Rediscovering John La Montaine
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Every spring Hanson would read the best of the student works, and that was usually all of them. When I was a freshman, he performed my first two orchestral pieces. One of them he played on a national network. Can you imagine the lift that gave to a kid seventeen years old? There was a major orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic, performing his piece. That was something, you know. I could never stop thanking him for that. And he did that for how many composers? Hundreds! Tell me another school that did that. That’s the reason I went there. I had a better fellowship elsewhere, but I wanted to be where my work would be played.
FRANK J. OTERI: I heard there was an anecdote about a teacher there—you said you had a better fellowship elsewhere—a teacher that actually helped you with tuition while you were at Eastman.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: [laughs] I don’t know if I can tell that story. I’ll probably start crying! [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: We’ll bring some tissues. [laughs]
JOHN LA MONTAINE: In high school I had a mathematics teacher—I studied algebra when I was a freshman, and she didn’t teach, she just kept asking you questions. This question, that question, and that… suddenly you just knew it. They called that a Socratic method. Is that really true? Is that the way Socrates taught? Anyway, I just loved her because every day I sat at the desk right in front of hers, really close, and everything she took, I just swallowed it. People think a lot about intelligence tests. They don’t test anything. Well, they do test one thing. They test a lot of things that you learned in class. And you know algebra answers all kinds of questions. The questions were there, and I had the answers in my head. I wrote them down and I was done with the test. They told me I had an I. Q. of 160. That’s not true. I’m not that smart! [laughs] I’m smart enough, but not very. Anyway, she knew that I just worshipped her, but no words were ever spoken to that effect. When I went off to school, my family was very poor. My father died when I was a year old and my mother somehow kept alive her three children. We had terrible hardship. It was a time when everybody was having a difficult time. It was around 1920 when he died and from then on, she was it. She was never praised enough for what she did for those three children. I had enough money to pay for the first semester at Eastman School and so I paid. At the end of the first semester I got a letter that I would have to leave the school because I hadn’t the money to pay the bill. The week that I had that letter saying that I was going to have to leave, I thought, what am I going to do, what am I going to do, what am I going to do…? I got this letter from Oak Park, Illinois, which was my home and where she was. I got a letter from this algebra teacher. It said something like, when you were my student, I was writing a book and the book is now published. By law I’m not allowed to accept any royalties from books sold in my own school, so I’m sending you $125. I want to thank you for your part in making my book.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s beautiful.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I stayed at Eastman School.
FRANK J. OTERI: Great! So you studied with Hanson. You also studied with Bernard Rogers.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Yes. A wonderful, wonderful man to talk to. Rogers was a wonderful teacher in that he was very talkative. He would talk on a level that you would call philosophical rather than like a teacher. He had a wry humor when he told stories. I can’t say that I learned very much about composition from those teachers that I had, that’s because composition can’t be taught. They helped me on all sorts of other things: my view of music, how things fit together, and, the main thing, they played the works. They didn’t have to say that there was something wrong; you heard it.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s great. Were your studies with Nadia Boulanger before or after Eastman?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Long after. I had already been playing with the NBC Symphony when I thought about studying with her. Shall I tell you something about her?
FRANK J. OTERI: Please do.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone said she was the best teacher there was for composition, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I’m not so sure that they all knew what they were talking about. I have talked to other composers and none of them have the same thing to say about the way she taught me. I never went to one of her classes. Everything was private, but the things she said to me are different to the things she said to other composers. The very first lesson I put up on the music stand—we always sat at the piano—a notebook that I kept for years with samples from composers of every period from way back, right up to the present day, where the composers violated the rules that were prevalent at their own time. So she looked through just about the whole book rather quickly, and closed the book. Then she said, don’t judge composers by any rules. She said, if I tell you the truth, the absolute truth, I don’t know any rule that is universally applicable, any rule. Whoa! The sky opened up! You can’t imagine the effect on me, because I was a good boy.
FRANK J. OTERI: To get back to Hanson, he was one of the founders of the American Music Center. Is he the reason that you came to work here when you did?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: No. No connection. It was much later that I came here.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in the ’40s, the Center had just been founded in 1939, so it was pretty early in the history of the Center.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: It had to be after ’46… I can’t remember if I was already in the NBC Symphony, I think I was. So that would have been after 1950.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, okay. So it’s later when you came…
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Yes, it’s not in the ’40s that I came to you. It was when the American Music Center had its first printing press. I bought it, and I ran it. I was going to do as many people’s pieces, and I did some of my own. Although I paid for the printer, I also paid for the copies I made. They needed the money. They didn’t have anything back then.
FRANK J. OTERI: Was Harrison Kerr still there?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: He wasn’t when I was there. I wasn’t there very long because pretty soon after I move to California.
FRANK J. OTERI: So was Ray Green here at that point?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: No.
FRANK J. OTERI: Maybe it was in-between that time.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I can’t tell you details.
FRANK J. OTERI: In your looking through other scores here and making copies of scores and things that you did here, how did that help you as a composer?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I wasn’t with it long enough. I saw what they needed and I thought I’d try my bit with the printing press and so on. I left so soon that I didn’t make any major contribution.