My Teacher, Marvin Duchow
(The following tribute, which I wrote, was offered as an introduction to a memorial concert for the late Marvin Duchow, sometime in 1980, I believe.)
A TRIBUTE TO MARVIN DUCHOW (1914-1979)
The Canadian Jewish Congress has asked me to say a few words about the late Marvin Duchow, to whom this concert is dedicated. I was privileged to know Marvin in various capacities for many years, and he was exceptional in all of them: scholar, teacher, composer, and friend.
Let me elaborate. The English musician Tovey once remarked that true scholarship was almost as rare a gift as genius itself. Marvin was an exemplary scholar, at a time when professionalism in North American musicology was just beginning to come into its own. He had the rare gift of combining insight into the large cultural context with rigorous concern for observation of musical detail. In his teaching Marvin brought to bear all this breadth and rigor, dispensing them with extraordinary generosity of spirit. Marvin put more effort into his teaching than anyone I have ever known.
His students will recall the voluminous and carefully organized notes he distributed in his classes, the detailed correction of assignments, and the endless help he provided those, who, like me, were always knocking on his door. Whether we required bibliographic direction, methodological guidance, musical insight, or intellectual background, Marvin was able and willing to provide it. Often, he would just sing a line from a medieval or Renaissance work in his quiet, intense voice, and the musical sense would suddenly emerge from the old pages. The music came to life. The seriousness and musicality that informed Marvin’s teaching also emerged in his composition. Despite many interruptions and very little encouragement for his composing, Marvin managed to create a series of beautiful pieces. He attempted to write music of enduring value, well crafted and emotionally honest. The intense lyricism and formal refinement of his existing music make one wish he had composed more.
Let me conclude this short tribute with a word about Marvin Duchow as a friend. The intelligence and sensitivity with which he was so richly endowed, together with a warm, generous, nature, meant that Marvin’s role to many who knew him was not only that of a fine musician or teacher, but also that of a dear friend who could always be trusted to listen and to help. Many of us, his students, found that even beyond the call of his professional duties, Marvin was willing to put himself out (with the greatest of tact) when we were in need. Several students he saved, virtually singlehandedly, from emotional crises. The gap left by his death for those who had the honor to know him cannot be filled.
(The following interview took place in 2002.)
AN INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA DUCHOW
Mrs. Duchow – Becky – is elegant, intelligent, kind and, although a quiet person, forceful in her own way. I have come to interview her about Marvin Duchow. We have not been much in touch in the twenty-three years since his death, but she still feels like an old friend.
As we start to talk, she tells me that even now she feels his presence. She has never remarried, never wanted to. Theirs was a close marriage, and she feels privileged to have had it.
We are in the home where I first studied with him. It is a place of memories for me. She is pleased to be discussing him, as she tells me about his youth, how they met, what he was like as a young man, and how his career evolved. I am especially struck by how much she says she learned from him.
She tells me that his intellectual development began early. She talks about Ida Massey, his aunt, a powerful influence on him. A poet, she was a leading member of the small but lively Jewish intellectual community in Montreal, a community filled with unusual characters, passionate about the arts, politics – the life of the mind. Although Marvin was not a believer in a conventional sense, his cultural heritage was Jewish. Jewish folksongs, heard from his aunt, always remained with him, as he recalls in a radio interview done near the end of his life. His own music was not folklore-inspired, but the warmth of emotion in those songs somehow informed his emerging musicality.
His earliest musical studies were with Quebec composer Claude Champagne, whose teaching he revered. These were followed by a move to Philadelphia, where he worked with Rosario Scalero, the teacher of Samuel Barber. These years were marked by prolific production, of songs, a string quartet, and various other works. These early works move from a rather Brahmsian style to one more clearly his own, always imbued with a lyrical melancholy. The music is invariably deeply felt and carefully crafted.
He subsequently broadened his education in New York, studying not just music, but also literature, history, and philosophy. This intellectual breadth would eventually inform his music teaching, allowing him to draw parallels between music and the other arts as well as with general history.
More specialized studies in musicology followed. Becky recalls their rich correspondence from those years, and also during his later studies at Eastman, mentioning again how much she absorbed by osmosis from his varied interests and natural sympathy for others.
On returning to Montreal, after one unhappy year teaching high school, Marvin was hired, at the urging of Claude Champagne, as one of the earliest teachers at the newly formed Conservatoire de Montréal. He was also active later as a teacher and a curriculum consultant at the l’École Normale de Musique and at Vincent D’indy. Eventually he began to teach at McGill, where he remained for the rest of his career.
In a crucial decision, he accepted to become Dean of the Faculty of Music, sacrificing the chance to finish writing his dissertation at Eastman. This sacrifice was one he always regretted.
The first time I meet Marvin Duchow I am about ten years old. He is Dean of Music at McGill. My mother has taken me to him for advice about my musical education. His is a kind, self-effacing presence; I feel immediately comfortable with him. I am entranced by all the scores in his office. He offers to lend me some music – the Schumann Piano Concerto, I think. For the next while, I will quite regularly visit this private library, when coming to my piano lessons in the building.
These years as Dean were not easy for him; he was not made for meetings, negotiations, compromises, administration. Also, the job took up enormous amounts of time and energy; his own musical projects got put on hold. Marvin took no pleasure from power; he did the job only because he was needed. In every situation I know about, when he had to choose between doing what he wanted, and doing what others needed, he chose the latter.
The next time we meet, I am eighteen. My own efforts at composition are faltering, because of my lack of training in harmony and counterpoint. I call him – we have had no contact since those early “library” visits – to ask for private lessons. He accepts. After a few lessons, I realize that the kind of craftsmanship I am striving for as a pianist is also relevant to composing. For the next few years, we meet weekly, at his house. I bring my exercises, he sings them, corrects them, makes suggestions. The singing is especially important: he sings with a fine musical intensity that brings technical matters quickly to life.The lessons are supposed to be an hour long, but time is no object for him. Often they last two hours or more, and he insists on driving me home afterwards. At other times I am invited for one of Mrs. Duchow’s superb meals as well. Having many personal problems of my own at the time, these evenings become an emotional refuge for me, apart from their musical importance.
Improbably, given the difference in our ages, we become friends; he sometimes confides in me about his own musical past, and plans.
One week I am ill; I call to cancel my lesson. It is my first year living on my own. He immediately insists on bringing over groceries for me. He is not only a mentor and a friend, I discover, but also someone who I can depend on to help.
Around this time I start studying music at McGill. I take every course I can with him. The difference between him and the other teachers is enormous. He is quiet in class, not a flashy personality, but the authority, the scholarship, and the devotion to his work never fail to impress. His course notes are astounding: on one or two sheets, great masses of information are synthesized, in his small, precise handwriting. Sometimes I see him preparing these sheets at home; the work involved must be daunting.
After several years of private study, we have covered harmony and counterpoint. Now I want to continue with fugue and orchestration, but he tells me that I will need another teacher; his own experience, he says, is not adequate for him to give me the instruction I need.
Much later, years after his death, I have occasion to look in more detail at his own orchestration. For my level of knowledge at the time, he in fact knew more than enough to guide me. But for him, knowing “enough” was not sufficient. He had to feel that he had completely mastered what he taught.
An example: at a time when Schenkerian analysis was still virtually unknown in the English speaking musical world, he was already teaching it. Most of the source material was then only available in German, and not easy reading; he – as usual – had read it, absorbed it completely, and was ready to transmit it. Unlike many later Schenker “disciples”, his use of the technique was not unquestioning, but critical, and integrated with other analytical techniques. I would read and hear a lot about the Schenkerian approach in the following years, very little of it as lucid or as intelligent as Marvin’s presentation. This too was a form of generosity.
While I am finishing my master’s degree at McGill, I start making regular trips to New York to study composition with David Diamond, at Juilliard. These one day trips are naturally a strain on my budget. When I finish my McGill degree, I am astonished to receive a graduation present from Marvin: a ticket for a round trip to New York, with a warm note attached.
I find out later, from Mrs. Duchow and others, that I was not the only recipient of such emotional and material generosity. He was always sympathetic to students’ needs, and often tried to help.
Shortly before his final illness, he spends a whole sabbatical year cataloguing the large personal library – books, scores, correspondence, manuscripts – of his former teacher, Claude Champagne. The job is an important one for Quebec musicology; it is also very arduous. As usual, he does it meticulously, painstakingly, ever the perfectionist. Several times we talk during that year. I try to encourage him to do some composition, as does Becky. He is torn: he wants to, but it is not an easy decision. As Becky remembers, the needs of the Champagne family weigh heavily on him. He suffers (not for the first time) a period of serious depression during this year.
Why did he stop composing? This is not an easy question to answer. It was not for lack of talent or métier; the early works were intensely musical, and finely crafted. When he says, in a radio interview done late in his life, that his main professional occupation is now as a musicologist and not as a composer, am I the only one to hear the sadness in his voice?
Some talents can succeed despite enormous obstacles. Others can only flourish in more encouraging conditions. But – the loss is not theirs alone.
When he finally began to compose again, in his last years, it was in response to a commission from the Canadian Jewish Congress. He was trying twelve tone technique for the first time. It was not a natural idiom for him, but it fit the subject of the texts he wished to set: three poems about the Holocaust, by Nelly Sachs. A tortured subject, a tortured man. Also, sadly, by the time of their completion, his health had begun to decline.
When I see him, occasionally, during the composition of these final songs, I can see that he is suffering. There is the advancing cancer, but the composing is also clearly painful. Picking up creative work after a hiatus of twenty five years cannot be easy. The critical faculties have evolved, but the personal technique, and, especially, the confidence in himself as an artist have not. It is as though he has never fully developed a sense of himself as a composer, with the right – even the obligation – to reserve time for his own creative work.
When the songs were premiered, he could not attend; he was in the hospital. For those of us who were present, the occasion was bittersweet. He succeeded in writing intense, fine music, but – so late.
The last time I will see Marvin Duchow, it is clear that the end is very near. Although he has refused visitors for a while, Becky has called to tell me that if I want to come to the hospital it should be soon; there is not much time left.When I arrive, with her help, he is trying to drink through a straw. He is not even strong enough to bring the liquid up through the straw; it is painful to watch. I sit beside him, hold his hand for a while, and show him the manuscript of a recently completed piece of mine. It is dedicated to him, a small gesture of thanks for his generosity to me. He squeezes my hand. We sit thus for a while, and then I must go.
Becky Duchow died in 2005.