An American composer retires

An American composer retires


norman lebrecht

December 15, 2021

The much-performed compser John Harbison has called time after 52 years of teaching at MIT.

He writes:

December 15, 2021

Arriving reluctantly but alertly at my last day of teaching at MIT, I remember two pieces of advice from the first week, in 1969. From a composer-friend, about the large Introduction to Music lecture: “Don’t be afraid to say what you love.” And from our Director of Music, Klaus Liepmann, as he escorted me down the endless corridor: “We teach our courses as if they are equal in the student’s learning experience to physics. We have poor facilities, we have large ambition, and a new building is on the way.”

Well, in the last instance he was premature, but his vision for what was then a small enterprise was relentlessly bold and demanding. I had come from my first teaching experience in a quite different environment, Reed College, in Portland Oregon, 1968, on the west coast, many student occupations of the administration building, intense teach-ins and demonstrations, no grades given, radically informal behavior and attire, very inquisitive students likely to go on break for a few years.

I returned to the Boston area to begin two jobs, teaching at MIT (new concepts: drop dates, midterms, grades) and conducting the Cantata Singers (in my previous Boston time I had conducted frequently, but only as a guest—this was a full-time Music Directorship). Like many composers, it took a while to find a way to make beginning courses in Harmony and Counterpoint express the daily happiness I found working with pitches and rhythms.

But within a year or so I got a fortunate break when our music historian Robert Freeman left to become Director of the Eastman School. Suddenly we needed coverage in Schütz, Schein, and Bach, and my performance and teaching worlds linked up…

Read on here.


  • DG says:

    I didn’t realize MIT had much in the way of a music department, never mind faculty of the caliber of Harbison!

    • J Barcelo says:

      Well it’s not a huge department, and there are few true music majors – but they do offer a great deal of performance opportunities for the budding engineers, mathematicians, scientists and such. And those students want to play, sing, act or have an outlet. In most amateur orchestras throughout the USA there is a large number of scientists, doctors, engineers, and others with high technical skills. They are often better musicians that the music majors!

      • Michael B. says:

        It has always been true that there are many scientists, doctors, and engineers with interests in music. The nineteenth-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin was an amateur composer; his real job was as a professor of physiological chemistry (what would be typically called “biochemistry” now) at the medical school in St. Petersburg, Russia. His name still shows up in advanced organic chemistry textbooks for the “Borodin reaction,” which is the reaction of silver salts of carboxylic acids to produce organic halides. It is lucky that we have as much music from him as we do. He is far from the only scientist who wrote music on the side (the virologist Hilary Koprowski has had at least one CD of his chamber music recorded), but he is probably the most important.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Many composers did and do something serious on the side. Philip Glass is actually a taxi driver; Schoenberg was a theory teacher; Chopin a piano teacher; Liszt a concert pianist; Bartok an anthropologist; Wagner and Mahler were conductors; Brahms a choral conductor; Schumann was married; Debussy chased women. The composers who were useless in anything else were either handicapped (Beethoven) or suffered from mother complexes (Ravel).

      • Shalom Rackovsky says:

        When I was a graduate student, the MIT Symphony Orchestra traveled around the country a lot, raising money for the school. It was quite a good orchestra- but it had many ringers brought in from the several conservatories around greater Boston….

    • Musicman says:

      The don’t have much of a music program. The fact that a huge name like Harbison is retiring from there says everything you need to know about his teaching. If he were a decent teacher, he would be at a real music school, unless he has made political enemies in academia or has skeletons in his closet. There is a small chance it could be his choice to remain at MIT, but it has been my experience that most people at that level have very big egos and would not pass up an opportunity for advancement.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “Don’t be afraid to say what you love.”

    So much better than the other way around as so often is the case elsewhere in academia – ‘don’t be afraid to love what you say’.

    Harbison: one of the few truly gifted and very interesting composers of today:

    Under the surface of a ‘modestly-modern’ language: traditionally-expressive dynamics, harking back to early 20C expressionism, conveying the mood of modernity’s inner conflicts, but in a coherent and expressive way.

  • K Kohl says:

    The few hours I spent with John Harbison in his MIT office as I interviewed him for my doctoral dissertation in 1997 was a highlight of my musical career. (I retired last year.) It was joy to speak with him about his music!


    Horrible music. “Much performed….?” Nonsense.

  • Amos says:

    The implications of the fact that MIT is much better known for educating scientists than musicians were put into perspective the last time I attended a performance of the Mahler 2nd on-campus and was greeted by ~ 25 students playing Quidditch on customized brooms.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Quick: name his best numbers. I bet no one can (There are none). Or: The last places where this ‘much performed’ composer has had his works played.