Michael Torke Remembers James Legg

William Butler Yeats, one of the richest and deepest poets to ever write in the English language, is said to have requested only three words for his tombstone, “Horseman, ride by!” His odd request, I believe, was meant to indicate that though a human life is rich and deep, once gone, it is a disservice to sentimentalize it, sanctify it, or to project personal gains through its interpretation. Life itself is very fragile and fleeting, Yeats seems to tell us– it might be best to ride by; continue on with life, for that is what the dead wish us to do.

One of the many things my friend Jim Legg and I shared through our 20 years of friendship (which began orientation week for the freshman class at the Eastman School of Music) was a refusal to sentimentalize anything, in the pursuit of searching for the essence of things. Jim, through his artistry and as a human being was very sensitive, but his intelligence was impatient. He had no time for those who would impose their self-interest or petty romanticism into a given situation. Jim was brutally honest with life, and he searched for the truth in who he was as a man and as an artist. Jim never followed what he should do, but what he must do. To answer the question “Why?” was necessary, and not in the least bit indulgent. That very word, “indulgent” is an anathema to Jim’s character, as he always chose to be generous and supportive to others rather then dwell on personal discomforts.

Jim, in the last year of his life was entering into the cusp of joy, success, and fulfillment. Vectors of good fortune were smiling down on him. He was writing an opera based on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, soon to be produced. He wrote a stunning song cycle, perhaps the best music he has ever written, on twelve poems of Emily Dickinson. He was preparing music for the new Tom Stoppard play that will open this season at Lincoln Center Theater. Incidental music to productions at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego were just realized. His film collaborations were bearing fruit as loyal directors were demanding that he be the composer for larger budget films. He was in love. It is the odd stroke of chance that he was so unexpectedly struck down.

For Jim’s integrity, honesty, generosity, warmth, and accomplishment I feel proud and privileged to call myself his friend.

Michael Torke
New York City
December 2000