Biography

M(ayer) Joel Mandelbaum
b. 1932

Professional Employment

On Faculty of Queens College of the City University of New York since 1961.

Chairman of Music Department, 1974-78

Director, Aaron Copland School of Music, 1981-84

Chair, Academic Senate (chief faculty officer) 1997-99

Professor Emeritus since 1999 (still active, 2021)

Educational Background

Ph.D. 1961, Indiana University (dissertation topic : Multiple Division of the Octave and the tonal resources of 19-tone Temperament) Click Here to view Mandelbaum’s Dissertation.

M.F.A in Musical Composition.  1957 Brandeis University

A.B. magna cum laude, 1953, Harvard University.  Thesis topic:  harmonic, contrapuntal and formal techniques in the Mahler Symphonies.

Additional Studies

1957-8 at Hochschule fuer Musik in Berlin, Germany as Fulbright Scholar

Summers 1952 and l957 at Tanglewood.

Summers 1948,49 and 51 at National Music Camp, Interlochen, Michigan

Summer 1950 at Yale Summer music School, Norfolk, CT

Summer Residency: The MacDowell Colony 1968

 

Teachers: (“composition” teachers in italics)

Angela Diller, Gertrude Price Wollner, Helen Grant Baker,  Homer KellerAndre Singer

Walter Piston, Allen Sapp, Luther Noss, Luigi Dallapiccola, Irving FineHarold Shapero

Aaron Copland, Boris BlacherBernhard Heiden, Tibor Kozma

Joel Mandelbaum, Musician, Composer, Teacher

Personal Life

Married to Ellen Mandelbaum (nee Weiner); Accredited Artist/Designer f the Stained Glass Association of American and recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award;  Senior Advisor, American Glass Guild; artist with glass installations in the Charleston S.C. Aquarium; religious institutions in Minnesota, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New York states. Member of Women’s International Glass Workshop.  

 

Military Service:  U.S. Army, 1953-55.

Courses Taught Have Included

Music Theory on all undergraduate levels

Conducting

Composition

Orchestration

Introductory Courses in music literature both for laymen and for music majors

Elective courses on Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler and Music And Society

Tuning and Temperament

Descriptions of the roles played in my development by the teachers named

Click the name to view description

Co-founder, in 1920, of the still flourishing Diller-Quaile School of Music; a superb musician and pedagogue, admitted me to her school at age 6, eventually becoming the teacher of the theory class I attended  and later giving me private instruction in musicianship and analysis of some of the great works in the literature, including Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Brahms’ German Requiem, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and String Quartet in C# Minor op. 131.  On one particularly memorable afternoon, she had me read through a two-piano work with her.  My part was quite a stretch for me, but she wouldn’t stop, occasionally calling out instructions to me such as “concentrate on the bass line” and “focus on the next measure—it’s too late to worry about the current measure”.  I felt then, and ever since, that I walked out of that room a measurably better musician than I was when I walked in.

She had been a student of Ms. Diller’s and was highly recommended by Ms. Diller as a teacher for the wartime year we lived in Washington.  By pure luck, she lived three doors from us, so I was able to take two lessons a week with her.  Her specialty was improvisation, though she also taught piano using a repertory that her mentors at Diller-Quaile later thought had been too ambitious.   I owe my facility at improvisation mostly to her

Was the choral music teacher for the upper grades at Horace Mann Lincoln. She was active nationally on the Creativity Committee of the Music Educators National Conference and among the special events I attended during my early years at the school were performances of musical plays and cantatas composed by older students.  In the 10th grade, it became my turn.  She discovered my Diller-taught harmony skills when hearing an arrangement I had made of “Auld Laing Syne” for humming into combs strewn with toilet paper.  Two weeks before our Christmas assembly, she called my attention to a student-written Christmas poem that had just appeared in our school’s literary publication.  She challenged me to set it to music quickly, promising a performance at the assembly if I could do it.  I did, the performance took place and was well received.  After that she pushed me to keep composing and had me enter my works in national competitions resulting in some prizes.    She was also responsible for producing my first ecstatic experience of the sublimity of music.  She was rehearsing a group of us for a performance of “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s Creation.  When she thought we were ready, she led us through a complete run-through.  I was among the basses who get to sing two dramatic ascending scales just before the end.  When we were finished, nobody made a move for a whole minute as we sat in stark wonder at what we had, together, brought forth.  I don’t know which of the two, the performance of my setting of A Christmas Message or the run-through of The Heavens Are Telling was the more foundational to my eventual decision to make music my life’s work., but I think that without either, I would have missed my calling and become a lawyer.   I am forever grateful.

Was the composition teacher at the National Music Camp at Interlochen.  Composition was not emphasized there…there was only one composition teacher there among a huge faculty and very few among the hundreds of campers seemed to have any interest in composing.  In 1948 he was very encouraging of my completely traditional tonal work.  In 1949, however, he objected strenuously to it and insisted that I go modern.  With great difficulty, and the strong encouragement of fellow camper, Lowell Creitz, I composed a work, Moderato for Cello and Piano that satisfied Mr. Keller.  In 1951 he was all encouragement again, and arranged for me, after camp, to compose and present an overture for an orchestra in Lafayette, Indiana, led by a colleague of his.  Interlochen was a wonderful place to work and to grow.  Though, on the surface, its visionary founder and leader, Joseph Maddy, appeared to favor competition above collaboration (there were weekly competitions for advancement in seating in the orchestra and for roles in plays and operas)  his love of music and instinct for education produced an atmosphere of mutual support so taken for granted that I probably would not have realized how special it was until spending two summers at Tanglewood, where the competition, though unstated, could be cutthroat

Was the composition  teacher referred to me by Ms. Diller, who thought that I should be instructed in the music of our time and felt herself  too limited in appreciation of 20th century composers to do the job herself.   Mr. Singer also gave me instruction in conducting.  A good composer himself (I remember a fine dramatic work on Galileo, and also a comic piece for children among the lines of which were “you mustn’t eat too much, too much, too much”) , he tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to love Le Sacre du Printemps but was far more successful with his exposure of me to Mahler.  He loved my setting of Ogden Nash’s Pretty Halcyon Days, but was left cold by my setting of a Millay poem that begins “I will be the gladdest thing under the sun”.  I was puzzled then by what he found wrong with it. I remember most of it and, to this day, don’t see why he considered it so inferior to the Nash setting

Was the composition instructor at Norfolk.  I think his only other student was John Davison (see below).  I was working on my Flute Sonata that summer,  and he sat back, taking a very passive role himself.   That flute sonata has been played more times than anything else I have written, and continues to be played today.  Because of the passivity of his approach, it is easy to underestimate Mr. Noss’ contribution to the success of this work.    Often, I think, a young student needs, more than anything, a teacher who can quietly offer reassurance that the student is on a useful track and avoid intervening

Besides being the senior of Harvard’s resident composers, he was also an acknowledged expert in (he wrote a best-selling textbook on each of these) Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration.   As a sophomore I took his course in Orchestration.  As a junior I took his graduate courses in Fugue and in Contemporary Techniques.  As a senior I took his course in composition.  Of course, by then, he knew me pretty well.  Throughout the year, I was working on my Piano Concerto for another student, Ann Besser, to play. I had the impression that Piston felt I was not modern enough in my approach.  He paid far more attention to details in the works of other students who were experimenting with 12-tone rows and the like.  Finally, he came to a passage in the second movement of my concerto in which two layers of chords moved apart until, at the climax, a bitonal effect was created.  Here he gave long-sought praise for the passage and suggested that something like that should be the starting point for my next composition (It never was).  What I and so many others gained from exposure to Piston came from his thoroughgoing participation in so many aspects of music.   What I remember most vividly, and have often related, especially to my conducting students, was his telling of the time Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere of one of his compositions.  Stokowski, very famous at that time, had many detractors who complained that his tendency toward self-glorification caused distortion of the music he conducted.  Some of his arrangements helped popularize Bach and others…overall, I consider Stokowski’s influence to have been mixed but benign. In advance of the performance, Stokowski had one meeting with the composer to discuss how he would perform the piece.  It was a one-way conversation.  When Stokowski finished, Piston was finally able to get a word in. Stokowski had indicated he would bring out certain parts at specific moments, converting what was essentially a polyphonic score into a series of homophonic passages in which most of the orchestra would be reduced to accompaniment.  Piston objected, but Stokowski brushed his objections aside and indicated that he would conduct the piece as he had described.  And he did.  Piston described the experience of hearing the piece as Stokowski had altered it, as one of the worst ordeals of his life.  He couldn’t make sense of the piece as he heard it, and he assumed that the rest of the audience would make even less sense of it.   When the performance was over, however, Stokowski acknowledged Piston, who rose to an ovation that Piston describes as “greater than any I had ever received either before or since.  What should I make of it?”    I have often raised the question to my conducting students hoping that they will give nuanced answers

Allen Sapp taught the course in Form and Analysis that I took in my sophomore year at Harvard. His thorough preparation, even including making a modern edition of some 13th Century music, provided a standard to which to aspire as a teacher.  That Harvard did not tenure him despite his brilliance as a teacher (and he was not the only one)  helped me to understand the mediocrity of many other teachers I encountered there and elsewhere.  In my one year as a member of the committee making decisions on tenure at Queens College, I managed to make a small recompense by fighting for, and achieving by the narrowest margin, tenure for three colleagues documented by their departments as extraordinary teachers but opposed for paucity of publications.    One of these later became a dean, another the Associate Provost.  The third, known to me at the time only through the poetry she had submitted, became the librettist for The Village.

I was put in his composition class at Tanglewood while doing early work on my Piano Concerto.  At first he didn’t want to work with me on it, holding that our stylistic approaches to composition were too different.  When I then showed him my setting of Psalm 139 for just voice and cello (no piano) he found that the pure counterpoint of two lines was something he could relate to better and suggested that I begin work on a companion piece, which I did, Psalm 140.  Once I had finished that piece, with valuable exchanges along the way, he then declared that now he understood my approach enough to help with the piano concerto.  I remember that he was most helpful with the passage work, suggesting octave doublings only on alternate notes—something I adopted as a fitting improvement on my first draft.  He may have been the only one of my composition teachers who went in detail over some of his own compositions, to give us a sense of why he did what he did.  I wish others had done so as well

His name had been cited very favorably by Ms. Diller, and his presence might have been a definitive reason for my selecting Brandeis for my master’s degree.  And he was every bit as good as promised: the teacher who best was able to look at my work and put himself in my shoes, so he could suggest improvements within the terms of the work.  What I remember best is his suggestions about the orchestration of my comic opera The Man in the Man-Made Moon.  The work had already been composed and orchestrated, and was to be performed during my year of study with Mr. Fine.  He found the orchestration to be somewhat skimpy in many places and suggested that I look to adding heft to the orchestration.  Having done a rush job of orchestration anticipating an earlier performance that hadn’t come off, I remember taking his advice and making a few…really not many…additions of instruments at places needing them.   My recollection was that what I had done was only to convert an inadequate orchestration to a barely adequate one.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised, when the work was revived five years ago, that the orchestration sounded robust throughout.

My composition teacher the second year at Brandeis.  I was working primarily on my choral setting of Psalm 121 when studying with him.  I had themes for the beginning, and for “he will not suffer thy foot to be moved”.  Mr. Shapero did not see how the two themes could fit into the same work and suggested that I change one of them.  Sensing the whole, which at that point he could not, I told him that I did not foresee a problem.  The resulting composition was one of my best, and has been revived recently.  I have always felt that his initial doubts were very helpful to me, causing me to focus on reconciling the themes and working to project the unity I had felt from the beginning onto the notes that the performers and audience would perceive. Ever since, when working on a larger piece, I have improvised my way at the piano through uncomposed sections, to make sure of the potential fit between already composed sections separated by the still unknown.

After a five-year break, I was admitted to Tanglewood a second time and assigned to Milton Babbitt.  Believing his world and mine to be too far apart, I asked to be transferred, and they reluctantly gave me to Copland.  Later, in light of what Sondheim seems to have learned from study with Babbitt, I have sometimes wondered whether my request for the change was the right thing to have done.   However, hearing the words of extreme disparagement by Babbitt of other composers who had not come along with his total advocacy of serialism,  it seems to me that direct study with him might have produced more discouragement than I could have borne.  As it was, Tanglewood in 1957 was a pretty discouraging place for me. I was working on a short piano piece that was to become the first movement of my Piano Sonata.  Copland objected to my remaining in one key for too long.  Perhaps he was hypersensitive to music’s staying in one key too long because that Summer, Tanglewood had scheduled a performance of his opera, The Tender Land, with long passages in one key.  1957 was the year the pressure for serialism hit on a grand scale, with students desperately trying to discover what made Webern “tick” (and most of them eventually becoming Webern groupies).  I think that the serial compulsion hit quite suddenly.  In the Spring of 1957 my portfolio of compositions was accepted both by Tanglewood and the commission that selects Fulbright Scholars.  By the summer, my portfolio was so rejected that Tanglewood tried to make me the only scholarship student to be omitted from the student composers’ concerts.  I complained and they reluctantly let me insert an aria from The Four Chaplains. The reason for their exclusion might have been gleaned from the fact that after the concert a very cultured woman with a slight European accent came to me praising my work and expressing her gratitude for “the only work on the program that made any sense to me”.  Copland and the others were caught up in a frenzy that left me depressed.  Then, that Fall, the atmosphere in Berlin was hardly any more sympathetic to anything not entirely devoted to the current version of modernism.

My composition teacher in Berlin.  The lessons lasted about seven minutes apiece.  I was working on my first song cycle that year but I don’t think he even looked at any of it.  He proposed that I compose a string quartet, which I did.   He dismissed the first movement, but liked the second as having an appropriate quartet texture.  I found the entire program for  composition students in Berlin inadequate,  and obtained conducting as a second major, studying conducting with Ewald Lindemann, and having excellent training in score-reading, ear-training and piano added as a result.

At Indiana University, the principal orchestral and opera conductor, who taught conducting and also was my piano instructor.  He was very loyal to the work of his fellow Hungarian, Bartok, and devoted to performing the music of his composing colleagues, Bernhard Heiden and Thomas Beversdorf. Nevertheless, he found little to like in most modern music, especially that of the serialists.  He taught me a great deal, and always emphasized that the only way to enjoy one’s work was constantly to seek utmost excellence at it.  His was a high conflict personality, but I always found him fair and usually only demanding within the range that the person of whom he made demands could, in fact, meet them.  Some of my most happily remembered experiences at Indiana were preventing his anger from boiling by successfully pointing out to him that what appeared to be attempts to sabotage his work were inadvertent and not intentional.

The authorities at the Indiana University Music School assumed that the most promising of its incoming students came there to study with Roy Harris, and so they assigned me.  Kozma immediately steered me instead to Bernhard Heiden, and I am forever grateful.  Heiden remained very devoted to his teacher in Germany, Hindemith,  and one of my pleasures was to perform with Mr. Heiden, at his request, two hands of the four-hand arrangement of Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler.  Taking stock of my work, and correctly anticipating that I would never convert to the modernisms being promulgated, he called me in and said to me something like the following:  “As long as you continue to write the kind of music you are writing, no school seeking recognition as being up-to-date…really, no major college, would hire you as their composer in residence.  You should abandon your quest for an Mus.D. in Composition and shift to the Ph.D. program in Music Theory.  Prove that you can do the research, find a position, get tenure, and then you will be free to compose whatever music you like.”    I took his advice and have found it to be right on the mark.   Finding the microtonal dissertation topic enabled me to keep composition in the picture, even in my work on my dissertation.

Of the many other people from whom I learned, I want to give special acknowledgement to a few.

I cannot claim him as my teacher… he never met me.  But during my Freshman year he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard and I religiously audited his graduate course in the History of Music Theory.  It was there that thoughts about tuning systems other than our own were implanted in my head. Though his presentation of their virtues were as a devil’s advocate, they were quite persuasive to me.

As my dissertation advisor, Prof. Kent was very helpful, providing tables of intervals, and giving sage advice on what might fit and what would not fit within the expanding purview of my study.

This Dutch mathematician and music theorist invited me to Haarlem to compose at the microtonal organ at Teylers Stichting and to tutor me in the devices in 31-tone temperament that he had inherited from 17th century mathematicians, Huyghens and Euler.  He and his close associates, Bouw and Jeanne Lemkes the violinists, Jan van Borssum Buysman, the curator at Teylers Stichting, Hans Kox a fellow composer and Anton de Beer, the principal performer at the microtonal organ, were all very welcoming and helpful.

Already in my sixties, I enrolled in a three week course at the University of Oregon in which Bach performances by the great Helmut Rilling were interspersed with composition lessons taught by John Harbison, a composer somewhat junior to me, whom I respected greatly.  A live quartet of singers was in residence, and one of them performed an aria from my just finished opera, The Village.  The procedure was to have the singer sing once, then have the composer comment, and then have the singer perform again.   In my case, I had quite a bit to say, and strong suggestions about emphasis on certain lines. Acting on my suggestions, the singer gave a far better second performance.  After the second performance, Harbison was particularly helpful:  “I felt that I had heard two different songs.  I didn’t think much of the first one but I really liked the second one.   You will not always be present to coach your performers.  The issue for you must be how to get in writing the things you had to tell the singer so that he can get it right without you.”

I also was influenced, helped and inspired by the work of two composers in my own cohort.

Don-David was a fellow camper at Interlochen and we became lifelong friends.   He was extraordinarily gifted, with the ability to compose melodic lines that stuck in one’s head.  When he showed up a few years ago while I was playing a postlude to a religious service, I was able to insert several of his melodies from memory after 60 years  His ability to tolerate rejection from the serialist modernists of the field proved less than mine; he stopped composing and became a family therapist instead.   That the field of new music could not find room for him I find appalling.

I first met John at Yale’s Summer Music School in Norfolk CT.  His music immediately sang for me and has always done so since.  Eventually established at his Alma mater, Haverford College,  he always had beautiful new works to show me and perceptive and encouraging comments about mine.  When I could, I performed music of his…I continue to find solace from time to time playing through some of his piano music.