News came of the death of composer Harold Shapero this week. While most classical listeners were probably unfamiliar with the name, I knew it and it brought back a memory related to him, though I never met the man.

In 1986-87, I was studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and was given the rather large assignment of writing the program notes for the school’s performances. In February of 1987, Gunther Schuller came to town to conduct a Nadia Boulanger centenary concert with the Peabody Orchestra. On his program, naturally, he featured the music of several of Boulanger’s students, including that of one Harold Shapero. Here’s what I wrote, and let it serve as an introduction to the composer:

Harold Shapero

Nine Minute Overture

Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, Harold Shapero began his musical studies at an early age and soon became proficient on the piano. A fascination with jazz ensued, and he organized a dance band. He began his composition studies at the age of sixteen with Nicholas Slonimsky, continued with Ernst Krenek and Walter Piston at Harvard, Paul Hindemith at Tanglewood, and in 1942-43 with Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Of his teachers, “[Boulanger] had the most profound influence on me,” states Shapero. Hearing her perform the Beethoven string quartets on the piano opened new paths for him, and he began the study of Classical models. “She has a way of bringing out the best of which her pupils are capable,” says Shapero, “not through criticism so much as by approving the good parts in their music, and skipping over the others. It’s less what she says than what she leaves unsaid!”

A series of works with characteristics reminiscent of the Viennese masters followed, perhaps the most famous of which is his Symphony for Classical Orchestra (1947), given its premiere and recorded by Leonard Bernstein. By close study and imitation of Classical models, Shapero came to a technical mastery of his own style. Describing the process, Shapero wrote: “As the composer continues to work [daily] exercises in imitation of his models he will be surprised to find that along with the thousand subtleties of technique he will absorb from the masters, he will discover the personal materials of his own art.” Far from being a mere technician, however, “Shapero’s technical adroitness,” according to Copland, “is put at the service of a wonderfully spontaneous musical gift.” Copland characterized Shapero’s music as “ordered intensity.”

Since these Classically influenced works, Shapero has composed in a variety of idioms, using serialism in his Twelve-Tone Partita in C for piano and orchestra, Renaissance styles in Two Psalms for chorus, jazz in On Green Mountain for jazz ensemble, and electronic means in his Three Studies in C# for synthesizer and piano. In 1952 he helped form the first music faculty at Brandeis University, where the remained of his musical activities were centered. In 1968 he founded and directed the Brandeis electronic studios. In 1970 and 1971 he was Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome.

He has received numerous grants and awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Gershwin Prize and two American Prix de Rome. Commissions have come from the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Houston Philharmonic Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra, and the American Jewish Tercentenary among others.

Written while still a student at Harvard, Shapero’s Nine Minute Overture was given its first performance in New York on June 8, 1941 by the CBS Orchestra conducted by Howard Barlow. Shapero jokingly states that the title “sounds like an egg.” The work earned him his first American Prix de Rome in nine short minutes.   –30–

The day of the concert arrived and I don’t remember seeing the program booklet before then. An editor took care of the program page listing the works to be performed. On it, for some reason unknown to me, the editor had put Shapero’s dates as (1920-1984). Schuller took to the podium (Shaperos’ overture was first item being performed) and immediately turned to the audience and said that he’d like to say that, contrary to the program notes, “Mr. Shapero is very much alive.” As my name was the only one listed in the program note credits, and all the students knew anyway that I was writing them, the entire audience — or so it seemed — turned from Schuller to stare accusingly at me.

I don’t remember that much about the performance of the work that followed, except that I believe the music was quite snappy and accomplished, and I bet it’s worth reviving. Later in the 80s, I was at the revival of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra by Andre Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which they subsequently recorded. That work, in a neoclassical style that recalls both Beethoven and Stravinsky, is definitely worth reviving.

In fact, just about a month before Shapero’s death, I included it on a list of interesting and neglected repertoire that I sent to an orchestra that had requested it.

Lisa Hirsch, who studied with Shapero, has a nice remembrance of him here. The New York Times has an obit here.

See also: Anthony Tommasini’s essay from 1999 on the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. Hat tip to Lisa Hirsch.

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