Ben Weber was an enigma. He was a twelve tone composer whose lushly harmonic music is often described as tonal. He was a deeply serious, intellectual artist in the metaphysical mold of Schoenberg and Busoni. At the same time, he was famous in artistic circles for his impromptu, hilarious yet oddly poignant drag performances of opera performed for close friends at his West Village apartment.
Weber’s music was performed and recorded by the most distinguished conductors and performers of his day—Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Trampler, William Masselos, and Joseph Fuchs, among many others—but at the end of his life, his music was not in fashion, less often performed, and many of today’s musicians have never heard of him. Times change, fashion comes and goes, but Ben Weber’s music is timeless—and unique in the canon of 20th-century American music.
I met Ben Weber in 1974, when John Cage suggested that I approach him about taking me on as a composition student. I worked with him until his death in 1979 and after writing an article about Ben for the American Composers Alliance (in conjunction with a concert of music by their founding members, one of whom was Ben Weber), I realized that I needed to write his biography—that this was something important, and that my close connection with Ben as his good friend and his last student made me the right person to do so. I feel very fortunate that so many of Ben’s close friends and colleagues—Ned Rorem, Anahid Ajemian, George Avakian, Cho Wen Chung, Bethany Beardslee, Don Bachardy, and many others—have been willing to spend time with me sharing their memories about Ben. A good example of how moving these experiences have been for me is the several hours I spent with Ned Rorem talking about Ben. None of the acerbic quality that comes out so often when Rorem writes or talks about other composers was present in our conversation. It was filled with real love. He said that Ben was perhaps one of the only composers that he truly called a friend, and that Ben’s music “is always beautiful.”
I got to know Ben very well in the four years that I worked with him, but now, talking with so many people who knew and loved him and his music, reading his letters and researching his life and work, I’ve become even more aware of his extraordinary complexities. My book is about Ben, but it’s also very much about this journey—my search for Ben Weber.
As a composer and as a personality, Ben Weber was a unique study in contrasts. His music is all twelve-tone based, but his New York Times obituary read “Ben Weber, Tonal Composer.” As described by Ned Rorem in his article “Thinking of Ben” (first published in Christopher Street: The New Magazine; and subsequently reprinted in Rorem’s 1983 collection Setting the Tone: Essays and a Diary), “[B]y standards of cinema or sauna, Ben was not fetching in person…yet he had stance and variety and could swerve through the room with grace.” Ben famously remarked, “I’m certainly not Marilyn Monroe, but compared to George Perle, I am glamorous.” And he really was—even when I knew him in the last years of his life, not in good health, overweight, bald, almost a recluse in his dusty, dark Upper West Side apartment, but yes—still glamorous. The fascinating contrasts that Ben presented in his music and in his person are what I’ll try to describe in this article.
In the 1950s, Lazare Saminsky, the legendary composer and cantor of temple Emanuel-El in New York City, commissioned a series of choral pieces from New York composers. Ben Weber’s contribution is a setting of one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which might stand as his artistic credo:
Only who with the dead has eaten
of the poppy that is theirs,
will never again lose
the most delicate tone.
In “About Ben Weber” (ACA Bulletin Volume 5, no. 2, 1955), Frank O’Hara writes: “Like the poems of Rilke in which we experience an open, complicated and knowing sentiment while we read, but when we have stopped reading realize that what has actually moved us is a mystery…this music informs us, and its composer, of those things which we are just able to know.”
There’s a beautiful poem about Ben by John Cage, written just after Weber’s death in 1979. (B.W. 1916-1979 Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, no. 30, 1979) Cage thinks of Ben in his one-room garden apartment in the West Village, where he copied music for a living, cooked fabulous meals for his friends, and wrote his music. The poem ends with the lines:
Ben moved to New York from Chicago in 1945, settling on West 11th Street in the West Village, the epicenter of New York bohemian life, where he soon became an integral part of the New York music world. Ben had a unique quality that could bring people of very different perspectives together. His personality and his music won the friendship and admiration of such diverse artists as David Diamond, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Paul Goodman, Frank O’Hara, and Henry Miller. It’s hard to think of another composer whose music is loved by both the arch- anti-twelve-tone composer Ned Rorem and by Milton Babbitt, the epitome of a serial composer. When Edgard Varèse heard Ben’s Bagatelles for piano, he called him up and asked to meet him; they shared many evenings at Ben’s apartment and Varèse’s student, the brilliant Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung, studied autography with Ben and also became a close friend.
David Diamond, spoke about his first meeting with Ben. Ben noticed a book of German philosophy that Diamond had with him, and to David’s amazement, immediately began sharing his thoughts about the book and its meaning. David spent many evenings with Ben, talking for hours about poetry, philosophy, art, and music. And then Ben might tell a story about an encounter with the handsome repairman who came to fix the telephone!
He staged elaborate dinner parties for small groups of friends. Ben loved to shop for exotic spices in the stores near his West Village apartment, and his menus were the stuff of legend. Bethany Beardslee showed me one of his recipes that she still keeps in her recipe collection; a letter from his close friend, the avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos says that Robert (the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s long-time partner) is still talking about Ben’s shrimp curry. When I was finishing a commission for a new piece, Ben remarked that writing a piece of music is sort of like making a dinner party. For the party, you spend one day shopping and one day cooking, and the people eat it all up in an hour. When you write a piece of music, you spend two months writing it, two weeks preparing the score, and the musicians play it through in ten minutes!
Milton Babbitt, in his article “Memorial for Ben Weber” (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 17, No. 2 Spring/Summer 1979), described Ben’s dinner parties as “spirited social gatherings…lively professional meetings of performers, composers and others in or close to music, most of whom probably have seen little of each other since Ben ceased providing the place, occasion and reason.”
So many people I spoke with rhapsodized about those dinners. There’d be lots of wide-ranging talk about music, art, and poetry. Besides many composers and performers, poets such as Paul Goodman, Edwin Denby, and Frank O’Hara were frequent guests; when he was still living in Chicago, Ben attended a reading by Henry Miller and afterwards he and Miller went back to Ben’s apartment and talked until dawn. (Perhaps Miller was also a guest at one of the New York dinners.)
After dinner, Ben would disappear behind a curtain, emerge in a wig and costume and perform a scene from Salomé or Tosca. So many people that I’ve interviewed, both gay and straight—Ben didn’t just do these drag performances for his gay circle—wax poetic about these performances. Edward Field, now in his nineties and writing and speaking like someone in his twenties, is a celebrated poet and writer on gay life. As a very young man, he met Ben when they were both in residence at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, and he talked to me about how wonderful it was to experience these performances. He’s also written about them in his memoirs. Anahid Ajemian premiered several of Ben’s seminal pieces, including the Sonata da Camera, written for her and her sister, the legendary pianist, Maro Ajemian, and the Second String Quartet, commissioned and recorded by the Composers String Quartet, in which she played first violin. Anahid was Ben’s very close friend and she was often a guest at his dinner parties, but when I asked her to describe the drag performances, words failed her—she said they were something absolutely unique—very, very funny but at the same time, something more: in an offbeat way, a real and caring homage to the music. Robert Beavers was there when Gregory Markopoulos filmed Ben doing a drag performance for Galaxie, Markopoulos’s iconic film of collage portraits of New York artists. I talked with Robert about being there—it’s so many years ago, he said, but he so clearly remembers Ben’s performance as something unique, and so glad that it exists on film.
This wasn’t drag as performed at a gay club. It was something very different. I think it’s apt to use that untranslatable French word, spirituel to try and evoke what they must have been like—incredibly funny; in the truest sense, witty; but on a level that conjures the sublime.
The painter Don Bachardy painted several beautiful portraits of Ben. He got to know Ben in the 1960s, when Ben had moved uptown and wasn’t giving parties much anymore. I talked with Don in his beautiful house in Santa Monica, overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. He sat in the same chair that he’s sitting in in the famous David Hockney portrait of Don and his life-partner, Christopher Isherwood, the British writer whose Berlin Stories inspired the musical Cabaret. The house is full of wonderful paintings by the couple’s many artist friends. Hanging in pride of place at one window is a beautiful, framed score of Ben Weber’s.
Don said that Ben was the most unique person he’d ever known, and he and Christopher Isherwood certainly knew many singular people. He tried to describe the qualities that made Ben so unique: his combination of profound seriousness, deep melancholy, and then those sudden, unexpected moments of humor that would catch Don completely off guard—he’d be talking very seriously about music or poetry, and suddenly switch to a completely different voice, imitating some opera singer—or, in an instant, his whole expression would change and he’d take on a wildly devilish demeanor. Don regrets that he never asked Ben to do one of his drag performances for him. “He wasn’t doing them anymore, but he probably would have done one for me if I’d asked. Ben in drag would not have been like anyone else.”
Weber’s music is of the highest seriousness, but it’s also elegant, gorgeous, effortless in its effect—and often light-hearted. Like Schoenberg, Ben certainly “heard the music of another planet.”
Ben was one of the first Americans to take up Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique, and his Bagatelles for piano from 1940 are the first published twelve-tone pieces by an American composer. Ben worked as secretary and copyist for Artur Schnabel when he first came to New York, and he told me a wonderful story that seems to relate, albeit unconsciously, to where Ben would take his twelve-tone explorations. There’s a note at the bottom of the first page of the music that says, “N.B. All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg.” When Schnabel was reading through the music, he paused as the end of the first piece and said to Ben, “But there are only eleven tones here! You should amend your note to say, ‘N.B. All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg, except for the first piece which is in the eleven tone system of Ben Weber.’ ” Ben probably never made that “mistake” again, but in a humorous way, this story shines a light on his completely original and unexpected way of writing twelve-tone music that was admired by both Elliott Carter and David Diamond.
Ben didn’t adopt the twelve-tone system as a way of creating intellectual complexity or to, as Ernest Krenek notoriously put it, be “freed from the tyranny of inspiration.” He told me that starting work on a row was like walking into a dense forest—at first it’s all a blur, and then your eye picks out a beautiful tree here, a bird over there, a hidden flower. His twelve-tone writing was an integral part of his search to enter unknown realms.
I think that’s why Frank O’Hara quotes Rimbaud’s famous line, “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”) in his beautiful essay about Ben. Rimbaud made this strange use of the third person verb form coupled with the first person pronoun to try and explain his poetic process, and O’Hara felt that it related strongly to what he heard in Ben’s music: “There are composers springing to mind whose work cries again and again. ‘I am myself!’ but Ben Weber is not one of them… Je est un autre.” O’Hara saw that Ben, like Rimbaud (and of course like Ben’s favorite poet, Rilke) “makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains” (from The New Yorker review of Rimbaud’s letters).
Ben constructed rows with which he could create the bittersweet, unexpected harmony that’s so much a part of the spell that he weaves with his music. Here’s the statement of the row at the opening of his Intermezzo, a piano piece that takes you on a sort of psychedelic, Brahms through the looking glass adventure. The row is constructed in a way that allows him to resolve the piece with this beautiful—ultimately tonal—ending.
Intermezzo begins with a major third. Major and minor thirds are prominent in Ben’s music. Major thirds can feel melancholy and minor thirds, joyous. Perhaps this relates back to Brahms, one of Ben’s favorite composers. The music theorist Siegmund Levarie (with whom I studied music theory as a private student, and who was also an admirer of Ben’s music) said that Brahms was the first truly modern composer who, unlike Schubert, did not treat major keys as happy and minor keys as sad. And this is central to Ben’s music and to who he was as a person: nothing is just one thing. Everything is both/and, happy/sad, deeply serious/incredibly funny, brilliant sunlight/enveloping darkness. Even the way he morphs the 6/8 time into some sort of duple meter just before the ending of the Intermezzo seems part of this constant dichotomy.
Dolmen, commissioned by Newell Jenkins for his Clarion Orchestra, also begins with thirds—the first two notes of the row is a minor third which is spread across the full orchestra.
Ben described the piece to me as an evocation of “a world without people,” and Virgil Thomson, to whom the work is dedicated, said it was “the saddest music he’d ever heard.” Ned Rorem remarked on its “disconcerting string glissandos” and Ned’s description of Ben’s melodies as “true airs in that they billow toward the sky… serpents splaying upward, evolving into birds that swoop ever higher, then curve back upon their many selves and ease to the ground” certainly applies to this strange and wonderful work. It’s also a great example of Ben’s highly contrapuntal sections that move into semi-contrapuntal and finally entirely homophonic moments: near the end of the piece, the strings divide into four and five parts each. (Ben was a great admirer of Strauss’s Metapmorphosen. We studied that work intensely in one of my lessons as I was beginning work on a piece for string orchestra. I think his love for that music and its beautifully elaborate counterpoint is evident here.) After that, repeated sixteenth-note chords begin to be heard, first interspersed with contrapuntal passages in the other instruments, and then as the very tonally based chords that conclude the music.
There’s also a lightness of touch and a sly, humorous elegance in Ben’s music. It’s very present in his 1963 Prelude and Nocturne for flute, celesta, and cello. He had used a similar combination of instruments—trombone, celesta, and cello—to very different effect in his 1952 score for the avant-garde filmmaker Willard Maas’s film poem Image in the Snow. Flute, celesta, and cello is an instrumental combination that only Ben would have conceived of and used in this way to such sublime effect.
The piece opens a window on a magical world, and the final moments of the Prelude are Ben at his most lyric, mystical, and unexpected. Then there’s the sly humor. The piece is dedicated to his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, and Ben said that it was inspired by an evening they’d spent together. I have no idea whether Ben and Frank had a sexual connection, but I think of them at Ben’s apartment: Prelude, dinner and brilliant conversation and Nocturne, what happened after dinner. Notice the Nocturne’s unusual and evocative opening tempo, Notturnamente, and the metronome marking ♩=69. The poet Edwin Denby said to me that Ben “was the only twelve-tone composer with a sense of humor.”
And finally, Ben was a romantic in the fullest sense of the word. He loved Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and when we studied the score at one of my lessons, he took special note of the romantic anguish that Schoenberg depicts so powerfully in the scene where King Waldemar loses his beloved. I think Ben connected with that unbearable sense of loss because he too had lost his first great love, a man killed in the Second World War, just before he was about to move to New York to live with Ben.
You can hear all of his romantic passion in his Concert Aria After Solomon (first performed by Bethany Beardslee, who, in her memoirs, credits Ben and this performance with starting her illustrious career as an interpreter of new music), especially in its final words, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!”
Ben Weber opened up worlds for me, as a composer and as a human being. He was only 64 when he died, and I was shocked by his death. I never thought he’d be gone so soon.
There was so much complexity to him as a man and as an artist, and I probably couldn’t really appreciate all of it as a 22-year old. It’s a wonderful experience to be connected to him again, and to all those wonderful people who knew him. In my search for Ben Weber, I’m finding myself.
Darkness and light. Humor and mystical otherworldliness. It’s all there in the music, and in the last lines of the Rilke sonnet,
Only in the dual realm
do voices become
eternal and mild.