Photo courtesy of Sigma Alpha Iota
Robert Starer, a respected composer of operas, ballets and many orchestral and instrumental works, and the author of two books on rhythm that are widely used by music students, died of heart failure on April 22 in Kingston, N.Y. He was 77.
In a 1994 review of Starer’s piano music, Alex Ross wrote in The New York Times: “When history books are written, Mr. Starer will probably land somewhere in the great open middle of American compositional tradition. His language is sometimes dissonant and even 12-tone in orientation, but it is fundamentally consonant beneath the surface, and his liking for open intervals puts him a shade closer to Copland than, say, to Elliott Carter. Among other qualities, he has a certifiable gift for melody.”
Robert Starer was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for Science and Art by the President of Austria in 1995, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the State University of New York in 1996. He was given a Presidential Citation by the National Federation of Music Clubs in 1997. Mr. Starer was also the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships.
Mr. Starer wrote several pieces for the stage, including three ballets for Martha Graham – Samson Agonistes (1961), Phaedra (1962) and The Lady of the House of Sleep (1978) – as well as Pantagleize, an opera. Pantagleize, composed to his own libretto and adapted from a play by Michel de Ghelderode, had its premiere in 1973.
Mr. Starer also wrote several dramatic works with his companion, the novelist Gail Godwin. These include The Last Lover, a chamber opera (1975), and Apollonia, an opera in two acts, which was given its premiere in 1979 by the Minnesota Opera. They also collaborated on a major concert work, Journals of a Songmaker, composed for the conductor William Steinberg‘s farewell concert as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1976.
His orchestral works have been performed by major orchestras around the world under such conductors as Steinberg, Mitropoulos, Bernstein, and Mehta. Interpreters of his music include Janos Starker, Jaime Laredo, Paula Robison and Leontyne Price. The recording of his Violin Concerto (Itzhak Perlman with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa) was nominated for a Grammy. CD recordings of his music are available from CRI, VOX, Albany Records, Transcontinental and MMC.
Pianist Justin Kolb met Robert Starer in 1988, and gave the world premiere of the Sonata No. 3 at Weill Hall in 1994. Starer dedicated the work to Kolb. “He had very little to say if you knew the score,” Kolb commented. “He so appreciated it when anyone performed his music.” Kolb is “astounded even now” in remembering how Starer would keep track of these performances. “You would think he wasn’t aware of your performance, and then he would send you a little note” acknowledging the date. Kolb recorded the Sonata as part of a retrospective of Starer’s piano music for the Albany label in 1997
“His music, when played well, is accessible to everyone,” Kolb elaborated. When he has performed Starer’s music, whether in Toronto, Santa Barbara, or Miami, he has always received “a happily enthusiastic response” from the audience. “People can relate to the big pieces and the small pieces. It’s not that the music was ‘dumbed-down.’ It’s that this man could make a melody out of two notes.”
When Kolb decided to record the disc for Albany, Starer suggested that he include some of his famous “student” pieces, as well. Kolb recorded The Contemporary Virtuoso and three pieces from Sketches in Color alongside three more “adult” works. “He wanted to give the kids an opportunity to hear a professional pianist hear their music. He had that kind of a spirit.”
“We had fun when we worked,” Kolb reminisced. “He had the formality, when it was appropriate, of a Viennese elegance, but he [also] had a house on the Upper West Side, and one in Woodstock, of all places. He was a man of spirit and breadth. He led the way for me, and I loved him.”
Mr. Starer was born on Jan. 8, 1924, in Vienna, where he entered the State Academy of Music at age 13. In 1938, as Hitler‘s forces annexed Austria, he watched the German troops march into the city from his bedroom window. Because the Starers were Jewish, they soon left for Jerusalem, where Mr. Starer attended the Palestine Conservatory. During World War II he served with the Royal British Air Force. After the war, he came to New York to continue his education at The Juilliard School. He became an American citizen in 1957.
Retired Juilliard composition professor David Diamond, who first made Robert Starer’s acquaintance in the 1940s, remembers him as “a very profound human being.” “He was a very serious man,” Diamond explained. “His Judaism gave him a seriousness of purpose, of humanity.” Diamond expressed admiration for his late colleague’s music. “It was wonderfully crafted, and it had a stimulating rhythmic vitality,” he commented. “His lyrical music was very, very beautiful.”
In the summer of 1948, Starer studied composition with Aaron Copland at the Tanglewood Institute. The next year he was appointed to the faculty at Juilliard, teaching there until 1974. Starer was among the elite group of composers selected by William Schuman to implement a new curriculum, “Literature and Materials,” that combines elements of theory, analysis, and music history.
Diamond recalls Starer’s excellence as a teacher. “I sat in on one of his classes at the old Juilliard building. He was a very good teacher. He knew his craft – all the techniques of contemporary composition, as well as those of older music, medieval music, even. His students learned a great deal from him.”
One of his students at Brooklyn College was Los Angeles-based composer and conductor Michael Isaacson. Isaacson credits Robert Starer with teaching him “a great lesson in integrity.” “It was a time in my life when I was writing a lot of Broadway incidental music. I would come into his studio with music for a production of [Jean Giraudoux's] The Madwoman of Chaillot, and he would say ‘this is very good French music.’” Later, Isaacson came into a lesson with music for Dylan Thomas‘s Under Milk Wood, and Starer’s comment was “this is very good Welsh music.” Predictably, when he brought in music for Ansky’s The Golem, Starer described it as “very nice Polish music.” Finally the student expressed his frustration. “Every week I bring my music in, and you say ‘it’s nice French music,’ and so on…but it’s all my music!” he raged. Isaacson trembled as Starer “turned beet red” and exploded “get out of my studio and don’t come back until you bring me Isaacson music!!”
“He made me a composer,” Isaacson admits. Until that tense moment, he was “an arranger who thought he was a composer.” After the two of them “reconciled,” Isaacson brought him the first pieces of music that he considered his own. “When you’re a beginning composer, you always write more than you have to,” he explained. Starer “eschewed all artifice” in favor of what Isaacson calls “the pure line.” “Any time there was something that didn’t need to be there, he would let you know.” Isaacson’s own writing style is transparent because of the courage that Starer gave him to “believe in each element” that he put into a composition.
After Isaacson graduated from Brooklyn, going on to Eastman for his Ph.D., he continued to correspond with former teacher about new pieces and recordings. “He was a mentor all through my growing years,” Isaacson remembers. “He was always very generous with his approbation and his encouragement.”
Starer was named a Distinguished Professor at C.U.N.Y. in 1986. H. Wiley Hitchcock, Distinguished Professor of Music Emeritus at C.U.N.Y., introduced him at the awarding of the Brooklyn College Presidential Medal in 1986. “Robert Starer is a composer through and through,” Hitchcock commented at the time, “a composer by helpless necessity, a prolific professional, and by now recognized so widely as such that he has trouble filling his commissions – those that he accepts.”
Mr. Starer left an engaging account of his life in his 1987 memoir, Continuo: A Life in Music. In one section of the book he conducts a pointed imaginary conversation with a concertgoer who has walked out of one of his premieres. In 1997 The Overlook Press published The Music Teacher, his first work of fiction.
Hitchcock emphasized that the music community should be grateful to Robert Starer, whose life exemplified Nietzsche‘s statement that “without music, life would be a mistake.” All who worked with him seem to remember him similar reverence. “We lost a giant in Robert Starer,” Michael Isaacson concluded. “He was a giant in the field. Not only was he a great artist, he was also a great role model. We will miss him terribly.”
Besides Ms. Godwin and his son, Daniel, Mr. Starer is survived by a sister, Hanni Weiselberg of Israel, and a grandchild. A funeral service for Mr. Starer was held on April 24, 2001, in Woodstock NY. The service included a performance of the composer’s last work, “Evening,” for soprano and piano, completed on April 20.