One of my most treasured possessions is a birthday greeting from Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, surrounded by family, friends and former students of Bowdoin College, where he taught for many years.
The greeting is six bars of piano music in 4/4 time, marked “Slow, stately.” Elliott played it at my party, and I have returned to it many times since. In these few bars are contained some of the qualities that made Elliott a great musician and an even greater man.
The piece exemplifies Elliott’s long-term interest in the alphabet and numerology as sources of motifs for his compositions. His lectures on hidden codes in music are legendary, and in the greeting he uses the letters of my name, my date of birth and the date of the birthday party to build both melody and harmony. The only letter for which there is no musical equivalent is “Y”. The player has to shout out this syllable at the appropriate time, leading to the title of the work: “The Answered Question.”
Following that theme, the work progresses from relative dissonance to a satisfying tonic-sounding conclusion, even though there is no key signature.
“The Answered Question” illustrates Elliott’s characteristic musical inventiveness, and his ability to combine disparate elements into a satisfying whole.
It also contains a bit of psychological acuity, a great deal of generosity, and considerable humor. It tells a story without words.
I first met Elliott at the beginning of my tenure as classical music critic for the Portland Press Herald. I interviewed him about his “Bellagio Variations,” but the conversation continued for well over an hour, covering a wide range of topics, end ended with his giving me R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book, ”The Soundscape.” It was the beginning of a long friendship with Elliott and his beautiful wife, Deedee, who died in 2014.
Although Elliott was in considerable pain after an automobile accident that almost took the lives of both him and Deedee, I never saw him in anything but a good humor. When I wrote disparagingly about Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar, about whom Elliott was the acknowledge\d authority, he merely remarked that there might be something in them after all and suggested a few recordings.
Perhaps there was a little synchronicity involved in the relationship. At one dinner party we had invited the late poet Henry Braun and his wife, Joan. She and Elliott were surprised at meeting (again). They had both attended the same high school in Brooklyn, at the same time, and had not seen each other for about 40 years.
On another occasion, two noted violinists, my wife Judy and I, and Elliott and Deedee, spent an hour after dessert playing a sextet on wine glasses.
I saw him at a concerts and festivals in recent years, but I recall most vividly a lecture he gave at Thornton Oaks, where he spent the last years of his life. It ended with one of the most spectacular recordings ever of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with a photograph of Vladimir Horowitz displaying a rare smile after the performance. I wondered “Where does he find such people?”
Where will the State of Maine,, the nation, and the world, find another Elliott Schwartz?
Christopher Hyde, Pownal, Maine. Dec. 8, 2016