Robert Moevs (1920-2007) – A Personal Memoir

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Robert Moevs
Photo courtesy Edward B. Marks Music Company

I first met Robert Moevs through his music. It was April 12, 1958 when George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra gave the world premiere of his Three Symphonic Pieces. The musical climate in my hometown was then not very welcoming to adventurous new works. Szell respected little written after Richard Strauss. When he did program works by living composers, preference went to conservative idioms. One gets a sense of audience taste in the program note by the redoubtable Arthur Loesser, who wrote of Robert’s work: “a witty little stroke…pleasant and titillating…the repeated note and the ascending strain proceed on their fluffy way…flakes and feathers float back and dominate the end.” These expressions turned out to have no applicability to the music we were about to hear. Further false expectations were aroused by the fact that the work was commissioned by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Anyone hoping to hear variations on “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'” was in for a shock.

What I remember about that premiere is that the sounds were bold and startling. Their syntax was unlike anything I had heard previously, possibly excepting Le Sacre de Printemps. I seem to remember a wild contrabassoon solo. Hearing this work left a deep impression.

A year and a half later I found myself, a college freshman, in a class in harmony taught by the very composer of this unusual music. Mr. Moevs struck us as an intimidating figure, with an otherworldly gleam in his eye, who spoke slowly in a flat (he was born in Wisconsin) but intense—even incensed—tone. The first class, in which he discussed modulation, consisted of philosophical reflections on existence—being somewhere, going somewhere, returning to where you thought you were. There was to be nothing routine about establishing a key and then changing it: these were matters of deep significance. Plato and Aristotle were invoked. One left class frightened.

During the first weeks he played the piano very little. Thus we were unprepared when, during a preposterously difficult ear training exercise, he tossed off the first Chopin Etude. We were expected to write down a Roman numeral analysis as he played. The virtuosity was so dazzling that no one could even begin. We had to ask him please to slow down. I remember a sheepish grin of embarrassment that he had perhaps been caught out in a display of technique rather than something loftier; he seemed more human and accessible from that point on.

It was the year of the premiere of Attis, his setting of the Catullus poem for tenor, chorus and orchestra. Richard Burgin conducted the Boston Symphony assisted by the Harvard Glee Club. This astonishing work, filled with great chains of tritones that snarled and lashed out at the audience, created such a stir that the Christian Science Monitor reported it as front-page news, drawing a parallel with the premiere of Le Sacre. So wrapped up in Neapolitans, augmented sixths and diminished sevenths was he, though, that he never once mentioned to the class his own music or the attention it had just received.

Soon after Attis the Claremont Quartet played Robert’s first String Quartet in Paine Hall. This was so enthusiastically received that the second movement was repeated. The tape of this performance would be heard many times around Harvard in the immediate years ahead, as when a delegation of Russian composers came to visit. They were conspicuously impressed; and so was Leo Schrade, the Norton Lecturer in 1962-63, who pronounced it a masterpiece.

In senior year I entered Robert Moevs’s seminar in composition. The first and only assignment was to take the sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes and subject it to some suitable transformation so that it could form the basis of music in a contemporary style. The chant melody was to give us a link to the past as well as a common starting point; but the six of us were each encouraged to go in our own direction. Stylistic coherence and consistency—this was after all the sixties and he was a Boulanger pupil—were to be our aims. Only one member of the class resolutely resisted the notion of what was then considered a contemporary idiom: he preferred to write songs in the style of Schubert. This did not distress Robert: he took the effort seriously and gave advice about accompaniments and word setting.

But what he was increasingly interested in at that moment was serial technique. I believe he came to serialism in the aftermath of Attis. That work prompted serious reflection on tonality, atonality, and the means of organizing material. From Piston and Boulanger he had received little encouragement to explore Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern. One felt that Stravinsky, perhaps also Varèse, were the stronger influences on his thinking. Then Boulez showed up at Harvard, in the very year about which I am speaking, and everyone—Robert included—began talking rows, grids, palindromes, total organization etc. In time Robert would define his own approach to serial procedure as “systematic chromaticism.”

The composition seminar met Monday afternoons and was devoted to a discussion of instruments, notation, structural principles, a close review of our individual efforts, along with further Aristotelian ruminations. Robert Moevs was never long-winded. After a thoughtful, penetrating, silent perusal of newly composed measures, he would typically distill his advice into one beautifully concentrated, devastating, “Well….” Further elaboration was generally unnecessary. That which went unsaid was inferred, intuited, absorbed by osmosis. His facial expression told a lot.

As I have suggested, Robert’s taciturn manner extended to the subject of his own music. He could hardly bring himself to discuss it—much less promote it, which is one reason why his career was not bigger. Another is the difficulty of his works, which make their point effectively only when given a dedicated, thoroughly worked-out performance. Still another is what I grew to perceive as his own fragility. The rough and tumble of the composition business—rejections, bad reviews, under-rehearsed performances, cancelled dates—wounded him to the point where he retreated into other pursuits—historical restoration, photography—with the result that his compositional output diminished. His dedication to teaching, however, remained as intense as ever.

After graduation from college I followed Robert Moevs to Rome (where he spent his Guggenheim) and then to Rutgers, where I worked with him while obtaining a master’s degree. Whether as a coach for piano performances, an adviser with orchestration, an encourager during moments of self-doubt, or a cautioner during moments of over-confidence, I have relied on him for most of my adult life. He was the ideal mentor.