Often considered to be part of an American "Stravinsky school," Harold Shapero was known for a deft combination of expert technique and inspired spontaneity, as well as for fluency with many historical styles.
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Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, and reared in nearby Newton, Harold Samuel Shapero has spent most of his adult years and mature musical life in the Boston area. During his student days at Harvard he became part of a circle of fellow musicians as well as mentors that has comprised at various times such composers as Irving Fine, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Berger, who once included Shapero in what Aaron Copland had dubbed a “Stravinsky school” of American composers—referring to their focus on Stravinksy’s brand of neoclassicism.
Shapero studied piano during his youth, concentrating on classical and on swing band genres, and together with a friend, he founded the Hal Kenny Orchestra. Later, he wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman and his band. He became an accomplished pianist, giving the premieres of most of his own keyboard pieces and chamber works that include the piano.
He studied composition during his teen years with Nicolas Slonimsky, and then with Ernest Krenek, under whose tutelage he wrote a twelve-tone string trio—although he did not for the most part follow that serialist path in his compositions (the Partita in C for piano and small orchestra being a notable exception). Subsequently he studied with Paul Hindemith at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and with Walter Piston at Harvard, graduating in 1941. That same year, he was awarded the Prix de Rome in recognition of his Nine-Minute Overture, as well as his 1941 string quartet, but in the midst of the war he was unable to assume the residency in Rome that would normally have accompanied the award. The Nine-Minute Overture had been performed at Tanglewood the previous summer by an ad hocorchestra organized by Aaron Copland for the purpose of reading through meritorious student compositions, though, as Shapero recalled afterward, the rendition suffered from an insufficient number of players in each of the orchestra sections. The work was later performed to his satisfaction on a national broadcast by the CBS Orchestra under the baton of Howard Barlow.
Studies with the legendary Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge during her wartime absence from France (1942–43) confirmed and furthered his predilection for neoclassicism—then an important force in American music—to which he had been introduced favorably by Piston and Hindemith, and by which he had been especially intrigued as a result of his encounter with Stravinsky when the latter was in residency at Harvard for the Norton Lectures in 1939–40, coinciding with his so-called neoclassical period. In some respects, Shapero took the cue to even greater lengths than many others identified with neoclassical procedures, techniques, and forms, exhibiting an undisguised reverence for the past by overtly patterning several compositions on identifiable classical models. For example, his three short piano sonatas (1941) have been shown to have been based on music by Domenico Scarlatti, C.P.E. Bach, and Haydn; his Serenade in D for Strings (1945) has been cited as recalling Mozart; his Symphony for Classical Orchestra (1947), premiered in 1948 by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leaned heavily, by his own admission, on Beethoven, replete with quotations from his seventh symphony; and Schubertian influence is transparent in Shapero’s F-minor piano sonata. Yet as music historian Howard Pollack has suggested, Shapero treated those influences as models, assimilating them with fresh approaches and insights.
While admiring and endorsing Shapero’s unmistakable talent in a 1948 article, Copland—who had been impressed with his abilities and gifts as demonstrated in his early Woodwind Quintet—nonetheless cautioned against what he deemed his younger colleague’s excessive reliance on classical antecedents and his “compulsion to fashion his music after some great model.” Citing Shapero’s “phenomenal ear and a brilliant mind,” Copland was optimistic about the “young Bostonian’s” musical future, offering praise for both his technical proficiency and his artistic inspiration:
Shapero now possesses an absolutely perfected technical equipment. To examine one of his scores closely is a fascinating experience. Few musicians of our time put their pieces together with greater security in the skeletal harmonic framework, in the modeling of the melodic phrases, or in the careful shaping of the whole. Shapero knows what he is doing, but that is not the least of it: The exciting thing is to note how this technical adroitness is put at the service of a wonderfully spontaneous musical gift.
But for Copland, Shapero’s stylistic echoes and imitations of established masters, no matter how artistically and creatively accomplished, made him a bit of an enigma, “at the same time the most gifted and baffling composer of his generation.” And he diagnosed Shapero as “suffering from a hero-worship complex—or perhaps it is a freakish attack of false modesty.”
Shapero seems to have anticipated such criticism, for he had defended his position two years earlier in an article in Modern Music entitled “The Music Mind,” in which he related the function of musical creativity to subconscious tonal memory as accumulated experience that becomes a part of the composer: “In the metamorphosis which has taken place, the original tonal material has become compounded with remembered emotional experiences, and it is this action of the creative unconscious which renders music more than an acoustical series of tones, which gives to music its humanistic aspect.” And with regard to artistic inspiration and originality vis-à-vis imitation of models, he posited that inspiration occurs only when the artist is compelled to give something of himself, and when his creative imagination is unhampered by technical procedures unsuited to it. Thus a system of musical materials which fails to lead to inspiration can be considered unnatural, and a system which leads to inspiration can be considered one which ensures the natural functioning of the creative mind.
In Shapero’s view at that stage in his development, a truly inspired composer need not fear imitation or reliance on the past, since “he can be assured that he is drawing on the most significant creative forces which are available to him.”
In 1951 Shapero was invited to found a music department at Brandeis University together with Fine, Berger, and Bernstein. He served on its faculty for more than thirty-five years and also founded and directed the university’s electronic music studio. Among his composition students who went on to establish solid reputations are Richard Wernick, Joel Spiegelman, and Sheila Silver. After his tenure at Brandeis, he taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, until 2002, when he retired in order to pursue composition on a full-time basis.
Shapero’s early experience with swing, jazz, and popular music did not drive his overall art as a pervasive fusion in the way it did for other prominent composers of his generation, such as Bernstein. But that interest has manifested itself nonetheless in certain works—perhaps most notably in On Green Mountain, for jazz ensemble (1957), although that piece is based at the same time on a work by Monteverdi. And jazz influences are evident in some of his orchestration effects and colors as well as in his use of altered intervals and chords.
The string trio from his student days was not Shapero’s last foray into dodecaphonic techniques, and although he never adopted the extreme serialist doxology that held tonal music to be obsolete, he did not shun serial procedures or approaches altogether. His Partita in C for piano and small orchestra (1960) is a twelve-tone work. But he never identified as a serial composer, and he has continued throughout his musical life to espouse a basic sense of tonality in some form—and on one level or another. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s he found himself increasingly criticized for what many in the composers’ establishment of that time—especially within the academy—considered regressive if not anti-intellectual conservatism in the form of adherence to what was by then unfashionable neoclassicism and tonality. His decline in productivity during those decades (in fact, since the 1950s) has been attributed by some critics and observers to his sensitivity to the negativity of that criticism.
By the mid-1980s Shapero could hardly have been said to have achieved anything approaching the recognition that was due him and that had been predicted decades earlier. Nor, especially outside the narrow circles of 20th-century music aficionados, where he remained a respected figure, was his name to be found regularly on the expanding roster of American composers receiving grants, commissions, and high-profile performances. Then, in 1986, a remarkable event catapulted him to national (if short-lived) attention in the music world. John Harbison, who at the time was composer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, alerted conductor André Previn to Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra. Despite Bernstein’s premiere of the work in 1948, a subsequent performance by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and a recording in the early 1950s conducted by Bernstein that engendered much admiration and even a substantial following among the neoclassical camp (concertgoers as well as colleagues), it had fallen into oblivion, and the Bernstein recording had long ago become unavailable (it was eventually reissued on Sony Classical as part of its Bernstein Century series). Previn was immediately impressed by the symphony, referring to its Adagietto movement as the most beautiful movement of any American symphony, and he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a much publicized and critically acclaimed “revival” performance. Its enthusiastic reception resulted in Previn’s reprogramming it in Los Angeles in 1988 under the auspices of the AT&T–sponsored American Encore Program, which was founded to support performances of neglected American music. Previn also recorded it anew that year and performed it on an East Coast tour that included concerts in New York at Carnegie Hall and in New Haven; and he conducted it in guest appearances in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Boston. it was also played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Keene when Previn—who had been scheduled to conduct—fell ill. Meanwhile, Previn, who had become a champion of the symphony as well as of its composer, gave it yet another performance with the Boston Symphony in 1990. It was also performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Writing about the symphony upon the release of Previn’s recording, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini referred to its “patches of sweet lyricism” and its “moments that recall the bucolic quietude of Copland in his American vein.”
Among Shapero’s other significant orchestral works are his trumpet concerto (1995); Sinfonia (The Traveler’s Overture); Credo (1955); Lyric Dances (1955); and an orchestral version of On Green Mountain (1981). His chamber music and solo instrumental works include, in addition to those pieces mentioned above, Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon (1939), his first published work; Three Pieces for Three Pieces, for flute, clarinet ,and violin (1939); a sonata for trumpet and piano and another for violin and piano; Three Studies in C-Sharp, for synthesizer and piano (1969); In the Family, for flute and trombone; Six for Five, for woodwind quintet (1994); American Variations,for piano (1950); and a sonata for piano, four hands. In his catalogue of vocal music are Four Baritone Songs, on poetry by e .e. cummings (1942); Two Psalms for Chorus (1952)—settings of Psalms 146 and 117; Hebrew Cantata, on poetry of Yehudi Halevi for mixed chorus with flute, trumpet, violin, harp, and organ (1954); and Three Hebrew Songs, recorded for the Milken Archive. He also wrote the score for Woodrow Wilson, a dramatic television production (1958).
Shapero has received commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Houston Symphony, the American Jewish Tercentenary, the Louisville Orchestra, the Ford Foundation, and George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. In addition to the Prix de Rome (and his belated residency at the American Academy in Rome in 1970), he has received the Bearns Prize, a Naumburg Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fulbright Fellowship.
Assessing the music of Shapero’s later years, Howard Pollack has characterized it as revealing a continuation of his lifelong “search for directness and purity of musical thought.”
“Shapero’s time will come,” predicted critic John France in a review of a 2007 Naxos release of three of his chamber works. “The whole Shapero canon will soon be rediscovered. A great Neoclassicist to rival Poulenc and even Stravinsky himself!”
Harold Shapero passed away on May 17, 2013 at a nursing home in Cambridge, Massachussetts. He was 93.