Arthur Berger

Perfectionist composer and critic
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arthur Victor Berger, composer and writer: born New York 15 May 1912; staff, Brandeis University 1953-80, Numburg Professor of Music 1962-69, Irving G. Fine Professor of Music 1969-80, Professor Emeritus 1980-2003; married 1937 Esther Turitz (died 1960), 1967 Ellen Phillipsborn Tessman; died Boston, Massachusetts 7 October 2003.

Some composers produce music as a volcano spews lava or a tree sprouts apples, spontaneously, compulsively; others work like Fabergé, meticulously constructing small-scale, perfectly designed works that display extraordinary craftsmanship. Arthur Berger was a jeweller, refining every detail in his scores, in an idiom that took what it needed from Stravinskian neo-classicism and Webernian serialism.

His perfectionism meant that, despite a composing career some seven decades long, he leaves a worklist which is surprisingly compact. In 1952 Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of a Berger orchestral piece, the title of which tells you much about him: Ideas of Order.

Berger's early evolution followed a time-tried route: five years of piano lessons, from 1923, when he was 11, which spurred him to compose while still at school. After two years at the City College of New York, he studied composition with Vincent Jones at New York University, graduating in 1934. Thereafter he went to Harvard and the classes of Walter Piston, Archibald T. Davidson and Hugo Leichtentritt; simultaneously, he attended the Longy School of Music (1935-37), also in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For three years during this time, with Bernard Herrmann (later to become known as a composer of film music), he edited The Musical Mercury.

In his early twenties Berger joined Aaron Copland's Young Composers Group, and in 1937 he followed Copland's example of 16 years earlier and went to study with Nadia Boulanger at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris; he also attended classes at the Sorbonne. Copland remained a formative influence, and in 1953 Berger published Aaron Copland, the first full-length monograph on his music.

Upon his return to America in 1939 Berger began his long and distinguished career as a teacher. He taught at Mills College, in Oakland, California, where Darius Milhaud had settled - as a French Jew, he was a refugee from Nazi Europe - and studied composition with him. In 1942 Berger moved to Brooklyn College, but stayed there for only a year and took up a post at the Juilliard School of Music, moving to the Boston area in 1953 to teach at Brandeis University. Faced with official retirement in 1980, a year earlier he had begun teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music, retiring for good only in 1999.

He became, in parallel, one of America's most respected critics. His writing career began in 1943, at The New York Sun. Three years later Virgil Thomson, another composer-critic and renowned for his waspish tongue, invited him to join the staff of The New York Herald Tribune; he stayed with the paper until 1953, when he moved north.

Now, with a firm base, he put down his roots, as the writer Michael Steinberg, who had met him a year or two earlier, recalled:

In Boston/Cambridge, he was part of the rich mix of interesting composers there - Kirchner, Shifrin, Wyner, Schuller, Boykan, Kim, et al - and he often seemed to me to be a kind of intellectual centre for the group.

Berger could address composition more systematically, too. His early pieces - among them the Woodwind Quintet of 1941 dedicated to Copland - show the influence of Stravinsky. But gradually he began to integrate the concerns of serialism, blending the two dominant schools of the 20th century in a style marked by striking formal and textural clarity. Steinberg wrote of Berger's works in The Boston Globe that they "radiate intelligence, show an impeccable command of craft (in which patience about finishing things until they are just right plays a part), and are apt to be coolly reticent". The Independent's chief music critic, Bayan Northcott, wrote in The Musical Times of the "diamantine precision of even his most recherché later textures", arguing in The New Statesman that he had "contributed something of irreducible and exquisite individuality to contemporary music".

Ideas of Order is one of only a handful of orchestral works: Berger preferred to write for the piano - which, according to Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe, he "played with visceral involvement, directed by a composer's informed ear" - and for chamber ensembles. He also wrote a number of vocal works, one of which, a 2002 arrangement of his 1987 Ode of Ronsard, was his last work.

His writing continued apace with his composition. In 1962 he cofounded, and briefly edited, Perspectives of New Music. His articles stood up for then unfashionable figures, such as Charles Ives. And an analytical essay, "Problems of Pitch Organization in Stravinsky", is regarded as a classic.

Even in old age, Berger kept an eye on the work of his successor critics. Richard Dyer reported:

It was not always amusing to have him on your case - one trembled before turning over a postcard addressed in his tiny, neat handwriting - but he was seldom wrong.

He was fascinating company, too, as Michael Steinberg related:

Arthur was an enormously interesting person to spend time with: keen in argument, he let you get away with no slip of logic, departure from clarity, and intel-

lectual slipshodness. And of course he had a wonderfully interesting past to reminisce about - life as a student, young composer, and journalist in NY, the influence on him of the philosopher D.W. Prall, his left-wing political affiliations. Much of that, plus his account of musical journalism in the 1940s and '50s, made its way into the book he published last year, Reflections of an American Composer: reading that was like reliving any number of dinners at our house or his.

He died just too soon to enjoy the publication of CDs of his complete piano and orchestral music, which would have brought him considerable satisfaction.

Martin Anderson