Gardner Read

Composer of 'modern classicism'


Gardner Read, composer, teacher, conductor and writer: born Evanston, Illinois 2 January 1913; married Vail Payne (died 2003; one daughter); died Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts 10 November 2005.

The American lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky, editing successive editions of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, developed the reputation of being able to put his finger on a composer's outlook and output in just a sentence or two. And a summation such as this a man could be proud of:

In American music, the name of Gardner Read is synonymous with the best traditions of modern classicism and inspired romanticism. His music possesses an aura of artistic dignity and the power of direct communication to the listener.

Read himself expressed his aims pithily enough:

I despise music that is gimmicky or jumps on a bandwagon. I like to solve puzzles or problems in pieces of music, always striving to make them expressive, lyric, melodic, and harmonically intriguing.

He confessed that his wife, the pianist Vail Payne,

was always after me to write easier music. But I don't set out to be difficult; it says what I want it to say, and sometimes just turns out difficult.

John McDonald, a composer-pianist colleague at Tufts University who has recorded a CD of Read's piano music (as yet unreleased), feels that his work

distilled many influences, especially from the early 20th century, but there is a very big romantic strain in his music, almost like Rachmaninov on steroids. There is also a streak of Americana, of Coplandesque harmony. Binding everything together is an extraordinary degree of integrity and of craftsmanship.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Gardner Read studied piano and organ while still a high-school student and visited Northwestern University in his home town for instruction in composition and counterpoint. In the summers of 1932 and 1933 he attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, studying composition and conducting. (He returned there as a tutor in 1940.)

In 1932 Read's prospects moved several rungs higher when he won a four-year scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, upstate New York; there he sat at the feet of Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. Six years later a Cromwell Traveling Scholarship brought him to Europe and studies with Ildebrando Pizzetti in Rome - and, briefly, with Sibelius in Finland before war descended on the continent. He added another illustrious name to his list of teachers in 1941 when a further scholarship allowed him to attend Aaron Copland's classes at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood.

Read's own career - as composer, teacher and conductor - now took off. Between 1941 and 1948 he was head of composition at the Institute of Music in St Louis, the Conservatory of Music in Kansas City and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then, in 1948, he began what was to prove a 30-year association with the School of Music at Boston University when he was named composer-in-residence and professor of composition. He held a visiting professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1966; two years earlier Doane College, Nebraska, had awarded him an honorary doctorate in music.

It was John Barbirolli who, during his ill-starred appointment at the New York Philharmonic-Symphony (as it was then called), conducted the premiere of Read's First Symphony in 1937 after it won first prize in their American Composers' Contest; his Second Symphony won first prize in the Paderewski Fund Competition six years later.

Meantime Read was also making his mark with the baton, serving as principal conductor with the St Louis Philharmonic in 1943-44. Though his appearance on the podium thereafter took second place to his academic and creative careers he would occasionally guest-conduct when his own music was being performed and directed the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia and Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestras as well as a number of student ensembles. Twice, in 1957 and 1964, the US State Department funded lecturing and conducting tours in Mexico.

Read's output as composer, which reached a total of over 150 works, embraces a variety of styles, his occasional embrace of modernist elements anchored in a relatively conservative tonal framework. His counterpoint could be tough and wiry, and he was fond of using not so much neoclassical textures as neo-Baroque forms - though not because they were fashionable: he was supremely indifferent to fashion, once referring dismissively to "the splash of the just-discovered genius". As well as four symphonies and a dance symphony entitled The Temptation of St Anthony, concertos for piano and for cello and a Fantasy for viola and orchestra, several large-scale choral pieces, a number of chamber works and several important scores for organ, there is also an opera, Villon, which has yet to be produced.

Slonimsky, of course, characterised Read's music with an elegant swish:

His musical resources range from simple triadic concepts to the most intricate edifices of sound and techniques; he succeeds in expressing his musical ideas in symphonic forms of impressive magnitude as well as in pictorial sketches of tonal landscapes limned in fine impressionistic colors.

The mezzo soprano D'Anna Fortunato, who with John McDonald at the piano recorded a CD of Read's songs for Albany Records (it was released in 1999), reported that "I could always hear and feel the architecture of his music, but it always sounded spontaneous, never stiff or formal". For the violinist Janet Packer, who commissioned Read's Five Aphorisms for violin and piano in 1991, he was

a consummate musician. The notation in his scores was precise and clear to the performer, yet unabashedly expressive. His expert knowledge of the orchestra, of the sound potential of each instrument, and the myriad tone colours resulting from combinations of instruments, was the result of years of listening and studying scores. He took pride in the craft of composing; his legacy of compositions and books reflect the value he placed on that craft.

Working with him on the Five Aphorisms, Packer found, was "sheer joy. Ever respectful, sure of what he wanted but open to any means of achieving it, he was the ideal collaborator."

Read was an important writer on music, producing not only a regular stream of thoughtful articles and reviews but also, between 1953 and 1998, no fewer than 10 books on technical aspects of composition. He was assisted in his writing by the editorial and secretarial efforts of his wife; together, they lavished on his books the same fastidious attention to detail as they expended on their beloved garden. His written output earned him a further encomium from Slonimsky, who labelled him

a scholar of remarkable originality, directing his intellectual curiosity towards unexplored regions in the science of music; his books dealing with orchestral devices and problems of modern musical notation are models of illuminating research.

John McDonald found that Gardner Read in person was like his music: "He was very conversational, very personable, very present, and, when he was done saying what he had to say, he stopped."

Martin Anderson

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