George Edwards In Memoriam
The composer George Edwards died on October 23, 2011, after a long illness. I should like to say a few words about his life and work. First, some plain facts. He was born on May 11, 1943, and grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts. From 1961 to 1965 he attended Oberlin College, where his principal composition teacher was Richard Hoffman. From 1965 to 1968 he did graduate work at Princeton University, studying with Milton Babbitt, Edward T. Cone, and Earl Kim, and achieving a Master of Fine Arts. He taught music theory and composition from 1969 to 1976 at the New England Conservatory. In 1976 he moved to Columbia University, where he eventually became Edward MacDowell Professor of Music. He directed Columbia’s graduate composition program from 1987 to 1995 and chaired the music department from 1996 to 1999. He retired in 2005. George was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1973-75, and in 1980 and 1986 he was a Guggenheim fellow. He served on the advisory committee of the Alice M. Ditson Fund from 1988 to 2005 and was the committee’s secretary from 1995 to 1998. He is survived by his wife, the poet Rachel Hadas, whom he married in 1978, and their son Jonathan, born in 1984.
George and I met in 1965 as incoming graduate students at Princeton. He, Joel Gressel, and I soon formed a three-way friendship that became at least as important to our development as the classes we took. After seminars we would relax by playing pool, frisbee, chess, or tennis, and we spent long hours listening to and discussing music, not only modern pieces but also the classics, in particular Beethoven and Mahler. By the time I met him, George’s personality and musical style were already formed. He had an acerbic wit that quickly spotted contradictions and deflated pretensions. Beneath the high-spirited jokes and puns lay a stern moral sensibility, seemingly inherited from his Puritan background. (One of his forebears was the 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards.) This sensibility made him vulnerable to moods of discouragement and outrage, yet it was also a strength. He held firm convictions, musical and otherwise. He followed unwaveringly his own artistic path, and he approached all of his relationships and obligations with exemplary candor, responsibility, and loyalty.
A side effect of George’s sense of rectitude was his exaggerated abhorrence of self-promotion. Partly for this reason, his music has not reached a large public. The other reason is that the music is inherently complex and private. It is meticulously crafted “uptown” music, not serial in a strict sense but deeply influenced by serial thinking in the tradition of Schoenberg and Webern. His devotion to Bach as well as Schoenberg gives it a fundamentally contrapuntal impulse, and its lyricism derives from his love of Schubert. A well-shaped phrase and elegant voice leading meant everything to George. (Anyone who performs his music should bear this in mind.) Another, perhaps less expected, aspect of his music is its almost Wagnerian reliance on quasi-appoggiaturas, albeit often displaced ones; but this quality is less surprising when one knows that his favorite book was Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. He was a covert Romantic. An oddity of his life and work is that his music scarcely ever manifests the manic humor and semi-suppressed aggression that were such integral features of his personality. Music was his refuge, his inner sanctum of order, beauty, and refined expression.
A recently released CD on Albany Records, The Music of George Edwards, offers a fine selection of his music. I particularly recommend the chamber work The Isle is Full of Noises (1995), performed by the Manhattan Sinfonietta under Jeffrey Milarsky, the Second String Quartet (1982), performed by the Jack Quartet, and the piano piece Suave Mari Magno (1984), performed by Stephen Gosling. His former student Hayes Biggs provides excellent liner notes. In addition to the music on this recording, George composed many pieces for mixed chamber ensemble; one of the best is Parallel Convergences (1988). There are songs for voice and piano as well as numerous piano pieces, some of them written for the legendary pianist Robert Helps. Also worthy of mention are the orchestral work Moneta’s Mourn (1983), a Koussevitzky commission for the American Composers Orchestra, and the Piano Concerto (1990), which was performed by Alan Feinberg and the Albany Symphony. Most of George’s music is published by the American Composers Alliance.
George was superb at music analysis. His students sat in awe of his ability to play music by memory at the piano and by the depth of his musical understanding. This facet of his talent led, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to an explosion of essays on contemporary music, postmodern musicology and literary theory, and analytical studies of Haydn and Schubert. While he was certainly aware of recent developments in music theory, the essays employ little of music-theoretic technical vocabulary. Rather, he undertook the humanistic enterprise of addressing the intelligent general reader, one who is interested in contemporary musical culture without being expert in it. The essays are beautifully written, thoroughly informed by his vast knowledge of literature, sharp in judgment, and witty. Originally published in literary journals, they are gathered in an excellent volume, Collected Essays on Classical and Modern Music (Scarecrow Press, 2008).
George was a major presence in Columbia’s graduate composition program throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as I can attest as his Columbia colleague for most of that time. His music thrived in the uptown scene of the late 1970s to the early 1990s, but he had difficulty adjusting to the growing eclecticism of the past decade and a half, including young composers’ preoccupations with timbre and computer-music techniques. He was anything but eclectic. He was devastated when, in 1994, Mario Davidovsky, who represented similar musical values, left Columbia for Harvard. Soon thereafter, he took on major administrative responsibilities, first with the Ditson Fund and then as chair of Columbia’s music department, during which he greatly expanded the music performance program. All of these factors combined to reduce his creative output. He became increasingly withdrawn. It appears in retrospect that he must have already been experiencing early symptoms of the brain disease that gradually destroyed his mental faculties. It was heart-rending to see this once brilliant man in such a state. I and his other friends and colleagues mourn his passing, but we are relieved that he no longer suffers.