In Conversation with Daniel Felsenfeld

An interview with the author of Ives and Copland: A Listener’s Guide and Britten and Barber: Their Lives and Their Music


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Daniel Felsenfeld

MS: Your two new books take a look at the life and work of two pairs of composers. How did you come to settle on these duos in particular?

DF: No two composers are exactly alike, but [Amadeus Press] wanted to take musicians that had something parallel about them and I came up with a whole list. Aaron Copland and Charles Ives have similar missions and couldn’t have been more different. I thought it would be really interesting to try and work these two vaguely contemporary people, these two Americans who wrote at a time when American classical music was just getting started and was a very bizarre thing. Ives came out of the German tradition and came into the American tradition, and Copland came out of the French tradition and came into the American tradition. Or not even came into it, but created it. Both of them sort of invented it. They didn’t know each other that well. Their careers had a parallel path in a certain way, but they weren’t contemporaries in that they hung out in bars together or anything. I couldn’t find anything that said Britten and Barber actually even met one another, which is surprising to me because what they accomplish was similar and what Ives and Copland accomplish was similar. So that was how I arrived at these two pairings.

MS: But was this really supposed to be just a cute gimmick, since you were marketing these to an uninitiated readership, or was it useful beyond that?

DF: I don’t think it was ever a gimmick. It was actually just a way of getting a lot of material on composers who were really great in a really concise package.

MS: Did it fall together well once you got started or were their challenges to it you had to work out?

DF: Well, I was not trying to reach a conclusion like, “See, these people really did have parallel lives, therefore I was right.” That was never my goal. I just picked composers that were on a similar path and lived at a similar if not concomitant time, but were spectacular in their own right. I just wanted people to get into the music. And this way, you buy one book, you get two composers. It’s two for one.

MS: There’s a little bit of a salaciousness to it, too. The back cover blurb mentions sadism and pedophilia.

DF: Well, one of the things about Britten that I came to find was that this layer of sexuality was everywhere in his work, a layer of very confused sexuality. And I thought, there’s no way I can skip this. This is what makes these gears turn for him, and maybe we need to know and maybe we don’t. I’m of the opinion that it cannot hurt to know but it’s not ever what the music is about. For each composer, there are things that were actually very tough and human. Like the failure of Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra. That was a very sad essay for me to write because here’s a composer whose music I think is amazing but who had one of the great flops, opera-wise, of the century. Or Ives maybe backdating his pieces. He’s an innovator but we’re not sure that he didn’t just post-innovate. Copland going before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and them not knowing who he was. I found that to be sad on about 40 levels. And the way he writes about it is so generous and yet it’s such a horrible portrait of a horrible time for us. So I thought, if I’m going to go with these composers, I could write a kind of this-then-this-then-this book, but I wanted to meat it up so it had more substance. And some of it is sexual, some of it is political, and some of it is ethical, but these were people. They had foibles and they had problems that they worked out, sometimes even through their music.

MS: How should a composer’s biography affect the listener’s experience of the music? You might say there’s a camp that sees that as a way of dealing with the music and another camp that finds it irrelevant. Definitely when you’re writing about Knoxville: Summer of 1915 it’s very clear that knowing about what’s going on in Barber’s personal life adds an entire dimension to the piece.

DF: I’m actually of both camps on that particular thought process because I think to leave the composer out of the music, and I talk about this in the introduction, you’re probably missing something. As a composer myself I know that maybe I don’t mean it, but certainly looking back at certain times and the music I wrote at those times, some of it is there. Like it or not, it’s going to happen. You’re a person and you’re a person who happens to write music and that’s what makes you a composer. But then again, I think people who say it’s just the music are reacting to the sort of school of “from this modulation we can tell that Schubert was a homosexual” approach, which I think is equally stupid. Composers’ lives can color their music, and maybe if you are very clever you can find a parallel in the music or maybe it’s intentionally there. They both matter. I love Aaron Copland because he’s a great composer, therefore I want to find out who the man was. It’s not one or the other. I think you need a little of both. I learned a lot about how to compose from the example of the way people that I either know or have read about lived. I think that can also teach you a great deal about how to listen.

MS: Considering the format of these books is bio/analysis, were these composers especially connected to their biographies?

DF: Well, yes and no, to a certain extent, but I’d say more yes than no. For Ives, his life is his music. You can’t separate the two because you will miss the joke. In Three Places in New England, his reverie and his memory and his sort of Proustian look at things is the piece. You can’t separate it. And not every piece is like that, that’s a particularly strong example, but his whole life seemed to be spent either wrestling with real biographical issues related to his father and his early life, or wrestling with musical issues like German vs. American. So Ives, yes. Copland, yes and no. Copland’s music, because he was such a socially aware human, it reacts to the social consciousness of the time. Copland wouldn’t be Copland if he were born today. His time was really important. Britten was an opera composer mostly and a lot of them have an outsider and a small boy and look at what happens when something from outside penetrates a sacrosanct environment. And you read about Britten’s childhood and there’s something to that. Barber’s biography probably the least so. He was the most removed, the most classical (in the Greek sense) composer, the most Ivory Tower of them all. But even that, if you know that’s what he was, a rich kid from West Chester who was possessed of ungodly talent and kind of walked between the raindrops, then yeah, his music does make sense. And I’m sure this is true of every single composer, not just these four.

MS: Let’s jump over to the fact that these books are aimed at the musically uninitiated. How do you, as a musically well-initiated person, approach writing such a book?

DF: Well, I’m fortunate in that I’m possessed of a fair amount of uninitiated friends who are always wanting to know more. I have friends who are best-selling authors who actually, when they try to talk about music that is not pop music, they kind of go white with me because they’re scared. They know books and lord knows they know pop and movies, but when it comes to this kind of music, most of them are pretty ignorant. And I don’t mean that as an insult, they’ve just never come across it. So, over the years, I got a chance to explain a lot of these things in a way that hopefully doesn’t scare them, because if we scare these people by saying only the initiated are invited, we lose any possible chance we have at an audience. I consider myself an advocate, I mean, as a composer yes, and as a writer absolutely. My job is to help to build the audiences and if you preach to the choir and you tell everybody who is not in the choir that you have to be one of the believers to be in the choir, pretty soon you’re going to have nobody coming.

So what you do is you try to think, well, what if somebody was explaining film lens technology to me? I’ve seen movies but I don’t know how the lenses and the angles work. I wouldn’t want some film bonehead saying, “Well, if you don’t know, you don’t know, and this is just far too complicated for you.” I’m a smart person who’s capable of learning. So I tried to imagine that anybody who doesn’t know music as well as I do is not stupid, they just have not come across this. What they need is an intelligent, not classical music for dummies, approach and a thorough and scintillating approach without putting shades on Mozart and saying classical was when rock was young.

It is a difficult task, because it involves explaining terms without using terms and getting into some rather complicated concepts without getting into a lengthy explanation that may be fascinating but not wholly necessary for what you’re trying to do.

MS: So how did you make those determinations of how much a reader could digest/would want/actually needs?

DF: Well, I was lucky in that the first book, Copland and Ives, I wrote mostly at the MacDowell Colony, and I had dinner every night with my target audience. I had a really specific idea of who I was writing this book for—intelligent people who would care. You’re not going to convert somebody who has closed ears. You’re going to convert the people who express an interest but just don’t know how to enter. This is the kind of person who doesn’t mind going to a dictionary once in a while or who will get online if they’re unsure about something, so I didn’t have to over-explain things. Then it’s a matter of scaling the arguments back. When you’re trying to explain something that is complicated, what do they need to know and what is too much? That is where the real sort of teacher-ly instinct comes in and you decide how you can put something in a way that is clear without overstating your case.

MS: So, say I am one of these people in your target audience, and I read these two books. How should this effect the way I listen beyond these composers in particular?

DF: Well, that was part of what my original plan was. It’s not about Copland and Ives, or Britten and Barber, it’s about learning how to listen through this music. I wrote a big introduction about a way to listen, because I think that’s lost a lot of the time. Classical music is usually marketed to be consumed as background or what you play on a rainy Sunday morning or, if you are a rather sharp 22-year-old boy, where you take your date to show your class. There’s a lot of very strange angles that classical music is pitched to and I wanted to give people a notion that you listen like you read—it was an involved activity which made you come to it as much as it comes to you. The idea that classical music is this sublime thing that washes over you is sort of a Taster’s Choice marketing tool. I don’t think it’s accurate. None of this music was written to be anything other than as active entertainment like a movie or like a book, so you have you to devote an equal amount of attention. You wouldn’t skim a novel and expect to get anything out of it, or certainly not as much as if you put your whole brain into it. I talk about it being a lot like a mystery novel, which is again another active, involved entertainment. If you’re trying to predict the ending and allowing the author to sort of toy with you, you’re going to have a great time. Even if you have an iPod or are driving in the car—it’s not just about the concert hall. You follow the plot and it takes you for a ride. It’s alluring. It’s not “put on your tux and wait for it to be over so you can discuss it at intermission with your powerful friends.” My overall mission is to get people to listen in a way that will allow them to get the most out of the music.

MS: So since our NewMusicBox readers are probably not musically uninitiated, what, if anything, would a composer-reader get out of these books and take away from the experience?

DF: I did think about that too. Maybe you’re initiated, maybe you know, but you don’t know everything. For you, it might be just another way of looking at the Barber Second Essay or looking at the Concord Sonata. I’m sure there’s stuff in here about the composers, unless you are scholars of them, that you don’t know because I started out as really big fans of all four, and I learned a lot from my listening and research. For the initiated, this isn’t going to be a book that you say, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this Ives guy! He’s pretty good.” But you’ll probably get another sense of these composers. If nothing else, it cannot hurt you to listen to these pieces again with a little bit of guidance. I know it certainly helped me as an author and as a composer.

And if, when people ask you if you write music like Mozart, you don’t have a real framework in which to explain yourself, these are books that can help. They’re short and light and they’re not for scholars, but if you’re trying to explain classical music or new music to people, these books actually might help give you a vocabulary because they are explanations of pieces as narratives and it might help you in thinking about how to unpack the music that you love but other people might not understand.