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CLASSICAL  November 2008

CLASSICAL November 2008

Subject:

Deems Taylor Bio

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 5 Nov 2008 15:13:33 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Deems Taylor: A Biography

James A. Pegolotti
Gerard Schwarz, intro. Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press. 2003.
ISBN-10: 1555535879
ISBN-13: 978-1555535872
Summary for the Busy Executive: The man who had everything.

I suppose that if anybody recognizes the composer Deems Taylor's name,
they do so through his role as compere in Disney's Fantasia, where he
gently prepared the audience for the next segment they were about to
hear.  The parsimonious Disney fought with the prestige-hungry Disney
and lost.  Fantasia, to his mind, was to be his visionary masterpiece,
so he couldn't hire just any old studio announcer.  Instead, he stalked
and landed perhaps the best-known advocate for classical music in North
America.  Taylor was so recognizable, in fact, that when Warner Brothers
genius cartoon director Bob Clampett parodied the Disney milestone with
A Corny Concerto, he turned Elmer Fudd into a klutzy Deems ("Wasn't that
wuhvwy?"), and probably almost everyone in the audience got the joke.

During the Twenties and especially during the golden age of radio,
Taylor was the Great Explainer of matters musical, particularly through
his breezy, witty commentary for nationwide broadcasts of the New York
Philharmonic.  Nobody else came close until Leonard Bernstein and his
Young People's Concerts.  In the Thirties and early Forties, he showed
up all over the radio: guest spots on Duffy's Tavern, It Pays to be
Ignorant, and The Fred Allen Show; semi-permanent panelist on Information
Please.  Taylor also wrote best-selling books, mostly on music, and
became one of the top newspaper critics in New York.  He belonged to
the Algonquin Round Table, its only musical member, and possessed a
lightning-fast mind that could quip with the best of them, having begun
his writing career as a "contrib" to F.  P.  A.'s legendary column.  He
frequented the Stork Club and 21, married and amicably divorced three
beautiful women, and strung together a life-long chain of affairs (each
tryst meticulously noted in his appointment book) with younger women -
toward the end, several decades younger.  He dated Miss America.  Not
bad for a short, slight bald guy with cheaters.  All things considered,
a glamorous life, well beyond the capabilities and incomes of most
composers.

Nevertheless, Taylor thought of himself primarily as a composer and
wanted that accolade the most.  He certainly had the regard of the general
public.  His first two operas, The King's Henchman (libretto by Millay)
and Peter Ibbetson, actually made big money for the Metropolitan.  Two
of his cantatas - The Chambered Nautilus and The Highwayman - won national
prizes, as did his orchestral masterpiece, Through the Looking-Glass.

As a composer, Taylor had only the briefest formal training, mainly in
harmony.  He learned counterpoint and orchestration on his own.  He began
and ended as an Impressionist-cum-Neoromantic, more or less Modern when
he began, hopelessly old-hat when he finished.  The real Modernists -
Copland, Thomson, Sessions, Piston, Ives, et al.  - had completely routed
such lights as Carpenter, Phillips, Gilbert, Converse, Mason, and even
to some extent Griffes.  However, at the remove of forty years, these
changes in fashion matter less and less.  Taylor's music is well-made
and almost always inspired, and from what I can tell, audiences like it.
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of it, and what there is tends to confine
itself to a rather restricted neighborhood.  Almost all of it comes from
Taylor's love of fantasy and literature.  You won't find sonatas or
symphonies or even adult emotions and deep, passionate currents.  Taylor
needed some extra-musical stimulus to get started and didn't seem able
to sublimate his original impulse into abstract form.  Overall, Taylor's
career strikes me as that of a gentleman who lived by his wits, rather
than that of a writer with an inner need.

Taylor had legitimate needs for money, but he also had a taste for the
high life.  His scattered his tremendous hustle among so many different
areas that he could never focus on one thing, and his need for money
drove him to it.  One year, he spent ten percent of his income on
night-clubbing.  He lived very, very well, earning tens of thousands per
year during the Depression.  His yearly royalties from his compositions
represented a mere fraction.  In fact, he could earn more from two weeks
on the radio than from his original music.  Consequently, something
almost always interposed itself between Taylor and actual composing.
However, when radio networks began to abandon classical music in the
Forties, Taylor had to scramble to reinvent himself.  Mommas, don't
let your babies grow up to be composers.

Pegolotti has undoubtedly written the standard biography of Taylor,
and (Taylor would probably have liked this) he's not a professional
musicologist.  He has meticulously researched the book from a hunk of
primary material, and he writes wittily and gracefully as well.  Taylor's
art (and life), after all, doesn't have as much intrinsic interest as,
say, Stravinsky's, but Pegolotti keeps you interested.  An unusually
full and vivid portrait of this Manhattan Proteus emerges.  In addition,
the book raises a number of social questions about the role of classical
music in the United States and how to popularize it.  Taylor, one must
say, didn't have an audience any more musically sophisticated than today.
But he did have backing - national networks willing to program classical
music - and he reached people of all economic levels and regions.  Radio
is fast disappearing as a musical source - even a popular one - replaced
by the download.  This may be a triumph for democracy, but not necessarily
a triumph of enlightenment.  How do we digitize Deems Taylor?

Steve Schwartz

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