Andrew Imbrie, 86, Composer and Teacher, Is Dead
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: December 9, 2007 in The New York Times
Andrew Imbrie, a prolific composer and influential teacher best known for his harmonically rugged but appealingly lyrical 1976 opera, Angle of Repose, and for a rich catalog of chamber, vocal and symphonic scores, died on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 86.
His death was announced by Robert Commanday, the retired chief music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, a longtime friend.
Mr. Imbrie was part of the generation of composers who came of age when tonality had fallen from favor, and his music is strongly influenced by search for a new post-tonal language. Throughout his career, his works have used dissonance dramatically rather than harshly, and if his themes were often shaped with the angularity that was the common accent of mid-20th century composition, they typically had an intensity that listeners heard as passionate and direct rather than merely spiky.
In his Requiem, for example, composed in 1984 after the sudden death of his younger son, John H. Imbrie, the writing for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra is energetic, assertive and often angry, but its most vehement moments illuminate the tension between the traditional Requiem text and the poetry by William Blake, George Herbert and John Donne that he interspersed between the Latin movements.
Other works, like the Serenade for Flute, Viola and Piano (1952) and the Dream Sequence (1986), use gentle timbres, graceful themes and rich, inventive counterpoint to create a sense of magical otherworldliness. And in Angle of Repose, his second and last opera, he wove folk themes and banjo tunes into the otherwise atonal score, as a way of evoking one of the opera’s thematic currents, the settling of the West in the 1870s.
“Asking a composer to describe his own style,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Society of Composers Newsletter, “is like asking a person ‘How do you walk? How do you talk?’ We are all subject to influences. Back in the ’50s the European avant-garde tried to eliminate influences from the past by setting up purely abstract mathematical systems to control various ‘parameters’ and thus insulate the composer from unconscious indebtedness. It just plain didn’t work.”
Mr. Imbrie was born in New York on April 6, 1921, and began his musical training as a pianist when he was 4. When he was 16, in 1937, he spent a summer in Paris, studying composition with Nadia Boulanger and piano with Robert Casadesus. But a more formative influence was Roger Sessions, with whom he studied at Princeton immediately upon his return from Paris. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Princeton in 1942 and was a Japanese translator for the Army, based in Arlington, Va., from 1944 to 1946. He resumed his studies, again with Sessions, at the University of California at Berkeley.
After he completed his master’s there in 1947, he joined the faculty, and continued to teach there until 1991. In 1970, he joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory. Mr. Imbrie also taught at Harvard, Brandeis, Northwestern, New York University, the University of Alabama and the University of Chicago.
Mr. Imbrie’s works include five string quartets, three symphonies, and numerous chamber and choral works. His first opera, Three Against Christmas — later renamed Christmas in Peebles Town — is a comic piece about Christmas being banned and restored. It had its premiere in Berkeley in 1964. His last complete work, Sextet for Six Friends, was given its premiere by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble in February.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and his son, Andrew Philip Imbrie of Santa Clara.
This interview was recorded on the telephone on April 26, 1986.
Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB later that year and
again in 1991 and 1996. The transcription was made in 2008 and posted
on this website in January of 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.