I’ve been researching and writing about American, avant-garde composer Morton Feldman for the last couple of years: this is an excerpt of a recent piece from December 2013.
Morton “Morty” Feldman was born in New York on 12 January 1926 to Irving and Francis Feldman, who had emigrated to America from Kiev via Warsaw when young. Morty’s father, grandfather and uncles all worked in clothing companies in Manhattan.
His mother encouraged an early interest in music, “”My earliest recollection of music – I couldn’t have been more than five – is my mother holding one of my fingers and picking out “Eli Eli” with it on the piano” (Feldman 1962). Early music lessons were at the Third Street Settlement School on the Lower East Side, and by age 9, Morty had started composing.
Following a run of substandard piano tutors, in 1938, Morty counted himself lucky to be taken on by Madame Vera Maurina-Press, exiled Russian aristocracy and daughter of a wealthy attorney, turned piano tutor-performer, at the Chatham Square Music School on the Lower East Side.
No disciplinarian, she nurtured in Morty a sense of “vibrant musicality rather than musicianship” (Feldman 1962). Exploiting her libertarianism, he neglected her itinerary, but instead further dabbled in composition. As would be seen later in life, it was not coercion but encouragement that would best suit his temperament.
Equally important, Maurina-Press brought with her a connection with an exotic past. Having grown up with Alexander Scriabin, and studied with Ferruccio Busoni in his Vienna master class (Stuckenschmidt 1970), Morty was set Scriabin pieces and Busoni transcriptions of Bach to play.
At the same time Morty attended the High School of Music and Art on the Upper West Side, and played double bass, alongside Seymour Shifrin on bassoon and violinist Allen Blank, in the “Composers Workshop”, founded and conducted by Meyer Kupferman (Kozinn 2003) who saw himself as employing “aesthetic leadership” to cultivate a creative community, “Painters, sculptors, writers, choreographers and philosophers attended our sessions. We continued our artistic probes later on at New York’s Automat, usually to 3 in the morning. Looking back at this now, I believe a curious musical energy emerged from these bohemian gatherings that generated an unusual set of fresh identities like a spark we would be destined to carry for the rest of our lives” (Bowles 2001).
Morty wallowed in the highbrow company, immersing himself in music and obsessive reading, often half-a-dozen books simultaneously, to which he attributed his atrocious eyesight in later life. It is through this network where Morty met cellist Daniel Stern, who would go on to immortalise him as Henry Crown, “”Henry Crown filled the doorway, eyebrows like bushes, face like a moon. … He stood marshaling all his fat grace, feet spread delicately apart, his pudgy forefinger pressing 20/200 eyeglasses nearer to his nose for a better look at me. … Crown shook his massive head. Hair flopped over myopic eyes. … smoke swirling around him” (Stern 1971).
Unlike his mother and maternal grandmother, Morty’s father was not supportive of his intellectuality, likely exacerbating a domestic rift. Even though money was tight, it was somehow made possible for the 14-year old Morty to replace their old piano with a Steinway, which he had hand-selected without help, for its “absolutely singular tone”.
Even so, practise ultimately bored him, so he chose instead to turn his hand to writing “little Scriabin-esque pieces” which eventually led him, to a few years of composition lessons with Wallingford Riegger, a pioneering exponent of Schoenberg’s 12-tone serialism, but an “equally lax” authoritarian (Feldman 1985).
By 1944 Morty felt he wasn’t progressing sufficiently, so gave up his other lessons in the hope of better direction under Webern’s ex-student, Stefan Wolpe. Frustratingly, these sessions mostly degenerated into heated arguments.
Wolpe did however introduce Morty to Edgar Varèse, who offered to informally comment on his work each week, and again, supplied encouragement, “You know, Feldman, you will survive. I am not worried about you”. In Varèse, Morty recognised the life he wanted, that of a professional composer. If they had never met, “I would probably not have become a composer”. At this point in his life, Varèse symbolised all his romantic boyhood aspirations, seeded by his formative years, “The greatest influence in my life, the most decisive turning, this was Varèse. He fascinated me. And then, he had this extraordinary availability (that so many artists don’t have). He came to my concerts, I saw him and spoke with him. He was marvellous. He remained available right up until his death” (Cadieu 1969).
By the end of his schooling and the inevitable enrolment into the family business, Morty could at least boast a reasonable grounding in music, and significantly, a sense of belonging to a lineage of composers that he revered, “With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni, and thus with Liszt. With Varèse, and thus with Debussy, and Ives and Cowell, and Schoenberg. … They are not dead. They are with me. … I have the feeling that I cannot betray this continuity, this thing I carry with me. The burden of history” (Feldman 1973).
Bowles, J. (2001) Electronic Dialogues/10: Meyer Kupferman. Available http://www.sequenza21.com/meyer.html
Cadieu, M. (1969) “Morton Feldman – Waiting” in A l’écoute des compositeurs. Paris: Minerve, 1992. pp. 202-205.
Feldman, M. (1962) “Liner Notes”, in Give My Regard to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. B. H. Friedman (ed.), Cambridge MA, Exact Change, 2000, pp. 3-7.
Feldman, M. (1973) “I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstemberg”, in Give My Regard to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. B. H. Friedman (ed.), Cambridge MA, Exact Change, 2000, pp. 112-21.
Feldman, M. (1985) “Autobiography” in Morton Feldman Essays. Zimmermann, W. (ed.). Beginner, Kerpen. p. 36.
Kozinn, A. (2003) Meyer Kupferman, Composer In Many Forms, Is Dead at 77. New York Times, Dec. 03.
Stern, D. (1971) The Rose Rabbi. McGraw-Hill, NY.
Stuckenschmidt, H.H. (1970) Ferruccio Busoni: chronicle of a European. Calder & Boyars. p. 188.