Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


Otto Luening

By Jack Beeson

I am not certain whether Otto Luening ever followed my suggestion that he read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. If he he did, he must have enjoyed the numerous English-Latin puns, for Otto was a discriminating and outrageous punster, often straddling English and German. Sterne and Luening were also both digressionists; but mostly he would have approved Tristram’s father’s conviction that the name given to a child determines its future.

Luening’s middle name, Clarence, is to be found only in biographical dictionaries. He rarely used it, perhaps because he found it not worth living down to and because he was reacting to the habit of composers of his father’s generation of flaunting three names: John Alden Carpenter, David Stanley Smith, and Daniel Gregory Mason, to name but three of them. Whether he believed that his first name symbolized his life—as Sterne would have insisted it must—I don’t know but I do know that he enjoyed the implications of his palindromic name O T T O. The name backwards evoked the musical traditions of the past that he revered; frontwards it promised new and better times; his view of the future was rosy, he liked to insist, because Midwesterners such as he were not only more down-to-earth sensible, but also more optimistic than others, particularly New Yorkers. Small wonder that he enjoyed reciting the lines of the Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters: “Die schöne Anna, die ist von hinten wie von vorne” (The beautiful Anna, who’s the same from the rear and the front”).

It was characteristically accommodating for Otto to arrange for his birth in 1900: we need no arithmetic to place him in his and our century’s past 96 years. When he was 12—need I remind you, in 1912?—he completed the 7th grade and his formal education, though he was later tutored at home and studied at the conservatories in Munich and Zürich. Sixty-nine years later he was awarded an honorary degree in letters from Columbia University, just a few months after receiving an honorary diploma from his Madison, Wisconsin, high school.

Otto’s exit from the 7th grade was the result of his composer-conductor father’s decision to continue his career in Germany, in Munich, after a confrontation with his superior, the President of the University of Wisconsin. As a young man, he, like many of his generation had studied music in Germany. During my half-century friendship with Otto I was often chronologically disoriented when remembering that Otto’s father had known Richard and Cosima Wagner well, and that he had sung in the Beethoven Choral Symphony under Wagner’s direction at the laying of the Bayreuth cornerstone in 1872.

There was no schooling for Otto in the Munich years, only the study of music and visits to libraries and museums. He barely escaped becoming an enemy alien in 1917, when the United States broke off relations with Germany. He left for Zürich, where he remained for the 3 years that strongly colored the remaining 76.

During world wars, Zürich becomes a haven for the young and disaffected and the older famous. Luening, almost starving until rescued by a patroness, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, soon became acquainted with some of the former, in particular the first Dadaists. Among the latter was James Joyce, still in his thirties and not yet famous. They became fast friends: Joyce was interested in what the young man had to tell him about contrapuntal manipulations and the music of Schönberg, incorporating some of his findings in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, parts of which he would try out over lunch on Luening. Their friendship resulted in an invitation to join Joyce’s English Players, in which Otto played juvenile leads in several English and Irish comedies.

But these were diversions. Luening had become such a proficient flutist that he joined both the Opera and Tonhalle orchestras. His studies at the Conservatory and his compositions brought him to the attention of the composer-teacher Philipp Jarnach and then to Ferrucio Busoni, who became his mentor. Otto’s nascent, perhaps predestined, notion of using older styles, renewed in the present as a bridge to the future, had long ago been written about by Busoni and composed into his music. Encouraged by Busoni, Otto composed his first string quartet and a sextet, juxtaposing old and new styles, the simple and the polytonal, the lyric and the contrapuntal, all as form-building means. Busoni actively promoted the works in prestigious concerts in Berlin and elsewhere, where audiences found them futuristic. Though Luening was later to subtilize his methods—incorporating his study of the overtone series into what he called “acoustic harmony”— his more than 400 compositions in all their bewildering variety were of one piece. His last, a work for cello and orchestra, was completed shortly before his final brief hospitalization.

With typical OTTO-ish contrariness, he left his German-speaking world for America in 1920 when he was 20, just as his contemporaries were leaving the US for Paris. At the bidding of Mrs. McCormick he was briefly in Chicago. But until he settled into teaching responsibilities at Bennington in 1934 and at Columbia ten years later, he was everywhere, doing everything: arranging gospel hymns for export to Japan, composing anonymously parts of the film score “Of Human Bondage” in Hollywood, improvising to silent movies, conducting for J.J. Shubert on Broadway, managing and conducting three opera companies specializing in American operas—leading to the later impressive chamber opera achievements at Columbia—and concertizing as flutist and accompanist for his first wife, a singer, both here and abroad.

At Columbia, he invigorated the composition program and, with his colleague Vladimir Ussachevsky, initiated and developed the composition of music by electronic means, receiving international attention. At Columbia and elsewhere, he welcomed the talented, whatever their style, insisting, as had Busoni, that they find their own ways under guidance, not direction.

Besides aiding the young, he labored on behalf of established composers, not least in urging them to cooperate rather than to compete for the spoils—”the peanuts” as he called it. He was instrumental in founding half a dozen still-flourishing organizations that promote American music, including two record companies. Both guru and fundraiser, he was, as Virgil Thomson wrote, “a handy man around the foundations.” Few American composers have not benefitted directly or indirectly from his largesse. Fortunately for Otto, into this ceaseless activity of composing music and promoting the music of others, his second wife, Catherine, was able to bring a large measure of order and serenity.

Anybody, student or not, was free to ask him advice about anything at all. But no one ever received a yes or no, for Otto always rephrased the question in a broader context in which only “maybe” was applicable. Those not satisfied with ambiguity were dismissed with a Busoni quotation: “Well, one knows what one means, doesn’t one?”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 7, 1996.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters