Obituary: Soong Fu-Yuan
[Ed Note: Composer Soong Fu-Yuan died on December 5, 2005. Born in Nanjing, China, Soong arrived in the United States shortly after his 18th birthday to study composition and resided in America for the rest of his life. His musical compositions, which synthesize Chinese traditional music and Western classical music, have been performed throughout the United States by groups including ensembles from the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in venues including Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall. His scores are available through International Opus. During the past year, pianist Fou-Ts'ong performed his piano compositions on a world tour. Soong is survived by his wife, Darcy Helen Hector, a long time program officer at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and their son, Corey Ming-Sheng Soong. We asked his friend and sometime collaborator, the legendary radio personality Robert Sherman, to share his memories of Soong Fu-Yuan with us.]
I first met Soong Fu-Yuan about 15 years ago when I received Paul Rutman’s LP of the Poems for Piano. I loved to fuss around with narrative texts on my WQXR broadcasts, usually setting stories to existing recordings, and here was an ideal match, since Soong had actually based his pieces on Chinese places and poems. I can’t recall at the moment whether I asked Soong’s permission ahead of time, or just went ahead and spoke over his music, hoping he wouldn’t be too annoyed with me. Happily, he wasn’t, we talked, we met, and I was enormously charmed, both by his beautiful music and his seemingly gentle demeanor.
I say “seemingly,” because in due course I realized that Soong, while understated and soft-spoken in public, held in a lot of inner angers. He was deeply upset at the system that boosted some composers to iconic status while keeping others, equally talented, in unfair limbo. He complained bitterly about (and wrote a devastating article blasting) the methodology of many composition prizes—the winners chosen by a panel of judges with specific agendas. He resented the financial policies that overwhelmed creative programming decisions at orchestras, opera houses, and recording companies.
All this I came to know gradually. Meanwhile, shortly after the broadcast of his Poems, I showed Soong one of my very favorite stories, which actually was an interior chapter of a book by Noel Langley called The Rift in the Lute, a sort of Candide story set in ancient China (Langley, among many other credits, was the co-author of the play Edward My Son and wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz). It’s a touching, warm-hearted tale of a lonely man and the fox cub that adopts him, and I had earlier set it to a group of authentic Chinese instrumentals. Soong took an immediate liking to the legend, and without waiting for a commission or asking for a fee, wrote his version of The Little Fox, which we subsequently premiered in concert (he conducting, I narrating) with members of the Bronx Arts Ensemble.
I remember Aaron Copland telling me that he knew full well that “Lenny” and many others could conduct his pieces better than he could, but he nonetheless loved doing it himself, because then the music would come out “exactly as I had dreamed it.” I think Soong was a little like that; his beat wasn’t always in the right place, but the energy and enthusiasm and passion that he made so abundantly clear, inspired the players and carried the day.
I know he was frustrated that so few of his pieces had enjoyed wide circulation, or received proper recognition from press or public. Well, that must have happened to Schubert, too, and without attempting to draw any parallels, I have every hope that Soong’s time will indeed come soon, and that his music will enjoy a much longer life than his own. Meanwhile, I miss him a lot.