I did a quick survey
amongst a few of my friends – ‘Have
you heard of the American Composer Harold
Shapero?’ Well, not one of them knew.
True, one gentleman of a certain age
remembered Helen Shapiro and another
lady recalled a poet by name of Karl.
But both these had an ‘I’ in the surname
and not an ‘E’.
Once again we appear
to be in a situation that prevails so
often - so few composers are actually
known to a considerable majority of
music listeners. Beyond the three ‘Bs’
there can often be a huge void in people’s
perceptions. This is even more acute,
I think, among folk in the UK, with
American composers. All of us have heard
of Ives, Copland, Barber and Gershwin.
But how many have explored works by
John Alden Carpenter, David Diamond,
or Elie Siegmeister? All are great men,
but virtually closed books to most listeners
and even musicologists. However, Naxos’
American series has done much to remedy
this omission – I just hope that they
are flying off the shelves!
So when it comes to
Harold Shapero we have a relative unknown
quality. As we shall see, he was not
helped in his career by the double-edged
criticism of Aaron Copland.
A few brief chronological
notes will not be out of place as this
composer is not at all well known or
documented in the readily available
He was born in Lynn,
Massachusetts on 29th April
1920. He took piano lessons at an early
age and soon graduated to playing jazz.
He co-founded the Hal Kenny Orchestra
which does not appear to be noted amongst
the great swing bands of the time. Gradually
the interest in classical music came
to the fore. Shapero studied with what
reads like a litany of great 20th
century composers. They included Ernst
Krenek, Paul Hindemith, Nadia Boulanger
and Walter Piston. He met Stravinsky
Shapero was later to
meet Stravinsky again. He showed the
older man his latest Symphony for
Classical Orchestra. One can only
assume that Igor was not impressed.
He advised Shapero to become a conductor!
In 1951, the Brandeis
University appointed Shapero to head
up the creation of a music department.
He stayed there for 37 years and oversaw
many developments and changes including
the use of synthesisers and other electronic
In 1988, he retired
from the University faculty in order
to devote himself to composing. He lives
in Natick in his birth state.
I will assume that
many people will not be aware of Shapero’s
musical style. I must confess that I
had only a hazy notion of what ‘kind’
of composer he was before I plugged
into this present CD.
Perhaps the first thing
is to say that he is not innovative
in the ways that say John Cage or even
Charles Ives were. The defining quality
of Shapero could be referred to as pouring
new wine into old bottles – as exemplified
by neo-classicism. That does not means
to say that he lacks originality – far
from it. But, it must be admitted that
there is a lot in his music that harks
back to previous styles. However, this
is no bad thing. Bach relied on Buxtehude
and Pachelbel to forge his own sublime
The problem that Shapero
had was being praised by Aaron Copland;
not so much the praise but the sting
in the tail.
Copland actually highly
rated Shapero’s compositional technique
and his inventiveness. Yet he said that
the younger composer "seems to
feel a compulsion to fashion music after
some great model. Thus his…Serenade….
is founded upon neo-classical Stravinskian
principles, his three Amateur Piano
Sonatas on Haydnesque principles,
and his recent long Symphony
is modelled after Beethoven. …he seems
to be suffering from hero-worship complex…"
This criticism had
the effect of putting Shapero off composing.
In fact, during the fifties and sixties
he composed very little.
The Serenade in
D for String Quintet is the longest
work on this CD. It is an arrangement
of an original orchestral work that
was made in 1998. The Serenade for
Strings was originally composed
in 1945; however the composer felt that
a ‘reduction’ would lead to more performances
of this technically difficult work.
The score is dedicated to Nadia Boulanger.
There is a confidence
in this work that is obvious from the
first note to the last. It is true to
say that the Serenade is neo-classical.
Certainly, as noted above, Copland had
said that it was based on Stravinskian
neo-classical principles. But I answer
‘so what!’. Why is this criticism? This
work is full of interesting and memorable
tunes and harmonies. The formal element
ensures that the listener’s attention
does not wander. There is a certain
vitality about this music that carries
us along with it. Sometimes Mozart and
then Haydn haunt these pages. But they
were great composers and surely they
still have much to teach writers today.
They deserve to be used as models and
The performance of
this work by the Lydian String Quartet,
assisted by Edwin Barker ‘on the double
bass’ makes the charm and classical
‘simplicity’ of the piece self evident.
I look forward to hearing
the original string orchestral version
of this work for comparison.
The String Quartet
is in many ways a deeply moving work.
It owes its genesis to Walter Piston,
who was teaching Shapero at the time
of its composition. It is presented
in four movements with the heart of
the work being the eight minute long
‘Very Slowly’ third movement. However
it cannot be said that this is derivative
of Piston or anyone else. It has a unique
sound that balances dissonance with
nods to traditional harmonic devices.
Of course the sound-scape is quite ‘angular’
especially in the faster passages. But
this angularity is always juxtaposed
with more classical shapes and thematic
Parts of the intense
slow movement are deeply moving – it
is hard to see this as the ‘opus’ of
a 21 year old. To my mind it ranks as
an excellent example of an American
String Quartet from the mid-century.
The String Trio
is an interesting piece. It is an atonal
work that does not hide the influence
of Ernst Krenek and Alban Berg’s Lyric
Suite. Yet it is a personable, atonal
work. It is fun and enjoyable and certainly
does not encourage us to believe it
came from the pen of a 17 year old –
although it was finally completed in
1957. There is a good sense of understanding
of how string instruments work. It is
not possible to hide anything in a string
trio; every note counts. This is a good
work, yet hardly representative of his
later style which was to move away from
The music is well played
by the Lydian String Quartet. They enter
into the neo-classical world with enthusiasm
and passion. These works sound vital
and the playing does nothing to diminish
the force of Shapero’s creativity.
The programme note
is perfect. It is effectively an 8 page
essay that gives lots of useful information
about this shamefully little known composer
and his music. In addition to this text
there is a selected bibliography and
discography. You should note that there
is also a CD of Shapero’s Nine Minute
Overture and the Symphony for
Classical Orchestra. Other CDs include
his three piano sonatas and the Sonata
for Trumpet. Yet this is virtually
the sum total of all that is presently
available. I find it almost beyond belief
that a composer of such quality and,
if I may boldly disagree with Aaron
Copland, considerable formal and melodic
invention and originality, is so under-represented.
This is a landmark
recording of Shapero’s major chamber
works and deserves to be listened to
by all those who enjoy music that is
both modern and traditional whilst never
being dull or uninteresting. Shapero’s
time will come.
This recording of Harold
Shapero’s key chamber works deserves
to be listened to. The whole Shapero
canon will soon be rediscovered. A great
neo-classicist to rival Poulenc and
even Stravinsky himself.
see also review
by Jonathan Woolf