"My love, if I die and you don't," from Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony (Nonesuch 79954).
I am devastated to learn of the death of the composer Peter Lieberson. He passed away in Israel this morning, at the age of sixty-four, of complications arising from a lymphoma that had been diagnosed not long after the death of his beloved wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in 2006. Despite the debilitating effects of the illness and its treatment, Lieberson went on composing; the New York Philharmonic presented his song cycle The World in Flower in 2009; the Boston Symphony played Songs of Love and Sorrow, his memorial for Lorraine, in 2010; and the National Symphony premiered Remembering JFK earlier this year. I am told that he was working on a percussion concerto when he died; he had been receiving medical treatment in Israel since last December.
Lieberson was a magician of harmony. He wrote with a rare combination of modernistic rigor and Romantic sensuality, the latter coming ever more to the fore in recent years. Among his major works are the First Piano Concerto, written for Peter Serkin; Drala, a sumptuous symphony in miniature; the opera Ashoka's Dream, which had its premiere in Santa Fe, in 1997; and the Neruda Songs, the last of which can be heard above. His father was Goddard Lieberson, the mighty president of Columbia Records, his mother the dancer Vera Zorina. He studied composition with the late Milton Babbitt, among others. He was also deeply versed in Tibetan Buddhism, and for a time ran a Buddhist meditation center in Nova Scotia. “What makes the human life so poignant is the recognition of its profound impermanence,’’ he told David Weininger last year.
I hope it's not indulgent to add that I had a personal connection with Peter. I took a course from him in college — a wonderfully discursive theory class in which we spent week after week admiring isolated chords in Schubert's "Erlkönig." He had the final word on my non-career as a composer, describing my end-of-term Sonatina as “most interesting and slightly peculiar.” Although I never again met Peter in person — I once saw him together with Lorraine in a crowd in Santa Fe but had an attack of shyness — we struck up a correspondence after Lorraine died. When I sent him a copy of my book The Rest Is Noise, he sent, in return, the manuscript reproduced above, which I will always treasure. The original hardback edition lacked any mention his music, and for the paperback I decided to insert a sentence about Neruda Songs, comparing it to Strauss's Four Last Songs. It is now the last work named in the book.