Portrait of an Artist: John B. Austin '56

John B. Austin ’56, creator of the church opera “Heloise and Abelard,” was an English concentrator and resident of Eliot House during his time at Harvard. Though he did not study in the Harvard Department of Music, he composed for performances in Paine Hall and sang for the Chorus Pro Musica in Boston under the tutelage of his mentor and fellow composer, Roy Harris. Opera News, a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, deemed his one-act opera “Orpheus” (1966) the first rock-and-roll opera ever. His music has been performed widely in Chicago and elsewhere, including the Tanglewood, Aspen, and Door County festivals.

The Harvard Crimson: How difficult is it to transpose a story into a musical score?John B. Austin: To answer your question, having a good libretto—like having any good text—is essential because [my wife Christine Froula’s] libretto just shaped every scene into almost a musical form; it was wonderful to work with. I changed a few things, but not all that much. The other thing about writing an opera, from my point of view, is you just keep putting one foot forward—it’s a lot of music and you just have to persevere and keep “office hours,” as Stravinsky said.

THC: How do you begin the process? What’s the first step you take in composing?JBA: I’ve told people sometimes three notes—the way three notes come together—can get me started. There is a certain mystery to it, but once you start, that’s when you keep office hours. You get up every day and you struggle with it. As it progresses, of course, things begin to talk back to you. I mean there are lots of things that went on in later scenes that sort of resonate in other music and—a novelist would tell you the same thing—it begins to develop itself in a way.

THC: So was music always a passion?JBA: Yes. When I was nine…I had alternate daydreams. In one of them I was a fighter pilot. I had no concept of what that meant, but I knew what the airplanes looked like, and I had models, so I would be the hero of the skies. [In] the other one, I was a concert pianist and in my daydreams—I can remember vividly the picture aspect of it—I would walk onstage and I would play a recital. The only thing is, I didn’t know any music, and so the music I obviously generated [by myself]—and I was hooked from then on. I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, but music [has] always been central.

THC: Once you saw this image of yourself as a concert pianist, did you pick up the piano?JBA: Yeah, I started late because [World War II] intervened and we left our hometown and my father was in the army. I started piano lessons really late, unfortunately, because I think I would have played better if I had started earlier. But I’ve done a lot of singing in different choruses.


THC: Who were your mentors?JBA: I started [with opera] when I got out of school [and] had an introduction to Roy Harris. He was almost an exact contemporary of [composer]Aaron Copland’s and at a time was equally famous. And he came to my hometown, Pittsburgh, to teach at what was then the Pittsburgh College for Women and I was at boarding school. So I went to audition with Roy and he gave me some sort of sound test—saw whether I had a musical ear or not—and took me on. So I studied with him on vacations and every other summer during my college years—the intervening summers I had to work. But one of the things he insisted on was that I not study at the Harvard music department because he was very anti-academic in some ways. I think it was probably a big mistake, and in other ways it’s like anything else where you get to a certain point…you’re made up of all [these] collections of bits and pieces of things. His way of teaching was very disciplined in its way; it just wasn’t the same way as, you know, academia. I should have studied with Walter Piston here. [He] and Harris knew each other, they were the same generation…but, in any case, I didn’t avail myself of that opportunity.

THC: Tell me about your time at Harvard.JBA: Here [at Harvard], I was very active. I had my first orchestra piece played here with the Bach Society Orchestra. [The director] asked me one day if I wanted to write a piece for them. It was my first commission. It had no money, but it was definitely a commission to write for the Bach Society Orchestra and it was great!


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