I can’t really say that I knew Peter Lieberson well. Perhaps not many people can, but when I was asked to write about him for NewMusicBox, I rather impulsively said yes. Perhaps one of the reasons that I did so is the uncannily strong kinship that I’ve felt over the years with both him and his music. Now that he’s gone, one of my biggest regrets is that I so seldom expressed my admiration to him. I’ve generously expressed it to others, yes, but there was something for me about his impeccable musical pedigree and naturally aristocratic bearing that prevented me from telling him.
His death at 64 is a great loss of a wonderful composer and person. Peter had accomplished much, but his youth and vitality, as well as his musical energy (always tempered by wisdom) promised much more! I can say unequivocally that there are few composers dead or alive whom I admire as much.
I first met Peter at Brandeis University in the early 1980s while we were both graduate students in composition there. I’d been at Brandeis a while and had finished most of my course work. When Peter arrived with the intention of studying with Don Martino, I got to know him and more of his music. My first and abiding impression of both was elegance and power. Not many graduate students showed up in impeccably tailored suits for our very informal classes. Not many graduate students possessed Peter’s musical heritage or his musical skill and knowledge. But there were still things for him to learn—from Don Martino, but also from Marty Boykan—one of the most gifted teachers and finest musicians I’ve ever encountered. I know that Peter learned invaluable lessons from Marty both because Peter told me and because he’s expressed it in writing:
“[C]omposition classes with Marty trained us very personally in thinking about and hearing music that has remained with me, even as my own music moved into different manifestations. Marty imparted a crucial training of the compositional ear in his analyses of pieces, in his composition classes, and of course, in his music. One discovers how notes can develop a magnetic attraction to each other—by paying close attention to all the dimensions of musical flow—such that one is moved or energized and ultimately guided by whatever arises.” (my emphasis)
I knew some of Peter’s earliest music, written in the 1970’s, from a CRI recording entitled American Contemporary. Two pieces, Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments, and Piano Fantasy, recorded by Speculum Musicae and Ursula Oppens respectively, were on this LP. Of the two, the Piano Fantasy spoke to me immediately. There was something about the harmony, phrasing and rhythm in that piece that felt both very personal and also quite close to my heart.
I was honored when Peter, upon hearing the premiere of my first published composition, Tonarten (also for solo piano), praised it and told me it was “a New York kind of piece.” He couldn’t have said anything more flattering. We all aspired to writing New York pieces then, and having someone with this amount of New York cred tell me that I had succeeded was powerful and very encouraging.
As I remember, the next piece of Peter’s that really grabbed me was Lalita (Chamber Variations) commissioned for and recorded by Speculum Musicae. The first movement of that substantial two movement piece begins with very high, ethereal string harmonics that slowly and patiently descend to a strong downbeat marked by the entrance of the winds, the horn in particular. The ascending major 6th in the horn at that moment rings in my ears right now. The piece is dazzling and, in spite of its considerable surface complexity, very easy to follow. I was now truly hooked on Peter’s music. It was obvious that it was deeply heard and skillfully realized.
The commissioning, performance and recording of his Piano Concerto—for Peter Serkin, a boyhood friend, and the Boston Symphony—was a big event cheered by his fellow graduate students. This was his first piece for orchestra and his first concerto. I was amazed that he had the good fortune to write a major piece for such distinguished performers and I was very happy for him. I remember him bringing this big score to show to Marty Boykan with whom he worked on it regularly. The piece, stunning as it is, isn’t completely successful. The second movement, however, has some of the most beautiful moments I’ve heard in any music since Brahms, moments that never fail to produce a chill. It’s a piece that I return to with great pleasure and interest.
The rest of Peter’s journey to prominence is well known. I’ve always felt encouraged that music of such craft, integrity and elegance could succeed over the long run in today’s world. Peter’s music is so strong and so moving that it’s beyond trends. Soon, Peter was an Assistant Professor at Harvard, certainly on his way to achieving what for anyone else in this position would’ve been close to impossible: tenure. I was both shocked and tremendously heartened when he walked away from all that in order to serve as director of Shambala Training in Nova Scotia. At the time, I asked him how he could possibly quit Harvard. I’ll never forget his answer: “Harvard is fine but I’ve found something hotter.”
Peter’s profound commitment to the Dharma (perhaps best translated as ‘the way’) is also well known. His practice was an essential part of his life and had a major impact on his music. His ‘learning to wait’ in the music was a lesson to me that became more and more vivid as I began my own practice (in a different Buddhist tradition) much later. Our commonality then, came to encompass more than music. Like Peter, I came to composition through jazz and I can hear in his music how jazz harmony and rhythm is filtered through a healthy dose of Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Martino, Babbitt, etc. These influences inform the music of us both. Peter’s music has easily integrated these various other musics into a language that is quintessentially personal. Moreover, his music has an immediate, tactile quality (rivaled only by that of Mario Davidovsky) that’s lacking in most of the music being written today.
I’ve deeply loved many of Peter’s pieces—Drala, Accordance, Ziji, Bagatelles for Piano, Fire, The Six Realms, to name a few, but his vocal writing left something to be desired. The Three Songs (1981), settings of poems by Douglas Penick, are beautiful music but lack a real understanding of vocal writing and, I must say, don’t truly satisfy the requirements of the text. All of that changed when he met Lorraine Hunt. The settings of Rilke for mezzo-soprano and piano are masterful. And this brings us to Peter’s undisputed masterpiece, the Neruda Songs. Simply put, it’s a piece that every composer I know wishes they had written. It’s a piece that’s dazzlingly beautiful and profoundly moving. I’m heartened to see that it is already entering the orchestral repertory.
I was introduced to these amazing songs by Bethany Beardslee during a visit to her beautiful home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Bethany put on the CD and mimed the words with gestures as Lorraine sang. It was a wonderful way to hear the piece for the first time. I’ve since heard it live, but never, unfortunately, with Lorraine singing it. This is a perfect piece that I’ve lived with continually for several years now and one that I’ll listen to until I die. The ‘back-story’ of the piece is, of course, moving, but it’s nothing compared to the intimate union of music and poetry that comes directly from the heart and goes directly to the heart. In reading the score, you can hear and see a new directness and simplicity, utterly without artifice or bombast. The intimate quality of the poetry and music is superbly captured in Lorraine’s performance.
There are doubtless much better qualified people to write a memorial for Peter, but none of them love his music more than I do and, ultimately, it’s the music that will live. I’m grateful to have known him and delighted to have continued access to the beautiful music that this beautiful soul chose to share with us.