Photo courtesy of G. Schirmer, Inc.
I started my piano lessons when I was four years old with a woman named Ann Abajian. She was a student of Leo Ornstein. She encouraged all her students to make up little pieces of their own to play, so it never occurred to me that being a composer was anything unusual. It just seemed like a natural thing to do. Later I studied with Ornstein who continued to encourage my efforts at composition.
When I got older, I became a Wagner fan. I got to be very interested in the Ring. That was my Star Wars. I made a collection of all the leitmotifs the way other kids made stamp collections. And so I wanted to write operas.
When I was about sixteen, I went to Fontainebleau to study with Nadia Boulanger, but she didn’t influence me the way she seems to have influenced other American composers. On returning in the summer of 1937, I started taking private lessons with Roger Sessions before entering Princeton. In my junior year, we had a thing called a “reading period” where students had to read up on a topic for two weeks and write a report. Instead of doing that, Sessions had me write a new piece of music every day for two weeks. It didn’t matter how short it was, but it had to be complete. I realized that I had not yet found my own musical personality. This was the best laxative I have ever taken because in my senior year I started to write my thesis, which was a string quartet. I still needed a lot of help from Sessions while doing this, but I realized at last that I was writing my own music.
With Roger’s help, the string quartet was given its premiere at an ISCM Concert in 1944. It received the New York Music Critics Award for that year and was recorded by the Juilliard Quartet. This is the first work that I acknowledge. I owe much to Virgil Thomson for his favorable review.