The sign on the road read “Basket,” and I knew I was just minutes away from arriving at Lee Hoiby’s Catskill home and studio. “You’ll see the sign for Basket and then it’s an immediate sharp right on to Rock Valley Road,” Lee had told me on the phone, with his characteristic mix of exacting detail and elfish glee. I pulled over to the side of the road, switched off a recording I was listening to of Leontyne Price singing Hoiby songs, rolled down all the car windows and took a deep breath. The air was crisp, the stream alongside the road was bubbling, and the bright summer sunlight dappled the dense forest.
So this is where the music comes from, I thought, stealing a title from one of Lee’s most popular songs. I thought for a moment about Lee’s descriptions of the “Basket” valley and tried to imagine what lay in wait three and a half miles up the road. I continued on my way, up the narrow twisting trail, to Lee’s idyllic hideaway. It was my first trip to the valley and my first time meeting the master composer in person; in fact, it was the first time I’d been invited to any composer’s studio.
Buddy, Lee’s watchful dog, sounded the alarm as I drove across a small antique bridge above a rushing stream and into Lee’s driveway. Almost immediately Lee appeared, bounding out of the door to greet me while simultaneously shouting “Down boy!” at the overzealous Buddy. Lee’s tall frame and refined features cut a bold, impressive figure amidst the soft surroundings of the valley, but his boyish charm and distinctive savoir-faire welcomed me fully into his world at that first meeting. Suddenly, any residual anxiety I might have had about meeting the great Lee Hoiby had vanished. Instead, it was as if I was reconnecting with a dear friend from long ago. There was little time wasted on formalities. Lee wanted to get to know you right off; he was curious about everything you found of interest and made you feel comfortable expressing anything that came to mind. It was the first of many visits I would make to Basket’s Rock Valley over a period of more than ten years and the beginning of a friendship and professional relationship with Lee that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
As most anyone who knew Lee would tell you, visits to his home revolved around planning great meals, playing and listening to music in his studio, walks with Lee and his longtime partner Mark Shulgasser in the magnificent outdoors with swims near the gushing waterfall, arrays of scotches, and a little music-industry gossip thrown in for good measure! As Gian-Carlo Menotti’s former student and protégé, Lee was a direct link to both Menotti and Samuel Barber and he would delight in regaling friends with stories about the longtime relationships he’d maintained with both composers. He had a deep respect and admiration for both Menotti and Barber; Menotti in particular as his former teacher. Lee would often recount to me the formative influence Menotti’s strict counterpoint lessons at Curtis had on his early compositional endeavors. The close bond he formed with Menotti at Curtis was vital, and it was at Menotti’s first Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1957 that Lee had his break out success with the opera, The Scarf.
Lee trained initially as a concert pianist and continued to perform throughout his life, making recordings and playing in public, most recently at Carnegie Hall with Frederica von Stade in 2010. Prior to his Carnegie debut, Lee wrote to me: “I will play The Serpent for Flicka in Carnegie Hall on April 22! I’m practicing every day. I have to know that accompaniment in my sleep—it’s like learning a new piece, in A-flat. When I walk out on the stage of Carnegie Hall for the first time in my life, to accompany a beloved American icon, in her farewell recital, singing my best-known song, I want to be, as Leontyne said, 120% prepared.” Interviewed on WQXR radio prior to the concert, Flicka was equally enthusiastic about the composer, announcing with sheer delight to the radio host, “And Lee Hoiby is coming!”
When he was recording the CD A Pocket of Time in 2007 with soprano Julia Faulkner, he wrote to me: “I’m doing nothing but practice, practice, practice. But being careful not to overdo it and hurt my hands. I did that once so I know what can happen. And I want this recording to be super duper. We’re all so revved up about it. And Mark [Shulgasser] will be there, to keep me from dragging tempi.”
Over the years, my visits to Lee’s studio often involved reading through works-in-progress with him. Lee could write fast in a pinch, but there was also plenty of “patient digging” as he often referred to it, “revealing an especially lovely thing, buried for so long.” He loved to share a new theme or idea and ask for my reaction. I would sometimes sit at the piano with him in his studio sight reading sketches of a new score. “Four hands are better than two,” he’d declare, signaling me to join him on the bench. There was Last Letter Home, And the Waters Flow, and then Jacob’s Ladder, all recent commissions for solo voices and chorus which had been such a joy for him to write in his last years. And then there was his first band commission, Summer Suite, which he relished composing, providing an opportunity for him to experiment with that unique balance of winds and brass particular to a full concert band configuration.
Born a natural performer, Lee would delight in sitting down at the concert grand in his studio to play a new song he’d just composed or dazzle with some Bach, Schubert, or Chopin. What a treat it was to hear him spontaneously whip off a Chopin Nocturne. Afterwards, I’d ask him to indulge me with a performance of his “Where the Music Comes From” so I could hear it played with that effortless joy and rogue spirit that permeates so much of his music, particularly his songs. He would oblige, making a comment along the lines of “Oh, that song again.” And if you could get him to accompany himself singing bits from The Italian Lesson or Bon Appetit! you were in for an especially zany and unforgettable night!
There is an exceptional quality of emotional immediacy in Lee’s music that can be disarming to some, but that never fails to move even the most jaded listener. When Lee threw himself into writing Last Letter Home, which sets a poignant text written by the fallen American soldier Jesse Givens in Iraq, the music could have easily veered towards maudlin sentimentality or kitsch in the hands of a lesser composer. Not, however, in the hands of a master like Lee Hoiby. Instead, Lee produced a deeply felt, rigorously composed harmonic masterpiece for a cappella men’s chorus. Following the premiere and repeat performances, the letters poured in. Rarely had I seen such a flood of comments from listeners and performers. Listener after listener, performer after performer wrote to Lee to remark on his “beautiful, singable, and deeply moving” setting. The work has since gone on to be performed countless times and in various versions for mixed chorus, solo baritone and piano, and chorus with orchestra.
Lee was 85 when he passed away on March 28, 2011, following a brief battle with metastatic melanoma. As recently as December however, Lee betrayed few signs of advanced age or illness. He wrote and called me with characteristic joie de vivre, inquiring about dates when my partner Charles and I would visit over the upcoming Christmas holiday, and updating me on the heavy snow falls weighing down the boughs of the white pines outside his studio window. His playful sense of humor remained undiminished. Responding to a question I had about his Summer and Smoke Suite he wrote: “I have withdrawn the Suite. It just didn’t work. One orgasm after another. Fine in bed, unseemly in the concert hall.” Classic Lee, I thought. I was not worried.
But soon, hints that something more serious was afoot became evident. The first signs of his compromised health came to me in January when he was in the midst of composing a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra for Vassar College on Emerson’s Nature: “It’s so frustrating, not being able to work, when there is so much to do,” he wrote. But in quick succession immediately added: “THREE performances of I Have A Dream! One in Cleveland, yet. And all those Bon Appetits and Rills to come! My dance card is filling up fast.”
Dear, gentle, loving Lee, your dance card is fuller than you ever expected. May you dance through the ages now on your great gift of song. How blessed we all are to have shared a dance with you.
A memorial service for Lee Hoiby will be held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City later this spring on a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, those wishing to honor Lee Hoiby’s memory are invited to make a contribution to the Lee Hoiby Institute for American Music.
Norman Ryan is Vice President for Composers and Repertoire at Schott Music and European American Music Distributors in New York. He previously held positions at the New York City Opera, in the programming department of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, at The Public Theater, and at G. Schirmer, Inc. where he was Creative Director.