In Conversation with Arthur Berger



Arthur Berger, composer and critic, b. 1912
Photo by Robert Bachrach, courtesy C.F. Peters Corporation

An interview with the author of Reflections of an American Composer

Daniel Felsenfeld: What is your opinion of the current reigning music critics in such places as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The New Yorker magazine?

Arthur Berger: I think the standards maintained by the music critics on the publications you mention are quite high. There is much more coverage of new music now—indeed, more intelligent and knowledgeable coverage than there was in my time as a critic—though I think the statement is subject to some qualification. I have the impression that for some time now the coverage of contemporary music has not been as broad in The Boston Globe as it was before. For example, during the past few months there were three exemplary concerts of reputable contemporary music groups that were not reviewed. And the music column in The New Yorker in my time as reviewer appeared weekly and is now far too irregular, though it is excellent when it does appear.

Daniel Felsenfeld: In your book you were not in the least doom-saying about the contemporary musical scene. Do you think that concert music has a good healthy future, especially here in America?

Arthur Berger: My book was not really about the contemporary scene and I’m not a soothsayer who can foretell the future. However, though one may be grateful for the attention given both new and old music in today’s concerts, there is still a tendency to serve up the chestnuts where older music is concerned and to program new music for the publicity value of a first performance so that the opportunity to hear this music again and again—s so necessary, as everyone knows, to its proper apprehension—is not vouchsafed by either performers or presenters.

Daniel Felsenfeld: What do you think of the “Europeanization” of many of the larger institutions—Tanglewood, for example, or the major orchestras?

Arthur Berger: This is one area where things have definitely not improved. They’re pretty much the same as they were in my day. I don’t see why Carnegie Hall has to turn to Europeans like Boulez to occupy a distinguished role on its roster, and why the management and boards of our major symphonies spend so much effort shopping abroad when a new conductor is needed despite the fact that America has produced such fine conductors from Levine, Bernstein, and Thomas onwards.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Is there finally an “American” sound to so-called classical music?

Arthur Berger: I don’t know what relation it has to the present globalization since it predates it quite a bit, but internationalism in music has been dominant in the world for some time owing to the prevalence of neo-classicism and serialism and there is still a strong vestige of it in America. To be sure, composers like Copland, Thomson, and Cowell demonstrated in the thirties and forties that we could have an American music and that was good. It gave us the confidence that our music had “come of age.” But it’s not important now. It may be that when we acquire some distance we will hear the “American” sound in the most complex serial music, namely, a certain emphasis on the single note or phrase in contrast to the free-flowing European model—a rhythmic approach that reflects our dealing with music from the ground up in contrast to the European for whom tradition is so natural that he finds himself in midstream without even trying.

Daniel Felsenfeld: What are you composing these days?

Arthur Berger: At the age of 90, unlike Carter, I feel I can slow down a bit and turn to other things, like the book I have just completed. I was never a prolific composer and so slowing down is like almost coming to a standstill. Last summer I did a setting of a Ronsard Ode in 5 parts for mezzo-soprano with accompaniment of flute, cello, and piano, freely based on a setting I had made some years earlier for voice and piano. It was for Dinosaur Annex. But otherwise no one is rushing to my door with commissions and I have works lying on a shelf gathering dust. So at the moment there is no incentive.