David Schiff, whose music essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for several years, writes with a composer's ear: when he isn't writing, teaching at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, where his courses touch on all kinds of music, or conducting the Reed undergraduate orchestra, he is composing. His opera Gimpel the Fool has been produced six times, and he is at work on concertos for jazz violin and viola.
Schiff is a born New Yorker (he was educated at Columbia, the Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard), and the city's rhythms appear both in his prose and in his music. So do Jewish themes. This month Schiff shows how Irving Berlin's immersion in American culture helped to transform a Russian Jewish immigrant into the nation's chief anthem maker. His new viola concerto, inspired by klezmer music, is based on a fable of a cantor who leaves nineteenth-century Poland to seek fame and fortune in Western Europe and, to his ultimate destruction, finds it.
Currently Schiff is revising his award-winning book The Music of Elliott Carter (1983), examining the works that Carter, under whom Schiff studied, has written since the book was published. And he is writing a book on George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The new book grew out of Schiff's June, 1993, Atlantic cover story on Leonard Bernstein. In his research Schiff found that Bernstein bore a grudge against Rhapsody in Blue: "He said it was just a collection of tunes, and you could rearrange it in any order--he accused it of having no musical form." Through imaginative reconstruction based on what he calls "sleuthing," Schiff is composing source material like what Gershwin might have drawn on--his musical trunk of ideas--in order to explain how Gershwin could have composed the piece so "artfully" in a matter of weeks.
"I love writing for the theater," Schiff says, by way of introducing a piece of music he recently and very reluctantly abandoned. This one contained little of New York and nothing Jewish: Schiff and the librettist Stuart Flack imagine a meeting between Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives on a train back from the 1935 Harvard-Yale game. The two couldn't find anyone to commission it, though: "No sex, no violence, and two middle-aged men as heroes." Schiff seems as adept at straddling cultures as the composers he writes about. We're betting he'll find a taker.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; 745 Boylston Street; Volume 277, No. 3; page 6.