Jack Beeson (1921-2010): Composer, Teacher, Advocate, and Born Satirist

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On May 3, 2010, Jack Beeson (1921-2010) received the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City. Photo by Matthew Bologna

Jack was my teacher in graduate school and beyond. I could say much about his operatic compositions and how he helped me with mine. But right now, as he has just left us, I want to remember him and share with you a few of my experiences with him.

In 1996, I ran across Jack in the crowded M104 bus as it moved slowly up Broadway. There was only standing room. As we chatted, hanging on to whatever pole was nearby, Jack told me that long ago, while I was still a graduate student, he and the president of Columbia University were intent on buying the Manhattan School of Music, so that Columbia could have a full conservatory for training students in music.

“Well,” I said, “What a boon that would have been for us Columbia composers who would have actually been able to hear the music we were composing, especially the orchestral music and the operas. Why did this not happen?”

“Because,” he said, with the crisp elocution and millisecond delay of an actor, “the then-chair of the music department, a conductor [whom he named], was afraid he would lose too many members of his own university orchestra.” This outrageous revelation was only one of Jack’s many delicious stories, in which the curtain of unknowing was pulled away and truth, of a sort, revealed, much to his sharp-eyed delight and to my own amusement and appreciation for his unending involvement in the committees and positions of power within music.

In 2006, I came for the first time to consult with him about my opera Criseyde. In the course of our wide-ranging conversation, I said that he was well-known for his sticking to principle, and that people said, if Jack says something, that’s exactly what he believes. I noticed again that brief pause and the sharp brightness in his eyes, that he seemed glad to hear this, that at least in my experience people thought him so. During one of these musical consultations, he reminded me about his seeking out Bartók and convincing him to give him composition lessons. Jack found it significant that Bartók said that you cannot teach composition: you teach only what can be taught—things like which direction the stems of notes go in—and you don’t mess with people’s styles.

In April 2009, Jack gave a reading at the Center for Contemporary Opera from his newly published memoir, How Operas are Created by Composers and Librettists: The Life of Jack Beeson, American Opera Composer. Written by a born satirist, his book is filled with elucidating statements about composition, writing operas, and human frailties. In one of my previous consultation visits, he had shown me the manuscript and read me hilarious sections about Leonard Bernstein and himself. His public reading from the published book, he told me later, really exhausted him, but to us in the audience, he was as he had always been: witty and fast-thinking, full of insights and penetrating observations. He autographed my copy of the book: “To Alice, the other composer/performer since Lully.” I knew he was always interested in my opera singing career. Aside from being an adept pianist and vocal coach, he had also acted in his own work. The photos on the wall of his spacious living room included shots of himself as performer, young, handsome, and intense, in costume as the Young Husband in his opera My Heart’s in the Highlands.

When Jack’s Practice in the Art of Elocution, an “operina for soprano and piano,” was performed at the New York City Opera VOX festival recently, he told me afterward that it was the most enthusiastic response he had ever gotten from an audience, and he was clearly pleased by the sustained, loud applause and genuine laughter at this little comic opera. In the interview with him that day on stage, he was his funny, acerbic self, much to the delight of the audience.

Much earlier, in 1965, as a young composition student, I had attended the premiere of Jack’s opera, Lizzie Borden. The work impacted me as a proto-feminist opera, with a strong, almost Medea-like, central female character. I was deep into drama and vocal music. I knew that what I was seeing was extremely adept, that its composer loved words and the voice as I did, and that I could and did learn much from him. He was a model of professional behavior for me.

Yet between my own sensitivity and Jack’s pungent way of expressing his thoughts, for many years I really did not know that he respected my music. But in 1993 he attended the premiere of my electronic opera Mass for the Dead, which was being performed by the American Chamber Opera Company, headed by another former Columbia graduate and opera composer, Douglas Anderson. Jack came up to me after the show, and quietly and softly said, “Thank you for another beautiful opera.” I will not forget the gift of his words. Then I knew, and could see inside and enjoy more the diamond-edged repartee with which he usually communicated.

I hope that Columbia will start a concert or opera series in Jack’s name, which will perform his music along with music by other composers. I think it would be a fitting tribute to a composer who was so diligent in so many organizations in helping other composers have their work performed.

In the last year I came to Jack once again for, as it turned out, a last “lesson.” I had a few remaining technical questions to ask him about my new opera, which was then nearing completion. I suspect I also very much wanted his approval and appreciation for what I had done in the opera, as I knew that he was one of the few who knew opera well enough to know. I showed him in the score where I had followed his advice and benefited from it. We talked a little more, and then it seemed it was time, and he needed for me to leave. He accompanied me with his usual brisk energy to the front door, and held it open for me.

As he closed the door he said, “You’re on your own now, Babe.”

Yes, Jack. Thanks.