We owe it to ourselves to get to know Harold Shapero, who showed that strikingly inventive things still could be done with the perennial tools of tonal music. His works crackle with intelligence and sing with rare melodic beauty. They are both timeless and of their time. For despite its classic foundations, Shapero’s music also reflects the energy and excitement, anxieties and triumphs of life in 20th-century America.

When American classical composers are discussed, the names Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin come up much more frequently than Harold Shapero (1920-2013). Yet Shapero, who was born a hundred years ago this April, was a very special composer and, I would argue, an important one. In a small but exquisitely crafted group of works—crowned by his masterpiece, the Symphony for Classical Orchestra of 1947—Shapero reconciled tradition and modernity in brilliant style, and with a distinct American accent. Nothing has aged at all in his music, which remains as fresh and invigorating as when he wrote it.

At the time of his death in 2013, Shapero was the last representative of the golden age of American music, epitomized by the composer often considered our finest, Aaron Copland. This “greatest generation” of American composers was divided roughly into two camps: cosmopolitans who sought continuity with Europe, and nationalists who believed in writing music that was distinctly and overtly “American.” Copland, who trained in France under the great Nadia Boulanger, combined both approaches, writing works of au courant modernism (Piano Variations) as well as popular Americana (Appalachian Spring). Shapero, like Copland, went to Paris to study with Boulanger and embraced an international outlook in his music.

Born to a Jewish family in Lynn, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, Shapero showed his prodigious musical talents early. Barely out of high school, he had already done arrangements for Benny Goodman’s swing band and written several accomplished classical works, among them a string trio composed in the Schoenbergian 12-tone method.[1] This was a composition assignment from his teacher Ernst Krenek, and although the pupil disdained the atonal style as a “horror show” he duly produced his sparkling trio in ten days.[2] Having tried atonality, he discarded it and never went back.

Instead, Shapero chose neoclassicism. As exemplified by his mentors Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, the style married classical formal procedures to updated tonal harmonies and a vital rhythmic energy. Shapero’s rugged early works included a string quartet, a song cycle, and sonatas for trumpet and violin. A gifted pianist with an interest in jazz as well as the classics, he wrote a 4-Hand Piano Sonata (1941) to perform with his good friend, Leonard Bernstein.

The Three Amateur Piano Sonatas (1944) marked a stylistic turning point for Shapero. In these succinct, witty pieces, the composer took the musical syntax of Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, and Scarlatti and refracted it through a modern—and somewhat jazzy—prism. As critic David Hurwitz put it, Shapero “reimagine[d] classical forms and style in contemporary terms, and the result sounds delightfully fresh, vibrant, and new.” Shapero’s neoclassic orientation put him in communion with other members of a close-knit group of young Boston composers including Irving Fine and Lukas Foss—many of whom, like him, had received a humanistic education at Harvard. (The conservative humanist thinker Irving Babbitt exerted a strong influence on Harvard during those years.)[3]

Shapero’s studies took him deeper into the musical past while shaping his own music. He reconnected with the works of the Viennese Classical masters—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—and in doing so rediscovered the basic building blocks of tonal music. Shapero came to believe that the classical principles of organic musical form could be successfully applied to modern composition. From Nadia Boulanger he had learned the importance of la grande ligne—the expressive arc of a musical composition, carrying the listener on an emotional journey through clearly intelligible form.

In a 1946 essay entitled “The Musical Mind,” Shapero explained his composing method as a process of reclaiming subconscious musical memories. By imitating models from the past, the composer unleashes his own creative impulses. Shapero provocatively suggested that forcing a creative mind to work in the framework of serial pitch-writing—an artificial system without historical roots—is unnatural: “It is as if a man were taught to walk with bent knees because of the inordinate lowness of the ceiling.” Shapero spoke of music’s “humanistic aspect,” which made it something more than notes on a page, and of the need to “re-examine the fundamental nature of musical syntax” as a prelude to composing.

These neoclassical ideas bore fruit in his masterful Serenade in D for Strings of 1945, written in the artists’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. This is no light fare (despite the title) but an ambitious, large-scale work in five movements filled with bounding energy, wit, and lyrical effusion. Decades later the composer arranged it for a quintet of strings, and it can be heard in this form on a wonderful CD featuring the Lydian String Quartet.

The Serenade paved the way for Shapero’s most famous work, the Symphony for Classical Orchestra, which an enthusiastic Leonard Bernstein premiered with the Boston Symphony in January 1948. It was the major musical statement of Shapero’s career. The composer used Beethoven as a model—there are particular echoes of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies—but this is no pastiche. Rather, it’s as if Beethoven has been reborn in the Western Plains. The work opens with a slow introduction that mixes majesty and mystery, then unleashes a vivacious, bustling allegro.

Yet Shapero’s nervy energy gives way to a luminous grace and lyrical beauty. When conductor André Previn revived the symphony in the 1980s, he pointed to the 15-minute Adagietto as the most beautiful symphonic slow movement ever written by an American. This is followed by a quirky scherzo and a triumphant, joyful finale that passes many of the symphony’s previous themes in review. One critic has called Symphony for Classical Orchestra the greatest American symphony; another has praised it as “an expansive score of immense strength, vitality, and deeply felt expressiveness.”[4]

Harold Shapero soon became one of America’s brightest musical lights, praised by the likes of Stravinsky and Copland and the recipient of coveted prizes including the Prix de Rome. Then things began to change. The academic avant-garde and the proponents of serialism (an extension of Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique) were on the rise, and Shapero found himself and his music increasingly shunted aside.

Even some of his colleagues began to raise doubts about his close adherence to classical models, with Copland evoking a “hero worship complex.” Works were given one performance, then laid aside. The 1948 premiere of the immense (and very neo-Beethovenian) Piano Sonata in F minor was a particular low point: The performance was disrupted by jeers of “Hurrah for Beethoven!” from George Perle, a young avant-garde composer.

It’s hard today to grasp the contentious, even political climate of classical music in the years after World War II. The disciples of Arnold Schoenberg—believers in the 12-tone serial gospel—were on the rise, and they conducted a rhetorical campaign to banish tonal composers to the deserts of irrelevance. Their aesthetic was professedly iconoclastic, involving a wholesale rejection of the musical past, and often went in tandem with left-wing political sympathies.

Entrenched in the universities, serialists practiced an esoteric, mathematical form of composition, spoke of music as “problem solving,” and affected the appearance of atomic scientists. Some of Shapero’s neoclassical friends began to dabble in the serial method. As for Shapero, he had outgrown atonality by the age of seventeen; yet the “advanced” musical world still passed him by. The composer retreated into academic life, serving as a respected professor at Brandeis University for 37 years. He composed less and less and eventually fell into a creative silence.

The decades rolled on as Shapero taught, raised a family, and enjoyed his hobbies, his music all but forgotten. When in the mid-1980s Andre Previn phoned him out of the blue hatching an idea to revive the Symphony for Classical Orchestra, the composer assumed it was a prank call. [5]

Instead it was the gateway to Shapero’s rediscovery. Whereas reactions to the symphony in 1948 had been lukewarm at best, in 1986 it received rapturous ovations in Los Angeles and Carnegie Hall. It was an auspicious moment. Their ears jaded with avant-garde sounds, audiences were now ready for Shapero’s message. The man of the hour was so encouraged and gratified that he began to compose again, including a trumpet concerto and a song cycle.

Harold Shapero had a meteoric rise, a sharp fall from favor, and a late-career renaissance. Now, in his centenary year, he seems once more forgotten. One factor that could change this is a spate of fresh recordings. Shapero fans have debated the relative merits of Leonard Bernstein’s and Andre Previn’s recordings of the symphony. To me the former is distinctly superior in its spirit and sweep, but both are showing their age; we desperately need a new version in top-quality sound. (A 2014 recording of the Piano Sonata in F minor and other Shapero works by pianist Sally Pinkas shows the composer’s meditative style to have been ahead of the curve, anticipating certain aspects of minimalism.) Much of this composer’s output is unknown territory, never recorded at all. Who can claim to have heard the Hebrew Cantata, Two Psalms, Travelers Overture? There is a treasure trove of music waiting to be uncovered.

In the meantime we owe it to ourselves to get to know this American master, who showed that strikingly inventive things still could be done with the triad, the diatonic scale, expressive melody, and the other perennial tools of tonal music. His works crackle with intelligence and sing with rare melodic beauty. They are both timeless and of their time. For despite its classic foundations, Shapero’s music also reflects the energy and excitement, anxieties and triumphs of life in 20th-century America.

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Notes:

[1] R. James Tobin, Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint, (Maryland: 2014), p. 78.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arthur Berger, Reflections of an American Composer, (Los Angeles: 2002), p. 74.

[4] Orrin Howard, program notes, Harold Shapero: Symphony for Classical Orchestra, New World Records.

[5] Tobin, Neoclassical Music in America, p. 97.

The featured image is a photograph of Harold Shapero.

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