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Robert Starer

By Ned Rorem

Because we led parallel lives our paths seldom crossed. We went to different schools together, so to speak; and even when we were both at Juilliard, we majored under different teachers. But if “to know well,” means acquaintance-with-the-essential rather than mere frequentation, we were intimates. His every new work was admired by me, and sometimes wistfully envied, as when his four ballets for Martha Graham outnumbered my own. In some ways we were alike, being, along with Paul Bowles, the only American composers who were also professional authors on matters other than music. But our histories were deeply distant.

Born in Vienna in 1924, Robert Starer entered the State Academy of Music at thirteen. One year later, with Hitler’s annexation of Austria, Robert was routed from the school—to the sneers of certain classmates—and fled with his Jewish family to Jerusalem. He continued his studies at the Palestine Conservatoire, served with the Royal British Air Force during the war, and after it came to New York for post-graduate work, first at Juilliard, then with Copland at Tanglewood. In 1957 he finally became a U.S. citizen, and thirty years later was named a Distinguished Professor by the City University. Among his honors are two Guggenheim fellowships and grants from the National Endowment and the Ford Foundation. In 1994 he was elected a member of this Academy, received an Honorary Doctorate from the State University of New York, and a Presidential Citation from the National Federation of Music Clubs. He also was granted a Medal of Honor for Science and Art from the President of Austria, the very country he was forced to flee a half-century earlier.

Robert was quadrilingual. Indeed, the only words he ever wrote to me were on a letterhead in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and German. His music by turns was a sumptuous mix of Viennese Expressionism, chromatic dissonance, with more than a trace of Arabic and Jewish folk tunes, plus raw American jazz. And all of his oeuvre was highly theatrical; not just the violent ballets, and the four operas (two with librettos by his partner, Gail Godwin), but the String Quartets, the Guitar Preludes, the smallest songs.

Consider again the 1962 Phaedra, wherein the leading dancer, contemplating her suicide, just sits. And sits. And sits. Robert was able to depict motionless silence through musical sound.

Or listen again to the three String Quartets. The Bartokian virility of the First is translated somehow into Hebrew. The melancholy Andante from the Second seems gorgeously undefineable, while the tender mysteries of the Third (composed just five years ago) becomes a balm in our rough times, forcing the corny comment that We Happy Few outlive our bodies.

Now listen to the opulent innocence of the Ravelish String Duo; and to the diatonic Frenchish settings of the choral psalms and Talmudic stories, surreptitiously braided with augmented seconds and other near-Eastern accents. Indeed, when I hear Starer’s music I hear again his own spoken accent, so very faint, and see again his reddish hair and serious face. Are these evoked too in the early Clarinet Quintet, with its lean, heartbreaking, Coplandesque nostalgia and literal incorporation of Catskill folksongs, so far from the hills of Israel?

All this talk, of course, is mere description, a critic’s business, and none too vivid. But even if the medium of words could describe the medium of sound, the essential would still be lost. I’ve listed a few of Robert’s influences because, as Rimbaud claimed, art is “clever theft.” Aware of his crime, the artist attempts a disguise; the act of disguising is the act of creation, and that act is the gift of our greatest geniuses. Still lesser ones, unaware of their theft, are merely derivative. If one can locate the origins of most of Robert’s ideas, one cannot describe how these origins become him; for individuality, as distinct from influence, is finally indescribable. “The rest,” as Henry James said, “is the madness of art.”

In his madness Robert Starer also penned three books: an early school text, a memoir called Continuo, and a novel named The Music Teacher. These may not outlive the music, but they are skilled in their own right. And, like his enviable piano-playing, are preserved in publication, representing the backgrounds I’ve named.

Robert said: “Other features of the cultures I have known did not become part of me. This has led me to believe that, while our lives are shaped by events that others control, we do have the choice of accepting from the worlds around us only what can coexist with our essential self.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2001.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters