Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Kindest Man in the World

One of the best things about going to graduate school as a composer is the number of musicians (people on the faculty as well as students) who are willing and able to play the music we write. I was rather worried that the end of graduate school would mean that most of the music I would write would sit in a drawer in my non-cosmopolitan town, but it happened that my friend Susan Teicher's mother (who happened to be named Elaine) was in town, and she suggested that I contact her friend Seymour Barab for advice about what to do about my work. She said she would tell him to expect a letter from me.

I knew one piece by Seymour Barab: a duet for viola and harp that my father used to play with his wife during the early 1980s. My half brother (who was a baby when they were working on the piece) used to say "Ba-ba" whenever they would practice the Barab.

I wrote Seymour a letter and I included a couple of scores and a few recordings. He called me a week later, and told me that he would talk with his publisher about looking at my work. We talked about all sorts of things, and it turned out that he and I both had written operas that were settings of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. We decided to exchange scores and recordings so that we could see what the other did with the story, and began a great phone friendship and many more score exchanges. Seymour invited me, Michael, and our kids to visit the next time we were in New York, and ever since that first visit, high points of our yearly trips to New York were the afternoons we spent with Seymour and his wife Margie having lunch at 3 Guys at 96th and Madison and hanging out at their apartment.

[Margie King Barab, Michael Leddy, and Seymour Barab looking at Labonfam abeber, a nonsense book by Jean Dubuffet filled with erotic drawings.]

Seymour and I continued to exchange scores and recordings, and he always went out of his way to try to get people he worked with interested in the music I wrote. Whenever anyone asked me to write something to play on a recital, I would suggest putting a piece by Seymour on the program too. Once I even got an oboe player (John Dee--a terrific oboe player) to commission a piece for oboe and string quartet from Seymour. It felt really good to reciprocate some of Seymour's kindness to me, but there was just so much to reciprocate. He wanted to hear recordings of every recital I played and every performance of something I wrote, and he would always call to talk about them.

Seymour's name came up while I was working with Bernie Zaslav on The Viola in My Life. Seymour and Bernie played together for many years in the Composers Quartet and hadn't been in touch since Bernie left New York in 1968. I got them back in touch with one another a few years ago, and Seymour read through a draft of Bernie's book and made many excellent comments (and corrections).

Seymour died on June 28th at the age of 93. The last time Michael and I saw Seymour was on Wednesday, May 21. We had lunch at 3 Guys. He brought me a couple of books: a memoir of Harold Coletta, and Nicholas Slonimsky's Perfect Pitch: A Life Story. I found a card inside the Slonimsky book written to Seymour from a person I do not know (it looks like the person is named "Don," but I can't be sure).

He or she writes,
"Happy Belated Birthday dear Seymour--
You are a national pleasure. Oops! I meant treasure."
On the inside of the book is written,
"Dear dear Seymour--
It is a joy and a privilege to know you--
Bless you!
Happy Birthday all year."
I couldn't agree more.


Jim and Lu K said...

So sorry to hear of the passing of your dear friend. I'm glad you got to see him one last time in May. Ninety-three. That's quite a life. Must be the good food from 3 Guys (and the many sweet friendships he and his wife enjoyed)that fueled his longevity....

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Fine, condolences are offered, with the recollection of words offered too under your post, "Musical Freedom." While your relationship with Mr. Barab was both musical and personal, mine is only musical. For this, the measure of your loss is not a measure for mine. And yet, because of "Musical Assumptions," I know of Barab, have heard and recommended his work. That is musical, not personal, and this defines the interesting truth about Barab -- or Fine, or any other composer and their work. It lives on its own, for being decidedly musical. I think Barab the composer would be most pleased to think his music touches people beyond his ability to know them or theirs to have known him. Is this not a wonderful mystery of our arts, that they touch others who will be forever unknown to us? Musical? Always. Personal? Rarely. Just so for Haydn. Cheers for musical assumptions and Musical Assumptions.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you, Jim and Lu, who I know so well, and have known for so long; and thank you, Anonomymous person who I know only through comments on various posts here. Your points about musical relationships are indeed interesting and extremely relevant. A great deal of who Seymour Barab was, and how he made people laugh and feel loved is there (thank goodness) in his music. And people will always be able to enjoy singing, playing, and listening to his songs, instrumental pieces, and operas. Life is fleeting, and he used his 93 years extremely well.