Preface: The Music of Samuel Adler

I am currently working on a book about the music of Samuel Adler.  I thought I would share the preface here, because it is both heartfelt and non-technical.


To Span Adversity: Preface


The music of very few living composers I find as consistently rewarding as that of Samuel Adler’s. When I was a Masters student at Rice University, Prof. Adler came and gave a lecture, in which he discussed compositional pedagogy. “How did Bach learn to write music?” he asked, which was a provocative question I had never really considered. “By copying the music of his uncle Ludwig. Uncle Ludwig was a composer. Bach learned by copying, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” That made perfect sense to me, but I had never found a living composer with whom I singularly identified aesthetically to the point where I thought outright emulation was warranted. I had good friends who were then fellow travelers as composition students who are now prominent composers, who variously emulated the quasi-minimalist stylings of John Adams, or the unapologetic Americana of Richard Danielpour, or the overt lyricism of John Corigliano, or the quirkiness of Stephen Hartke, or the recalcitrant, turgid post-tonality of European spectralism. As much as I find aspects to admire in many living composers, I never particularly identified with any of them closely enough to emulate, except for one: Samuel Adler.

I am not exactly sure why it is, either, and perhaps that is the central fact-finding mission of this book: I want to find out for myself why it is that this one particular American composer’s music speaks to me in ways that do few others. Is it the academic sensibility of some of it? That would be true in part, for I am an academic, and I appreciate the intellectual caliber of the music. But academia has had no shortage of intellectual composers of the past fifty years. Is it the embrace of faith-based themes? Probably not, for I am neither Jewish nor particularly religious. Yet, I greatly admire and respect the conviction with which Prof. Adler imbues themes of his own faith in his pieces. Is it the influences I detect in his own music, music of dead composers that also speaks to me, some parts Copland, some parts Hindemith, some parts Stravinsky, some parts Bartók? Perhaps, but then I cannot escape the impression that there is some additional part that is purely Adler himself, and that is the development that I especially want to trace with this book.

I am not certain, but I think a good explanation for me comes from a suggestion once made by Manhattan School of Music composer-theorist Nils Vigeland, who once made a gross generalization that nonetheless resonated with me. He said that the real dichotomy between composers was not between tonal and post-tonal. Rather, the real dichotomy was between the lyrical composer and the pulsic composer. This is not to say that primarily lyrical composers do not have their pulsic moments, or vice versa, but simply that composers tend to shade toward one side more closely than to the other. Beethoven is a pulsic composer; Schubert is a lyrical composer. Vivaldi is a pulsic composer; Scarlatti (take your pick), a lyrical composer. Verdi is a pulsic compser; Wagner, a lyrical composer. Stravinsky is a pulsic composer; Schoenberg is a lyrical composer. Steve Reich is a pulsic composer; John Adams (for a quasi-minimalist), a lyrical composer. Joan Tower is a pulsic composer; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich a lyrical composer. And so on. Few composers could be described as both in equal measure, but we celebrate them rightly: Bach and Mozart immediately come to mind. Even Beethoven, two of the “top three” along with Bach and Mozart, clearly shades toward the pulsic side; his historic struggles with melody writing are the stuff of legend.

This is where I would make one central argument of Adler’s appeal: he is one of those few composers who is in equal measure a pulsic and lyrical composer. As soon as one is convinced by the first movement of one of his violin sonatas that he is committed fully to the exploration of pounding Bartókian rhythms, the second movement sings like a chromaticized Puccini aria. Then the third movement synthesizes both aspects convincingly and fluently. This approach is hardly a new idea; the idea of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is an idea as old as rhetoric itself. It is just that Adler does it so very well.

The first piece of Adler’s I ever encountered was by chance. It was his work for solo harpsichord, Bridges to Span Adversity. I was a freshman (or, as they said there at that time, at the zenith of academic political correctness, a “freshperson”) at Oberlin, and I had a job phone-banking Oberlin alumni in search of summer job opportunities for Oberlin students. One Oberlin alumna I called was the harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree, with whom I hit it off. I told her I was a composition student and asked if I could write a new piece for her, and she agreed. I was thrilled, because this was one of the first experiences I had had networking with a musician who was already a performing concert-music professional. The only problem was that I had never written for harpsichord before. I knew that one could not simply write piano music and remove the dynamic markings; I had to master the idiosyncrasies of the instrument. So I went to the Oberlin library and dug up as many contemporary harpsichord pieces that I could. The only piece I even remember now was Adler’s piece, Bridges to Span Adversity. I was immediately taken with the chromatic-yet-still-hierarchical tonal language, the achievement of expressiveness for an instrument with no dynamics, the elegiac quality and yet the refusal to succumb to mournfulness. The music was marked as a “celebration” of the life of the late mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani (who recorded Adler’s Sixth String Quartet, A Whitman Serenade), and this, as I did not know then, was quite a typical Adlerian trait: larger, more ambitious pieces like Choose Life put an exclamation point on the idea of optimism in the face of awful circumstance, on the idea of bridging troubled waters, on spanning adversity. Of course, at the time, I also did not know anything about this composer, Samuel Adler, or his biography, or the authority with which his biography gives him to speak on the subject.

I had the good fortune in the summer of 1999 to be accepted to the La Schola Cantorum program in Paris. This program was a seminar for composers on counterpoint and ear-training in the tradition of Nadia Boulanger. Adler was the featured guest composer, and I could not have been more excited to go and study. My then-girlfriend, now-wife Rebecca Morris was simultaneously studying in an opera program in Rome, and on weekends we were able to spend time together in both cities and ride the Eurorails. It was the makings of a storybook summer: a young man running around Europe, studying with his admired master and exploring the historic monuments of Rome and the romantic scenes of Paris with his love.

Then on July 8, I got a note from a wonderful composer and Schola student named Orianna Webb that I should call home. The note was marked “urgent.” So I went to a phone booth across the street from the Schola, dialed whatever numbers I had to dial to reach home, and got a hold of my brother Chris. “Mom had a heart attack…” he intoned, dully. “What? How is she?” I immediately replied. “She died…” his voice trailed off. What a thing. To find out in a phone booth on the streets of Paris that one’s mother had unexpectedly died at the age of 58.

Naturally, I went into shock and had a panic attack; the staff of the Schola program immediately gathered around me and tried to console me as best they could. The entire scene was surreal, and it really was the first encounter I had had with the death of a really close loved one. Up until that point in my life I had relied very much on my mother’s viewpoints and wisdom. She was also a confidante, and the intellectual center of my family life. We discussed books, politics, ideas of all sorts at great length. She had never had the opportunity in her life to attend college, but she was (and still is) the single most voracious reader of any person I had ever known. She meant so much to me, and now she was gone.

That afternoon, I was alone in my dorm room. Adler took several hours out of his day that afternoon to be with me in my time of need. While he did not sugar-coat anything, he was almost rabbinical in his approach to me. To paraphrase, he told me that I would get through this, and that although it was natural to feel sad, the death of a parent is something we all face because it is part of the cycle of life. He spoke with a certain timelessness, as though imparting ancient wisdom. He told me that leaving a parent behind was also going to be a part of my becoming my own man, and also that as a would-be composer (though, as I did not know at the time, this would begin to change) I had chosen a difficult life, but I had also chosen the best life. Adler cushioned the blow of what to that point had been the worst event of my life. There would be even worse days to come, little did I know: Becky and I lost our first child in 2005, a stillbirth. However, we were blessed two years later with a healthy boy. Samuel is a traditional Hebrew name that means “God heard,” and it is a traditional name given to children by parents after another one of their children has died. It was in part for this reason, and in part to honor Samuel Adler, particularly for his comforting me on the day my mother died, that we named our son Samuel.

There is a terrific novel by Paul Auster called The Book of Illusions. It is about an English professor who loses his wife and children in a plane crash. Immersed in grief, he becomes inexplicably obsessed with the work of a vanished 1930s silent film actor, and goes on a worldwide odyssey to track him down. This book describes almost perfectly what happened to me in the aftermath of my mother’s death: it was the beginning of my first serious work as a music theorist, and the beginning of a path that would take me away from composition. I became obsessed with the music of an obscure British television composer who had done work for the BBC and ITV named Sidney Sager. His work on programs I had watched as a child resonated in my mind, and like the protagonist of Paul Auster’s novel, I tracked him down and wrote my first extensive theoretical analysis devoted to the corpus of one composer. I sent it to Adler for feedback, and was very surprised one day to receive a phone call from him, encouraging me to continue going in the analytical direction. What I did not tell Adler was that I was already hoping eventually to write a book on his music, but I did not feel I was ready. My work on Sager, while a start, and while it facilitated a wonderful friendship with the man until his death at the age of 85, was not really publishable. To say I was a theoretical neophyte would be an understatement; but Adler at least saw the potential, and encouraged me to continue, which I did.

Throughout my years in the doctoral composition program at the University of Southern California, I became more and more acutely aware of my discomfort with the self-promotion necessary to launch a composition career. Alongside this, as I developed more confidence, the subjects of my theoretical writings became less obscure. I followed up the Sager paper with a dissertation-length opus on the music of another television composer, Joe Harnell, who taught at USC (which represented still another great friendship until the composer’s death); eventually, I moved on to name-brand concert-music composers like Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg, Webern, and the recently late George Rochberg.

But still the Adler project persisted in the back of my mind. In early 2013, I took an extended road trip from Ohio to Texas. I had the Choose Life disc in my car and I listened to it over and over for nearly the entirety of the road trip. I decided I was ready. I waited until my paper on Rochberg saw print in Perspectives of New Music, and decided to ask for Adler’s blessing to write this book. Not only did he give me his gracious approval, but he also helped facilitate the procurement of scores and recordings that have made this project incalculably easier.

Not long ago in a class on the music of 1950-2000 that I was teaching at Rice University, I posed a question to the students that I thought was provocative. We were studying one particularly well-known composer associated with the European avant-garde of the 1960s, and I asked, “do you think this composer has talent?” The students were struck by the audacity of the question. It is possibly one they had never thought about. They came to the conclusion (I had been actually fishing for) that while this composer indeed had considerable skill as an orchestrator and conductor, the deliberate obscuritantism of this composer’s technical devices made it nearly impossible to ascertain subjective qualities such as “talent.”

In the case of Adler, there can be no mistake. Whatever other words one might use to describe Adler the composer— positively intellectual, often liturgical, sometimes difficult, all these come to mind— it is impossible to escape the important and deep impression of the man’s talent. Stravinsky is fabled to have said “music has to dance and music has to sing.” Even in the most uncompromising chromatic language, Adler’s music dances and sings.

In a world where compositional acumen is ascertained by experts through Schenker graphs and Klumpenhouwer Networks, through Tonnetze and set theory, through LPR transformations and Generalized Musical Intervals, is it passé to speak of a composer’s “talent”? Adler does not seem to think so:

“I think many colleges make a great mistake in shepherding [student composers] along when everybody         knows they don’t have the talent [emphasis added]. We turn out far too many composers, and that shouldn’t be. It’s especially true, I’m afraid, in our postmodern period. The idea of not saying anything judgmental about a piece isn’t doing the student any good.[1]

“Look, I get a lot of students from all over the country applying [to study with me]. And having judged a lot of competitions, you look at a piece and you know exactly who this person is studying with— not the particular person, but what kind of a teacher. If the teacher always says you’re wonderful, the student isn’t learning anything. When you see obvious faults in a piece, it’s really not the student’s fault all the time. No, either the student has no talent [emphasis added] (and that’s too bad), or the teacher may not have come down hard enough and said, ‘Listen, this doesn’t go. This kind of music is unacceptable.’[2]

“But the greatest influence during [graduate school] was Hindemith, who was at Harvard the first year I was there. The summer after that I had another shock and that was with Copland, who, I think, was the most influential teacher I had.  He and Piston had a style of neo-classicism that was really me. So I was able to write. Copland was very tough on me. He did not think that I had very much talent [emphasis added] until ten years later. He refused to give me a letter of recommendation. Ten years later I saw him in Texas— he   was a guest at North Texas. On the way from Dallas to Denton, on his sixtieth birthday, he took out a letter and said, “Sam, I have something for you.” It was the greatest victory of  my life.”[3]

So this book will be divided into two parts. The second part will be comprised of the kinds of extensive analytical techniques that are the parlance of today’s theoretical currency, but the first part will be a more general overview that traces the development of particular genres. It is hoped that while the theory professional will appreciate the second part, musicians of various walks of life will be able to appreciate the first part, which will, if nothing else, be an explication on the prolific talents of Adler the composer.

I think it is important to assert the importance of talent, because music history otherwise gets caught up so much with movement leaders. We must admit Adler is not one of those. He did not bring about serialism, as did Schoenberg; aleatoricism, as did Cage; stochasticism, as did Xenakis; minimalism as did the tandem of Reich, Glass, Adams and Riley; neo-Romanticism as did Rochberg. Adler is not the inventor of any particular –ism, and given the narrative that music history is propelled further by the inventors of this or that –ism, there is a danger that important composers who are not particularly “–ism” composers will be overlooked by the tide of history. This would be unfortunate. We celebrate Beethoven for nearly single-handedly bringing about the shift of music from Classicism to Romanticism; but we celebrate Schubert, a contemporary who was not comparatively progressive,[4] just as much. We celebrate Berlioz for his innovations in orchestration; but we celebrate Schumann, who was not particularly innovative on that front, just as much. We celebrate the operas of Wagner, which decidedly pushed forward the possibilities of the idiom; but we celebrate Verdi, who was merely (!) a master of the idiom, just as much. Moreover, when the progressive tendencies of a particular composer become overlooked by history, e.g., Brahms, a Schoenberg will sometimes come along to set the record straight. So it would seem that this book would argue that Adler has a place in music history alongside what I would describe as the “talent” composers— Schubert, Schumann and Verdi— as opposed to the “progressive” composers— Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner. But wait.

What do we make of Brahms, then? In his time he was often compared to Wagner— unfavorably— as a conservative, because of his formal classicism. Yet, Schoenberg correctly pointed out that Brahms’s motivic treatments were unprecedented, going well beyond even those of Beethoven’s, paving the way for Grundgestalt composition by the Second Viennese school.[5] So is Brahms a “talent” composer or a “progressive” composer?

I believe that this question commits the logical fallacy of false dichotomy. In her review of Howard Pollack’s book Walter Piston and His Students, from Elliott Carter to Frederick Rzewski, Pamela Fox[6] uses a wonderful term to describe Adler’s teacher Walter Piston, the seemingly oxymoronic term “conservative-progressive”:From Piston’s own style as a conservative progressive and his teaching philosophy, which fostered individuality, two further avenues of thought emerge: the incredible range of attitude mixing American cultivated/vernacular traditions and elitist and populist ideals, and the deep influence of early music.

Searching for a possibly better definition that could bring some clarity to bear on this term that entails rather a sharp contradiction, I found this terrific quote by Joshua Berrett[7] in his review of the same book:

“The classical ideals that shaped Piston’s writing and teaching are provocatively defined in chapter 1, which examines affinities between Piston and the novelist James Gould Cozzens (1903-78). Both shared an interest in eighteenth-century classicism, French art, New England traditions, and modernism of the 1920s. Pollack discerns in these affinities  a distinctive tension between eighteenth-century rationalism and stoic Puritan heroism with which they faced the uncertainties of the 1920s and beyond. Piston and Cozzens attached the highest priority to matters of balance, coherence, and succinctness; their creative work exemplified an impeccable craftsmanship coupled with a rejection of sentimentality.

“In the case of Piston, these qualities flowed from a French sensibility traceable to the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the years of Pierre Monteux (1919- 24), the Harvard of Edward Burlingame Hill, and post-graduate studies in Paris under Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas. At the same time, Piston’s reverence for the past was wedded to a forward-looking attitude about harmony, rhythm, and texture, while he maintained his individuality [emphasis added] as a member of what Virgil Thomson once called the “commando unit” of American music— Piston, Sessions, Copland, Harris, and Thomson himself.”

There is perhaps no better definition of “conservative progressive” that could be proffered. It is unfortunate that in American academic and intellectual culture the term “conservative” has perhaps taken on a pejorative connotation, particularly as it has been so tarnished by an American conservative politics that is not widely embraced by this culture. Yet, all music entails both conservative and progressive elements. The term “conservative progressive” may be useful, then, to describe those composers who find these elements in balance, in a stasis, in complementary harmony with one another.

I would argue that Adler is among the foremost of such “conservative progressive” composers. His music is certainly conservative in the sense that it without apology makes allusions to past masters, particularly in the dimensions of form and orchestration. On the other hand, unlike many pastichist neo-Romantic composers of today, one could not take a present-day Adler composition, put it on the radio, and have audiences confuse it with Dvorak or Sibelius should they tune in late. His harmonic language is chromatically dense and firmly a product of the 20th and 21st Centuries. I have long maintained that context matters greatly for reception. Imagine Adler’s Ninth Quartet on a program along side Bang on a Can’s latest exponents; followed by the presentation of a genre-bending quasi-Singspiel of John Zorn by Eighth Blackbird; then an electronic music tandem’s serious multi-media collage piece influenced by Stockhausen but with a guest appearance made by Radiohead; topped off by the latest technophilic effort to make music simultaneously around the world through Facebook and Youtube. Who is the conservative? Obviously, poor Adler; all he has on offer is an old-fashioned (!) string quartet. Now imagine Adler’s Ninth Quartet inexplicably intruding upon the 4:00 p.m. drive-time hour playlist of KMZT (K-Mozart) in Los Angeles. What is the listener expectation? Obviously, Mozart, or Bach, or Brahms. But listeners tune in and instead are confronted by the opening hexachord of the second movement, a harmony that is as hostile to the expectation as it is foreign. Now who is the “conservative”?

One may wonder why it is important to apply a label at all. I certainly would sympathize with this concern, loathe as I am to apply labels, as they tend to foster dismissal (i.e., the fallacy that once one has the label, that is all one needs to know), grossly over-generalize, and encourage partisan factionalism. Still, labels are a fact of life in academic musical analyses; one, for better or for worse, questions the historic viability of a composer that cannot be labeled somehow.

I like Adler’s own self-imposed label of the “happy eclectic”:[8]

“In a discussion concerning styles of composition and the use of serial techniques in particular, Adler remarked that, in his opinion, it has not been important for a contemporary composer to use serial techniques in his [or her] music. Rather, ‘It is the convincing quality of the music resulting from any technique that validates the use thereof. Too much emphasis is placed on the technical aspect of contemporary music and not enough on its communicative and aesthetic impact… I firmly believe that a composer should have all contemporary techniques in his [or her] immediate grasp, and must be able to use them as the suit his [or her] purposes.’

“Concerning his music in particular, Adler has talked about his use of a modified serial technique; he has never adhered to strict serial technique for an entire work. He has expressed the belief that strict twelve-tone music ‘seems to be overly static without providing that experience of forward or backward movement that is an essential part of our musical art.’ Adler has stressed his opinion that it is most important that a tonal feeling, ‘a progressive direction from one ‘note’ center to another,’ not be completely destroyed. To Alder, all avante-garde techniques have become valid for the  contemporary composer ‘who needs them to clarify his [or her] creations… [aleatoric music and electronic music] are two more devices that enrich the palette of contemporary musical experience… [but] they must not be the exclusive sound of our time. It is precisely the diversity of possibilities which makes ours an exciting musical era’ [emphasis added].

“Adler has referred to himself as the ‘happy eclectic.’ He has recognized the influence of his former teachers (especially Hindemith, Piston, Copland, and Fromm), and also has realized that he has often ‘picked up’ ideas that are all around, amalgamated them and digested them until they emerged in his music— hopefully sounding like ‘oneself’ rather than the particular influence. He has not felt that eclecticism is a dirty word, but that it is a ‘definite plus today to have a language that can communicate.'”[9]

Admittedly, there is eclecticism and there is eclecticism. One is not going to find the degree of eclecticism in Adler’s music as one might find in the Bang-on-a-Can-meets-John-Zorn-cum-Eighth-Blackbird-Stockhausen-Radiohead-and-Facebook concert that I hypothesized. And for this I say, thank goodness. My uncle, the violist John Kochanowski, formerly of the Concord Quartet and now of the Blair Quartet, upon being informed that I was writing this book, said, “You know, Bob, it’s important that this book is being written by someone of your generation.” I did not catch the full import of what he was saying at first. Now I think I do. I think he means— and I agree— that the wide-embracing, self-consciously progressive eclecticism of the very hypothetical concert I have described has emerged as a stereotype of my own generation. Here too I am reluctant to launch a full-throated critique— I believe experimentalism, on the whole, is healthy and necessary— but when it becomes all one has on the concert-music scene, I do question what it is we are losing. In our rush to popularize concert music by putting Eighth Blackbird on a stage together with Radiohead, I question whether the Samuel Adlers of the world are getting lost, and if their music is the getting the due that must come with any music that self-consciously aspires not to the value of progress, but rather to the value of depth.

Lastly, I should address something that perhaps needs to be said in order to facilitate the right expectations for this book. Adler once said “I don’t feel myself to be a Jewish composer, but rather an American composer.”[10] It is in that spirit that this book will perhaps not emphasize as much as one might expect the influences of Judaica on Adler’s music. It is not so much because it is beyond my area of expertise (though, I would admit, as a non-Jew, it probably is), but rather because it is a worthy topic that perhaps ought to be approached by someone else: “Judaic Influences in the Music of Samuel Adler” is as fine a Ph.D. dissertation topic as one could conceive. I think, though, that one of the perceptions of Adler’s music that should be adjusted is that Adler’s music is only about Judaica. I believe this perception does exist because one of the primary touchstones that ordinary[11] people have had with Adler’s music has been the temple rather than the concert hall. This should not be surprising; after all, Adler’s father, the cantor Hugo Adler, was at a certain point, and probably still is, the composer whose music was used more than anyone else’s in the American Reformed Jewish Synagogue.[12] Adler himself has held prominent temple positions (e.g., as music director of Temple Emmanu-El in Dallas). However, Adler is often commissioned by religious non-Jews: his Choral Trilogy, for example, was commissioned by Eastern Presbyterian Church of Stone Mountain, GA in honor of twenty years of service of their music director. Of course, it barely needs to be said that he is widely commissioned by ensembles with no religious affiliation at all. I will say this from my own perspective: in an American culture where overt religiosity is so unabashedly asserted by so many, it is perhaps my lack of participation in the religious enterprise that compels me to appreciate so much Adler’s approach, which I would describe as thoughtful, understated, unimposing and sincere.

So with great affection and respect, I launch into this formidable project, and it is my hope that both musical aficionado and expert alike will find something to recommend in this exploration of the remarkable, prolific, widely admired American composer Samuel Adler.

Robert Gross

October, 2013

[1] This quote is taken from Marilyn Shrude, “Teaching Composition in Twenty-First Century America: A Conversation with Samuel Adler,” American Music 26:2 (Summer, 2008), 223-245.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] An argument could be made, however, that his use of root-motion by thirds, rather than by fourths and fifths, was a progressive contribution to the dimension of harmony.

[5] After Schoenberg’s famous essay “Brahms the Progressive,” David Epstein shows us that similar Grundgestalt ideas had been historically overlooked in the works of many German-speaking composers of the 19th Century, including Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. See his book Beyond Orpheus, Studies in Musical Structure, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979. Epstein points out that even Mozart was given to Grundgestalt ideas: ideas that were previously thought to be “puns” or other forms of Mozartean sardonicism, such as beginning the development section of the first movement of the Fortieth Symphony in a key area one semitone down, are now explainable as serious, earnest examples of Grundgestalt-motivic development.

[6] The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), 220-245.

[7] American Music, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), 329-333.

[8] This is Adler’s own self-description per Joan Dawson Lucas, “The Operas of Samuel Adler,” Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 1978.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Aaron Leibel, ‘Brilliant thinker, fabulous musician’; Samuel Adler To Be Music Scholar in Residence at Temple Sinai,” Washington Jewish Week 28 (Oct. 2004): 27.

[11] I use this somewhat unfortunate descriptor to mean people who are not particularly acclimated to the world of contemporary concert music, which is to say, alas, most people.

[12] This is per Lucas, ibid.

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