Eric Chasalow remembers Harold Shapero

Photo of Harold Shapero © Owsley Brown Presents

Eric Chasalow is an American composer of acoustic and electronic music. He is Professor of Composition at Brandeis University, and Director of BEAMS, the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio.

The Brandeis University music department, founded mid century by a group of brilliant young musicians, quickly became known as a pressure-cooker of musical thought and a place with the most rigorous standards. Composer, Harold Shapero, who recently passed away at age 93, was a key member of this original faculty, influential in establishing this reputation. Arriving at Brandeis fresh from the Rome Prize, Harold provided a prime example of the powerful role a composer/teacher could serve in the university setting. He demanded the very best of his own music and that of his students. And in classes, his intense and intimate engagement with whatever the topic at hand inspired his students to become completely invested in their studies and in the world of ideas. One of Harold’s students from the early days, composer/author/editor Benjamin Boretz (MFA 57) described it this way:

(it was)… an intensely creative-intellectual family deeply engrossed in permanent strenuous conversation and incredibly serious about every aspect of their work and about music. Harold,…was also insatiably inquisitive (too) about everything else: basic socioeconomic/political theory, technology, science (especially the astronomical theories of Fred Hoyle), but, first and foremost, philosophy;… Harold himself wrote about “the musical mind” as a manifestation of subconscious processes, and developed a complex of thoughts about the relation of tradition to individual inspiration –

Pultizer Prize winning composer Richard Wernick (’55) remembers the department and Brandeis in general as: “… an intellectual cauldron! and the place was small enough that every field fed off every other field.” About Shapero, Wernick recalls:

I appreciated his directness, … and the depth of his culture. For example, I learned an enormous amount from him about Plato, of all things. I think two aspects of his teaching will serve as good examples: …There were many occasions that I stayed with him for hours after a class while we worked out the most elaborate counterpoint exercises—more than exercises—real music, and filling the blackboards with more than they could hold. The other thing I’ll never forget was the “ear training”. Those were the days when many people … tended to keep their cars open with the windows down. …so we would walk through the campus and blow the horns which had a huge variety of pitches. Great fun and most instructive.

In 1990, when I arrived at Brandeis, I had certainly heard about Harold, or “Sonny” as he was known by his circle – a group that included mentors Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland and colleagues Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Berger and Irving Fine. Mostly, I knew him as the composer of the famous, neoclassical Symphony for Classical Orchestra – a piece that Bernstein had premiered at Tanglewood and described in a letter to BSO conductor, Serge Koussevitzky as “a marvel”. Ben Boretz situates this landmark piece as:

…cold as ice and strong as steel; its overt association with a “Beethovenian” model is completely deceptive. Its physicalities are plosives to the solar plexus, or a shove or a nudge from the blind side; its subtleties are moves far more rapid and deft than you could ever match, or ever even really follow; a demonstration of absolute musical mastery whose subject is absolute musical mastery; whose beauties are the knowledge and control of where musical beauty resides and from whence it arises. It is sui generis, and will never be surpassed: unambiguously, it tells you so. Its affinities are blatant and fierce; but untouchable, irreducible, and, ultimately, intractable.

In addition to the Symphony, I discovered that Harold’s catalog includes a number of carefully honed, gem-like works of chamber music all of which deserve to be much better known and more often performed. Like the Symphony, these works are perfectly proportioned – the work of a consummate craftsman (one of Harold’s “hobbies” was designing and building his own furniture). They also have beautiful, often lush surfaces with great, long-lined melodies and elegant counterpoint. There are a few wonderful recordings, all well-worth seeking out, by pianists Michael Boriskin, Sally Pinkas (PhD ’91) and Evan Hirsh, and Brandeis’s own Lydian String Quartet.

When I interviewed Harold in 2005 as part of the Video Archive of Electroacoustic Music, an oral history project that I curate with my wife, Barbara Cassidy (MA ’98), I started in my usual fashion, by asking him to state his name (so that it would be captured at the start of the interview footage). The exchange that followed perfectly captures Harold’s combination of humor and mild self-deprecation:

EC: What’s your name?

HS: Leonard Bernstein. (pause, smiles) You know Oscar Levant? He wrote his biography, “My life: The story of George Gershwin”. Over the years I ‘ve gotten so many calls from people writing Lenny Bernstein biographies, you know – so I’ve got: “My Life: The story of Leonard Bernstein”.

It is true that Bernstein is the most famous composer to have taught at Brandeis. Yet even Bernstein recognized his college friend Harold’s deep, almost intimidating musicality. Ben Boretz, once again:

Leonard Bernstein, who also did faculty time on a now-and-then schedule always said “hi Genius” when Harold walked into the room…

Harold’s legacy is impressive in terms of his musical accomplishment, but very great indeed when one considers too the number of students he benefited as a friend and mentor over a 37 year teaching career. He will be missed.

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