Samuel Adler is an American composer and educator. He was born in Germany in 1928 and moved to America in 1939. His family settled in Worcester, Massachusetts and by the time he was thirteen he was playing in the Worcester Philharmonic. In high school his teacher asked him to conduct the orchestra in which they would perform major symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and others. This started him on his college education through Boston University and Harvard, earning degrees at both. He holds honorary Doctorate degrees in many other college institutions. After college, he was drafted into the Army where he would lead the 7th Army Symphony Orchestra. Throughout his music career, Samuel would compose over 400 published works including, 6 symphonies, 5 operas, 9 string quartets as well as many other choral, chamber, orchestral and band pieces. As an educator, he held faculty positions in the top music schools in the United States. He was Professor-emeritus at the Eastman School of music from 1966 to 1995 and was the chair of the composition department from 1974 until he retired from Eastman in 1995. Samuel took a position at Juilliard School of Music in 1997 as a member of the composition faculty until he retired in 2014. He has held many other teaching and director positions at various learning institutions. His book, "The Study of Orchestration" is according to his publisher, "the best selling orchestration book in the world". Samuel has received numerous awards for his work and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. He was also inducted into the American Classical Hall of Fame in 2008. I recently caught up with our "American treasure".
R.V.B. - Hello Mr. Adler this is Robert von Bernewitz from New York, how are you today?
S.A. - Good morning... very good, very good.
R.V.B. - Do you live in the New York area?
S.A. - No, I'm living in Ohio. I commuted to Juilliard for the last eighteen years. I retired on May 15th of this year.
R.V.B. - What a long career you've had.
S.A. - Well, I thought of after eighteen years of commuting and sixty three years of teaching that's enough.
R.V.B. - You must of wrapped up a lot of frequent flyer miles. hahaha
S.A. - I did but I have two daughters who take them very carefully away.
R.V.B. - Oh, so they take them.
S.A. - Well not all of them.
R.V.B. - Are your daughters involved in music also?
S.A. - My oldest daughter is a flutist. She lives in Tempe Arizona. My other daughter is a lawyer.
R.V.B. - I see. When you say that you are retired... are you fully retired or do you still write stuff at your house?
S.A. - I write stuff every day.
R.V.B. - So you're just retired from teaching?
S.A. - I'm just retired from teaching, yes. I still do residencies but you know I'm 86 years old and I think I have a right to slow down.
R.V.B. - Well you have to be proud of yourself for all the work you have done for students. You've taught students all over the world.
S.A. - That's right. I don't know if you know but I teach a course at the Free University of Berlin every summer and I'm keeping that for one more year at least.
R.V.B. - You do a lot of summer work. Didn't you do some work up in Tanglewood?
S.A. - Oh yea, I've done summer work in Tanglewood, in Aspen... I've been in Vermont and Bowdoin. I've done Bowdoin for the last sixteen years.
R.V.B. - Can you describe to me, what kind of tasks that you did at a place like Tanglewood and Aspen?
R.V.B. - Was it in composing and conducting?
S.A. - No, it was in composing. I am a conductor but I only teach conducting when it needs to be done. I'm married to a conductor so she does it.
R.V.B. - Oh ok, so you got it all covered - hahaha
S.A. - That's it.
R.V.B. - Can I ask you from your upbringing... what was some of the first music that you were exposed to?
S.A. - I was born in Germany. My father was a cantor and a composer of mostly sacred music but he also composed other things. My mother, in her youth took singing lessons and played the piano quite well. My father was a very good pianist. I was brought up on Shubert, Shuman and Brahms... Wolf, Strauss etcetera. That was the first music I heard and it still sticks with me.
R.V.B. - Did you start with the piano?
S.A. - No, I was a violinist. I'm sorry to say, "I resisted the piano". My father was very willing to accompany me, so when we came to the United States from the time I was eleven years old we played sonatas from Bach to Bartok... until I went to college at seventeen.
R.V.B. - I see. did you start playing in Germany?
S.A. - Yes, I started when I was seven.
R.V.B. - So they gave you a violin... did your father teach you or did you have a tudor?
S.A. - I took lessons. You know in those days, Jews were thrown out of all the orchestras in Germany and joined only Jewish groups. The concert master of the Pfalzorchester (Palatinate Symphony Orchestra), Albert Levy became my teacher and then when he died, the concertmaster of the local Jewish orchestra became my teacher. These people were all professional musicians who had big careers before the Nazi's threw them out.
R.V.B. - Right, I see that you moved to the United States in 1939 and that was obviously a bad time in history.
S.A. - Yes it was, We took about the last train.
R.V.B. - Did your teachers and your other family members make it out of there with you?
S.A. - My family, yes. My last teacher in Germany did come to this country and became the concertmaster in Kansas City.
R.V.B. - Where did you settle when you came to America?
S.A. - In Worcester Massachusetts. I grew up in Worcester.
R.V.B. - So I gather you went to see the Boston Symphony a lot.
S.A. - Well yes but I actually played in the Worcester Philharmonic from the time I was thirteen. When I was fifteen, I wrote my first orchestral piece for the Worcester Philharmonic. It was called "Epitaph to the Young American Soldier". I thought it was a masterpiece even though it really wasn't. It doesn't exist anymore.
R.V.B. - It doesn't exist anymore in what way? You can't find the music?
S.A. - No, I threw it away after I realized how bad it was. Nobody thought it was a masterpiece, so that's good.
R.V.B. - Well you know, you got to start somewhere. hahaha
S.A. - At fifteen it was pretty good, and then I was very lucky... I was in a high school that had a large orchestra. The conductor was really excellent and he did two things... he was very lazy, so I had to conduct every rehearsal and he sat there and criticized me, which was terrific for my conducting career. We played all major symphonies like Brahms, Beethoven and so on. From the time I was a sophomore he asked me to write an orchestra piece every semester.
R.V.B. - Wow, so that obviously boosted your knowledge going into college. Were you a very advanced student leading into college?
S.A. - Well I went to Boston University undergraduate and I took only graduate courses because I had taken counterpoint and harmony and all those things from the time I was twelve. That was a big mistake by the way because I didn't have the same foundation that some kids had who actually took every course. I skipped so much and when I got to Harvard, I found out how little I knew and I had to play catch up. You could do that because of the G.I. bill which mandated that the college be open all year, so you had four semesters during a year. So I went to Boston University in 46 and graduated in July of 48 and then went to Harvard from 48 to 50. I was drafted the day after I got my last degree.
R.V.B. - You were actually drafted or you signed up.
S.A. - No, I was drafted.
S.A. - 7th Army Symphony yes but that only happened only after 16 months. i was in the real Army for 16 months... we were stationed in Germany and the 7th Army Symphony came about.
R.V.B. - Where did you perform?
S.A. - In every city in Germany and Austria. It lasted for 11 years and there's a book on it called "Uncle Sam Orchestra" by John Conorina. It's a very good book and describes the whole life of the symphony.
R.V.B. - Was that very enjoyable for you?
S.A. - It was like being in paradise. We did everything... I could pick the programs. We did a major American piece on every program. We suddenly were asked to do a Mozart festival in Passau Germany, where I was able to conduct my first opera's and so on and so forth. I mean it was fantastic.
R.V.B. - Right... now some of the teachers that you've had in your career... how instrumental we they in helping you write your own material?
S.A. - I don't know what you mean by that but they were of great influence, I mean my first teacher was Herbert Fromm who was one of Hindemith's favorite students and that's why when Hindemith came to Harvard... he let me study with him for a year. Then I studied with Walter Piston at Harvard and Randall Thompson and spent two summers with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. Piston and Copland were the great influences of my early music... also Hindemith, you couldn't help it because you had to write in that style, for the year you studied with him.
R.V.B. - I see. So did you start tackling major pieces of your own after college?
S.A. - Not until I got out of the army.
R.V.B. - How did you make the transition so to speak into the professional world.
S.A. - Well when I got out of the army offers... one to teach at Brandeis University and the other to conduct the New Orleans Philharmonic because the conductor there... his name was Hilsberg and he was going to retire in a year and he wanted me to take his place... after seeing me conduct in Europe. However my father convinced me that is better not to take a conducting job, otherwise I'd never write another piece... and he was right. See, my father was a Cantor and when I grew up in Worcester, the Rabbi there... his name was Levi Olin was his closest friend. They had worked it out without me without my knowledge that I should go to Dallas where Rabbi Olin was at that time and become music director at his Temple... which is now by the way, the largest Temple in America. I had no intention of doing that but they worked it out and after a lot of (how should I say) anger, I took the position. I was also supposed to teach at Southern Methodist University but that fell through. I went down there and the first thing that happened was the Dallas Symphony had a competition for a thousand dollars and writing a piece for them. I entered it and one. The first year I was there, I wrote my first symphony and it was performed by the Dallas Symphony. It was... if I may say so "Very successful". After that I couldn't do enough writing for the orchestras in the southwest and every other place.
S.A. - You name it... you name it, I wrote it. As a matter of fact, Walter Heldl asked me to be the cover conductor for the orchestra. Then the man who conducted the Dallas Lyric Theater which was the predecessor to the Dallas Opera, retired the year after I was there and I took over the opera for five years. So I was conducting and taught at the University of North Texas and everything from 1953 to 1966 when I went to Eastman.
R.V.B. - So when you were down south, was there any particular place that you liked to write? How did you go about writing a piece? Did you think of the music in your head and put it to the paper?
S.A. - Isn't that's what usually done?
R.V.B. - Did you get any inspirations from the surroundings?
S.A. - Of course, I became "The" Texas composer. I won "All" the prizes of the Texas composers compositions and finally they said "Ok Sam, don't enter any more? So I didn't. It was so great to be down there because I had so many opportunities. I was one of only two composers down in Dallas. Now there are hundreds. There was another composer whose name was Jack Fredrick Kilpatrick. An old graduate of the Eastman school and a student of Howard Hanson. We was a very good and a traditional kind of composer and I was a modernist at that time.
R.V.B. - So you made the move up to the Eastman school which is still today one of the top music schools in the nation.
S.A. - I had the two best jobs in the country... Eastman and Juilliard. What else can I tell you.
R.V.B - Right, and in both of them you were teaching composition?
S.A. - Yes. I was the Chair of the composition department at Eastman from 72 to 95. I retired in 95 and started in Juilliard in January of 97.
R.V.B. - Do you enjoy teaching more than composing or do they go hand in hand?
S.A. - They go hand in hand. I mean obviously I enjoy teaching because I've done it so much. Composition is a compulsorily thing. If you're composer you have to write otherwise you don't feel good.
R.V.B. - I know this is a difficult question... of all the pieces that you have written, and you've probably been asked this a thousand times, are there any pieces that you are particularly proud of?
S.A. - That's like asking, which one of your daughters do you like best?
R.V.B. - Hahahaha, I know. Do any of them have a special story?
S.A. - I think everyone of them has a special story. At a certain level, you write everything on commission. The thing is, that you write for people. I've never written a piece that was neither for a person or a group or a large group. I try to personify the music for the particular person I've written for. I've written ten string quartets, six symphonies, five operas and all those things and everyone was written for a certain purpose... on a commission. So you fall in love with that particular individual or group and write for them.
R.V.B. - Did you ever write a piece for an object? Like a landscape or a...
S.A. - Yes, oh sure. For instance, I was commissioned to write a piece for the 50th anniversary of statehood of New Mexico. I wrote a piece for that... my first band piece called "Southwestern Sketches", which is still my most performed band piece. It was about my feelings of the southwest, where I had been living for ten years. Also for the 50th anniversary of Statehood of Oklahoma, I wrote a piece called "Beyond the Land" for the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra and it was all about the history of Oklahoma. I do that a great deal.
R.V.B. - Now in between all of this, you've sat down and have written some comprehensive books and numerous newspaper articles. How long did it take you to come up with something like "The Study of Orchestration".
S.A. - Well that's an interesting story. We had been using the Kent Kennen book like everybody else and got sick of it. We thought it was not comprehensive enough, especially for composers or anyone in the serious pursuit of orchestration. So Joseph Schwantner, Warren Benson and I sat down and said "We want to write a new orchestration book". This was in 1978 and about two or three weeks after we started... and we did it by having a microphone on a table and just talking. Three or four weeks after we started Joe Schwantner won the Pulitzer Prize and he said "Look Sam, I just have no time to do this". A ouple weeks later Warren Benson said "I'm so busy, let's just forget about it". I had written a sight singing book for WW Norton and I called my editor and said "Look, we don't want to write the book". He said "What do you mean? You signed the contract... you got to write a book... because the only book we have is the Walter Piston book, which is a great book but nobody is using it". It sold less than a thousand copy's a year and that's not very good. So I thought well maybe since I was a Piston student, I should re-do the Piston book to be more student friendly. He said "Why do you want to do that? Write your own book". So I was stuck with it. It took every day for six months and I got it done. The most important thing about it was that I insisted that every example in the book would be heard on recording because it doesn't make sense to look at a score... ok, if you have perfect pitch and you can do that but not everybody does. So I insisted that every example be recorded. That is actually the great success of the book.
S.A. - Well I've just finished the fourth edition which now is in the twenty first century kind of technology. Every book has a password which now we are streaming all of the examples. There are 950 examples. So you could stream it to your computer. The book is much larger because it has a big chapter on band and wind ensemble writing. It's out in eight languages and if I may say so, according to the publisher is the best selling orchestration book in the world.
R.V.B. - Very nice, that's something to be proud of. Now also something to be proud of is all the recognition that received for your life's achievements like being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Was that a thrill for you?
S.A. - It certainly was. It's especially a thrill because all of all my teachers and all of my very valued colleagues are in it also.
R.V.B. - Do you get together with the other members regularly and discuss current trends and things?
S.A. - No, no, no, it isn't that kind of an organization. We get together and have dinner. What is very important is, we give away a lot of money. For next two years and last year... you have a three year term... you're on a committee that awards young composers money. Like the Ives prize and things like that.
R.V.B. - Which you also received.
S.A. - Yes
R.V.B. - After that, you were inducted into the American Classical Hall of Fame.
S.A. - That's right.
R.V.B. - Did you have a ceremony?
S.A. - Oh yes.
R.V.B. - Where did that take place?
S.A. - That took place at the Juilliard school because the Juilliard school was inducted at the same time and so Dr. Polisi and I got the Gold Metals. It was a very nice ceremony.
R.V.B. - I see, well again, congratulations on your storied career. I'm sure that you're proud of everything that you've accomplished and all the students that you've seen move on.
S.A. - I'm very thankful for all the opportunities. A lot of luck goes into a career and I've been very, very lucky.
R.V.B. - Well you've had a magnificent career. The music community is proud of you. Thank you very much for taking this time with me this morning. I really appreciate it and I'm honored.
S.A. - I thank "You" very much
R.V.B. - Thank you Mr. Adler and enjoy the rest of your day.
S.A. Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz.
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