The Independent, Thursday, 31 May 2001
Robert Starer, composer and teacher: born Vienna 8 January 1924; died Kingston, New York 22 April 2001.
There can't have been many RAF pilots in the Second World War who came to the task from pre-war Vienna via Jerusalem, and fewer still who went on to become leading composers. But that dislocated background may have helped give Robert Starer the clear-sighted anti-sentimentality that makes his music so effective.
Starer was 13 when he entered the State Academy of Music in his native Vienna. A year later, from his bedroom window, he watched Hitler's troops march into the city; his Jewish family fled to Jerusalem. There he enrolled as a student at the Conservatory, where his teachers included Odon Partos and Josef Tal. It was between 1943 and 1946, with Palestine under the British mandate, that he served in the RAF. His move to the United States in 1947 was initially intended to further his musical education, but it proved permanent and he took US citizenship 10 years later.
As a student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, from 1947 to 1949, he studied composition with Frederick Jacobi, and in 1948 took a summer course with Aaron Copland at the Tanglewood Institute. He joined the Juilliard teaching staff himself in 1949, remaining there until 1974, and developing a distinguished pedagogical career in a number of other institutions: the New York College of Music (1959-60), Jewish Theological Seminary (1962-63), and Brooklyn College (City University, New York), where he became associate professor in 1963 and a full professor in 1966, and was elected Distinguished Professor in 1986; he retired from teaching in 1991.
For all his importance as a teacher, it is as a composer and a prolific one that Starer will be remembered. His musical style was, in the main, traditional: he preferred to write in a liberated tonality, although with the contemporary developments of his childhood Vienna audible throughout his later music, and Hindemith's tough, no-nonsense muscularity somewhere in the background.
Occasionally, too, he dipped his toes in serialism, aleatory and electronics, though a more permanent influence came from the oriental melismata he had got to know in the Middle East: he had studied Arabic rhythms and scales, and they reinforced the chromaticism he had ingested in his youth. It becomes explicit in works like the clarinet concerto Kli Zemer (which means "instrument of song" in Hebrew). Like almost all fecund composers, his output is uneven, and his music can occasionally be rather dry; at best, it has a hard-edged and refreshing honesty.
He wrote four operas, two of them, the chamber opera The Last Lover (1975) and Apollonia (1979), to librettos by the novelist Gail Godwin, who was his long-standing companion; in Pantagleize (1967) he set his own text. He collaborated with Godwin on a number of other vocal works, and with the choreographer Martha Graham on three of his seven ballets: Samson Agonistes (1961), Phaedra (1962) and The Lady of the House of Sleep (1978).
He also worked frequently with a number of outstanding instrumentalists: Itzhak Perlman premiered the Violin Concerto in 1981, and Janos Starker his Cello Concerto in 1988. There are three symphonies, many other concertante pieces, screeds of chamber music, three piano sonatas and a generous quantity of vocal and choral music, some of it on a large scale.
He also took to prose, writing the textbook Rhythmic
Training (1969), which is in widespread use, an autobiography, Continuo:
a life in music (1987), and a work of fiction, The Music
-- Martin Anderson
This interview was recorded on the telephone on March 21,
1987. Portions were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB later that year, and again in 1989, 1994
and 1999. A copy of the audio tape was given to the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. The
transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.
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.