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Sad news: the beggar-composer has died

Gordon Sherwood, whom Aaron Copland considered his most gifted student, died on Wednesday, aged 83, we are informed by his friends.

Sherwood, whose first Symphony was premiered by Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, opted to live on the streets, drinking in cafes, sleeping in doss-houses. He hung out in Hamburg, played in bars in Beirut. A friend writes: ‘He would beg on the Paris streets for six months and then travel and compose for the following  months of the year. His begging, he would call fund-raising, which is actually what it was.’

Latterly, he found a berth in an old people’s home in Bavaria, where the Suddeutschezeitung profiled him as ‘der Bettelkomponist’. 

gordon-sherwood (1)

Photo (c)  Suddeutschezeitung

He If you know more about him, do share.

Here’s some music of his.

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  1. Francis Schwartz says:

    The creative gift moves people in different ways. Not everyone is emotionally equipped to deal with the tensions and struggles of the creative process. The obviously gifted Gordon Sherwood was unable to live in a manner that would have allowed him to practice his art in an environment more conducive to performance and material sustenance. His harp pieces are of very high quality. I hope that more works are discovered in the future.

  2. So sad! “Want to buy a poem or a piece of music?” I once saw him in the street in Paris, where I bought a piece of him. R.I.P.

  3. mathias clason says:

    one can feel like him at times…

  4. I lived in Paris from 1987 to 1997 and maybe c. 1995 I was walking home from a party late one night and came across Sherwood sitting on the pavement; it was one of the roads leading from the Seine towards the Étoile. I didn’t know who he was and had no particular reason to stop to talk, but there was something obviously different about him — he plainly wasn’t your average dosser — and so we started to chat. He was well spoken, articulate, almost aristocratic in manner, but I was amazed when he told me he was a composer — and he pulled a fugue for solo violin (a pencilled manuscript) out of his bag to prove it. It was late and I was tired (and not entirely sober) but it was clear from the score that this was someone who knew what he was doing (I still didn’t know who he was at this point, although I recognised the name when he told me). I didn’t have my own recording label in those days (I was working for the OECD at the time), but I knew plenty of folk who did, and so I gave him my card and asked him to get in touch — with a worklist or something like that — in the hope that I could do something for him. But I never heard from him again.

  5. ruben greenberg says:

    I knew Gordon about as well as anybody, I suppose. I would just like to add a couple of pieces of information: though he certainly would have preferred not to be so poor and not to be reduced to a life of begging, his was to a large extent, a life of his choosing, for he was totally uncompromising. In the days when he could have earned a living by teaching, he refused on the grounds that composition can’t be taught. It is true he hung out in bars for want of a warm place to cast anchor and compose, but he was by no means a drinker. On the contrary, he was an ascetic: a life-long vegetarian and adept of yoga. He composed about 14O opuses, but only actually heard a couple of dozen performed and unfortunately, a first performance for him meant usually a last. That somebody could go on composing nearly until the end without access to a piano and in the most adverse imaginable conditions is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and to the creative urge. Gordon deserved a good rest and now that he was no longer composing or on the road, it was pointless to go on.

  6. Gordon Sherwood lived in a small village for homeless people southwest of Munich called Sozialdorf Herzogsägmühle that is owned and operated by the Catholic Church. It was founded in the 1890s and today cares for about 900 people on 350 hectares of land. The able-bodied work on its farm and other jobs, and they have programs to help the residents return to normal life. You can read more about Sozialdorf Herzogsägmühle in English here:

    It is interesting that German artists in Paris would help a homeless American composer find a place to live in Germany. Such help would probably not even be possible in the States. I thus doubt American artists would have even tried to help him.

    • Correction: Sozialdorf Herzogsägmühle is a protestant organization, which in Germany essentially means Luthern.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      Just a small rectification: he did receive support from Americans, in theUnited States and here in Paris where he spent much time. In all fairness, he was not an easy man to help: fiercely independent, he had no time for the niceties of diplomatic exchange in the world of music. Hardly anything by him is published, but fortunately everything has been safely preserved. If the man is dead, let us hope that the music will live on.

      • What sort of support did the Americans give him? Was there anything as substantial as a place to live?

        • ruben greenberg says:

          In answer to Mr. Osborne’s question: Americans were, as he implied, much less generous with Sherwood than the Germans were. He did receive a grant from the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico a couple of times that provided him, albeit shortly, with a place to live and a grand piano. The result of this was the composition of his great piano concerto-a fairly recent piece and one of the only works that was ever recorded. He was, by and large, a European composer, having come to this continent as a Fulbright scholar in the early fifties, never to go back permanently to the US, a country which he had a profound disliking for. He had people in Germany looking after him and promoting his music, the most important of whom was Dr. Uhli Kahmann, whom I would like to pay tribute to.

          • Very interesting information. I live in Taos in the summers and have a house just down the street from the Wurlitzer Foundation. They have about 12 casitas they give to artists for 3 month stays. There is no living allowance. A couple of the houses have pianos for composers.

            Apparently George Crumb also helped him for a time, though I have no details.

            It is very difficult to obtain a residence permit in Germany, and normally out of the question if you are a homeless person. Perhaps his permit and the place in Herzogsägmühle came through the political connections of Ulrich Kahmann. Kahmann is an author and film-maker whose biographies and documentaries have championed lesser known composers like Andris Nelsons, Anatol Ugorski, Dina Ugorskaja, Gordon Sherwood, and Masha Dimitrieva.

            I would like to see the documentary film about Sherwood entitled “The Beggar of Paris” which I assume was made by Kahmann. Anyone know where to obtain it?

          • Sherwood, in all likelihood, had a permanent residence permit via his German wife, whom he married in 1959, but had been estranged from since 1980.

        • Martin Locher says:


          the film you’re looking for, “The Beggar of Paris”, was orginally named “Der Bettler von Paris” by Heiner Sylvester and Erdmann Wingert. Unfortunately that’s all I could find. I have contacted Erdmann Wingert asking him if and where the film can be obtained. I will let you know his answer.

  7. ruben greenberg says:

    Mr. Osborne is welcome to correspond with me at my personal e-mail address for any further information about Gordon Sherwood and his music. It is not because a composer is dead that one should stop promoting his music. Gordon was pretty nihilistic, but the one thing he never lost faith in was the necessity and power of great music.

  8. Ulrich Kahmann says:

    Helo Mr. Osborne, thank you so much for referring to me as a friend of late Gordon Sherwood. My name is Ulrich Kahmann, I am living in the German town of Herford and was in close contact with this remarkable composer. Indeed I am an author who worked much for German radio stations, portraying among others those musicians you mentioned. But please allow me to note that all of them are-with the very exception of Gordon-not “lesser known composers” but, in the case of Anatol Ugorski, his daughter Dina Ugorskaja, and Masha Dimitrieva (for him Gordon wrote his piano concert that was enregistred by the label cpo), these three are pianists, Mr. Ugorski being a very important one, whereas Andris Nelsons is a shooting star conductor and chief of the City of Birmingham orchestra. The film “The beggar from Paris” is by Erdmann Wingert in collaboration with Heiner Silvester-a wonderful work in which I am not involved in (although I would be proud, if I were). Finally, the fact that Gordon was admitted to Herzogsägmühle is due to Uve Müllrich, member of the German rock group “Dissidenten” (with which Gordon realized the wonderful musical project “The memory of water”, depicting musically the Danube river and the cultures following its course), and to the Bavarian photographer Petr Mayr. Both form part of a very special German network reaching from rock stars to very serious church musicians. It was a network, quite characteristical for Gordon Sherwood.

    Bizarre story. But these harp pieces are really good and demonstrate real compositional gift and technique. How many other really gifted composers are, in fact, either out there in the streets or withering away at some desolate corner of society that we don’t know about and will never know about? In which way would this be related to the nature of modern music life and the state of contemporary music? Stuff for academic research (anthropology).

    • ruben greenberg says:

      It would certainly help if musicians were a little more adventurous in programming new works and if concert-goers were of less conservative taste. I tried hard to get some big names to play Gordon Sherwood’s music, but unsuccessfully. Most never even got round to even looking at the music I sent them. As for getting official grants, this depends largely on “knowing the right people”. Gordon’s music was also not the flavour of the day: bold, original but not avant-garde; not Darmstadt-type music. He had nothing but contempt for the minimalist movent, so he was neither fish nor fowl; “beyond category”, as Duke Ellington used to say about really original music. Sherwood’s own influences were eclectic: Middle Eastern, jazz, neo-classical, mathematical in the sense that Bach and Bartok were mathematical. -a very tormented life and original body of work.

      • The indifference of conductors / musicians towards new music is well-documented and well-known, it makes a dramatic contrast to former times – say, pre-1940 world – when new music still was an organic part of performance culture. Postwar modernism created the split between the central performance culture (which then became a museum culture) and new music and hence, the compartmentalizing and conformism: on both sides. Official ‘modern music’ then found itself in a position which has to be defended, hence the vested interest networks. But now many of those barriers are crumbling, maybe Sherwood’s music finally could get a chance.

        A last word in defence of the ‘indifferent musicians’: they are educated upon a glorious tradition based upon accessible tonality and humanistic expression. This is not ‘conservatism’. What goes for ‘official 20C music’, i.e. state-supported and written-up by academia, is based upon totally different things which have created a hughe bias all around it. Alas, most of the bias is justified: so much ‘modern music’ that is promoted through the official channels, is of an abyssmal quality if compared to traditional music. Official ‘modern music’ has become more really conservative (= conformist) than the museum culture ever was. But someone who is able to create something valuable out of the debris, needs immense promotion and aesthetic philosophizing to get the message across of something normal (i.e. musically interesting), which has become extremely rare in our times. That a stubborn individual who has seen something of the truth of 20C music lands into the streets begging, says much about contemporary music life, but also, it seems to me, about the inflexibility of the composer. It is not the ‘conservative taste’ of musicians and programmers which forms a barrier to real new music, but the prejudices as caused by modernism and its aftermath.

  10. Keith McCarthy says:

    Thank you, Norman, for posting this story about a composer I’d never heard of whose music I am keen to hear more of. Thanks too to all the individuals adding their recollections of this gifted and extraordinary man..


    Meanwhile I have listened to some fragments of music by Gordon Sherwood which can be found on the internet:!/playlist/55814

    This is just really good music, well-written for the orchestra, capable of expression and with a personal flavor, in a style somewhat eastern-European (Shostakovich). There could be nothing ‘wrong’ with it and it would be perfectly normal to programme it within the normal, central performance culture. Which increases the mystery: why did it not ‘work’? That it was not ‘welcome’ within the regular ‘modern music circles’ is obvious: it does not accept modernism, although harsh dissonants are not avoided – but they are used as expressive means. But that it has not been accepted within the regular performance culture is very strange indeed, since this music is built upon the very foundations of this culture. My guess is that it has suffered from the prejudice that ‘all modern music’ is inferior, thereby missing the point that there also has been ‘normal’ new music.

    • I listened to the clips Mr. Borstlap listed. This music is indeed very good. The clips are from a CD made by the Bavarian State Youth Orchestra, and judging by the logo on the cover, recorded by the Bavarian State Radio (hence the excellent sound quality.)

      Though not complete, there is an extensive list of Sherwood’s works here:

      From the opus numbers listed, it appears he wrote at least 143 works in a wide range of genres. Does anyone know where these scores are?

      • Ulrich Kahmann says:

        We–that is among others the pianist Masha Dimitrieva, the trombonist Manfred Dunst, and me–are just working to find a solution where to store Gordon’s scores appropriately. If things become clearer I shall post new information.

        • Hi Uli,
          since Gordon and I where travelling and working together for the last couple of years I made sure that copies of all his work (IScores, film, video, photo and audio) are in a safe place after Peter Mayr and I managed to organise his place at herzogsägmühle. We had to get a truck to transport everything from my house in Portugal back to Germany. To make sure nothing gets lost we made back ups and stored them in my place where they still are. Gordon has always sent me updates whenever anything new appeared.

          • Ulrich Kahmann says:

            Hi Uve,
            Thank you for that information. My only concern is to make sure that all the relevant material should not be dispersed, but rather be concentrated in a sure place available to all who are sincerely interested in Gordon’s works as well as in his biography. So, what is need is a certain form of arrangement to avoid confusion about where to search. I’m confident that we shall carry it off.

          • ruben greenberg says:

            Would a university library, for example, be interested in safeguarding the complete Gordon Sherwood collection? This way, it would be availaible to scholars, musicians wishing to play his music and possible publishers. Maybe Gordon’s alma mater: the University of Michigan, would be interested.

          • Ulrich Kahmann says:

            This seems to be no bad idea. However, with regard to the fact that Gordon spent most of his last years in Germany surrouning himself with a lot of supporters and considering that many of those who were and still are engaged in promoting his music are living in this country, it would be preferable to find a German based music academy that is disposed to archive his collection rather than storing it in a place far out of reach for many of those who are involved in preserving his work.

      • ruben greenberg says:

        I have some of them. Once again, I invite you, Mr. Osborne, or others to e-mail me at my personal e-mail address and I will provide whatever information I can. I only wish I had been able to stir up more interest in Gordon Sherwood and his music while he was still alive, -not that I didn’t try.

      • Some of the instrumental combinations in that list are very intriguing. I wonder whether this is a typo, or really as written by the composer?

        Titel (title): Blue Monk
        Untertitel (subtitle): Ten Variations on a Theme by Thelonius Monk
        Uraufführung (world premiere): February 2005 in San José, Costa Rica
        Besetzung (scored for): Klarinette in b-moll und Fagott (“clarinet in Bb minor and bassoon”)
        Opus: op. 128

        What’s a clarinet in B-flat MINOR??? :)

        • That is a Bb-clarinet under the age of consent, only for diatonic music.

        • ruben greenberg says:

          B-flat clarinet and not b-flat minor! The “Variations on Blue Monk” was my idea: Sherwood and myself both did a set of variations on the same theme for clarinet and bassoon and then compared our respective results. My piece is published by Viento in the US.

        • Thanks, Ruben and John, for the humorous responses to my question … I thought it must be some kind of typo, but then again perhaps not, considering the obvious humor shown by Mr. Sherwood in the titles of many of his other works (e.g., “Shotgun Wedding March” :) ). Maybe he would have approved … ???

          Like others here, unfortunately I had never heard of him before, but I am really looking forward to getting to know more of his music. Thanks, Norman, for introducing him to us uninitiated ones here on Slipped Disc!

  12. indeed, dear friends, Gordon has left our village and this world. He lived in Herzogsägmühle (I´m the director) since 8 years, I spoke often with him. We founded a deep friendship with Masha Dimitrieva, she´ll play some music of Gordon at 6th July, during the “serenade” in the evening a day before our “Dorffest” – a peaceful and happy event with all the people with diseases in any way. You are invited! Thanks for Gordons “connections”! Thanks most of all to all the people who had visited him all the days, who cared for him. And thanks God for his music! Wilfried Knorr

  13. Julie Rix says:

    I met Gordon in 1979 when we both lived in Kenya and met regularly in Nairobi for chai. We became friends and stayed quite in touch through the years up until the last few. Everywhere I went, India, SE Asia, Costa Rica…within a year Gordon went, until I came to the states. He did come here to California to visit me though when he was artist in residence in NM. He was quite intrigued with my vegan diet and I believe he switched right then to a vegetarian and tried for mostly vegan – or so his letters indicated. I believe in Paris, that often times meant he ate a lot of bread. He was so impressed that I had a dog who was vegan and lived until 21 or so years and continued to mention it in many or our correspondances. He also quite enjoyed the jazz club, where I was working at the time. I have missed him the last few years and am saddened by death. I have lost a long friendship which I will always remember fondly. I do hope that his music will live on and be more widely played and recognized.

  14. Ulrich Kahmann says:

    I just want to inform the friends of Gordon that just two weeks before him, his former wife Ruth passed away, too. a sad coincidence he was not aware of.

  15. Martin Locher says:

    Here is a radio documentary about Gordon Sherwood (it’s in German):

    • A very powerful documentary … thank you for sharing the link! If you can understand German, this is certainly a “must listen” for anyone interested in this man’s life and work.

      His parents didn’t want him to pursue music as a career and sent him to a military academy. A little incredible, considering that he had a polio leg … or did that manifest itself later in life? Maybe he caught the polio there?

      I loved the story about how he put grafitti on an Elvis Presley poster in the New York subway, was arrested, and the judge acquitted him merely with a warning after being shown a concert program featuring one of his works along with Beethoven!

      • ruben greenberg says:

        He contracted polio-if it was polio-much later in life. I think it was during his stay in Egypt. You can hear his leg thumping in the background of the documentary. It became one of his characteristics. He never got over being bullied as a youngster at the military academy he had been forced to attend by his very conventional, ” Waspish” middle-class parents. He suffered from a feeling of being misunderstood his whole life long.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      Thank you! An absolutely fascinating radio programme.

  16. Gordon Sherwood and I first met in the early 1950s, when
    we were music and composition students at the University
    of Michigan. We often shared ideas about our creative work
    and made copies of our compositions-in-progress for
    each of us to analyze. I still have some of his scores
    completed at that time, notably a gigantic fugue, and
    an early symphony. In the context of the institutional
    expectations and definitions of that time his compositions
    not only fit well, but surpassed and often extended those
    technical definitions and possibilities, even if some thought
    to the absurd. If he seemed to fit situations, he also
    appeared to be past the edge, or at least he was moving

    We traded our scores with each other, and had another
    trading activity: we traded our first names in those early
    1950s. It was part of his always surprising wacky humour.

    Many year later, from the late 1970s, when I was teaching
    at the University of California, the travelling Gordon Sherwood
    stopped by to visit me. With that humour he apologized
    for not being on time so we could trade our first names
    again. In those years he was physically roaming the world,
    sometimes making friendships for a time, then moving on.

    He sent me travel-postcards from those travelling years.
    In the later years his correspondence was mostly from
    Europe, where he seemed to have assumed a floating exile.
    The prolific diversity of his many compositions suggest
    that whatever his living circumstances, his life continued
    both as composer and performer.

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