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Death of a US composer, 85

February 4, 2018 by norman lebrecht

17 comments.


The moderate Chicago modernist Alan Stout died on February 1 after several years in a care home.

He received four world premieres from the Chicago Symphony and others from Baltimore (his home town) and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Among his students at Northwestern University were Augusta Read Thomas and Joseph Schwantner.

Stout was an enthusiast of Boulezian post-serialism, while maintaining a keen interest in Sibelius and other Baltic composers.

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Comments (17)

  1. harold braun says:

    Fine composer.Really underestimated.

    1. Lynn says:

      Harold —

      “Fine composer. Really underestimated”

      This sort of comment interests me. What do you mean? In what sense was Alan Stout a ‘fine composer’?

      Does the concept of Sturgeon’s Law mean anything to you?

      “Sturgeon’s Law is usually put a little less decorously: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics — and so forth — is crap. Is that true? Well, maybe it’s an exaggeration, but let’s agree that there is a lot of mediocre work done in every field.

      1. harold braun says:

        ??????Don´t understand a single word….

      2. John Borstlap says:

        Also 90% of comments on websites may be crap.

  2. Tristan Willems says:

    Alan was my orchestration professor at NU back in the early ’80’s. He was probably the most well-rounded human being I have known – he spoke and wrote 7 languages fluently, corresponded with the world’s greatest minds (musical and non-musical), was more than well read on all subjects and was a fantastic teacher (although sometimes distracted) with an amazing analytical ability.

    He was also very shy and reserved – so modest that you would only hear about his triumphs much later from other sources, with a devilish wit and was always concerned with all of his student’s well being. They don’t make them like this anymore…..

    40 years on and still I think and speak of him frequently. He will be missed.

  3. Steven Larsen says:

    Alan was by far my favorite professor, counting both undergrad and grad school. His knowledge was encyclopedic (and not just in music), but more importantly his insight into what that all meant was truly remarkable. Tristan Willem was correct that Alan spoke 7 languages fluently, but left out the not-insubstantial fact that he could read about 25 others. His comment about Alan being “sometimes distracted” made me smile. If for any reason we wanted to divert him from his lecture subject, someone would ask him a question about its linguistic origins, and he would happily hold forth on that for the rest of the class period.

    His teaching truly changed my life through his thought-provoking analyses of the trajectory of music history, by showing that the intricacies and peculiarities of language influence both the creation and performance of music, and by stimulating my curiosity in Nordic and Baltic music. In this last area he was decades ahead of his times.

    He was most certainly humble and reserved, but would politely yet firmly stand up for his own music. The rehearsal period for the premiere of his “Passion” with the Chicago Symphony was a particularly stressful occasion for him. His polite yet firm (and persistent) critiques of the CSO’s interpretation prompted some musicians to wear t-shirts bearing the words “I hate Stout with a Passion” — which of course, wounded him very deeply.

    I’d like to share an amusing anecdote about Alan. During one of our classes, he told us (by way of digression) that only two words from the Indonesian language have found their way into English: “paddy” (as in rice paddy) and “gong”. Being the way I am, I immediately memorized this trivia for future use. About ten years later I was looking up something in a dictionary when the definition of ‘ketchup’ caught my eye: ‘a spicy sauce served with meat’ (from the Indonesian ‘ke-chup’). I called him immediately to tell him of my discovery, and he responded as if I had told him I had discovered Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony, with howls of delight. The next day I got a call from a former student who was taking one of Alan’s classes, in which it was announced with great fanfare that there was now a third Indonesian loanword in English, and he gave me full credit for its discovery.

  4. Rodney Friend says:

    I met him in Chicago – great guy. Here’s a nice interview I found:
    http://www.bruceduffie.com/stout.html

  5. John Borstlap says:

    This seems to have been a brilliant academic teacher, and also a composer without the appropriate time for his scores – labouring 15 or 20 years over a piece which is then not performed because the orchestra has lost interest in it (probably conductor and staff having changed various times). I could not find any recording on the internet. His music seems to have been abandoned, probably because modernism (and especially the academic brand) has lost much of the credibility it once had.

    I don’t think that academic positions are the best environments for serious composing. But what would be? As Stout himself says in that interview, unless one is wealthy, or one of those self-promoting types who put a lot of time & effort in getting their scores under musicians’ noses, there is not much feeding ground, because the new music that claims to be ‘progressive’ and ‘modern’ has unmoored itself from the central performance culture. Are things better now (as compared with the nineties, the time of that interview)? I don’t know, the ‘new pieces’ that are performed nowadays often are as bland and conventional as the music which was regularly performed in the 19th century but has disappeared without a trace.

    1. Reed Perkins says:

      Mr. Borstlap, we get it. You do not like many of the once-prevailing 20th-century classical music styles. But show some respect. You admit you have no personal knowledge of Alan Stout or his music, and yet—once again—you feel the need to get on your soapbox to speculate and disparage a 20th-century composer and his music anyway.

      I studied with Alan Stout and I can testify—as have so many others—that he was a wonderful person, a brilliant scholar, a supportive mentor and, above all, a superlative creative musician.

      Your speculations about Alan’s music are completely uninformed. His music *was* performed, most notably by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and at the Tanglewood Festival, where he was a featured composer some years ago. He and his music were admired and performed by some of our finest conductors, most notably Georg Solti, Seiji Ozawa, Margaret Hillis and others.

      But, you say, his music is not readily available on the internet, as if this were some kind of requisite seal of approval. Yes, he labored years, or decades, on some scores. So have other fine composers; Lutoslawski comes to mind. Yet Alan finished over 100 works, including four large symphonies, an orchestral song cycle and dozens of chamber and solo works. Many scores were published (C. F. Peters and others), but often on a rental-only basis, which made it difficult or expensive to peruse or learn these challenging works.

      Alan Stout lived in the pre-internet, pre-YouTube era. His big scores did not languish unperformed “because the orchestra lost interest.” His 2nd and 4th symphonies, “Passion,” and “George Lieder” were all performed by the CSO and major soloists. Archival recordings exist for some of these works, but you won’t find them for sale or online due to contractual and union restrictions in place at the time of performance. And some were not recorded at all, because the CSO had several extended periods during Alan’s working life during which the orchestra did not make even archival recordings because of lack of funds and/or other contractual restrictions.

      Those grumbles from some of the CSO musicians? Well, Alan’s music is often very technically and musically demanding. He employed, at various times and in various pieces, a wide variety of the newest melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices of the era. And back in the 1960s and ’70s the CSO was (in)famously conservative in its programming, and many of the older players shared those conservative tastes. It is no wonder they griped.

      I’ve studied many of Alan’s scores and conducted a few. None are “easy,” but they reward the performer or listener willing to approach them with open ears and hearts.

      Alan Stout was an exceptional man and composer. You did not know him—at all—in either capacity. How can you possibly comment? I’m not saying you, or anyone else, has to like his music. But for you to disparage his art **without having heard a note of it** is indecent.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Sorry to have wounded your particular feelings…. that was not the intention. This post gives the impression of a complex modernist composer who was successful in the sixties and seventies, was performed by important orchestras (as you confirm), and then the music gradually disappeared. That was my only clue. And if you had read my comment carefully, you had seen that there is nothing ‘disrespectful’ in it, and the relationship between postwar modernism and academia merely observed without any negative conclusion particularly for Mr Stout. Namely, intellectually-informed structuralism had withdrawn (in the USA) within the universities when newer trends appeared, isolating the phenomenon.

        From the mentioned interview it appears that Stout found an academic position the only way to survive, being a decent and sophisticated person, and that says something about the way music and performance practice developed after WW II, which throws light upon the position new music and its teaching has in our days. That Stout’s reputation nowadays only seems to survive as a teacher, and not as a composer, is revealing and carries meaning far beyond his own life and work. I feel sorry for him, and find the developments which caused his predicament both revealing and utterly regrettable.

        Throwing-around soapboxes in personal attacks is completely missing the point.

        1. Stephen Ferre says:

          There may be several reasons why a composer’s music disappears. Alan Stout was more than just a composer. He was a historian, as well. Academia suited him, but I wouldn’t say that was the reason his music faded. To be more specific, his eyesight was so bad that he could barely read due to “floaters.”. He stopped composing in the mid-70s, likely due to the difficulty in seeing what he was writing. Having to stop composing in his prime, especially during a period of marked stylistic change in American music is more likely the cause of his music disappearing from the concert hall. I studied composition with him (and was a contemporary of Reed Perkins at NU, btw). Alan Stout was a great teacher, with a sly wit and (as has been stated many times) an encyclopedic knowledge.

          1. John Borstlap says:

            That adds more valuable information about the matter. Terrible story, to have to stop due to eye trouble.

  6. Greg says:

    Perhaps a more down-to-earth anecdote about a gracious man. I worked at a record shop near the Northwestern campus and Alan Stout was a regular (never Dr. Stout! he was quick to remind people he didn’t possess a Ph.D.). It was just before Christmas and as a break from all the Schutz and Guaraldi and Nat King Cole we had been playing we put on a CD of holiday novelty songs. Alan Stout quietly entered the store just as Bob Rivers parody of Walking in a Winter Wonderland (Walking ’round in Women’s Underwear – c’mon, you remember) began to play. Horrified that we might be offending a very dignified and cultured customer I quickly stepped over to the CD player to forward to the next song. No worries. Alan Stout was standing in the middle of the store shaking and teary-eyed with barely controlled laughter. He stayed until the last song on that CD had played.

  7. ORCHESTRA MANAGER says:

    So sad to read that Alan Stout passed away. I met him in Sweden already in the 60ies. He translated a lot of Swedish songs into English. In my then capacity as a music publisher, I was able to commision several of those. His Swedish was also excellent, but we normally spoke English to improve my English! The last time I met Alan was at the Northwestern Univercity at Evanston. RIP dear Alan. You are very much missed.

  8. Reed Perkins says:

    Norman, thank you for this post on the passing of Alan Stout. If your readers are interested, there is a fine memorial piece by the Chicago Tribune’s long-time music critic, John von Rhein, at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/vonrhein/ct-ent-stout-appreciation-0205-story.html

    And the Chicago Symphony Archives has two nice posts about Alan at: https://csoarchives.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/remembering-alan-stout/ and

    https://csoarchives.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/solti-11-stouts-symphony-no-4-and-george-lieder/

    Alan will be greatly missed.

  9. Geoffrey says:

    Re: Greg’s comment above about Alan Stout…I also worked at that store and a visit from Alan was always a bright spot in any day. His quiet, reserved mien belied a gracious man with an encyclopedic command of what appeared to be almost anything. He was a gently soul that radiated his love of music and was always willing to help me improve my layman’s general knowledge of his world. Requiescat in pace Mr. Stout.

  10. Dana Paul Perna says:

    One of the first people I met at Northwestern was Alan Stout, and it was completely by accident. As I recall, I stopped by his office to speak with Arrand Parsons, finding Alan there instead – and alone, standing next to the piano. He invited me in – and, on that piano, I spied a copy of the then realized completion of Debussy’s “Fall of the House of Usher” by Juan Allende-Blin. “It’s a bit overstored, in some places, but, overall, it’s the one (completion) that makes any sense”, he told me. He let me take a look at it, then we spoke at length – almost 90 minutes, as I recall – finding common ground on numerous composers of whom I was laughed at for admiring, let along finding someone who had actually heard of them – and knew! in some instances, too. I found a civilized person amidst a world of bull-shit – it was completely refreshing. Unfortunately, I did not have the honor of having studied with him, but he always remembered our meeting, and spoke of me, as I was to learn later, with some measure of respect and praise. That meant – and will remain to mean – a lot to me. (Of those who were fortunate to have studied with him, I can attest as to their “chops” as being remarkable in many areas of composition, not necessarily reflecting his style of composition at all as they went their own way, finding their own voice afterwards.) What DID astonish me was, when I would ask him to offer up a work of his to be included on one of our concerts, he always refused to participate. I came to understand why, but I always hoped that I could have talked him into it. He will be missed, but, apart from that, it is my hope that his music will finally find the performances they deserve that are all way overdue.


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