Rediscovering John La Montaine
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s such a joy to finally meet you. I’ve been a fan of your piano concerto for many years, and I also adore your piccolo sonata.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: One of my earliest works and one of my latest works! [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: I always wondered what was in-between…
JOHN LA MONTAINE: There is an awful lot of in-between in my music. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: I read a comment that you made in an interview that you gave, I believe, 20 years ago. You talked about the importance of being a composer fulltime.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Oh yes, it’s hard to be a part-time composer. There are a lot of part-time composers who have written some wonderful pieces. But the fact that they were part-time makes you think what else could they have written? Howard Hanson has written some marvelous pieces. If he hadn’t put in the tremendous amount of work and time that he spent making the Eastman School what it was, who knows what wonderful things we would have done with that kind of musical mind? It’s been true of so many composers. They spent their lives teaching and they should have been writing. I knew very early that I didn’t even have the ability. Hanson asked me two different times to come and be a composition teacher, and I did that. During the time that I taught I didn’t write any music at all. I got so interested in what the pupils were doing. I was going back and forth to New York and I always took all of their compositions and read them carefully. You know, teachers don’t do that, but I knew every piece that they wrote and I could always offer them comments. You can’t teach composition. It’s just not possible. But there are a lot of things you can say that are relevant. You can teach counterpoint. You can teach orchestration. You can teach a lot about orchestration and that I certainly did. But if composition doesn’t come from the middle of you, it doesn’t amount to anything. If you’re too disturbed with other things, I don’t think you can… Ravel couldn’t have written those pieces if he taught.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Oh, well, that’s not exactly the way it came about. I had two jobs when I first moved to New York. Very soon after that I got the job with the NBC Symphony. (We can talk about that another time.) I was also assistant conductor for Menotti‘s opera on Broadway. So I earned quite a bit in one year, but it was not enough for what I wanted. I wanted to earn enough so I could give my full time to composing, or at least give myself four years. And I thought, what can I do that would earn me the most money in the least amount of time so I can stop earning money and just write music? So that was my plan. I figured that you couldn’t do better than a stockbroker. So I went to school and I was really good at it. I got the highest grades and everything. I got to the point where I could get the license. I did get it and I was ready to go. Now, other things happened. One day—if I can remember them now [laughs]—it was the same day that I got the license, that was the day that I got a letter saying that I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Then I got a phone call. They said I’m so-and-so and I’d like to speak to you about your prize. And I said what prize? He said the Pulitzer Prize. I said excuse me—I had just gotten out of the bathtub and I was wet [laughs] with the phone, and I said, “Excuse me, I have to put pants on.” [laughs] That’s about the dumbest thing you can say… Well, that was my response to the Pulitzer Prize! [laughs]. But those three things happened in one day. It was the same day!
FRANK J. OTERI: So you never became a stockbroker.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I closed the book and I never opened it again.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting though because you have had other careers besides being a composer. Notably you were a concert pianist and you worked as an orchestral pianist. Granted, that is still working in music…
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Well, I played pretty well. I played the Brahms first concerto and the Emperor Concerto when I was in high school. I really played pretty well. In addition to those things, I earned quite a lot from playing for singers. I played for a whole array of great singers. I played two times for Mary Garden—you don’t have to believe it, but it’s true!—and once with Maggie Teyte and Leontyne Price. Leontyne Price performed my first work for orchestra outside of school. It was a whopping success. It started me on the professional composer level. A lot of things came from that.
FRANK J. OTERI: What was that piece?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Songs from the Rose of Sharon. It’s the entire second chapter from the Song of Songs. She did such a marvelous performance of it and she repeated it again the next year. Then she sang it in Boston, Washington, and all over. Her first performance, which we have on a recording—it’s never been recorded professionally, but we have her recording—it’s magic the way she plays that work. It’s so interior and comes from the inner soul of the woman—it’s a black woman that the second chapter is about, “I am black but comely…” I carried on that idea and Jessye Norman sang the other one. It was a much longer work than the one Leontyne Price sang. It’s actually an opera for solo voice. It’s the entire life of that woman who called herself the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Fields.