Concertos and Duck:
A Conversation with
a Major American Composer
who Doesn’t Take to Deconstructionism
or Twelve-tone Music

A Conversation between Lew Spratlan and John Stewart

Surprisingly enough, despite a previous Yale admissions period when artistic talent was not highly rated, our class boasts several truly outstanding musicians who have gone on importantly in music. Steve Swallow is one of the greatest living jazz bassists. Eli Newberger, a superb musician on piano and tuba, when released from his medical duties plays with the Eli and the Hot Six. Alden Jenks composes and teaches music theory at the San Francisco Conservatory. Like Swallow, Eli’s roommate Paul Hersh left during sophomore year to play viola in the Lenox Concord String Quartet. Also a very fine pianist, he finished with ’63 and teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory while continuing his performing career. The distinguished scholar Fred Starr, also a fine pianist, is a world class New Orleans style clarinetist. And Lew Spratlan won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.


In our undergraduate days, due to the rather smaller numbers of serious musicians compared to now, music circles tended to overlap considerably. And we all knew each other. Both living in Vanderbilt, Lew and I met at Freshman Glee Club auditions (he says) or in the introductory music history class (I say). For three years we sang together in the Spizzwinks (?), for four in the glee clubs, and were the only two majors in music composition and theory. Although Alden majored in theory, he somehow was never in the same music courses with Lew and me. Basically we saw each other every day for four years. Living in Timothy Dwight gave us ample mealtimes together, and in our senior year we shared a recital with pianist Tom Baker ‘64. Lew and I did a group of settings of Blake poems by Vaughan Williams for oboe and tenor, with Lew on oboe. Being the only two composers kept us very close.

“I was going to become the governor of Florida.”

In senior year, our paths began to diverge. Although we were both in the composition honors seminars, Lew was churning out music and I was dribbling. Lew stayed on at Yale for a MMus and I left for a choral conducting assistantship at Brown. But we have maintained close contacts over the years, and try to see each other not infrequently.

JS: You grew up in Miami where your mother was a renowned piano teacher. What was your musical life like before Yale?

LS: Yes, my mother taught piano at home and I heard music constantly, from beginners to advanced students. Music seeped into my consciousness pretty much from infancy to when I left home for Yale. I also played oboe as an assistant to my teacher, Julian Balogh, in the Miami Symphony Orchestra, and feasted on noticing the myriad ways instruments combine.

JS: When you arrived at Yale, you once told me, you’d not decided on a musical career. What was your first idea (did you have one?) about what you’d do afterwards?

LS: Yep – I was going to become the governor of Florida(!), an ambition that had been pounded into me by my father and all the authority figures in my life. But that idea never seemed even a bit real to me. My passion was literature, thanks to an amazing English teacher and equally amazing French teacher at Coral Gables High School. So my first major was English. But I began to hate the way advanced English courses were taught at Yale (deconstructionism was in the ascendancy and all the things I loved about words and the way they meant something was pitifully passed over.) I’d been making music all along, singing and continuing to play the oboe, and taking a few music courses. So, half way through my junior year, I conned my way into the music major, mainly on the strength of my ear and by passing out of several “required” courses by exam.

JS: What did you like about musical life at Yale?

LS: Almost everything

JS: And what didn’t you like?

LS: That not enough really new music was being played and sung.

JS: What was best?

LS: I guess the Glee Club and, especially, the Spizzwinks (?), which was much more than a music ensemble but family, really. I had so many really close friendships and great adventures there.

JS: How different from undergrad life was it to be in the Yale School of Music? Highs, lows…

LS: Obviously, the YSM was hard-core, brass tacks. The faculty in those days consisted of world-class artists, composers and performers both, who, because of the culture of the place, were nurturing beyond belief and deeply cared about making you the most complete and profound a musician possible. The intimacy with them was way beyond the ordinary conservatory scene. My fellow students were also first-rate; we praised and knocked each other and goaded each other to absorb as much good music as we could. I also had the great fortune of meeting my yummy wife Melinda in the school of music. I was a very happy camper.

JS: I think what will really interest our classmates is how you get performers interested in playing (or singing!) your music. I assume that there were students (or faculty) there who’d play your stuff, and of course you had to prepare a graduate recital. What was that like?

LS: It was simply assumed. The school rarely assigned players to perform student composers’ music. We were a community and all the instrumentalists gladly played for us just for our asking. I also became very active as a conductor and was much sought out for that.

“One professor attempted to have my degree withheld.”

JS: I’d like to ask a little about the evolution of your compositional style. In our student days we were environmentally urged to write serial music, a style which was pretty much over the heads (and ears) of a larger audience. My sense is that you kept adding to your scores everything that you’d ever heard, and forged a unique personal synthesis.

LS: Why – thanks! Serialism — 12-tone music — always seemed artificial to me, although I very much admired some of the works of the great masters (Berg and Webern above all, but Schoenberg and Boulez, too). My music kept trying (perversely) to add tonal inflections to the atonal serial style. The biggest piece on my graduate recital (“Flange”) actually mocked some of the serial clichés and was generally disruptive and anarchic. It caused a bit of a stir. (One professor attempted to have my degree withheld. He failed.)

JS: After leaving Yale you taught at a couple of schools before fetching up at Amherst where you were a beloved teacher and conductor and oboist. Were your colleagues and students your first performers?

LS: Mainly the performers were the faculty at the other schools in the “valley,” Smith, Mount Holyoke, and UMass. Amherst didn’t have a performance faculty as such.

JS: And then how did you (how does a composer) reach out to a larger cohort of instrumentalists and singers?

LS: I made it my business to form close associations with players and singers in Boston and had numerous pieces performed there by such ensembles as the Boston Musica Viva and Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, and later on, with the greatest pleasure, by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), a stunning full-size professional orchestra in Boston [see below] that plays nothing but 20th and 21st century music. I’d also met many musicians as a fellow at Tanglewood and through them got my foot in the door in New York.

JS: Of course, at hand you had your wonderfully gifted soprano wife, Melinda, whom you’d met at YSM.

LS: And how! I’ve written many songs for her, which she performed brilliantly and movingly.

“There’s a lot more cross-fertilization between ‘classical’ traditions
and jazz, rock, and world music”

JS: Having just returned from a fascinating concert in the Mostly Mozart Festival where a seven-part Buxtehude work was paired with responses from living composers — a brilliant concept carried out brilliantly by the performers, including your son Dan, a fine singer and conductor — I would insist that your piece was head and shoulders better, more original and gripping, than those of the other composers. But my judgement speaks to the incredible diversity of music being produced today: crossovers of all sorts, with pop, jazz, rock, earlier music, and concepts of timeless absence of movement, stillness, and endless repetition. Your piece had drama, direction, rhythmic propulsiveness and even romance! Which leads to the last question.

How would you contrast the state of “new” music when you finished school and now? How would you define your place in the world of 21st century composition?

LS: On balance, I think we’re in a better place now that in the mid-60’s, when I left Yale. The landscape is much broader, there’s a lot more cross-fertilization between “classical” traditions and jazz, rock, and world music. Minimalism has had a great influence, too. Composers in general are far freer and wide-ranging than in the gloomy days of serialism. There’s plenty of pretentious crap being composed (that’s always been the case). But there’s a huge amount of stirring, bracing, and extremely enjoyable music being played (Lindberg, Saariaho, Lang, Birtwistle, to name a few). I feel at the height of my powers (excuse the immodesty) and able to move pretty fluently from idea to execution. I’m currently absorbed in a black, French-Caribbean operatic version of Medea and have had the first nibbles towards a production. Stay tuned!

Listen to More Lew Spratlan Music

You can buy a copy of the album containing “A Summer’s Day” and other works here.

Hear other recent Spratlan works by clicking the links below.

Lew Spratlan’s music is now frequently performed in the US and abroad. It also includes the opera, Life is a Dream, shown in the first photo, quartets and concertos, a piece honoring the victims of conquest, and a chamber opera about the architect Louis Kahn, who designed both the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art. See a list of Lew’s recordings and find the titles and formats of his works on Wikipedia. On the home page of his website, you can glimpse his prolific output during the last decade.

P.S.: A Spratlan “signed autograph” was available on Amazon in early January for $47.77. The man has fans!

P.P.S.: If you’re a musician or music fan, please send word about your activities, amateur or professional, to


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