Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs Wins 2008 Grawemeyer

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Peter Lieberson
Photo by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson;
courtesy University of Louisville

Neruda Songs, a song cycle written by composer Peter Lieberson that became a parting gift to his dying wife, has earned the 2008 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The work, a group of songs based on five love poems by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, was chosen for the $200,000 prize among 140 entries from around the world.

Lieberson began writing the song cycle in 2003 for his wife, the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. In 2005, she learned that she was ill with cancer. She performed it with the organizations that jointly commissioned it, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony, before she died in 2006. Shortly after her death, Nonesuch issued a CD of Neruda Songs, recorded from a live performance by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson with the Boston Symphony conducted by James Levine.

Each song represents a different stage of love, from first passion to the end of life, according to Marc Satterwhite, a UofL music professor who directs the award program. “The piece has beauty and surface simplicity, but great emotional depth and intellectual rigor as well,” he said.

Lieberson, the son of former Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson and ballerina Vera Zorina, was born in New York City. He studied music at Columbia and Brandeis universities, also studying Tibetan Buddhism, a theme reflected in his works. He now lives in Santa Fe and devotes his time exclusively to composing music. Among his other compositions are three concertos and several solo pieces for pianist Peter Serkin, the concerto Six Realms for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the operas Ashoka’s Dream and King Gesar.

The Grawemeyer Foundation annually awards $1 million for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, education, and religion. Winners of the other 2008 Grawemeyer Awards will be announced later this week.

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Frank J. Oteri: What were your models for the Neruda Songs?

Peter Lieberson: I think in many ways the Neruda Songs is a culmination of what I have always hoped to do in composing music and for many reasons was unable to, partly because of the time in which I grew up, actually, and partly for personal reasons. Who knows? It’s very difficult to pinpoint. I always saw music as a means of expression of some kind, and not purely as an intellectual exercise. But at the time in which I grew up as a composer, there was a great deal of emphasis on intellectual comprehension of the structure of music, the possibilities of logic in music. All of the things that in many ways we appreciate almost intuitively in composers like Brahms or Schubert or Mozart. But one wonders how articulated those things were for those composers; whereas for some reason there’s a period of extraordinary self-consciousness starting from maybe the late 1950s after the war.

There was a certain faith that was put in the science of music. In the same way, spirituality really became undermined by the wars; a new religion was born which was science, and I think that affected music a great deal. When I was in my early 20s and began to study in earnest, there was a sense of really having to master that kind of scientific approach. I feel a distinction can be made between musical form guided by intuition as well as the intellect, and musical form based primarily on conceptual ideas. The first approach allows for spontaneity, while the second produces enormous struggle and is a sign of lack of confidence in oneself. For whatever it’s worth, I received an extraordinary education, though it might have been kind of at-odds with what we might call expressing the heart.

FJO: So many composers of your generation have talked about this historical phenomenon, but from all the evidence anyone can glean whoever was putting all this faith in structure and science vis-a-vis music, it certainly wasn’t the general audience.

PL: No, it never was. It’s very curious. It’s almost as if music became an academic subject to study, like zoology, not to make fun of zoology. I think I was very affected by this. Over the years, I tried to allow all those technical things that I learned to become more spontaneous and somehow allow something else to come through. Probably this is the result of my involvement with spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism, for many, many years. I can’t draw complete connections like that.

I think really when I met Lorraine it was quite an amazing time in my life. I had just turned fifty. I had just written an opera called Ashoka’s Dream. That was the closest I really felt I had come toward expressing something that was very personal, and hopefully more universal, too, because it was a story about a transformation that a human being underwent. Meeting Lorraine who was such an intuitive musician, such a powerful presence, so unafraid of her emotions, so able to access those emotions and express them, a person who could hold the space on stage in a way I’d never seen before. There was no artifice. It wasn’t like you had to ask Lorraine, “Where did you study to learn how to be like that on stage?” That would have been a joke. And she was very much the same way off stage as she was on stage.

Lorraine’s identification with words was also really remarkable. She could actually just quote the words of a song and just burst into tears because she was so involved with the meaning of the words, and she just embodied them. In fact, whenever she did a masterclass, she wouldn’t concentrate so much on the technique, because that would often be the problem. People were thinking too much about the technique and not enough about the words. Perhaps that was a kind of catalyst for me. It was a very important moment for both of us; we were very much in love.

I had written the Rilke Songs for her over a period of maybe five years. And then finally this opportunity came. Esa-Pekka Salonen at the L.A. Phil had asked me for a concerto, and over a few years it morphed into a different kind of commission and I asked if I could write a song cycle for Lorraine. So the impetus or the ground for the Neruda Songs was my love for Lorraine. That made it very easy to compose. And finally there was a kind of breakthrough where I was able to compose very spontaneously. So if you asked for models, I really wouldn’t know what to say.

FJO: But, of course, you’re the son of Goddard Lieberson, who was a composer as well whose music is unfortunately all too little known, but who was world renowned as a record producer of an astoundingly wide variety of music for Columbia Records. He wasn’t only responsible for many great classical music recordings of standard repertoire and contemporary work, he was responsible for the existence of Broadway original cast albums. So I’m sure you were hearing an incredible range of music in your home growing up.

PL: I was. And in fact, it’s almost as if that early exposure to so much different music came through very naturally when I was composing the Neruda Songs, because in a way the harmonic palette for that goes back to my love of Bill Evans or the early Miles Davis quartets. I was completely involved with jazz when I was about 18. If I had a better right hand, I would have been a jazz musician. But of course, going all the way back, I went to the premiere of The Sound of Music. My Fair Lady was something I heard all the time in my house, because my father was the person who convinced CBS to invest in it. So I heard all the premieres of shows from the time I was six all the way through to my teens, way up through A Chorus Line. So, all of that was part of my musical life, too. But it isn’t as if I was trying to draw on those things; it was just that you are exposed to forms your character when you grow up to a large degree.

FJO: After listening to those two song cycles, I went back and listened to some of your other music, and I now hear them in a different way. Works like your cello concerto, The Six Realms, is also characterized by dominant melodic lines. And then I read your notes to the recording where you talked about becoming much more conscious of the idea of melody as being supreme rather just one among many equal ingredients through your connection to Lorraine.

PL: That’s very interesting. Good, I’m glad. And I think actually that’s a very important point as far as the Neruda Songs are concerned, because previous to that I just began to realize when I listened to Lorraine singing in a production of an opera, whatever it would be, how powerful the line was, and how much it carried not just the form of the piece, but the heart of the piece.

FJO: If Neruda Songs is a plateau for you, what happens from here compositionally?

PL: Well, it’s been difficult. I actually did complete a whole other piece while Lorraine was still alive. To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure how I managed to do that, or even when. It was around the time we were touring together for the Neruda Songs; the final tour was in March 2006. I wrote this piece for the New York Philharmonic, with Lorraine as part of it. It’s called The World in Flower. It has a selection of text I made from many different sources, and is for mezzo and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra. It’s about forty minutes. The premiere was postponed because Lorraine was too ill, and also I finished it too late. Then I became ill as well. I actually orchestrated the piece while I was undergoing chemotherapy in Houston. I’d actually do it in the hospital, or wherever else. It was really good therapy.

I was asked by the Boston Symphony and James Levine to do another set of songs. He wanted me to do a second cycle of the Neruda poems for Lorraine, but I said, “No, I don’t think that would work.” After she passed away, I thought maybe I would do another cycle, but for baritone. I’m writing another set of songs based on the Love Sonnets; they’re called Songs of Farewell. It’s such a treasure trove, Neruda’s poetry. So that’s what I’m working on now.

FJO: The Neruda Songs were so integrally related to the person they were written for. Obviously now with the Neruda Songs winning the Grawemeyer, one of the hopes whenever a composition wins this award is that there could be a greater chance that it will somehow enter the repertoire. And that means it would be performed by many different people. But it’s hard to imagine what it would be like with someone else’s voice.

PL: Well, we’ll find out because in May, Bernard Haitink is conducting them at the Chicago Symphony with a young mezzo named Kelly O’Connor, whom I haven’t met. He’s doing that also at Carnegie Hall and then I think he’s going to Berlin to do them with the Berlin Philharmonic.

FJO: How do you feel about that?

PL: I feel fine. I think it might be more difficult for the singer than for me. I don’t think Lorraine would have wanted them to be only her province. Even if she were alive today, I don’t think she would want that. She’d want other singers to sing them, I know she would.

FJO: Certainly that goes hand in hand with her advocacy for contemporary music. She was a real crusader for new music.

PL: Yes, she was, and her involvement with contemporary music predates her involvement with me. Peter Sellars involved her in John Adams’s music, and she knew John Harbison in Boston. She was always involved with contemporary music to some extent; also as a violist she was part of a string quartet that did contemporary music.

FJO: I actually have a Dallapiccola LP on 1750 Arch Records which features performances of an ensemble in which she was the violist, Lorrie Hunt. There are singers on the recording, but she’s only playing viola.

PL: I didn’t know she actually recorded. And she was Lorrie still. That’s one thing that changed when we got together, she became Lorraine.

FJO: Many of your pieces over the years have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, probably more than any other composer.

PL: Five times. Someone told me I had a record. I had originally hoped that when the Neruda Songs were a finalist for the Pulitzer that it would have won while she was still alive, so she would have had that honor. I have to say I never really concern myself too much with prizes, awards, and so on. But this one is meaningful to me precisely because it is for the Neruda Songs and because of the kind of panels that are involved for the Grawemeyer. There are lay people, so to speak, involved, too. It’s such a meaningful piece to me, so it’s very nice that the prize was awarded to it.