John Harbison was 6 years old when he sat at the piano to puzzle out a favorite piece by Bach, transcribed by his father for his child-size hands, and the revelation hit him: He was meant to be a composer.
More than seven decades later, Harbison is among the most distinguished living composers in America, with works bridging genres from opera to chamber music and jazz.
This month, Madison — one of two cities Harbison considers home — will honor him with an 80th birthday celebration that includes concerts, an exhibit, radio broadcasts and the world premiere of a new Harbison work featuring Madison violist Sally Chisholm.
“He is certainly one of the premiere American composers, and the major orchestras have pretty regularly, over the years, performed his work,” said John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “And of course he’s a great jazz pianist as well, and he’s given us a lot of joy.”
The MSO will perform Harbison’s 1993 “The Most Often Used Chords” as part of its concert program in Overture Hall next weekend, Friday through Sunday. DeMain selected that work, he said, in part because it puts Harbison’s extraordinary intellect and imagination on display — and because “the piece is delightful to listen to for the audience.”
Harbison is expected to be at the MSO concerts, and will teach a master class in composition at UW-Madison on Feb. 18, a day after the premiere of his new Viola Sonata with Chisholm in Mills Hall. Memorial Library is also hosting an exhibit through the month looking at his career.
A new book
For being the guest of honor at birthday celebrations around the world, the composer certainly has not been taking it easy. The season included two other premieres of new works, a dozen new recordings, and performances of Harbison’s music across the globe.
And last fall, he published his first book, “What Do We Make of Bach?”
Released at the same time as the premiere of an organ symphony with the same title, the book is a collection of elegantly spare, poetic essays about the people in Harbison’s life and his development as an artist, always underpinned by the presence of Bach (like that moment at age 6 at the keyboard). Together, the vignettes — about his family, his teachers, and about how “at a certain age you believe Bach will save the world” — unfold like an autobiography.
Harbison wrote the chapters in bits and pieces while traveling, he said.
“I didn’t plan to structure it this way,” said Harbison, who said he spent his actual 80th birthday on Dec. 20 quietly at home. “It just took on the shape that seemed congenial at the time.”
Raised in Princeton, New Jersey, Harbison is the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant and teaches composition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1963 he married violinist Rose Mary Pedersen, who had grown up and attended a one-room schoolhouse in Token Creek, just a few miles northeast of Madison.
After earning a degree from the school of music at UW-Madison she had moved East, but she kept her roots in Wisconsin: Each summer since 1989, the couple has returned to the Madison area to program and host the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on her family’s rural property.
“We do consider ourselves double-residents, and we are always so happy to arrive there and spend time,” Harbison said on a recent phone call from the East Coast.
In Token Creek, Harbison often works out of his “composition shack.” It’s there he wrote “The Flight Into Egypt,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and large sections of his opera “The Great Gatsby,” a commission from the Metropolitan Opera.
In 2002, Harbison received an honorary doctorate, his fourth, from UW-Madison.
A ‘personal’ piece
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Just a few weeks ago, Harbison completed the Viola Sonata that Chisholm and pianist Timothy Lovelace of the University of Minnesota will premiere next Sunday.
“I think it’s just a wonderful contribution to the viola repertoire. As I have played quite a bit of his music, I have found it to be one of the most personal pieces I’ve played of his,” said Chisholm, who has known Harbison since moving to Madison in the 1990s.
“You know — you play Schubert, and you feel like you’re inside Schubert’s mind and world,” she said. “And I have that feeling, actually, in this piece. You feel (Harbison’s) own personal questions and the answers he looks for.
“As musicians, we like to understand the composer’s nature and world experience, so we can communicate that to the audience, and he gives us many opportunities in this one,” said Chisholm, who is also violist of the Pro Arte Quartet, Germain Prevost Professor of Music (viola) and artist in residence at UW-Madison.
A violist himself, Harbison feels a special kinship with those who play the instrument.
“They’re a really interesting group of people. I like their thinking about music,” he said.
The viola, a member of the violin family whose alto voice sits between those of the violin and cello, “plays in the middle of the texture,” he said.
“The players, I think, gravitate to the instrument because they can envision great interest in that kind of situation, where they hear music kind of from inside.
“I didn’t know when I was a young player — and had already realized the viola was something I wanted to play — that many, many composers were violists,” Harbison said. “I went to concerts when I was a young kid, and that was always the instrument I wanted to play. Later I found out that Bach and Mozart and Vaughan Williams and endless numbers of composers all played viola.”
Along with the concerts at UW-Madison and Overture Hall, music by Harbison will be featured several times this month at the First Unitarian Society. And his work will be explored in special broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-FM community radio.
“He has many events in the 10 days or so that he’s here,” Chisholm said. “So there will be many opportunities for the public to hear him in different venues and different situations. I highly recommend them all.”
Future of festival
In late August, John and Rose Mary Harbison will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the music festival they founded at Token Creek, known to feature chamber music and guest musicians seldom heard in the Midwest. For some years the festival also included jazz, a bit of which the Harbisons hope to bring back this year under the 2019 theme of “Sanctuary.” But planning is still in the works.
“We are thinking a lot about it. And we’re also thinking about the property,” Harbison said. “We’ve lived there on the property for years, and now that we’re both in our 80s, we’re thinking about what should become of it, very much hoping that it could become part of the much larger piece of parkland that is adjacent. Token Creek Park is immediately to our south, and it seems it would add an important piece to that.”
At the same time the Harbisons, who have no children, are pondering the future of the barn on the property that has been converted to a “kind of concert hall,” Harbison said.
The barn “is a place that, even with the various other places where we perform, is one of our favorite — probably our favorite — place to perform. It’s a nice size of room to be playing chamber music.”
Violist Chisholm has heard “many great concerts” at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, she said. After a performance, “you have just a fraction of a moment to ask (Harbison) some question about the music, and you can learn more than you thought possible in a few seconds.
“It’s something you can’t find in a book — it’s an understanding of music,” she said, “and his breadth of knowledge of music is so wonderful.”