“Quiet Rebel : Mayer at Seventy” — from interview by Zeke Hecker for Institute for Studies in American Music
“William Mayer’s work sings out with real beauty,” wrote the New York Times on the occasion of the composer’s sixtieth birthday. It is this lyric vein that is most often singled out. Fanfare, for example, observes that “Mayer has written superbly lyrical music, and is still doing so.”
The composer has had a distinguished and exciting career – and certainly a diverse one. In 1971 Leopold Stokowski (at the age of eighty-eight) conducted Mayer’s eight-movement piano concerto, Octagon, at Carnegie Hall with William Masselos as soloist. Eleanor Roosevelt served as narrator for his and Susan Otto’s orchestral voyage, Hello, World! and Mayer has carved his own libretto for his opera, A Death in the Family, which American Record Guide deemed “One of the best, most poetical librettos ever.” The opera itself was cited at Kennedy Center as the outstanding musical theater work of 1983.
Eleanor Roosevelt records the narration of Hello, World! with Mayer, Susan Otto and friends.
Throughout the wide range of his work – Mayer has written symphonic works, operas, oratorios, ballets, chamber music, songs and solo compositions – one often finds witty and buoyant sections alternating with lyrical ones. Such is the case with Dream’s End, his most widely performed chamber work. “This instrumental sextet was written to memorialize a young family member,” wrote John Rockwell of the New York Times, “and its blend of pain, joy and acceptance is very moving.”
Amerigrove takes special note of Mayer’s use of contrast. In Inner and Outer Strings opposing textures are the defining element. Commissioned by Howard Shanet for the Mendelssohn String Quartet and his group, String Revival, it was later recorded by Gerald Schwarz on an all-Mayer album. “The revelation,” wrote The New York Observer, “is Inner and Outer Strings; it juxtaposes the throbbing warmth of a string quartet with the indifferent chilliness of a string orchestra.”
Photo: Pach Brothers, 1967
At the MacDowell Colony in 1969, embarking on his opera A Death in the Family
Mayer is his newly built Vermont studio
Standing on the deck of his newly built studio in Weatherfield, Vermont
Conductor José Serebrier with Mayer after premiering Eight Miniatures and Two News Items at Guggenheim Museum, 1968.
Harold Prince presenting Mayer with Award for “Advancing American Music Theater” at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1984.
Preparing for the St. Louis production of A Death in the Family, 1986
In the broadest sense Mayer’s music is tonal though tonal centers are often merely suggested. Or there can be two or more tonal centers with conflicting magnetic pulls. In the first half of his career, however, atonalism was the ruling orthodoxy. Even a whiff of tonality was considered retrograde.
“To be a tonal composer in the sixties and seventies was a deeply dispiriting experience,” Mayer was quoted as saying to New York Times essayist, Robert Schwarz. “One was shunned as the last teen-aged virgin.” But as the eighties came in Mayer found he had new company: both minimalism and a new eclecticism incorporated tonality.
Born in New York City on November 18th, 1925, Mayer grew up in a home filled with books and recordings. His mother was a successful writer during her short life (she died at age thirty-nine); his father was an amateur violinist with a melting tone. His field was finance but his passion was music.
William, the youngest son, had always felt a special affection for the piano. “As a child,” Mayer recalled, “I wished I could be narrow enough to sleep on the keyboard.”
John Mayer, his father, would talk to his son about the great composers. “With Tchaikovsky,” he would say, “no matter how happy the music is, sadness always seems to return.”
William himself was no stranger to sadness, having lost his mother when he was eleven. At fifteen he was sent off to the Taft School in Connecticut, which he found austere. Music was his oasis. His happiest moments were spent improvising on an upright piano, stashed away in a basement cubicle.
Mayer entered Yale University in 1944 with the Second World War dominating the nation’s consciousness. He barely managed to finish two terms before being drafted into the Army. But in his short stint at Yale, a literature class taught by Professor John Gee made an indelible impression on him. Over half the works he would later compose were prompted by poetry, fables, novels and texts of all sorts (including a number of his own).
Shortly before Mayer left for infantry training, his father said to him, “Bill, I think you’re going to do something great in music.”
Nine months later – he had been transferred into the Army’s Japanese Language Program – he was informed that his father had died suddenly of a heart attack. He lived with this difficult news, going on to graduate as a counter-intelligence agent versed in Japanese. He was promptly sent to a remote section of US-occupied Japan. (There he ran across a nursery tune with the intriguing title of “Peechee Peechee Choppu Choppu.” Little could twenty-year-old Mayer imagine that, ten years later, he would make use of this tune for his and Susan Otto’s composition, Hello, World!, and, far harder to believe, that Eleanor Roosevelt would be recording its story line for RCA.)
1947 found Mayer back in civilian life. He re-entered Yale, now crowded with fellow veterans. As he neared graduation he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was getting honors in his major, history. Yet something was wrong; he felt little joy in his accomplishments. “An invisible wall seemed to prevent me from reaching my feelings,” he recounted. At this point he sought help and started therapy.
“What first burst out was music,” he continued. “I was listening to recordings around the clock. Notes seemed to explode out of me. I felt exultant. I knew then that without slightest doubt I would devote my life to music. I would become a composer. My lifelong regret was that my father never knew that I had.”
Mayer promptly enrolled in the Juilliard Summer School, studying with the eminent composer, Roger Sessions, and soon after matriculated at the Mannes College of Music. His primary composition teacher was Dr. Felix Salzer, a brilliant theorist who never let theory get in the way of his instinctive musicality. His reactions to Mayer’s efforts were generally positive.
But one day he registered complete distaste. “Degenerate!” cried Dr. Salzer upon seeing a new Mayer composition. And Salzer was right. The harmonies were queasy. All told, the piece had the creepy quality of poisonous mushrooms. Yet, far from upset by Salzer’s outburst, Mayer felt secret pride. In those days, to write a really ugly piece was almost a rite of passage. Mayer had obtained manhood!
In his first art song (for which he wrote the words) the young composer revealed his need to move swiftly if he were to fulfill his promise. Titled That Purple Bird, the last lines read “I’ve got to ride upon those wings and do it soon … lest my rhapsody die unborn.”
One student work turned out to have special significance: It was a choral setting of three Elizabethan poems, subsequently published by G. Schirmer. The first madrigal opened with the timeless request: “Come live with me and be my love,” apparently answered by Mayer’s fiancée, Meredith Nevins, who married him in 1950.
Mayer had a secret. While at Mannes he was writing pop songs and children’s songs on the side, including one whose title predicted success in a big way: I’m Nobody Now But I’ll Be Somebody Someday! Few of his “Broadway” songs have been heard in public. An exception took place at a retrospective concert at Merkin Concert Hall. The New York Times reported that “composer Francis Thorne came forth to play and sing three of Mr. Mayer’s youthful Tin Pan Alley songs from 35 years ago. They were charming.”
In contrast to his theater ballads his songs for children gained rapid acceptance. None reached a wider audience than Bongo and His Baboon Drum. More a saga than a song, Susan Otto’s lyrics tell the tale of a baboon who has swallowed a little boy’s drum and, in remorse, lies down (stomach upwards) and offers to be the little boy’s drum instead. Folk singer Burl Ives was taken with the song and promptly recorded Bongo with a battery of drums. Mayer was distressed, however, at the tempo Ives took: it was twice as slow as the one intended. But the famed singer riveted one’s attention as he brought the African epic to life, even at half tempo.
In 1954 Mayer’s writing for children took a big jump from songs to works for Young People’s Concerts. Thomas Scherman, conductor of the Little Orchestra Society, asked him to orchestrate The Greatest Sound Around (Otto), a fiercely competitive contest among six animals. Each boasted that he made the greatest sound around (the silent giraffe winning). Scherman was delighted with the orchestrated version and presented The Greatest Sound Around in 1955. This led to his commissioning the Mayer/Otto team to write Hello, World!, a global voyage in which the young audience learns how to say hello in seven languages.
Hello, World! gained storybook success. Premiered in 1956 with baritone John Langstaff, it was subsequently recorded for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Langstaff and Eleanor Roosevelt divided the singing-narrator part between them. In addition, it was televised on CBS, where it won the Peabody Award. Orchestras throughout the country snapped it up eagerly. The Philadelphia Orchestra performed Hello, World! over four seasons.
Mayer went on to write many more works for young audiences but there would be a difference: rhythms would be freer, harmonies more pungent. His main focus, however, would remain on what, for lack of a better name, is termed “serious” music.
Mayer’s first commission, outside of those for children, was an unusual one. It arrived in 1952, the summer after he received his degree from Mannes. He was attending the Bennington Composers Conference (and, along with his wife, toting around their three-month-old son Steven). Robert Nagel, who was a leading trumpeter on the faculty, had heard and liked Mayer’s music. Nagel asked him to write a work for his ensemble, which consisted of both a woodwind and a brass quintet.
The resulting work, Essay for Brass and Winds, treated the instruments in solo fashion rather than as part of a quintet. It was premiered in 1954 at the Library of Congress and has since been heard at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall and the 92nd Street Y. The Essay is recorded on CRI’s American Masters Series under Emanuel Balaban’s direction. Appearing on the same disc is his Brass Quintet (1965), rendered by the Iowa Brass Quintet. About its slow movement, “Elegy,” Mayer has said, “Of elegiac movements I have written this is the simplest and perhaps the best.”
Attending Eastman School of Music Festival, 1966, where Howard Hanson conducted Andante for Strings (table companion is Mrs. Bernard Rogers).
One work that bridged Mayer’s student and post-student days was Andante for Strings (1956), derived from his early string quartet (1952). Arranged for string orchestra, it is one of the most played of Mayer’s works. In reviewing a recording by the Minnesota Orchestra, Scott Wheeler of Fanfare wrote, “Mayer’s music is warm and expressive, somewhat in the vein of Samuel Barber. It [Andante for Strings] is the work on this disc that I most often return to, finding it more affecting with every hearing.”
Mayer again wrote for string orchestra in 1957, this time using it as accompaniment for his Concert Piece for Trumpet, Strings and Percussion. Robert Nagel played the trumpet part in its debut with the Little Orchestra Society. Concert Piece has been played by many trumpeters including Alexander Holton, Robert Levy and Gerald Schwarz (first known as a brilliant trumpet player before becoming a conductor).
The ensuing year, 1958, marked Theodore Roosevelt’s Centennial, for which the Chautauqua Society asked Mayer to write an overture. Overture for an American was finished in time for a summer premiere by the Chautauqua Orchestra. The outer sections of the work convey a sense of exhilaration – one part suggesting, with its asymmetrical rhythms, the President hunting big game in Africa. The tone of the inner section is quite different; it is remote and plaintive. Overture for an American has been recorded by Russell Stanger and the London Philharmonic.
In 1959 Mayer would do what he never did again. He wrote a piano piece based on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. Composers everywhere, it seemed, were intrigued with the system. Mayer was wary, however. He felt quite sure that its arbitrary rules would inhibit spontaneity (at least for him). But he experimented, writing permutations on a twelve-tone row. He predicted, however, that his sonata would end up stiff and lifeless – that it would sound more like a mathematical exercise than a piece of music.
Mayer was wrong. To his gratification – and slight embarrassment – the Piano Sonata worked out particularly well. After its premiere by Jack Chaikin he showed it to pianist William Masselos. “Watch out!” Masselos said upon noticing that the first movement was labeled “fantasia.” “When I play a fantasia, anything can happen.” What happened was that Masselos made an acclaimed recording of the sonata which CRI paired with Sonata no. 1 of Mayer’s former teacher, Roger Sessions.
The year 1960 saw the Carnegie Hall premiere of Mayer’s Two Pastels for Orchestra, introduced by Richard Korn and the Orchestra of America. The impressionist work went on to be performed by the Cincinnati Symphony under Max Rudolf and recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra under Stanislaus Skrowaczewski. As its title indicates, instrumental timbres play a key role. The ping of a high piano note is crucial, for example, to the words which prompted the second Pastel, “of fireflies and a summer night.”
More often than not, Mayer’s scoring for orchestra includes the piano, the composer feeling that its crystalline sounds “help cool off the strings.” The piano plays a crucial role in his opera, One Christmas Long Ago, when it evokes the pealing of ancient, enchanted bells. In this miraculous story these bells are known to chime of their own accord – but only after an extraordinary gift is given. After a silence of 100 years they ring once more when two young boys prevent a beggar woman from freezing to death.
The Christmas opera had modest beginnings. Ball State College in Muncie, Indiana gave it its first production in 1962. But from there the opera jumped to Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Orchestra presented a semi-staged version in 1963 and 1964 for its holiday series. In New York the Manhattan School of Music and the National Music Network have given fully-staged productions, the latter at St. Paul the Apostle at Lincoln Center.
Mayer in front of Calvary Church, whose choir sang “Festive Alleluia” from the opera One Christmas Long Ago.
Often performed independently is a climactic chorus from the opera, Festive Alleluia. It depicts the exultant moment when the enchanted bells ring out. Scored for chorus and organ, Festive Alleluia has been used for services at Temple Emanu-el, Calvary Episcopal Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A frequent companion piece is a short Kyrie that conductor Johannes Somary has championed. Other performances have been by the Gregg Smith and New Calliope Singers. Both Festive Alleluia and Kyrie are recorded on the Albany label.
1962 found Mayer at work on a new commission. He and choreographer Sophie Maslow were asked by the Merry-go-Rounders to write a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Reporting on the ballet’s debut in 1963, a critic from the New York Herald Tribune called the music “fiercely independent.” But it worked. A new production was mounted the same year in Montreal. In 1971 a further dance company, Ballets des Jeunes, produced its own version of The Snow Queen with the Little Orchestra Society and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Although written with children in mind, the music found favor with adult audiences in the form of a suite entitled Scenes from the Snow Queen (1966). Russell Stanger conducted the American and European premieres in the suitably cold climes of Minneapolis and Oslo. Scenes from the Snow Queen has been programmed at both the New Hampshire Festival and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston. The suite has also been performed by the New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall.
The venerable hall witnessed quite a different Mayer work in 1971 when the American Symphony Orchestra introduced his piano concerto. “Octagon is a shattering, bold and strangely beautiful piece of music,” wrote critic Robert Weinstein. “Structurally it is fascinating. As soon as a lyric passage appears, it is bombarded, transformed … like a crystal before your eyes.” William Masselos, who first played the concerto under Stokowski, recorded it with the Milwaukee Symphony under Kenneth Schermerhorn. Octagon has also been heard in a two piano version. Among pianists performing it have been Christopher Oldfather, Judith Olson, Lora Tchekoratova and the composer’s son, Steven Mayer.
But, as the New York Times pointed out, “Mr. Mayer is especially known for his operas and songs.” And of these his opera, A Death in the Family, stands first on the list. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by James Agee and Tad Mosel’s play “All the Way Home,” it was first produced by the Minnesota Opera Company in 1983.
Its outstanding reception led to a new production by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, starring Dawn Upshaw and Jake Gardner. It was not until 1999, however, that A Death in the Family received its first full staging in New York at the Manhattan School of Music. A live performance recording was made for Albany Records. Upon listening to it Charles Parsons of American Record Guide wrote: “I was surprised to find my eyes welling up with tears at the ineffable beauty of the wedding of text and music.”
At one point Mayer was faced with a dilemma: one of his most effective arias seemed to be gathering too much attention to itself. Written for a subsidiary character who was tortured with self-loathing, it risked diverting the forward motion of the opera into a cul-de-sac. From there the original momentum of the opera might never be regained. So Mayer cut the aria and turned it into an independent monodrama, naming it A Sobbing Pillow of a Man. The Golden Fleece Company gave the premiere in 1995.
Mayer’s vocal music encompasses virtually every genre. He has composed three dramatic oratorios. Letters Home (1968) is the first. It sets authentic letters, many anguished, from infantrymen in the Vietnam War. Hugh Ross led the Schola Cantorum and members of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Martin Bookspan narrated the text while choral members took the part of individual soldiers.
Unlike Letters Home, his next oratorio couldn’t have been farther away from the 20th century. Entitled The Eve of St. Agnes after John Keats’ renowned poem, its locale is a medieval castle from which young lovers flee into the night. Mayer himself was equally young when he became acquainted with the poem. Its rich imagery had lost none of its allure for him twenty-two years later when he set a shortened version for vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra. Although Eastern Illinois University had commissioned The Eve of St. Agnes, it graciously let North Texas State University be the first to perform it in the summer of 1968.
A recording was later made by Gregg Smith conducting the Peabody Chorus and Orchestra. Reflecting on the poem and Mayer’s treatment of it, the conductor wrote that “the poetry is evocative, romantic, ethereal and sensuous. The composer manages to convey all these moods – especially the romantic.” (The recording is part of an all Mayer CD on CRI/New World.)
The composer’s next choral work, Lines on Light (1971),was smaller scaled. Commissioned by Sigma Alpha Iota for women’s voices and piano, it explores three facets of light: the brilliant, the reflective and the shadowy. The light-filled lines are extracted from poems by Dylan Thomas, Samuel Coleridge and the composer.
1974 saw the completion of Mayer’s most ambitious oratorio, Spring Came on Forever. Commissioned by the 175 member New York Choral Society, it calls for three soloists, double chorus, orchestra and, in the last movement, a small group of choristers in the hall.
The overarching theme of Spring Came on Forever was captured by a German critic who reviewed the Choral Society’s performance in 1976 at Avery Fisher Hall: “Through a unique synthesis of traditional and modern stylistic methods of expression, William Mayer has succeeded in creating a fully unconventional musical poem dedicated to the eternal theme of the return of love from generation to generation.” The varied texts include the biblical Song of Songs and poems by Langston Hughes, Vachel Lindsay and James Stephens. The final movement is optimistically entitled “Yes,” the “yes” being sung in many languages.
Of a completely different stamp was his satiric choral opera, Brief Candle (1976), believed to be the shortest three act ever written. Lasting a total of six minutes, its wry libretto by Milton Feist has a mime hurtling through infancy, marriage and death at breakneck speed – with a coda condensing all three of these states into ten seconds. It was first aired at Carnegie-Mellon Institute in a program of micro-operas conducted by Rudloph Fellner.
New York audiences witnessed Brief Candle in 1985 at historic Cooper Union Hall. For this production the Center for Contemporary Opera joined forces with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and its conductor, Lukas Foss. Organizations programming Brief Candle have encompassed a wide spectrum; among them are the Gregg Smith Singers, the Oklahoma Symphony, the After Dinner Opera Company and the New York Singing Teachers Association The Princeton Chamber Chorus and Orchestra have recorded the micro-opera under Nicholas Harsanyi.
Brief Candle aside, Mayer’s choral writing is apt to be tender rather than wry. “Intimately touching” were the words used by the New York Times in describing his setting of Keats’ poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1977). A recurring modal figure draws the listener into medieval times while a solo tenor represents a knight fatally charmed by a sorceress. The Calliope Singers, with tenor James McKeel and pianist Steven Mayer, have recorded La Belle Dame as part of an all-Mayer album entitled “Voices from Lost Realms” (Albany Records).
Particularly admired among his choral output are settings of Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1992) and Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss (1993), premiered respectively by the Gregg Smith Singers and the De Cormier Singers. Ae Fond Kiss was written for Robert De Cormier’s 70th birthday concert at Merkin Concert Hall and is recorded on Arabesque. The Negro Speaks of Rivers has twice been programmed by Harold Rosenbaum, Director of the New York Virtuoso Singers.
Some of Mayer’s most evocative writing has been in the intimate venue of song. Two early efforts set poems by Marjorie Marx, the composer’s step-mother. For a Young Man encapsulates the Greek myth, “Icarus.” Paradox, the first art song of Mayer’s to be published, presents a conundrum; the music follows suit, ending in irresolution.
Soprano Eleanor Steber and four American composers (Mayer far left, Ned Rorem far right), whose songs she had just introduced at Alice Tully Hall.
In 1963 the composer set the powerful concluding lines of Eugene O’Neill’s play, “The Great God Brown.” The song’s title, Always, Always Forever Again, comes from O’Neill’s own words, which trace earth’s never ending cycle of life, death and rebirth. Written as a duet for sopranos Dorothy Renzi and Jeannine Crader, Always, Always Forever Again was later arranged for solo voice, flute and piano and performed at Alice Tully Hall by renowned soprano, Eleanor Steber.
In 1968 Mayer spent a productive summer in Rome, where he worked on his piano concerto, Octagon, in a little villa once used by Franz Liszt. Upon returning to New York, he wrote the words and music of what could be called a song of longing, naming it Khartoum – not that he’d ever been there, but because the word (for him) conjured up a sense of unbridgeable distance. Khartoum has become his most performed art song. It is recorded by Catherine Rowe on CRI’s American Masters Series. Two other songs of similar sentiment, but tinged with a folk strain, are No One Knows (Otto) and Lover’s Lament (Mayer), the latter recorded on Newport Classic.
Writing for voice and a small chamber group has proved especially congenial to Mayer, drawing, as it does, on his affinity for word setting and delight in instrumental timbres. Typically the role he assigns to the instruments is less one of accompaniment than of full partnership with the voice. A good example is “Fireworks: Sounds and Syllables,” a pointillistic movement from his Eight Miniatures for soprano and mixed ensemble. Utterances from the singer (conjuring up distant fireworks) seem more instrumental than vocal. They are part of (but not above) the instrumental fabric.
Meredith and Bill Mayer at his 80th birthday celebration
Celebrating with Conductor Mimi Stern-Wolfe after Mayer’s eightieth birthday concert.
First presented by the Contemporary Music Society in 1968 at the Guggenheim Museum, Eight Miniatures was later recorded by Catherine Rowe and the Weisberg Ensemble on CRI’s American Master Series. And on Mayer’s 80th birthday it had another premiere of sorts when a countertenor, Marshall Coid, successfully negotiated the soprano part.
Mayer’s most performed vocal chamber work is Enter Ariel (1980), which Tim Page of the New York Times deemed an “eloquent, imagist song cycle.” Once again the role of the instruments – in this case, a clarinet and piano – is fully as vital as that of the voice in expressing the texts (poems by e.e. cummings, Sara Teasdale and Langston Hughes). Commissioned and premiered by the Ariel Ensemble, the cycle is recorded on Newport Classic with soprano Angela Reaux, clarinetist Charles Neidich and pianist Christopher Oldfather. Enter Ariel is dedicated to Charles Stier, who has played the clarinet part on numerous occasions.
The following year (1981) saw the completion of two trios for voice, flute and harp commissioned by the Jubal Trio. One, Fern Hill, sets the Dylan Thomas poem, which recalls carefree days growing up on a Welsh farm. Abrupt tempo and mood changes in the music reflect two markedly different perspectives: remembering one’s childhood through the prism of adult eyes and re-entering that childhood and being the child.
The second, Passage, is a cycle of six songs tracing the rites of passage. One song parodies the bewildering and growing excitement of a young maid as she is being seduced by young Sir Walter Raleigh. Passage ends with a setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s nostalgic “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.” Whistling heard in the song’s opening hints at the ineffably sweet time that once was. Both Fern Hill and selections from Passage are available on an Albany recording performed by singers Jane Bryden and Mary Feinsinger, flutist Paul Dunkel and harpist Stacey Shames.
Later vocal chamber works are First Song (1990)and Last Song (1996) for tenor and soprano respectively, each with clarinet, violin and piano. First Song (Galway Kinnell) has a little boy enraptured by the sounds heard on an Illinois farm, including a most unusual one: the squeaky, kazoo-like sound that results when one blows air through a taut cornstalk. Tenor Gregory Mercer gave the first performance with Downtown Music Productions and later recorded the song on the Albany label.
Last Song develops what Opera News called a “brief beautiful passage” [from the opera A Death in the Family] representing the thoughts of a great-grandmother who has outlived her time. Soprano Christine Brewer sang both First Song and Last Song on the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center.
A longer work, Distant Playing Fields (1995), is also scored for voice and mixed ensemble, but it throws its balance toward the instruments. The tenor is heard only briefly at the beginning and at the end – though climatically, singing Vaughn Williams’ hymn tune, “Sine Nomine.” The piece utilizes theme and variations form, but with the theme emerging after the variations. Dinosaur Annex, an innovative group led by Scott Wheeler, introduced Distant Playing Fields to Boston and New York audiences. St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble gave a fresh performance on its series “Second Helpings” and recorded Distant Playing Fields on Newport Classic; Christopher Pfund was the tenor soloist.
In 1998 Mayer was asked to write for a combination he felt was ideal. The commission came from soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, whose high pure tones have often been remarked upon, and from Auréole, a trio whose instrumentation is identical with that of the Debussy Trio, i.e. flute, viola and harp. Mayer created his own storyline; he also made up some syllables, two of which, “zoom bah,” became the lullaby’s title.
Zoom-bah appears as part of the Koch CD entitled “Dreamscape: Lullabies from Around the World.” The album has received acclaim, Zoom-bah being singled out as “enchanting.” The lullaby was heard live in 2000 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then again at the Center for Jewish History, sung respectively by Ms. Murphy and Ilana Davidson.
The first of Mayer’s works to be composed in the 21st century was entitled Summer Glints, belonging to the vocal-chamber category so congenial to him. Commissioned by the Queen’s Chamber Band and premiered in 2002 at Merkin Concert Hall, Summer Glints is scored for flute, oboe, string quartet and harpsichord. In addition, a countertenor enters at the very end, surprising the ear with an unexpected human quotient.
“Mr. Mayer has provided us with a work of great originality,” wrote Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist and Director of the Queen’s Chamber Band, adding that “the shifting colors of his instrumental writing convey the sensuous beauty of late summer.”
In 2008, for a concert celebrating Langston Hughes’ poetry, he set Dream Variations for baritone and The Negro Speaks of Rivers and Advice (the advice being unquestionably hedonistic) for vocal quartet. Also performed was Mayer’s setting of “Flotsam” from Enter Ariel, purported to be the last poem Hughes wrote. Alison Semmes and Anthony Turner negotiated the solo parts while Mimi Stern-Wolfe conducted from the piano.
Alongside his vocal works Mayer was writing music that was purely instrumental. In 1971, a year after he completed his piano concerto, he fulfilled a request from Paul Dunkel to add to the relatively scant literature for solo flute and chamber (rather than piano) accompaniment. Messages was the result. The New York Times covered the premiere in 1973 at Carnegie Recital Hall, describing the composition as “four deftly eclectic movements bearing impressionistic titles.”
The Boston Herald, reviewing a later performance by Dinosaur Annex, observed that “the first three movements – Wind, Touch and Wood – evoke the characteristic sounds. Breezes swirl, gust, arabesque through grass. The last movement, ‘Light Years’ (Ravel remembered), is a songlike meditation of great poignancy and sweetness.” North/South Consonance has both performed and recorded Messages with Lisa Hansen as soloist.
1975 found Mayer composing for solo harp, savoring its timbres but chafing at limitations arising from the pedaling. He had been asked by Pearl Chertok, President of the American Harp Society, to contribute to a recording of American harp music. Mayer obliged, naming his new work Appalachian Echoes after the first movement, his favorite. Ms. Chertok recorded the work and Susan Jolles gave the first live performance at the Theodore Roosevelt House in New York City. (In the following year, 1976, he converted its first movement into a centerpiece for his sextet, Dream’s End.)
On occasion well known tunes have proved a catalyst for his compositions. The work song, “The Erie Canal” – at once jaunty and haunting – leant itself to theme and variation form in his orchestral Of Rivers and Trains. Commissioned by Albany Medical College for its sesquicentennial, it calls forth early river traffic on the Hudson River made obsolete by faster rail traffic. The contrasting motion of rivers and steam locomotives – one flowing, the other thrusting – is key to the orchestral fabric. The suite ends wistfully, conveying the inescapable fact that the bluster and pride of the boatmen navigating the Erie Canal are now lost in time.
Of Rivers and Trains received its premiere in 1988 at the hands of the Albany Symphony. Its conductor, Geoffrey Simon, observed that “Mr. Mayer creates an unusually transparent sound-world; the radiance of the music was immediately perceived by our audiences.” Ten years later Mayer scaled down the instrumentation for the Cleveland Chamber Symphony led by Edwin London. In its review the Plain Dealer noted Mayer’s scoring for the ocarina, an instrument rarely heard in a symphony orchestra, writing that “the mesmerizing sweet-potato shaped instrument added exotic mystery.”
In 1992 Mayer set an almost completely unknown text by A. A. Milne. It was a fantasy named after the legendary “Good King Wenceslas.” Radio personality Robert Sherman had mysteriously received the Milne text in the mail from an unknown fan. He shared it with Mayer; both were entranced by its whimsy, and also its tenderness. As a consequence Mayer created a score for seven winds and piano to accompany the text, which Sherman narrated a number of times with the Bronx Arts Ensemble. (On one occasion the composer joined in and played the part of a grumpy old man.) Mayer enlarged Good King Wenceslas in 1996 for the Westchester Philharmonic. The orchestral version proved popular. Groups including the Louisville Orchestra have selected the Milne/Mayer composition for their holiday programs.
Two smaller works incorporating recognizable tunes are Unlikely Neighbors for winds and piano and Yankee Doodle Fanfare for woodwind (or brass) quintet. The first juxtaposes the folk song “Turtle Dove” with the enormously different and popular “California Here I Come” while Yankee Doodle Fanfare manages to have “Dixie” played simultaneously with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Both display variations or off-shoots of the seminal tunes. Unlikely Neighbors has been performed by Greenwich House Music School, Downtown Music Productions and the Bronx Arts Ensemble. Yankee Doodle Fanfare had an outdoor premiere in New York’s Gramercy Park. It has since been taken on tour by the Quintet of the Americas and recorded by the Boehm Quintet.
Mayer’s penchant for brass and winds is only matched by that for the piano. The reception given to his early Piano Sonata was heartening. “Mayer’s full scale conception,” wrote American Record Guide, “is pungent with contrast – of moods, of texture, and of meaning.” Toccata (1972), which Steven Mayer premiered at the Lincoln Center Library, is quite different from the Piano Sonata, being brash, propulsive and satiric. Judith Olson performed the Toccata with verve at the composer’s 80th birthday concert.
Most performed of all is his Abandoned Bells (1982), commissioned by the Artistic Ambassador Series, in which a new American composition is taken on an international tour by an American pianist – in Mayer’s case by David Brunell. Following its publication, the Piano Quarterly described Abandoned Bells as “frequently concerned with bell-like sounds: clanging, booming, tinkling, gently tolling.” The review also commented on the “mercurial changes of atmosphere” and on its “beginning and ending in a haunting style.”
With son Steven Mayer, 1983, trying out pianos in New York piano shop.
Steven Mayer has performed Abandoned Bells in the Phillips Gallery in Washington among other mileux and has also recorded it. John Kander (composer of Cabaret and other Broadway classics) was taken with Steven’s playing and sent the elder Mayer an amusing note, which read, “After listening to the CD again it is clear your son has more fingers than most people.” Other pianists who have programmed it are Charles Abramovic, Thomas Bagwell, Carine Gutlerner, Kazuko Hayami, Alan Mandel and Judith Olson.
Of Mayer’s piano suite bearing the unusual title of Subway in the Sunlight and Other Memories (1996), the Piano Journal wrote, “Mayer’s wit provokes our immediate response in colorful and originally phrased pieces such as “Rude Bird,” “Out of Breath,” “The Stream that Knew Sadness” and “Subway in the Sunlight” – only a few of the titles that help to capture the changing moods and characters of this enchanting volume.”
Michael Arnowitt and Judith Olson have performed its nine selections as has Sahan Arzruni, to whom the suite is dedicated. Enthusiastic reviews greeted Arzruni’s recording on New World. Jed Distler of Classics Today was particularly taken with “the brash rhythms and urban zest.” Theodore Presser has published Subway along with another “work on wheels,” A Most Important Train, whose steely clangorous chords depict the now extinct steam engine. Steven Mayer was the first to play it while Jerome and Ronit Lowenthal launched the duo version.
Mayer has been active in the music world at large, having served in posts as diverse as Chairman of Composers Records Inc. and Chairman of ASCAP’s Nominating Committee. And his affinity for words show up, not only in texts he has set or written himself, but in articles he has written for the New York Times and other publications.
One such article, published in the Times’ Arts and Leisure section, had as its heading, Instilling the Living Breath of Theater into Opera. Another had the provocative headline, Live Composers, Dead Audiences. It stirred up a small storm. Testy letters were sent to the Times, presumably from conservative concert-goers. The author was alarmed. His editors were not, however; they were delighted that Mayer’s article had provoked such a lively response.
The composer has also fulfilled a wide variety of assignments from the US Information Agency, which was anxious to increase awareness of American culture abroad. Two involved writing portraits of Mstislav Rostropovitch and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, principal conductors of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. The Agency translated his articles into Russian and Polish and dispatched them to the musicians’ native countries.
The largest project involved Mayer’s preparing lectures on American chamber opera, to be delivered to foreign audiences at US Embassies. And surely his most unusual assignment was serving as moderator for the historic first meeting between composers Aaron Copland and Aram Khachaturian. Mayer was not satisfied with his rather stiff performance. Copland must have agreed. “Bill,” he said, “this must have been the first time you’ve done this.”
Mayer has been Composer in Residence at two conductors’ conferences, where he had the unusual experience of hearing forty young conductors run through his Inner and Outer String. He has taught composition and orchestration at Boston University and given lectures or guest seminars at Juilliard, Columbia University, Pratt Institute, the New School and the Yale Graduate School of Music. But his main energies, outside of composing and writing, have been directed to Composers Recordings Inc., where he served as Trustee for over thirty years until its merger with New World Records.
His music has been featured on WQXR, WNYC, WNCN, WNIB, WNUR and VPR, where he has been interviewed by Robert Sherman, Martin Bookspan, David Dubal, Bruce Duffie and Peter Fox Smith (on “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera”). His opera, A Death in the Family, has been heard nationwide on National Public Radio.
His many awards and honors include two NEA grants, Guggenheim and MacDowell Fellowships; recording grants from the Ford Foundation and the American Music Society; and a citation from Harold Prince, representing the National Institute for Music Theater, for contributing to the advancement of American Musical Theater. He has received an award for lifetime achievement in music from the Center for Contemporary Opera. In honor of Mayer’s 80th birthday, New Music Connoisseur has printed an extensive interview by Bruce Duffie, which is available online.
Mayer’s primary publisher is Theodore Presser, now owned by Carl Fischer, which has published some works independently. Other publishers are Boelke-Bomart, Boosey and Hawkes, Ensemble Publications, European American Music and Warner/Chappell. His compositions are available on Albany Records, New World, CRI/New World, Koch International, Newport Classic and Phoenix Records.
Mayer lives in New York and Vermont with his wife Meredith Nevins Mayer, an artist. His children, Steven Mayer, Jane Mayer and Cynthia Mayer have received recognition in their respective fields of music, investigative journalism and finance.
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“William Mayer’s music speaks to the heart, the gut and the mind ... one of the outstanding composers of our time.”
— David Dubal, Faculty,
The Juilliard School
“Mr. Mayer’s work sings out with real beauty, both in the vocal writing (he is especially known for his operas and song) and the instrumental settings.”
— John Rockwell, The New York Times
“To be a tonal composer in the ’60s and ’70s was a deeply dispiriting experience. One was shunned as the last teen-aged virgin.”
— William Mayer, writing for Music Associates of America; quoted by Robert Schwarz in The New York Times and in New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007)
The Works of William Mayer
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of William Mayer’s work
“... Mayer’s work is spunky, unself-conscious, and as rich in humor as it is in substance.”
— Susan Elliott, New York Post
“Mayer’s vocal selections are serious but real fun; what a rare and welcome quality fun is these days.”
— Music Journal
Enter Ariel for Soprano, Clarinet and Piano: “... his settings of poems by Hart Crane, e.e. cummings, Sara Teasdale and Langston Hughes were sensitive, actually augmenting the power of the texts, something not always true today.”
— Byron Belt, The Star-Ledger
Dream’s End: “... an attractively and brilliantly scored nineteen-minute work... Dream’s End once again affirms Mayer to be an inventive composer whose imaginative touches are found everywhere in his works.”
— Jerome Rosen, Notes
Brass Quintet: “Mayer’s Quintet is a busy, brassy and well-crafted piece that is good to listen to.”
— Music Journal
“... The Eve of St. Agnes gives us several levels of experience, each one balanced against the other... The blend of the effects... is what one remembers after the amusing virtuosity of the different elements has receded.”
— D. Moore, American Record Guide
“I am totally enchanted with [Mayer’s] setting of Good King Wenceslas. The witty combination of traditional and original themes, the clever scoring, and perhaps most of all, the imaginative way [the] music complements the whimsy of the A.A. Milne text add up to a piece that seems to give equal delight to performers and listeners. ... the work has proved equally successful with youngsters and adults, much in the way that Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stories have a universal appeal for readers of all ages.”
— Robert Sherman
Messages: “Unabashedly accessible ... inventive and exciting.”
— Michael Manning, Boston Globe
“Messages cheerfully explores the ideas suggested by its movement titles. In it Mayer’s delightful way of looking at musical things found its perfect medium.”
— Music Journal
Of Rivers and Trains: “... a bright score with hints of Stravinskian neo-classicism amid nostalgic Americana.”
— Donald Rosenberg, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Scenes from “The Snow Queen”: “... proved a jolly, often exciting and brilliant exposition of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale ... it is a work one would like to hear again.”
— Harvey Southgate, Democrat and Chronicle
Scenes from “The Snow Queen”: “... beautifully written, with an evocative and infectious quality. I am happy to recommend this work.”
— Thomas Nee, New Hampshire Music Festival