they all carried plates out to the kitchen, Vera helped Stravinsky put on an apron, and they both took care of washing the dishes. Shapero immediately telegraphed Copland the next morning, “STRAVINSKY DOES THE DISHES.”

    Later in a one-on-one conversation, Mr. Shapero told me how George Antheil had taught him about writing music for television. Antheil wrote the theme music for the CBS news documentary series of the 1950s and 1960s “The Twentieth Century” and was able to get Shapero work with the program as well. He went on to compose the score to the “Woodrow Wilson” documentary in that series which aired in 1959.

    Though my encounters with him were brief, I will always remember Mr. Shapero’s warm humor and keen wit.

  17. Joanna Fine says:

    Love the telegram story!!!

  18. Joanna Fine says:

    To Daniel Farber and others:
    Please note
    Mr Eichler did say in his email to me that he was planning to do an article, which is why he had contacted me; I have to assume it is forthcoming!!!

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