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Jack Beeson

By Fred Lerdahl

Jack Beeson was born in 1921 in Muncie, Indiana. Midwestern directness and lack of pretense characterized his personality, and his feeling for life in small-town America bore fruit in several of his operas. He began piano lessons at the age of seven and decided to become an opera composer at twelve. For his undergraduate education he went to the Eastman School of Music, studying with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. In 1944 he moved to New York City, where he became the only person to whom Bela Bartók ever gave an extended series of composition lessons.

Jack quickly came under the wings of two faculty composers at Columbia University, Otto Luening and Douglas Moore. With the support of the newly formed Ditson Fund, Moore started an annual festival of American music, concentrating on new operas. Jack acquired hands-on training in opera production as rehearsal pianist and vocal coach for several notable premieres, including Menotti’s The Medium and Thomson’s The Mother of Us All. Soon he became an instructor in Columbia’s music department. In 1946 he and Nora married, and soon thereafter they spent several years at the American Academy in Rome. After their return to Columbia and Morningside Heights, two children, Miranda and Christopher, were born and raised. The great tragedy of Jack’s life was Christopher’s death in a car accident in 1976.

Jack rose through Columbia’s ranks to become Edward MacDowell Professor in 1967, a position he held until his retirement in 1988. He helped shape the department in significant ways and, more than anyone else, embodied music at Columbia. Outside of Columbia, he was influential in forming and maintaining musical organizations dedicated to contemporary music. Particularly noteworthy were his roles with the Ditson Fund, which he ran for more than 30 years, and the Pulitzer Prize music committee, which he advised for decades. He was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976 and served as its treasurer and vice-president of the music faculty. Through all the years, he composed steadily, completing not only ten operas but also many chamber and vocal works. A high point in his career was the production of the opera Lizzie Borden in 1965 by the New York City Opera. After retirement, he continued to compose and serve in musical organizations. This past June, two days after actively participating in a Ditson meeting, he died suddenly.

Jack’s compositions were always musical and well crafted. He was brilliant at setting text, invariably finding a natural rhythm and contour that expressed the exact nuance of his interpretation. His operas were true collaborations with distinguished librettists. He was gifted at adapting his musical voice to dramatic needs, incorporating a range of styles from popular tunes to dissonant expressionistic outbursts. I was struck, when I saw the New York City Opera’s revival of Lizzie Borden a decade ago, by his superb ability to create character through music, his unerring sense of dramatic timing, and his fine orchestration in service of the action. Lizzie is one of America’s great operas. But, as Jack ruefully observed, American opera composers are permitted only one major success. It would be unfortunate if Lizzie’s renown permanently eclipsed the other operas, from the early Hello Out There to Cyrano, his last and most ambitious stage work. Cyrano was premiered in Germany and has not had an American production.

In contrast to his tightly constructed operas, Jack’s conversation tended toward discursive and amusing narratives. His autobiography, published a few years ago, begins with one of these. It starts not with his birth but with his falsely predicted death from diabetes at the age of six. He discusses his rare version of this disease and his strict eating regime. This leads to an encounter with a doctor at a gathering with the former chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and from there to an invitation to Jack from Rudolph Bing, general manager of the Met, to join him at the opera, and from there to an anecdote that the Met was so unfamiliar with living composers that it was unsure whether it was proper to invite John Corigliano to the general manager’s box at the premiere of his Ghosts of Versailles. The narrative then reverts back to the doctor, who notes a correlation between diabetics and punctilious pains in the neck. Jack closes the story by musing about cause and effect between pains in the neck and strict regimes.

Jack’s success as a teacher and colleague came not only from his musicianship and professionalism but even more from his personal attentiveness. He cared deeply for his students, and they felt his fundamental kindness. These same qualities underlay both his wide circle of friendships and his ability to function well in institutional settings. He did not merely assert his will; he listened sympathetically and sought the best solution at hand, whether in a student composition or in a department meeting. Musical institutions mattered so much to him because he was acutely aware of how essential they are for the long-term health of the musical community as a whole. His constructive and wise presence will be profoundly missed.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters