WQXR commentator Robert Sherman called him “one of our giants.” Nine years younger than Aaron Copland, nine years older than Leonard Bernstein, Elie Siegmeister, who died of a brain tumor on March 10, 1991, would have been 100 years old on January 15, 2009. Proclamations declaring Elie Siegmeister Day have sprouted from the Brooklyn Borough President to the Village of Massapequa Park, the Towns of Huntington and Oyster Bay, and the Counties of Nassau and Suffolk. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy personally paid tribute to Siegmeister at the Suffolk County premiere of his most important choral work, the cantata I Have A Dream, on January 19, 2009.
On March 29, 2009, there will be at least four concerts featuring his music in different parts of the country: Siegmeister’s Piano Sonata No. 2 will be played by his son-in-law Alan Mandel (the work’s dedicatee) at the National Gallery in Washington DC; baritone Marcus DeLoach will sing “The Ballad of Adam and Eve” at Colgate University in central New York state; the choral work Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight will be performed by the Providence Singers in Bristol, RI; and an entire afternoon of Siegmeister will take place at Long Island’s Hofstra University, featuring songs, arias, and duets, plus a piano solo and the world premiere of an arrangement for piano and synthesizers of his orchestral children’s piece, Dick Whittington and His Cat. Siegmeister taught at Hofstra from 1949 until his retirement in 1984. Founder and conductor of the Hofstra Symphony, he became the university’s first composer-in-residence. Efforts are underway to have NY Governor David Paterson (a Hofstra alumnus) and President Barack Obama sign proclamations recognizing Siegmeister’s achievements that day.
Like his colleague Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), who studied with both Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg, Siegmeister had a bit of both German and French, as well as Russian and Jewish influences in him. His great-grandfather had been taken in by a German doctor (whose name he took), to avoid the draft, in which Jews had to serve the czar for 20 years. His father and mother had each emigrated from Pahust, Byelorussia, but met in New York; they gave their son the French name for the prophet Elijah.
After graduating from Columbia University at 18, Elie was encouraged by his composition teacher Wallingford Riegger and a letter from his piano teacher Emil Friedberger to go to Europe to study with Schoenberg. Stopping in Paris, he was persuaded by Israel Citkowitz and Roy Harris to study instead with Nadia Boulanger, with whom he remained for three years. A friend and colleague of Darius Milhaud, he would however largely reject the French influence as “too raffiné,” and come under the spell, at least for a while, of the militant Hanns Eisler, whose lectures he translated from the German at The New School, where he also taught (in addition to Brooklyn College). Charles Seeger (Pete’s father and Ruth Crawford’s husband), who knew him through the Composers Collective of New York, had recommended him for a teaching position at Brooklyn, which he kept, until an unexcused absence to march in a May Day parade caused his contract not to be renewed. May Day was the title of his first successful orchestral work, introduced by Henry Cowell and premiered at The New School on October 16, 1933. In 1939, though, he changed it to American Holiday, under which title it has had numerous performances: under Fritz Mahler in Connecticut; Albert Tepper at Hofstra (11/10/1972); the late Lukas Foss in Brooklyn (2/15/1976); and, most recently, Leon Botstein with the American Symphony Orchestra (8/20/2005).
Born in Harlem, for which he always felt an affinity, Elie set more of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ texts than any other composer (including his only unproduced operetta, The Wizard of Altoona). Moving with his family to Brooklyn in 1914, there he met the man who would become the borough’s first poet laureate, Norman Rosten, and set more of his poetry than any other composer (including the delightful cycles For My Daughters and City Songs, and his only unproduced opera, The Marquesa of O). In all he wrote 159 songs, not counting individual numbers for 20 stage works, 41 orchestral works, 14 for band, 38 choral, 34 chamber pieces, 40 for piano, half a dozen for radio and TV, one feature film score (They Came to Cordura) and hundreds of choral arrangements for the American Ballad Singers, which he founded and conducted on tours around the country. His books included A Treasury of American Song (with Olin Downes), which became the basis for the Broadway musical Sing Out, Sweet Land! starring Alfred Drake and Burl Ives; The Music-Lover’s Handbook (a Book-of-the-Month Club selection); the updated New Music-Lover’s Handbook; The Joan Baez Songbook; and Harmony and Melody, a textbook in two volumes and two workbooks.
In 1954 he moved to Great Neck, Long Island, which is where I first met him and where I began studying composition privately with him in 1960. (Among his other students over the years were Pulitzer Prize Winner Stephen Albert, Michael Beckerman, Tom Cipullo, Herbert Deutsch, Daniel Dorff, Barry Drogin, Naomi Drucker, Gerald Humel, Stephen Lawrence, Roger Nierenberg, Dana Paul Perna, Joseph Pehrson, Michael Shapiro, and Richard White.) Great Neck honored him this year with not one but two concerts: January 4 at Great Neck House; January 11 at Great Neck Library. The Great Neck Choral Society, which commissioned his “In Our Time” in 1965, premiered the choral version of his “Nancy Hanks” December 7, 2008. And it was in Great Neck that he wrote what he told me he felt were his most important works: the Third Symphony (of nine, all of which have been performed except for the Seventh) and The Plough and the Stars, a three-act opera based on the eponymous play by Sean O’Casey with libretto by Edward Mabley.
The opera had a tumultuous history. Beginning as a singspiel titled Dublin Song, it previewed at Washington University in St. Louis. A visiting Broadway producer, hearing a rollicking bar-room ballad by the comic lead, asked the composer: “Where’s the melody?” leading to the conclusion that the work was not, alas, for Broadway. Peter Paul Fuchs conducted the premiere at Louisiana State University in March 1969. A year later, the Grand Théâtre Municipal in Bordeaux, France, presented the work in a very successful French translation by David Noakes. Turned down repeatedly by New York City Opera, the New York premiere finally came in 1979, conducted by the composer, presented by the New York Lyric Opera at Symphony Space in Manhattan.
Another Mabley-Siegmeister opera successfully presented in Europe was a one-act commissioned by the American Wind Symphony in Pittsburgh, The Mermaid in Lock No. 7, premiered by them July 20, 1959, also conducted by the composer, starring Chester Ludgin and Leila Martin. The Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Belgium presented it in 1972, in Flemish. There were also productions at Hofstra and in Harlem. The Opera/Musical Theatre Special Interest Group of The Naturist Society presented the French premiere July 13, 1989 at a Naturist resort in southern France. When Elie saw the photographs (some of which are posted on the internet), in which the mermaid wore seashell earrings, and nothing else, he exclaimed, “Lenushka, this is the definitive production! This is the way it should always be done!”
Another important Siegmeister stage work is the one-act folk opera Darlin’ Corie, premiered at Hofstra in 1954 (broadcast on Canadian television in 1956), with a libretto by Lewis Allan, a.k.a. Abel Meeropol, the man who wrote the song “Strange Fruit” and the lyrics to Earl Robinson’s “The House I Live In.” Siegmeister and Meeropol collaborated on several delightful songs, including “The Wind,” “Autumn in My Heart,” “The Lollypop,” “The Snowman,” “The Moon,” and “John Reed,” the last of these probably for a concert of the American Soviet Music Society in 1945, on whose board Elie sat, along with Copland, Bernstein, Blitzstein, Serge Koussevitsky, and Morton Gould. (Gould would later get him to join the board of ASCAP.) It was during this period that Dmitri Mitropoulos premiered and recorded Siegmeister’s Ozark Set, Arturo Toscanini premiered his Western Suite, and Leopold Stokowski commissioned and premiered his First Symphony. Siegmeister told Leonard Bernstein he was busy writing the work for Stokowski when Bernstein inquired as to what he was doing, clearly interested in premiering a Siegmeister work with his City Symphony. Then came the Cold War. With one exception, Bernstein never approached Siegmeister again—a loss for both of them, and American music.
That exception was the 1933 setting of Michael Gold’s poem, “The Strange Funeral in Braddock,” premiered and recorded in 1935 by baritone Mordecai Bauman (re-released in 1996 on Bear Family Records), choreographed by Anna Sokolow, and taken up by Henry Cowell for New Music Editions, becoming Siegmeister’s first published composition. A powerful narrative about a steelworker killed in an industrial accident, inspiring calls for proletarian—or perhaps anarchist—revenge, it was revived successfully in the 1960s. Around 1950, when Bernstein expressed interest in doing it, Siegmeister turned away in fright: Congressional committees were knocking at his door, and the only way he could save his livelihood, and his integrity, was to deny knowing anything about anyone. Aaron Copland’s 1953 testimony before Senator Joseph McCarthy makes harrowing, moving reading. So does Siegmeister’s account of his testimony, as transcribed in an oral history, taped June 25, 1975, available at Columbia University (p. 169):
“‘I don’t know any people who are members of the Communist Party.’
They said, ‘Well, how about Mark [sic] Blitzstein? Wasn’t he a member?’
I said, ‘He may have been, but he never told me and I never asked him.’
‘There’s someone who claims that you were a member of the Communist Party and is prepared to testify against you.’
‘Well, let him testify. If he’s testifying [to that], he’s perjuring himself.'”
When asked about Olin Downes, Serge Koussevitzky, and Leonard Bernstein, he said:
“‘I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I don’t know what their religions are, whom they sleep with, or what their parties are. I’ve never asked them.”
The last time Siegmeister saw Bernstein, in the 1980s, they teased each other:
LB: “Elie Siegmeister! Weren’t you just a bit pink in the old days?”
ES: “No more than you, Lenny.”
LB: “Oh, I was red!”
But Bernstein never did anything for two of Elie’s most important socially-conscious works— perhaps his greatest works—of the 1960s: the 25-minute cantata on a text by Mabley after Dr. King’s speech, I Have A Dream; and the song cycle on Langston Hughes poems, The Face of War. I would not hesitate to say that these are two of the most powerful works of the 20th century, though both were virtually ignored by the press at their premieres.
I Have A Dream was originally commissioned by Cantor Solomon Mendelson at Temple Beth Sholom in Long Beach, Long Island. In the text adaptation by Edward Mabley, authorized by Dr. King, the scope of the speech is deliberately extended, so that the famous phrase “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” becomes “not by their color nor by their creed—by their character only shall they be judged.” The concept of the “exile in his own land” relates the Hebrew exile by the waters of Babylon to the desolation of Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” A blues fugue combines the lines “No man is an island” and “We cannot walk alone.” The music too reflects the influence of folk, jazz, and synagogue chant. In a way, I Have A Dream was Elie’s bar mitzvah. He had never before, at least consciously, used synagogue chant in his work, but this time he studied it diligently, with Cantor Mendelson. And phrases from both Torah and Haftorah blessings found their way into the solo part of the cantata, especially in the quotations from Isaiah and the assertions of universal brotherhood and the prophetic imperative to struggle for justice. (Later works drawing on his Jewish heritage included the operas after Malamud, Angel Levine and Lady of the Lake, premiered by Jewish Opera at the Y, and the String Quartet No. 3 “On Hebrew Themes”, which the American Society for Jewish Music will revive June 7, 2009.)
For the world premiere with soloist William Warfield in Long Beach, April 16, 1967, a large group of celebrities, including Senators Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy, and Dr. King, were scheduled to attend. But 12 days earlier, on April 4, exactly a year before he would be assassinated, Dr. King gave his famous speech at Riverside Church, denouncing the Vietnam War. Immediately the American Legion threatened to picket the temple if he showed up, which he didn’t (though the John Birch Society, thinking he might, picketed anyway). Neither did most of the celebrities. Jackie Robinson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Percy Sutton did. But the press stayed away. The work only really came into its own on January 15, 1989, when, in a joint celebration of Dr. King’s 60th birthday and Siegmeister’s 80th (the same day), the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus performed the Manhattan premiere with William Warfield at the Harlem School of the Arts, a performance that was broadcast repeatedly over WQXR and WBAI over the next several years. (The MPC revived it again in 2009 for performances in Great Neck, Huntington and Manhattan on January 4, 11, and 25.)
The Face of War, a searing 10-minute indictment of the horrors of war based on five of Langston Hughes’ last poems, was also premiered by William Warfield, on May 24, 1968 at Carnegie Hall, with an orchestra conducted by Henry Lewis, on a Composers and Musicians for Peace concert produced by Elie, in memory of Dr. King, in conjunction with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which for a number of years sold a recording of that piece. There was virtually no press coverage, and no documented performances with orchestra have occurred since then, though there have been at least a dozen with piano.
In 1969 Elie founded and served through 1984 as chairman of the Council of Creative Artists, Libraries and Museums; from 1965-68 as vice president of the Composers and Lyricists Guild; in 1977 he founded the Kennedy Center’s National Black Music Competition and Colloquium; in 1987 he became chair of ASCAP’s Symphony and Concert Committee. Lorin Maazel premiered Siegmeister’s Symphony No. 4 (with the Cleveland Orchestra, in 1973); Sergiu Commisiona premiered three Siegmeister works with the Baltimore Symphony (1976-79); and the State of Louisiana made him an honorary colonel, with triple bicentennial commissions for a ballet, an opera, and an orchestra work, in 1976.
In the last decade of his life, Elie Siegmeister would journey to Albany, Oakland, and Berlin (on the way back from a residency in Bellagio) to hear his music. But mostly he stayed home, composing. His sole psalm setting, “Sing Unto the Lord A New Song” for chorus and organ (his only work for organ), proved too difficult for the Birmingham, Alabama synagogue that had commissioned it; it was premiered April 5, 1987 at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, NY. His final collaborator, the poet Kim Rich, first heard her words sung to his music at the posthumous world premiere of their “Outside My Window,” on November 12, 2006 at PeaceSmiths in Amityville, NY. Siegmeister asked me to consider orchestrating his “For My Daughters” (which I’d be delighted to do, if a commission and performance possibilities can be found), and told me: “When I die, I know that if I leave anything unfinished, you’ll finish it…. I don’t want to call you my disciple, as I don’t believe in doctrine. But you’re my continuator.”
Leonard J. Lehrman is the Editor of The Marc Blitzstein Songbook, volumes 1-3 (Boosey & Hawkes, 1999-2003), author of Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography (Praeger, 2005), and co-author with Kenneth O. Boulton, of the in-progress Elie Siegmeister: A Bio-Bibliography (Scarecrow, 2009). He is also the composer of 190 works, including 10 operas, which have been performed throughout North America, Europe, Russia, Israel, and Australia; Critic-at-Large of The New Music Connoisseur; Founder/Director of The Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus; and Music Director/Composer-in-Residence at United Methodist Church Huntington/Cold Spring Harbor. In 1999, he and Helene Williams co-founded The Elie Siegmeister Society.