Harold Meltzer, a composer celebrated for his works in a variety of genres, has written numerous pieces in which text and the voice are featured prominently. Paul Appleby, an award-winning vocalist, has demonstrated his abundant skills and insights in settings ranging from the chamber-music platform to the Metropolitan Opera stage. Friends and colleagues for the better part of a decade, Meltzer and Appleby have worked together on numerous occasions, and presently are collaborating on a recording of Meltzer’s music for the Bridge Records label. On March 26, at the invitation of National Sawdust curator Chris Grymes, Meltzer will celebrate his 50th birthday with a program of two substantial recent works, his Piano Quartet and Variations on a Summer Day. Meltzer sat down recently in Grymes’s studio with Appleby, who questioned him thoroughly regarding his musical development, textual inclinations, compositional influences, and creative process.
PAUL APPLEBY: Your concert “Harold @ 50” is coming up at National Sawdust on March 26. What exactly is on the program? Tell us about it. HAROLD MELTZER: The largest work is a 20-stanzas setting of Wallace Stevens’s poem Variations on a Summer Day, for mezzo-soprano and nine instruments – the same nine that were in the Ravel Mallarmé setting [Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé]. In fact, the piece was commissioned to be a companion piece to the Ravel Mallarmé settings, but it’s two-and-a-half times as long as the Ravel.
Tell us just a little bit more about yourself, leading up through your musical education – including Ravel, for example, if he’s an influence on you. You were born where and when? I was born in 1966, about 20 miles away in Long Island. Started writing music when I was 10 or 11. This did not meet with approval. It later also did not meet with my family’s approval, but it didn’t even meet with my family’s approval when I was 10 or 11, because it was considered goofing off at the piano. I would be practicing something, and then suddenly I would be improvising or starting to write stuff down, and then someone would come out of the kitchen and say that good money was being paid for piano lessons, and I should be practicing the piano.
American parenting in the ’70s was a completely different thing than we know today. Yes. The good news is, because of that I’m not a professional pianist.
You were a pianist, primarily? Was that your first instrument? I was probably a better bassoon player. I played in youth orchestra as a bassoon player, and in college I was more of a wind player, I’d say. And then after college it became obvious that playing bassoon had less in the way of social advantages than playing piano.
It’s harder to take over the world with a bassoon. Yeah, you can’t really take over the world as a bassoonist. And in fact, if you’re not in a community where there’s an orchestra, and you’re not in a wind quintet, then you don’t have too many outlets. So eventually in my mid 20s, playing bassoon went by the wayside, and by default I was a pianist – except that I wasn’t practicing much piano, so I wasn’t a very good pianist for quite a while. I found myself having to play a concerto of mine at Carnegie, at Zankel Hall, 9 or 10 years ago, and scared out of my wits. So I ended up taking piano lessons.
This is the harpsichord concerto [Virginal] you’re talking about? Right. The ACO was doing my harpsichord concerto, and I found out, not at the beginning but soon after, that I was the soloist. I thought, oh, well, O.K. And then I got up to practice the next day, and my fingers were like knockwursts.
Going back to this Wallace Stevens piece that we’re going to be talking about, what’s interesting to me is your history, biographically speaking: that you went to law school and were a very accomplished lawyer, and nonetheless this passion for composing just drew you to it. Tell us about that part of your life. Well, that also is why I’m not a better pianist, these years spent in law school and then as a lawyer.
I mention Wallace Stevens because he was famously a poet secondarily, much later in life, after devoting much of his early life to his career as a lawyer for insurance companies and things like that. Right. I went straight to law school from college.
At Columbia, right? At Columbia. I had as heroes these “professionals by day and artists by night” people like Wallace Stevens and, of course, Charles Ives. William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and Walker Percy, who’s a favorite novelist of mine, was a doctor. And I have no clue how they did it; I think they did it in another era, when there were “gentlemen’s working hours.” I kept studying composition all the while I was in law school.
But then I found that when I was a lawyer, I would get home at 8, 8:30 at night and say, Now I’m going to write for my three hours. And then I would say, I’m tired, I’m going to take off my suit and watch one inning of the Mets game, or one quarter of the Knicks game, while I eat my dinner. And then I would wake up in the middle of the night, when people were racing on a track at 3:30 in the morning. And I said, I’m never going to get anything written if I keep doing this. So after a few years, I went back to music school.
I’m very glad you did, because that’s how we became acquainted originally. And then I premiered your song cycle Beautiful Ohio – which is a great piece that I hope everyone gets a chance to hear. The recording of your music on Bridge Records that we’re working on is being still produced and recorded. Is there any sense of when that might be coming? Well, as soon as we record this last piece, probably four or five months after that, Bridge will put it out.
And then just recently I also premiered another song cycle by you called Bride of the Island. And why I keep coming back to you, Harold – I can’t quit you! – is how you set text. You have incredible taste in and knowledge of poetry. Looking at the Wallace Stevens, the choice of the poetry there is so interesting, especially in relationship to the Ravel piece, and there’s a clear antecedent in my mind between Mallarmé and Stevens. I wonder if you think similarly of Ravel and yourself, and this idea of modernism over the course of a century or so? But before we talk about that, what is your relationship to poetry, as a consumer of it but also as a composer, and where do those interact? Well, I like buying books. Poetry books are thin, often, so you can carry them around, and they’re very portable for subway rides and other purposes of 15 minutes or 10 minutes. You can read a poem or two poems and then move on. So I find myself reading a lot of poetry, and I have for a long time.
There was a year, two years after college, that I lived in England for the year; I was on a break from law school, and I was getting my master’s degree at Cambridge University, which has a number of really magnificent gardens. Each college maintains a garden of some kind. And Clare College, which is adjacent to King’s College, where I was a student, had a spectacular garden. I used to spend a lot of hours in Clare College Gardens, memorizing poetry, and by the end of the year in England I had memorized more than 100 poems. I generally like to know these poems for a very, very, very long time, and two of the five poems in Beautiful Ohio, which is set to texts of James Wright, were two of the hundred or so poems that I had memorized that year.
What made you say to yourself that’s a goal that you’d set, or even something that you would do with your time? Was it the setting, the history of the place, the physical beauty of it? It seems… no offense, but a very odd way to spend one’s time! It reminds me of something from a 19th-century poet, before there was radio or television or anything. Do you remember the Daniel Day Lewis character from the movie version of Forster’s A Room with a View, where he’s walking with a book in front of him and he’s constantly about to run into something? I was like that. It happened that Forster, who also went to King’s College, Cambridge, had lived in the hostel where I was living, and so I found myself reading Forster a lot, as well. The gardens were just so beautiful, and it was just a great place to be alone, and so I was just there with the book. This poem is a little long to memorize; I have it memorized now, but I didn’t aspire to memorizing a 71-line poem in 20 stanzas at the time. But that was the start.
What I find so special about your writing, and especially as a text-setter in songs, is it evokes to me the same essential sort of purpose and raison d’etre of why you write a song, which is to take a poem and to really internalize it, rather, and to find a way to express musically what you interpret to be the essence of that poem. That’s a very personal thing, but the highlights of the art form have come from people like Schubert, who somehow manages to interpret a poem and distill, in his own harmonic language, something that conveys a very specific image, an interpretation of the poem. I see that in Britten, for example, when there’s this combination of pictorial evocations in the piano writing that create a very clear, vivid visual image in me as the listener or performer. And I see that working in your music, and that’s what I appreciate so much as a performer of your songs: There’s such a clear vision of the meaning or the context of the poem that you’re trying to convey, through the musicality which is all your own. I want to talk more about how you take that journey from knowing a poem… and like you said, you memorize it. That’s what poetry is really about: getting into the bones of it and underneath the words themselves. What is that journey like for you? How do you pick a poem? How did you come upon this text? And how do you make the journey from understanding the poetry to beginning the composition process? Stevens was a poet that I’ve liked for a long time, and have tried unsuccessfully to set other poems of his. Quite a few, normally in the first half of the collected Wallace Stevens poems – partly for means of the rights being a lot easier, but also because his imagery is most outrageous and he’s less rhetorical than he is in the later poems. I know that Ned Rorem… actually, some of my favorite settings of Ned Rorem are called Last Poems of Wallace Stevens. But I could never do the late poems, I think. It’s earlier poems that have always interested me.
They lean more into the lyricism than into the philosophical density of some of his later texts. Yes, and when he’s philosophical in his early poems, he chooses an image to represent his philosophical stance. I hadn’t necessarily settled on Stevens for this piece. It was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation for the Maverick Concerts, specifically to be a companion piece to the Ravel, because the first of these settings were premiered in 2012 and the idea was to be an homage to Ravel on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of his passing. So a piece of roughly the same length was asked for, and Alex Platt, who directs the Maverick Concerts, asked me initially to set Mallarmé.
My French is not as good as my Italian, or even my Spanish, and I resisted the idea that I would write a big piece in French. So I said, I really need it to be an American, or an English poet – who do you have in mind? We settled on Stevens as a kind of American analog to Mallarmé. And then I settled on this poem because it was a summer premiere. It was a September 1 premiere, and I decided a bunch of summer images in the Northeast was appropriate.
I now know names of little Maine towns that I never knew before, because of these poems. Damariscotta.
So you decided on these texts. Does the structure of the piece then present itself immediately to you? Do you see immediately, O.K., this will be something like 20 songs, or a 20-movement big piece? Did you want to do some and not others? How did it play out in your mind? I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do 20 at first. I set about, without a very clear head, gravitating towards the poems that I thought were the most difficult to set, the most abstruse, the least suggestive. I thought if I could get through these, I could get through the others if I want to.
So I began by setting stanzas 12 through 19, which is an odd place to begin, and by the time I’d gotten to 12 through 19 and had set eight, I was at the length of the Ravel. It was a little bit like Mel Brooks, from History of the World, Part One, where Moses has the three tablets and says, “I have 15… [drops a tablet] 10 Commandments!” And a little bit like when I was writing Beautiful Ohio for you, which is five songs long. I had four settings, and I wrote to you a couple of weeks before the performance and said, “Four settings!” And then [New York Festival of Song artistic director] Steve Blier said, “No, it’s a five-song cycle.”
I said, “Incorrect, sir, you’re wrong.” [laughs]
So it was after that [Maverick Concerts] premiere that I thought, I’d better set the others. And so began a long and painful process of adding them, in between other pieces that I had to write. That fall there was another performance of the work, I think, in Pittsburgh, and then there were 12 settings. And then I finally added a 13th for a performance a year ago in Illinois that Julie Gunn conducted, and then three more, so that there were 16, for Tanglewood last summer. And then the last four materialized over the winter.
That’s fascinating about the structure overall, how it was put together in this puzzle-like way, where it wasn’t necessarily sort of beginning-to-end. Was that conscious, that this would expand over time? Or were you making them complete works unto themselves? I thought it was necessary to do both, which helps explain why it took so long.
Listening to the piece in my first encounter with it, it’s so seamless. Each movement is clearly part of one bigger whole, every second of the piece. So I’m fascinated to learn that you wrote the second half of it, textually speaking, before the beginning. It has a wholeness, a unity. There are some large-scale progressions as the piece goes along. As much as the first settings I made were of texts that were the most abstract, in a way they were the most harmonically specific. There’s lots of little modules that take place in them that are very harmonically specific.
How would you constitute No. 12, according to your distinction of different kinds of texts? Is that an abstruse one, or more of a concrete one? Well, that, I guess, is an exception to the abstruse things. That’s pretty specific.
That one – as I hope everyone who is reading this will experience – stands out to me, partially because as No. 12 it’s at a place somewhere near the Golden Ratio of art and proportion. And it’s so moving and powerful, it’s kind of this elegy for a soldier from the Revolutionary War. That’s why I’m asking about the structure of the piece: because it sits in such a perfect place, it seems to me, in the balance of the meaning of the piece at large. That one stuck out for me, both textually and what you did with it harmonically, the way you orchestrated it. It creates this very powerful atmosphere that gets deep into your questioning of reality and morality and our imaginations about such things. Stevens placed it very well within the poems, at the Golden Section, I think. And in the complete version I think it works much better than at the premiere, when it was the first one performed – because it’s this lament, and so everyone’s sitting around having a nice summer’s day, and plunged immediately into this lament for a dead soldier. Now, it’s better placed. That one is quite specific, but a lot of the other ones, like 16 and 17…
16, 17, and 18: These three, to me, have a particular sort of energy, so that I think of them as three movements of a smaller piece along the way. And 15 is a totally different stanza, but I linked 15 to 16 through instrumental use, and then into 17. And then 17 and 18 are kind of paired; there are a bunch of pairs throughout the piece. The piece begins, [although] it doesn’t sound anything like Bach, a little bit like a Bach instrumental prelude, in the sense that you’re kind of setting a harmonic palette. Both the first and the second ones use the overtone series in a pretty clear way.
That was very striking to me, listening also to the Ravel piece. The first movement of the Ravel piece also uses the harmonics of the strings. That component of the way you wrote for the strings was a brilliant way to tap into that homage to Ravel, but doing it in your own way. At the same time, back to how I was trying to describe your songwriting and your text setting, the way you write especially in that first movement – “Say of the gulls that they are flying in light blue over dark blue air” – you create a description that evokes a very specific, vivid visual image of the sea and the sky and the winds. Like you said, the overtones and the sounds and feelings are very specifically depicted. Did you set out to do that? I set out to make that the most obvious setting. The set of 20 stanzas suggests a kind of journey, in a large way, and just as this is a kind of opening for the whole thing, I thought of Genesis, and I did think of dividing the heavens from the earth and the sea and the air. So the way the first stanza unfolds is, the voice begins completely alone, so there’s a juxtaposition between the voice, which ends a little more than halfway through that opening setting, and the instruments, which come in and then take over completely in the end, as if the firmament was being formed and then divided.
The way I’ve understood Wallace Stevens is that he’s trying to articulate a notion of reality that is recognizing that it’s not real – or, how we perceive reality – and that this is the sort of natural conclusion of leading from Mallarmé, but also from the Enlightenment and how we understand nature and the world. And maybe it’s impossible to believe in something like God or religion at this point in human history, but this idea of reality and poetry itself as the divine, or something that’s a deeper, profounder understanding of ourselves in the world. That’s why when you talk about Genesis, it totally clicked based on what I’ve heard of this piece: Obviously that’s what’s going on here, the creation of the world itself. The text is trying to create a definition of the world that suits our modern sensibilities more. Does that resonate with your interpretation? Yeah. If you notice, in the poem, the first stanza has no people in it. There are gulls, there’s the sea, and there’s air. In the second stanza, there’s rock and water. In the third one, there are rocks and cliffs and dogs. The fourth is about stars. And the first mention of a human being is in stanza five. So it suggested to me a kind of unfolding, from the natural world to one that had people in it.
That’s very subtle, but once you mention it, it’s very obvious, actually. That’s really fascinating. Well, it didn’t occur to me until just now, either.
I want to hear more about your broader approach to composition, outside of just text setting. I am curious to know about Ravel, because I hear the influence there, which is specifically about this particular commission. But is Ravel someone that you look to? Who are other composers of the fin de siècle era up till now that you draw influence from, whether it’s as a composer, harmonically speaking, or as an orchestrator, arranger, how you use instruments, and things like that? Well, Ravel is up there. He is really one of the most wonderful composers.
I hear that in your music so much. Like in Brion, for example – which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in what year? 2009.
Even though it’s set in an Italian cemetery, this sort of impressionistic feel that I sense with Ravel, and the use of the instrumentation, too, struck me as somewhat Ravelian. Is that deliberate? Yeah. And that there are always very, very clear borders, so it doesn’t sound at all like Debussy, ever.
It’s funny that you say that, because I was going to say Debussy, and then I thought, no, that’s exactly wrong. There are so many subtle and interesting similarities and differences between Debussy and Ravel. It seems to be one of those things, in music history class they get brought up together, and then people get confused about their relationship. But one thing is that Ravel, whose harmonic palette probably has never been equaled, does it by building up various versions of similar chords. He doesn’t use multiple systems the way that Debussy does.
Or Stravinsky. Yeah, Stravinsky. Debussy would be in whole-tone mode, and then all of a sudden he would be in pentatonic mode, and then fully chromatic, and then go back. You can trace a piece according to when he moves from one system to another. Ravel is thoroughly integrated; the chords and all parts of it seem to relate that way.
That said, there are so many pieces of Ravel that I love, and part of the animation of this piece was that I don’t actually love the Mallarmé settings.
Whaaaaat? Yeah, I know, it’s crazy.
Wait, wait: have you listened to the Janet Baker recording? Yes. She’s amazing. I mean, it’s a great piece of music, but I don’t have love for it, because it hasn’t drawn me in the way that, say, Shéhérazade and Chansons madécasses have.
That’s funny. I think of those two pieces because I know them from the same album of Janet Baker, and they’re almost like six songs of one cycle in my imagination. I love the opening sound of the Ravel. And then usually Ravel leaves an idea or a texture just as I want him to, and he exhausted me there. I thought, OK, I get it, let’s move on – and he didn’t. I’m sure it’s my own shortcoming. You’ve heard people who say, “I don’t like Shakespeare” or “I don’t like Beethoven,” and you think, who are these people? My father, when he would give me a book and I would read it, would say, “Did you like it?” I’d say, no, not particularly. And he’d say, “To what defect in your personality do you attribute your not liking it?”
That’s such a dad thing to say. And so, I’m sure that it’s me and not Ravel, but I’m really conscious of the idea that Ravel aficionados think of this as one of the greatest of Ravel pieces, and it’s just never grabbed me. And I was writing this at the same time I was writing other companion pieces. I had a Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and chamber orchestra to go on the same program – this was the same year – as the Mozart Sinfonia concertante, which is one of Mozart’s very, very best pieces. That was intimidating. And there was another one around the same time, another companion piece.
You don’t want to draw those kinds of comparisons, but that’s not to say there aren’t exciting things about doing it, at the same time. Right. It’s much better to be asked to write companion pieces for the 125th anniversary of Reinhold Glière’s ballet, or to Gabriel Pierne. When you’re asked to write companion pieces to Mozart or Ravel…
“Can you write a companion piece to The Marriage of Figaro?” It’s a little like that. Well, it’s been done, in a way: The Ghosts of Versailles.
Good point. Maybe we should imagine a fourth opera that we can set in Trump Tower in the 21stcentury. I’m game.
Le grand-mère coupable. Other than Ravel, I would say the two composers that I point to regularly, who were most influential on the way that I work, are Stravinsky and Schumann. They both, in different ways, are miniaturists. I know some people would object to the characterization of Stravinsky that way, but part of the stitching together of the complicated fabric probably came about by way of the creation of miniatures that grew. I don’t know that much about his working method, but it sounds like that to me. A quote of his that I can’t quite remember exactly [was] this idea that he would create very firm parameters for himself within a specific piece, and then that restriction somehow would channel his creativity in a more productive and meaningful way. I thought, for example, when listening to this piece, of Symphony of Psalms – the energy, combined with trying to find new ways of expressing genuine emotion that have antecedents in Romantic music or even Baroque music, but that are at the same time completely modern and of their own time and place. Sure. And I’d love any comparison to Symphony of Psalms, a great, great piece of music.
I think it’s one of the great pieces of the 20th century. I hear it also again especially going back to No. 12 and these more sustained pieces, where the harmonies are very dissonant and yet have their logic unto them that creates a sort of beauty by the time you get to the end of the song, that doesn’t seem so un-consonant. Right, well, in No. 12 the voice part is completely consonant, and the instruments aren’t, until they are. And then they aren’t again. It’s a unified thing, but the vocal line is extremely direct and songlike – well, it’s a song. But I mean in the way that everyone would say a song is, this is a song.
Speaking of songs, Schumann obviously is one of the most important people to work in that art form. I can hear it, especially thinking about your piano-and-voice writing and, like I mentioned about Schubert, an interpretation of the poem. Schumann also had this incredible literary component to his composition; even in a piece without text, he was a literary person almost in equal measure to his literary persona. And I think about you the same way: someone who voluntarily memorizes 100 poems in his spare time [laughs], and Schumann, who was a literary critic and a music critic. Is there anything else you want to tell us about the piece, or about your writing? No… I’m very happy to be here with you, and hope everybody can come on the 26th.
Tell us exactly who’s performing. Well, Abigail Fischer, is singing. She is the mezzo-soprano. And Jayce Ogren is conducting.
Who is in the ensemble? Some of them came from my old group, Sequitur. The string players are [violinists] Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz. Dan Panner is the violist, Greg Hesselink is the cellist, Alan Kay is playing clarinet, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford are playing flute, and Peggy Kampmeier is playing piano. The other big work on the program is the New York premiere of my Piano Quartet, with the Boston Chamber Music Society coming down to perform it – same four people who premiered it last year: Max Levinson, piano; Harumi Rhodes, violin; Dmitri Murrath, viola; Raman Ramakrishnan, cello. They gave a fantastic premiere of it a year ago, so I’m looking forward to that very much as well.
I hope that everybody who can comes to see it, because with this piece, I think, you just continue to build on your excellence as a text-setter, especially. You’re continuing to grow and explore and invent new ways of putting words into the mouth of a singer, in a way that the text comes across in and of itself, but also, a very specific point of view and meaning is projected through the music and the setting. As a performer, we appreciate that so much, because it creates the bridge that you can walk over, that you and the audience can meet each other over. That’s what I’m trying to do, so I’m glad that suggests itself to you.
Keep up the good work, and continue this upward trajectory… I can’t wait for “Harold @ 100.” [laughs]
Interview recorded by Chris Grymes, transcribed and edited by Steve Smith. Harold Meltzer presents “Harold @ 50” on March 26 at 7pm at National Sawdust; www.nationalsawdust.org