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Peter Lieberson

By John Harbison

Peter Lieberson’s life began in abundance—the extraordinary parents Goddard Lieberson, composer and czar of Columbia Records, friend and supporter of some of the leading artistic figures of the time (the Stravinskys or Coplands at lunch would have been far from exceptional)—and Vera Zorina (Brigitta Hartwig), ballerina for Balanchine and Hollywood, diseuse for Stravinsky and Honegger, and one of the most striking and magnetic women of any era. The benefits of such a glittering milieu are obvious; Peter Lieberson always seemed comfortable, elegant, in every situation. But he also needed to pursue inner work, to leaven this inheritance.

Soon after completing his studies with Babbitt, Wuorinen, Boykan, and Martino, masters of the demanding musical language of the late sixties, Peter took a break from music to begin his long study of Tibetan Buddhism. Eventually this drew him away from academic environments to serve as Director of Shambhala Training at ashrams both in Boston and Halifax.

Spiritual and intellectual currents already coexisted in the Fantasy for Piano of 1975, followed five years later by the Piano Concerto for his close friends and fellow Buddhists, Peter Serkin and Seiji Ozawa. A steady stream of strong pieces, frequently drawing on Buddhist myths and attitudes, culminated in his opera for Santa Fe, Ashoka’s Dream.

In his music of the eighties and nineties a tension existed between very plain spoken elements (often appearing as interruptions) that seemed to refer back to the earliest twentieth-century music, and music of the modernist present. Until the opera, an overtly vocal element was rare. Such pieces as the orchestral piece Drala succeeded in making a virtue of this contradictory conversation, but it was possible to sense that a focusing process was imminent, that a search for a reconciling vessel—some way to amalgamate, clarify, and distill—was in progress.

O ihr Zärtlichen, tretet zuweilen
in den Atem.

O tender ones, walk now
and then into the breath.

These are the words with which Peter’s Rilke Songs begin. They were composed for the unforgettable voice of Lorraine Hunt, who he had married in 1999. Today I touch on their story only as it bears on Peter’s artistic quest.

In today’s concert music moment, it takes a nice combination of nerve and luck to hang your hat on direct, heart-felt melody and simple economical harmonies (maybe it always required that kind of leap) without being banal and sentimental. It was clear in the Rilke Songs that Peter had made that leap. He speaks with a very direct voice, through another voice he understands very well. The music world listens, the large public listens, grateful for this generosity. It is important to keep in mind that while these songs and subsequent pieces are a kind of collaboration: Peter Lieberson’s whole prior experience prepared him to write the very affecting pieces of his last decade.

Peter was a loving man. It was always clear to those who knew him that his love endured for all those central to his life: his wife Ellen Kearney; his daughters Katherine, Christina, and Elizabeth; his wife Rinchen Lhamo; and his many friends, in and out of music. Peter’s Buddhist teachings had helped to lead him to a new kind of abundance—artistic fulfillment and recognition, the richness of human connection. His last years confronted devastating illness. He continued to insist on lyric affirmation, as in the Neruda Songs, for which he received the 2008 Grawemeyer Award.

In 2003 Peter accompanied Lorraine on a hard journey to a remote region of Brazil, to a healer, John of God. She recounted with what amusement and wonder he accepted the healer’s request that both of them wear a Rosary. Last year, report of his death named a city that for this faithful Buddhist could represent an important point in his cosmic circle: he died, at sixty-four, in Tel Aviv.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters