Obituary: Harold Shapero, composer and teacher

Charlotte Smith23rd May 2013
Obituary: Harold Shapero, composer and teacherHarold Shapero, photographed at the age of 36 (photo: Gordon Parks / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)

Harold Shapero was best known as the composer of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra (1947), perhaps the perfect expression of the neo-Stravinskyan aesthetic he shared with his lifelong friends Arthur Berger, Irving Fine and Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the Symphony’s premiere in 1948. Shapero first came to notice when his Nine-Minute Overture (1940) was performed in 1941 by a student orchestra at Tanglewood conducted by Copland. The Overture won the Rome Prize in the same year but the entry of the US into the Second World War prevented Shapero’s travelling to Italy as part of the award. At that time Shapero was a pupil of Hindemith, but he had previously studied with Slonimsky, Krenek (from whom he learned dodecaphony, later rejecting it) and, at Harvard, Walter Piston. Later he studied with Nadia Boulanger through whom he was introduced to Stravinsky. Shapero’s compositional voice may not have been the most distinctive, but he was not an uncritical emulator of the Russian and works like the Third of Three Amateur Sonatas for piano (1944) show him assimilating Stravinskyan rhythms within a basically lyrical-melodic style with a mildly American accent.

Shapero’s list of orchestral works include two further symphonies (for string orchestra, 1946; for orchestra, 1948, a revision of the overture The Traveler), the Serenade in D major for string orchestra (1945, arranged in 1998 as a string quintet), Credo for orchestra (1955), a Partita in C major for piano & orchestra (1960) and a Trumpet Concerto (1995). He also composed a String Trio (1937), String Quartet (1941) and sonatas for trumpet (1940) and violin (1942) as well as a larger, unnumbered Piano Sonata in F minor (1948) plus an earlier example for four hands (1941) – he was a fine pianist – and the Wind Quintet, Six for Five (1995). Shapero’s musical interests extended to other areas, as in his On Green Mountain for jazz ensemble (1957) and longstanding interest in electronic music. He taught music theory and composition at Brandeis University from 1951-88 during which time he cultivated the faculty’s electronic music studio and composed and improvised for electronic as well as acoustic instruments.

Shapero twice won Guggenheim Fellowships (1947-8) and Fulbright Fellowships (1948 and 1960) and was composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1970. By this time he had largely withdrawn from composition in the face of critical disfavour, though resumed fitfully after Previn successfully revived and later recorded the Symphony for Classical Orchestra in Los Angeles. He had a wide range of interests, from ornithology and gardening to photography and the poetry of John Whittier (some of whose poems Shapero set for soprano, tenor, flute, cello & piano in 2005-7). One of his final works was a set of 24 Bagatelles for piano He was born in Massachusetts and died there peacefully in his sleep following a bout of pneumonia, aged 93. He is survived by his wife, Esther, and daughter Hannah (aka Pyra), both artists.

Recommended Recording: Symphony for Classical Orchestra, Nine-Minute Overture. LAPO/Previn (3/96) (NEWW) New World NW373-2

Guy Rickards

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