Looking Back #1

I would like to step back and show how my experiences with music have brought me to the positions I have been advocating. I was fortunate to have first-rate teachers, as a young student, and later, working on films with some of the great musicians of the day. 

When I was seven years old, my parents noticed I had perfect pitch and could play almost anything by ear, so they started me on piano lessons. But my fingers were somehow never independent and my struggles to keep from bending two at a time made my wrists tighten. I ended up practicing only half an hour a week – 15 minutes before the lesson and 15 minutes during. My teacher, an excellent pianist named Myron Klempner travelled by car to his pupils' suburban houses, sort of a glorified paper route. He tried months of tricks and diversions to calm me down: eventually my unintentional resistances became too much for him, and he had to give up on me. But I loved music, and kept playing, copying what I heard on recorded hits of Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and Rodgers and Hammerstein - with still a little Mozart and Beethoven from my lessons thrown in..

In high school I formed a barbershop quartet for which I made the arrangements, and at Harvard College I sang in choruses and musical shows, some of which I was allowed to conduct. I graduated, but continued to be so involved in music that I left law school after two months and finished the year at the New England Conservatory of Music. That was followed by three more years back at Harvard graduate school where I took the music theory and history courses I had missed, plus the rest of the material required for a Masters degree. During all this I was appointed conductor of the Harvard Freshman chorus.

By then, after eight years in one place, though it was strongly hinted that I might some day take over as conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and be offered a post in the Music Department, it was time for me to get out of Cambridge. I decided to see if I could get to Europe and study orchestral conducting. One of my teachers recommended Hermann Scherchen, a great conductor and a dedicated teacher - he had written a well known book on conducting. During the war, he fled Germany, leaving his post as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, but no one knew where he was now. A piano teacher told me to ask Pierre Monteux, who was in town as a guest conductor of the Boston Symphony. I got a ticket to his concert, and in the intermission I somehow talked my way backstage, found the maestro, and with no introduction asked if he could help me find Scherchen. He grunted “Burgin,” meaning Richard Burgin, the concert master, who was standing next to him, and Burgin told me that during the war, Scherchen had been in Winterthur, Switzerland. I tried to find out more, but the two of them turned and walked away.

I did the only think I could think of. I addressed a letter to "Hermann Scherchen, Winterthur, Switzerland," and after two months actually received a reply. It turned out that Scherchen had left Winterthur more than ten years before, but Switzerland resembles a small town, and everyone knows the whereabouts of the famous. My letter had found him in Gravesano, a village in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, just north of Lugano. He was willing to take me on, he wrote, just like that, but he warned that it would be very expensive - $2,000 a year. (This was 1958. Harvard tuition had just been raised from $1,000 to $1,250).

I wrote back to Scherchen saying that if he would take me as a student (I knew he already had a few from around the world), that the New England Conservatory would give me a generous scholarship, and I told the conservatory people that if they gave me the scholarship Scherchen would surely accept me. It worked.

In September I traveled by ship to Genoa, took the train to Milan and then to Lugano. A bus brought me to Gravesano, a village in the foothills of the Alps, an hour south of the Gotthard Pass. Scherchen had bought an old stone house built into the bottom of a hill on the edge of this tiny village. He had added an acoustic studio – a large, insulated room with no parallel surfaces, in order to minimize reverberation - and had filled this large anechoic chamber with up-to-date recording and editing equipment. Scherchen was at the forefront of electronic-music experimentation, working with Pierre Schaeffer, the master of musique concrète in Paris, and with other leaders in the field in Germany and Switzerland. 

I had arrived just in time - he was leaving for a conducting tour in South America that afternoon, so I was taken right away to meet him. He was waiting on an open, second floor porch a few feet from the house next door, with a narrow dirt path running between.

Hermann Scherchen was just under 70 years old, tall and ample, with broad shoulders and a prominent chin. He had fine white hair evenly combed, and blue eyes that could be icy or warm. His open gray cotton shirt fitted loosely. He sat me down across from him at an old wooden table and asked me for the tuning fork I had been told to bring. First he sounded an A on the table and looked at me expectantly – I understood I was to sing the A back to him. When I matched the pitch exactly two or three times, he studied me. Then he continued, in English: “Now I will start to count very evenly. When I stop you will go on, in exactly the same tempo - exactly the same. You must keep my tempo.” He watched me. “Do not ever stop counting until I tell you. I will learn if you can be absolutely steady.” He started – “one – two – three – four –“ and nodded to me. I continued - “five –six –seven -----“ 

I must have been in a trance. Somehow I had reached thirty-seven. I stopped counting and looked up. Scherchen had left for South America.