An interview with the author of Deems Tayor: A Biography
Molly Sheridan: I wanted to start by talking a little bit about what drew you to Deems Taylor and motivated you to take on a project of this magnitude. I’ve been reading through your book and it’s extremely detailed. I’ve got to believe that there must be a connection there for you to have devoted obviously a lot of time and energy to thing particular project. So why don’t we start there.
James Pegolotti: Okay. Well, there are so many aspects of why I started writing this book. I think probably the most important one is that I grew up in Northern California, and as a young person I was on a dairy ranch. At night I would hear music from San Francisco and it’s really how I learned to love classical music. I went to a one-room schoolhouse, believe it or not, and so there was very little music education to say the least. I listened particularly to “Voice of Firestone” and Telephone Hour, which were on Monday nights back to back. I went for my undergraduate at St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area, and because we had a wonderful symphony forum I was able to attend concerts by the San Francisco Symphony for 50 cents. So for the four years that I was there I was going to live concerts and that really filled in my background. Then when I went to UCLA to get my doctorate in chemistry I went to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so I learned a lot by listening. It’s always been an avocation.
The other aspect of is it that I’ve always been a teacher, that’s been my real goal in life. I went along teaching chemistry and then because of other issues decided to go into college administration, which led me ultimately to Danbury and Western Connecticut State University. I then started to write about music–to do some program notes for local organizations, the Danbury Symphony and such as that. Then when I left administration I decided to become a librarian and went to get a library degree at Southern Connecticut State which is a sister institution to Western. There I met a young man, Ken Crilly, who was at that time working at the Yale music library but not yet a librarian himself. Well, within four or five years he was the director. And Yale, it turned out, had most of the Deem Taylor papers.
I had to do some background on how to be a librarian to get my degree, so I went to a little library near Danbury called Bethel Connecticut Public Library and there I found out, of all things, that Howard Barlow who had been the conductor for the Voice of Firestone on radio and TV had spent his last years in Bethel and they had a lot of material. I actually wrote a lengthy article that was published on Howard Barlow. Howard Barlow turned out to be a good friend of Deems Taylor and though I knew a lot about Deems Taylor, I hadn’t really heard him because he was on Sunday afternoons with the New York Philharmonic and I could only get the evening broadcasts at that time from San Francisco. So I decided it was time to look into Deems Taylor because I’m always interested in why people sort of disappear from the scene, when they’re so important. I started to research Deems Taylor asking the question, ‘Why hadn’t someone already done a biography on this man?’ Taylor was a composer who had disappeared from the scene, even though he was the first man ever to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and had two very successful operas in the ’20s and ’30s.
And I think probably more than any other reason why I ended up doing it was that I was really taken by his sense of humor. I found that in Taylor throughout his writings and in a lot of the actual radio programs that I had copies of from off the air. I love humor, I love music, I love the capacity of someone to write well for a broad public, which is what I attempt to do because I don’t have the musical background to be a musicologist in any way, shape, or form. I try to write in a way for people who, like me, are very interested in music and have some background but not a lot.
After three years of researching I then came to a time when I said I’m going to retire and I’m going to spend my time working on this book. Ultimately I got the contract with Northeastern.
Molly Sheridan: You said when you started the project that you were curious why no one had written about him before. Did you ever come up with an answer for that?
James Pegolotti: A part of it is that too many people looked only at it his composing self, which had gone out of favor obviously, and to write solely about that would be kind of uninteresting. They didn’t see him as far as his importance as a supporter and a champion of American music of his time, particularly when he was on the radio, always really supporting the people who were composing as he was even though he certainly didn’t agree with much of the music that was being written at the time, but he always said you’ve got to listen to things at least twice.
Also what they hadn’t seen is the incredibly interesting life he led on so many different levels, starting with writing the college shows at NYU, and then moving on to actually being part of a major newspaper, the New York Tribune Magazine. So he became a writer, he was a composer, he was a very fine speaker on the radio–he had a wonderful voice–but I think that most people that were looking at him were looking from the point of view of his world as a composer which had really disappeared completely in the ’40s and he never had a lot of his good music recorded. So people are not cognizant of what he was all about. There’s never been a commercial recording of either of his two operas–The King’s Henchman or Peter Ibbetson. Schwartz’s concert version out in Seattle four years ago was recorded but they still haven’t released it commercially and I don’t know that they ever will. He said they’re still thinking about it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful recording.
Molly Sheridan: Do you think Taylor’s music then will disappear as the years go by or do you expect that there will be a chance later for it to be rediscovered?
James Pegolotti: I suspect that it will reappear and show up on orchestral concerts off and on in the future and I think that probably Peter Ibbetson will be performed somewhere. It’s the kind of opera that with some very clever staging would be very impressive. The music is excellent.
Molly Sheridan: Well, we chose to excerpt the portion of the book that focuses on this period in his career when he was writing operas. The Met was searching for an American composer, questioning just what is American, which is of course near to our hearts here at NewMusicBox. I was impressed by the reaction to Taylor’s operas. The public really reacted favorably to these performances, which is something that for some reason in this day and age seems almost surprising.
James Pegolotti: That’s right. You know I have a copy of the review of Peter Ibbetson from The New York Times, the day after, and it is six full columns top to bottom! It’s one full page with the history and all. It just amazes people. But as you say they were looking for this special person to come along and they thought for a while that it was him. I think also if you ever listen to The King’s Henchman you’d be surprised at how modern it is. It is not an easy opera to listen to and I think critics have been unjust in that regard. Peter Ibbetson is much more impressionistic and romantic. The King’s Henchman I think is a very tricky and modern type opera, with this very strange libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay—she used only Anglo Saxon words because it was an Anglo Saxon story of the 10th century and it’s hard to listen to sometimes because you don’t know what they’re talking about.
Molly Sheridan: What about musically? You say that it’s the more modern and since most people probably haven’t heard it, why don’t you talk a little bit about what characterizes it and what your impression is of it.
James Pegolotti: The vocal lines are very often at some odds with the orchestral lines. They are very often singing phrases and as I tried to explain–and believe me, it’s hard to do this mainly because I don’t have the music background–but one thing that Taylor did try to do was to be like Debussy and give it a foundation which was in a sense independent of the vocal line. When you listen to the singers in King’s Henchman it’s almost as if there’s some difficulty and a sort of clashing between the sounds that they’re providing and the orchestra itself. There are a lot of thematic sections that he uses over and over again. He was really trying to be a little like Richard Wagner at the time. In fact the most famous essay that Taylor ever wrote was called The Monster and the monster was Richard Wagner. It’s an essay that still is used in teaching today because it’s so clever and so to the point. So Wagner was very much his hero throughout and then Debussy came in and paired off with Wagner. So in The King’s Henchman he used a lot of thematic things over and over again and their not that melodic even though he said melody was a key issue. Still the most melodic thing in the opera is a Scotch folk song that he adopted into a march and that’s sung at the end of the first act in a very heroic way. So that’s the best I can say. There was certainly not in any way a strong Puccini-ish or Verdi-ish melodic line. It was very broken up and extremely important that the words be heard.
Molly Sheridan: Deems Taylor’s professional life took on obviously so many aspects. Do you think he had as much time as he wanted to devote to composition, or do you think if he had it to do over again…did you get any indication from his papers and letters and things that he wanted to spend more time than he was able to?
James Pegolotti: Well, I believe that at some point he saw that he was not going to be the great American composer. I think maybe at one point he thought he might be, especially with the popularity of the two operas. Then he got very much involved with women—wives and non-wives, and very much concerned about how to support his wife, his second wife particularly, and his daughter, which was by the second wife.
Molly Sheridan: And was kind of a surprise from what I gathered. She managed to keep the pregnancy from him till after the birth…
James Pegolotti: It was a total surprise.
Molly Sheridan: I had to read that section twice. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, that can’t be right.’ I just never thought of Deems Taylor like that—all these wives and everyone is in love with him. But he just looks so sweet in the photographs. It’s just not the first thing you think of.
James Pegolotti: Right. It’s about the last thing that a person is expecting when you go looking into it. It certainly was totally a surprise to me as I dug deeper. I came to 1951, he’s still shepherding around Miss America who was 43 years younger than him.
Molly Sheridan: Did he just have a charismatic personality?
James Pegolotti: Had to be something, because boy they fell for it, and all of them were absolutely beautiful too.
Well, anyway, I think in a sense he could have been like Aaron Copland if he had chosen to go with American folk songs. The folk songs he chose for the operas were always from Europe. It seems that Taylor couldn’t get rid of the European influence in his thinking, and I think that’s where he saw finally, probably towards the end of the ’30s when he truly gave up writing major works, that it was better to go and get the money where his other talents were and hope for the best otherwise. I think he saw the picture clearly. But he wrote some very nice little things in the ’40s that should have been recorded.
If you listen to all his orchestral works, just orchestral, back-to-back, maybe there would be two hours of it, leaving out the four operas. At some point he decided that he was not going to make it as a composer, but he was going to make it as a clever, witty, very well spoken commentator for American music for the Philharmonic and then as a leader of ASCAP for six years at a very important time in ASCAP’s history. By the time he left ASCAP he was 63.
Molly Sheridan: What was your research process for this book. Obviously there’s a ton of detail in here and I can’t imagine how long it really took you and how many hours you put into. I know you’ve mentioned that his papers were at the Yale Library and that was a starting place for you. Is that where most of this was drawn from?
James Pegolotti: A good amount of it, but as you well know there was so much letter writing between people and those letters then end up in the sites of the individuals to whom they were written. Thankfully I just go into it as the Internet started to open up and academic libraries started to make their files available. And being a librarian and getting touch with other librarians made it very nice, sort of like doctor to doctor. They would send me a copy gratis of a letter and that kind of thing. So it was about three years before I retired that I started. I did a whole summer and two winter months at Yale getting material onto my lap top and then starting to make copies of materials and building up my files and then deciding how the heck the book was going to be written along with the help of an editor ultimately.
I must tell you that Northeastern University Press, once they give you the contract–and I did not know this–they send the manuscripts out to readers and two out of three readers must say ‘yes’ for the manuscript to be then brought to the board for final approval. Even though you have a contract there’s no guarantee. Well the first reader–and these are people who are reading different versions as they are coming along–the first was very positive. The second was absolutely, horribly negative. I saw what he wrote and in so many terms it was ‘absolutely never publish this book.’ Now I was an academic for 40 years and I can spot one a mile away especially when they are very critical, and I saw this as a particular person, musicologist I’m sure, who absolutely did not think Deems Taylor’s music worthy of anything. I made an argument with the editor about this, and I tried to take examples from what the person had said and point out that this was unfair because Taylor was more than a composer. In fact many people have said to me that what they like about the book is that it’s not so much about the music but is really a snapshot of the era. You go from theater to literature to the Algonquin to all these people who are a firm group in New York’s culture at the time. So, the editor bought my feelings that we should keep going. I think at that point he could have said well I agree with this guy, it’s not going anywhere, but I did a third draft and they sent it out to another reader who said, ‘Yes, but.’ And the ‘but’ was that they wanted more of my opinions in the book and I will say that I studiously avoided that because I just…you know it’s the first and only biography I’m ever going to write and I just felt a little uncomfortable with that.
Well, to write the fourth draft I just went away for a couple of weeks by myself, took my material, and said I’m really going to find out what Taylor was about that I can say. I looked into it and realized that what I could say about Taylor he had already said about himself in some of his writings and then I discovered that there was this definite problem between him and his father and that he had this thing about women. And he had these things about never growing up so I drew that conclusion at one point that one of his problems was he couldn’t grow up.
Going to one of things you said about why is it that he didn’t go further in music. He never was educated beyond about two months study of theory and he learned orchestration on his own. You have to keep improving yourself and he did not improve himself in terms of his studies. Copland of course went to France and went through I’m sure an awful lot being at the hands of teachers but ultimately it develops a part of them that they might not even suspect was there. So this is an issue with Taylor. So I decided that one of the things was that he just couldn’t grow up psychologically or musicologically and that’s where he kind of ended himself.
Anyway, that was what they wanted and then they got a fourth reader who said, ‘yes, yes I like it.’ That was a year and half ago.
Molly Sheridan: So was the whole process worth it for you?
James Pegolotti: Oh, absolutely. I will never regret it. It was an education I’d never had before and never will have again, and I’ve had quite a few.
Molly Sheridan: I was going to say, you’re something of a Renaissance man yourself, similar to Taylor really. You’ve picked up quite a few interesting professions along the way.
James Pegolotti: I think that’s very true and I saw some of Taylor in me, there’s no doubt about it and I felt comfortable with him because I could understand in my life what I’ve gone through too, moving from one thing to the other. I always say that teaching has been my key, and in a sense I see this book as a teaching instrument. It’s helping people to realize what radio was all about, what people went through in the ’20s and ’30s that then brought us into the current scene, so for me it was an education and just another way to teach I suppose.
Molly Sheridan: So you’re sure you’re not going to do another one?
James Pegolotti: Oh, god no. This was really fateful, I’m almost convinced of that. You can’t believe how many things had to happen for me to get thrown into this. All these things that came together so I said, ‘Gee, maybe I should write it.’