Remembering Thomas Briccetti

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Thomas Gaetano Briccetti, 1936-1999

 

Thomas Briccetti shaped my understanding of music, and therefore my life, more than anyone before or since. There's no word in English to describe our relationship accurately; I suppose "mentor" comes close, or perhaps "guru" or the Japanese "sensei", though it was much more personal. My knowledge of many details of his life is poor. Whenever we got together, we'd glide over the formalities of family and other personal details, then jump headlong into musical talks that would last far into the night, or at least until the espresso ran out. So this essay is less a biography than a personal remembrance of a great musician, inspired teacher and wonderful human being. The chronological details of his life and work are available at www.thomasbriccetti.com.

"Mister Briccetti", as I always called him,  was born in Mount Kisco, New York on January 14, 1936. He began studying piano with Dr. Jean Dansereau, the French-Canadian master when he was eleven years old. From the beginning it was apparent that his devotion to music was all-encompassing. He told me more than once, perhaps with a touch of dramatic exaggeration, that he never had the time to play baseball or engage in the other normal activities of young boys, so devoted was he to practicing.

He attended the Eastman School of Music but dropped out after one year. As he told me, he felt the education there was inferior to what he received from Dansereau. At that time, Eastman was offering a novel approach to learning the traditional rules of basic music theory; He told me, "I got the music theory and then got out."

Briccetti also briefly studied music composition privately with Samuel Barber, Alan Hovhaness, Geoffredo Petrassi and Peter Mennin, and attended Columbia University's Graduate School of Fine Arts. He didn't mention these composers much, and I don't think they had much of an influence. He did, however, admire Hovhaness' work, The Flowering Peach.

In 1958, he won the Prix de Rome ("the Italian one,  not the American one") as a pianist.  Soon after arriving in Rome, he broke his shoulder in a motorcycle accident, forcing a cancellation of his concert schedule there, so he went to Norway to compose his Sonata for Flute and Piano (Opus 14) for Ornulf Gulbransen, where he also completed his First Symphony. At least, that's what a 1969 biography in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program says.

In 1970, I accompanied him to the old Indianapolis Union Station to pick up the composer Norman Dello Jollo, who was arriving from New York by train (and who didn't like flying) for a concert of his music that Briccetti was to conduct. While we waited in the dingy, deserted building for the perennially late train, he started playing a pinball machine. At that time, this was considered a low-class activity, in fact still illegal for minors.  Anyway, he told me that he spent nearly all of his time in Rome playing pinball (with a broken shoulder?), and in the last few weeks wrote a flurry of music, because his musical ideas had been subconsciously gestating while he focused on "not writing".  Apparently his message to me was not to try too hard, but to let ideas come when they're ready.

When Briccetti returned to the United States in 1959, he prepared to resume his career as a concert pianist. However, a friend had surreptitiously sent his Flute Sonata and Symphony to the Ford Foundation, which gave him a Composer's Fellowship in 1960 and 1961. He was invited to serve as Composer-in-Residence, first in Denver and then Florida, where he helped found the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and served as conductor and Musical Director from 1963 until 1968, when he was appointed Associate Conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

 

 

In 1969, I was a bored High School Senior. My only real interests were girls and music, but my parents wanted me to go to a university to study electrical engineering, at least Purdue if not MIT. They thought I had an interest in such things, not understanding that the only reason I'd learned to read electrical schematics was to build guitar amps and other music gear.

Each May, our high school organized a Career Day (actually a half day), when professionals from many different fields came to speak to whomever was interested. There were two sessions, so each student had the opportunity to visit two presentations. I always went first to a session devoted to an "acceptable" career - engineering, law, etc. - and then to the music session, which was usually not very inspiring. One year, the speaker was a music professor from a local university with no idea about making a career outside of academia.

So as a Senior in 1969, I walked in to the Music Careers session with my Bad Attitude, where we were introduced to a very energetic man, "Mister Thomas Briccetti, the Associate Conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra." Actually, I didn't know much very about the ISO. I had started listening seriously to "classical" music a few years before, but had heard the orchestra only a couple of times. I thought the programming of their Music Director, Izler Solomon, was pretty dull, heavily focused on 19th Century works. And the Associate Conductor's duties were traditionally limited to special "young people's concerts" and visits to schools, so I knew even less about him.

Anyway, Briccetti began talking about real careers in music, and I immediately realized that this guy knew what he was talking about.  He wasn't some tired, tenured academic teaching harmony to Music Education students, but a real musician who performed onstage as a pianist and conductor. Most of all, he wrote orchestra music!

What I recall most from that day was something radical, even subversive that he told us. Career Day was generally assumed to be a chance to decide what we would be studying in college - I don't think there were any sessions on auto mechanics or other "trades" - and Briccetti did tell everyone that the traditional path to most jobs in the music industry required going to a music school. But then he said, "If you are really talented, forget about college and find a private teacher."

Up to this point, my musical education had been rather limited: a year of weekly violin class lessons in 5th Grade; a band class in 6th Grade where I studied clarinet, followed by a few private lessons the next year and participation in the Junior High School band (Grade 7-9); a few months of private guitar lessons in 9th Grade. I was a lazy student, seldom devoting the minimal half-hour of practice per day that my teachers requested. In my Junior year, I took a Music Theory class that inspired me to try composing seriously, and my parents to buy a piano and let me take some lessons.

So I understood that singers and instrumentalists took private lessons, but the idea that a composer (as I had begun to think of myself, having written a short piece that I had rehearsed with the school orchestra, and with a symphony in the works) would take private lessons sounded preposterous. Being something of a smart-ass, I decided to call his bluff after the class. I wasn't ready for the reply I got.

I asked him, "OK, I'm a composer. What do I do to study privately" (ha-ha)? He replied with complete seriousness that I should call him later that week and he would give me names of possible teachers.  At that precise moment, my world changed. Apparently there were ways for someone like me to learn how to write music, and this man was going to help me!  Something about his manner, his focus and enthusiasm made me trust him completely. I was so excited I couldn't focus on anything else that day. I remember telling my mother about the expereience, who probably started to panic, realizing that I'd a found a way to learn to be a composer (and by implication, not an engineer).

To my parents' great credit, they did call him, and apparently he was very persuasive, because they agreed to let me study privately with him. I remember calling him and feeling overwhelmed, not unlike swimming lessons as a young boy when I had to jump into the deep end. He told me I'd need at least two lessons a week, preferably every three days, that they might last 2 hours, and that I was expected to study at least five hours per day, or he would drop me. And said I would need some books I'd never heard of: Elementary Training for Musicians by Paul Hindemith, and Modus Novus, an atonal sight-singing book by Lars Edlund,  which had to be special-ordered - from New York!

 

Photo from Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program, June 27, 1969. Date of photo unknown, ~1965

 

Conducting William Walton's Music for Children for a local television broadcast, 1970

All this occurred in the last few weeks before high school graduation. When word got out that I was going to study private composition lessons, I became a minor celebrity in my high school, and I ended up on the front page of the school newspaper, with a photo of me writing my Symphony. I carred it around with me all day and worked on it during classes; as a result, I failed mathematics and Physics, and graduated in the bottom half of my class, making me ineligble for Indiana University's music school.

Soon the books arrived, and one day as the summer began, I showed up at his home for my first lesson. It was an elegant older house on Pennsylvania Street, on the Old North Side of Indianapolis. His music studio was a large sunny room at one end of the house, off the living room, with a desk, sofa and an upright piano (one of three pianos in the house). I had already met his wife, Eleanor, Principal Second Violinist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, when my parents had invited them over to our house for dinner. They had few, if any friends of Italian ancestry (Briccetti's mother was from somewhere near Rome, and his father from Sicily), and they were charmed by his passion and exuberance.

I met his children, David and Kathy, and then we went into his studio. I had come prepared with my Symphony, and the books I had ordered. He took my manuscript and studied it silently for perhaps five minutes, and then began to talk. He said it contained enough ideas for at least ten pieces, and that while it was rhythmically interesting, it lacked melocic and harmonic focus. He showed me several specific examples.

Something clicked. If was as if I'd been nearly blind and suddenly put on glasses and gotten 20/20 vision. I understood exactly what he meant, what was wrong with my composition. He was the first musician ever to talk to me so critically and honestly, and with such musical insight. He told me I had to develop my music fundamentals before I could develop as a composer, and we dove into "the Hindemith". I never worked on that score again; years later I would look at it and laugh at how uneducated and naive I had been.

 

That summer I settled into a routine pretty quickly. My lessons, about three a week, always lasted at least two hours, and sometimes three. We usually worked from the Hindemith book first for nearly an hour. Nearly the entire book is exercises in rhythm, sight-singing and dictation, and it gets very difficult very fast. This was followed with atonal sight singing. Then we would look at orchestra scores, usually works he was preparing for performance. I usually had three or four at a time I was expected to listen to and be ready to discuss the next week. These were generally Twentieth Century works, everything from Ravel's Bolero and Shostakovich symphonies, to Ligeti, Penderecki and Berio. He had a special fondness for Donald Erb, who was a good friend as well as an excellent composer who wrote very modern music that was exciting and listenable. Soon he added piano lessons to my workload; I could barely play chords, so he started me through the Bartok Mikrokosmos series, and the Bach Two-Part Inventions.

Of course, he also encouraged me to compose and to experiment. I wrote a lot of execrable student pieces, fortunately now all lost. But each time, he was able to zero in on the weaknesses, and went I home I always knew what needed to be changed. I was already fascinated by the music of Varese (we had analyzed Octandre), and my own music had begun taking on some of his textural organization principles.

At that time, a guitar teacher at a music store might charge $2.50-3.00 for a lesson. Briccetti charged me $12, reminding me that his "New York rate" was $30. This was more than $120 a month, a strain on my parents' finances. So I often worked at the Briccetti house, cutting the grass or weeding their garden, for which I got $1.50 an hour (the Indiana minimum wage was $1.25). Once, I worked for several hours cleaning out what looked like weeds, only to learn later I had uprooted all of Mrs. Briccetti's morning glories, a mistake they joked about for years after.

When I wasn't at lessons or unintentionally destroying their garden, I studed. My parents were amazed to see their academically-lazy son studying hour after hour. My girlfriend went to France for the summer with a school group, and I quickly lost interest in hanging out with my friends. Eventually they stopped calling me.

I studied with him all summer and into the fall, taking lessons every few days and attending all of his orchestra rehearsals, sitting in the back of the hall with scores and a flashlight, (a habit I still have). He began teaching me conducting techniques, which I quickly realized was less about waving a stick gracefully than knowing every note of the music. For example, I would conduct Stravisnky's L'Histoire du Soldat while he sang the bassoon part. This work is written in devilishly complex meters, but sounds very simple. He would sing accurately to my beat, so as I got off, so did he. All in all, it was a challenging, exhilerating and sometimes humiliating education. But he was always patient and kind, and his goal was always clear: to make me a better composer.

In September, 1969, with the Vietnam War raging and the military draft in effect, I enrolled in the Indiana University Extension (now IUPUI) in order to get a student deferment. I hated it and seldom attended classes. Somehow I passed my Philosophy class but failed everything else -including Music Appreciation!

In December, I moved out of my parents' house to live on my own. I went to work, first as a fast-food cook and then a record store clerk, and I began to backslide on my music studies. I had no car, and it was almost impossible to get to lessons or orchestra rehearsals, as Indianapolius had (and still has) one of the worst public transportation systems of any city in America. My father became concerned, and in a heart-to-heart talk he admiited that he and my mother at first did not want me studying music in college because they thought I wasn't serious (the head of Butler University's Music Department had called me a "dilletante"). But seeing that this was what I really wanted, they offered to help me attend a good music school, if I would move back home and resume my studies. I told him I didn't see any point going to a conservatory unless it was Juilliard, and Dad replied that I should try to go there.

That February, Briccetti conducted a concert I still remember as remarkably innovative. In his role as Associate conductor, he had changed the Young People Concerts into something called New Vibrations, which included a lot of very modern music. On February 14, he scheduled "Saint Valentine's Day Music Massacre and Raid. The concert included some romantic classics (Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and Satie's Gymnopedies), plus Copland's Lincoln Portrait, Bernstein's music from On the Waterfront, Ligeti's Atmospheres and Penderecki's Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima. This was followed by a dance with a local rock band, and refreshments. Prices were $4 each, or $5 per couple.

In March, I moved home, back to the soundproof room in the basement. The piano movers, tired of carrying my spinet piano up and down narrow stairs, told me never to call them again. At my lessons, Briccetti started pushing me even harder, preparing me for my Juilliard audition. We finished the Hindemith and Edlund books, something that later surprised the Juilliard jury, which included Vincent Persichetti, Eliot Carter, Roger Sessions and Hall Overton. Briccetti had helped me prepare a Bach Invention for the piano placement exam, which got me into the second-year class (every other composer at the school had tested out). I also placed into secondyear Ear Training and "Literature and Materials of Music" classes.

Back in Indianapolis, I continued studies with Briccetti through the summer, until I left for New York in September. I had began work on Sonoratoium, a rather wacky piece for five percussionists who also recite poetry (written by Ken Hixon, a high school classmate). Whenever I returned home during school holidays, we'd have an informal lesson or two, in which he would critique whatever I was writing. We also met in New York a few times.

In the summer of 1970, Briccetti was hired as Artistic Director of the Festival Music Series, a summer chamber music concert group with an eclectic program, and a schedule or 24 concerts, 16 outside of Indianapolis. After the premiere concert, which featured Monteverdi and Menotti, he abruptly resigned, allegeedly due to "an irresolvable policy conflict with the board." The local press claimed that he was said to be displeased with budgeting for rehearsals and soloists. However, an article in The New York Times on June 7, 1970 explained that the problem was with the local Musician's Union, which refused to allow "transfer musicians" to participate, thus limiting his ability to hire the finest musicians available. It was not the first nor the last time he was to walk away from an opoortunity on principle.

When I left Juilliard and returned to Indianapolis in 1972, Briccetti had resigned from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. There had been a musician's strike, and apparently he had asked for more responsibility and more money and been refused. In any case, he had moved on to new challenges.

He began teaching conducting at The Cleveland Institute of Music while studying with George Szell, and he was also the Music Director of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Philharmonic. It was a small orchestra, but he enjoyed having much more artistic control than he had had in Indianapolis. Fortunately for me, it provided an opportunity to help with my musical development and career.

Briccetti invited me to write a piece for the Indiana Chamber Orchestra, comprising the principals of the FWPO. Working nights and weekends while holding down a job repairing movie projectors, I finished the nine-minute Psilocycles in a "mere" sixteen months. He also helped me get a Meet The Composer grant to cover the cost of copying parts, and a $100 rental fee. Fiendishly difficult, including complete divisi of the fifteen string parts, he premiered it on December 7, 1994. His performance was masterful - his conducting was always superb - and he even arranged for a surreptitious recording to be made. I was interviewed by the local newspaper, and the concert got a favorable review. Soon after, the Women's Symphony Committee in Indianapolis licensed one page of the score to reproduce as gift-wrapping paper (I got $75). It was sold at the Symphony Store for many years afterward.

The effect this had on my budding career was incalculable. A few months later, I quit my job, my first of several "retirements", to be a starving compose full time. My first project was another piece for the same instruments, From Wood And Metal, which I entered in the Premio Angelicum Milano competition and won second prize. Meanwhile, Briccetti had openied up a car dealership in Fort Wayne, selling exotic sports cars, one of his passions. He offered me a job minding the store, where I could compose when there were no customers, but I declined. I did apply for a Composer In The Schools program in Fort Wayne, and the jury included the FWPO's Manager, but my distaste for that environment must have shown during the interview, and I wasn't chosen. I did, however, complete several compositions during that period, and secured some local performances.

In June, 1975, not wanting to become a big fish in a little pond, I left Indianapolis, first for a lazy summer in Athens, Georgia, and then to San Francisco, where I lived for the next fifteen years. Briccetti, meanwhile had become Music Director of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, I didn't see him for many years, until his children moved to the Bay Area and he occasionally came to visit. I heard that he was highly-respected in Omaha, and that he built up the orchestra into a truly professional organization. We continued to correspond, and I often sent him new compositions for his criticism. He also sent me a few of his, including a hand-copied score of his 1986 work Illusions, which was later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

I'd also heard he had remarried, but it was the nature of our relationship that we seldom talked about our personal lives. It wasn't because of any emotional distance, but when we met we always started talking about music right away and never stopped until he had to leave. Or maybe he told me but I wasn't pay attention. The last time I saw him in California was in 1986, when I had started writing mostly electronic music, and he was fascinated by the MIDI setup I had built, which was pretty advanced for its time.

At that time, he was living in Perugia Italy, in an old (500 years or more) house on Via Eburnea, inside the old Etruscan Wall. Completely renovated of course, it was a little like a New York townhouse, except that every room was on a different level off a central staircase. He was doing some conducting and teaching in Perugia, and he also conducted the Stavanger (Norway) Simfoniorkester. He offered me an opportunity to compose something for the orchestra plus synthesizers, and he invited me to visit him in Perugia in the spring of 1987, apparently with a completed score. However I thought he wanted me to write it once I arriveed, so it never happened.

Nevertheless, I arrived with my girlfriend in late March, and we stayed for a month. For most of that time, Briccetti was in Stavanger, and we had the chance to explore the area ourselves. He had set up a basic electronic studio alongside his Steinway piano, comprising a Synergy, Yamaha DX-7 and Roland drum machine, connected via MIDI to an early Macintosh computer with Performer software, and a TEAC 4-track tape recorder. I spent much of my time there in the studio, rewiring everything for a better workflow.

I also started working on a piece that would become part of a collaboration. It was short, a little over two minutes, entitled SOS. As I remember, the title derived both from the Morse code-like repeated notes, and a reference to Army slang for chipped beef on toast, substituting "synthesizer" for "shingle". I left him a copy of the MIDI file to listen to, and over the next few years I expanded and developed it somewhat. Then my girlfriend and I left to travel Europe by rail for a month, stopping in Lausanne to hear Briccetti conduct a concert of safe classics.

We kept in touch through the mail. In 1988-89 I received many letters, often filled with excitement about his opera, Eurydice, "the old Orpheus and Eurydice story turned upside down." A postcard dated January 8, 1992 from Saint Petersburg, Russia informed me of two premieres with the Leningrad Philharmonic. And in a letter of February 5, 1994 he was off to Poland for a performance of his Violin Concerto and an overture for large orchestra, Chagalliana, and that he had just finished a Cello Concerto.

About 1994, he contacted me (I was living in Indianapoluis again) to ask for permission to incorporate SOS into his oratorio, Odysseus Returns. I gladly gave permission. By 1995 he had e-mail, and he sent a message November 15 that the work was finished. He had incorporated SOS almost verbatim (Section XII), overlaying a vocal line. It's an interesting work, a retelling of the Ulysseus myth, except that in this instance he is rejected by Penelope, who resents his philandering. He was very proud of it, saying "It's clean and powerful and transparent - and it kicks ass!"

He sent me a vocal score and a rehearsal recording in early 1996. Living in Indianapolis and working a dull tech support job, I was far from the circles in which he travelled, and so I didn't see him for another three years, until I was sent to Asia as a Product Specialist for my company, and detoured to Perugis during an Eastern Europe business trip.

The last time I saw him was in the autumn of 1998. Flying back from Belgrade, I met him at the Rome airport and he drove back at Grand Prix speed to Perugia, where I spent the night at his house. Again, we didn't talk much about his personal life - he was living alone then - except to tell me he had suffered a minor stroke, and that for a while he could speak only Italian. We stayed up most of the night drinking espresso and listening to CDs, and the next day I boarded the bus for Rome, and home to Bangkok. I have some video of that visit which I hope to post here when I have time.

My mother was the one to call me with the news that he had died, in his home in Perugia on May 27, 1999. To this day I cannot accurately express how I felt when I learned that my mentor, the man who had guided me in the right direction at a critical time in my life, was gone. Like American Pie, it was for me "the day the music died." More tha anything, I felt lost. Since my first studies, I had sent him scores or recordings of everything I had written, knowing he would be both supportive and brutally honest. I no longer had anywhere to go for verification.

This was his obituary in The New York Times:

BRICCETTI-Thomas Composer and conductor Thomas Briccetti died on May 27, 1999 in Perugia, Italy, his home since 1984. Born January 14, 1936 in Mount Kisco, NY to Thomas Briccetti and Joan Filardi. Student of pianist Dr. Jean Dansereau, composers Bernard Rogers, Samuel Barber, Peter Mennin and Alan Hovhaness, conductors Drs. Richard Lert and George Szell. Associate Conductor, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; Music Director, St. Petersburg (FL) Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Cleveland University Circle, Omaha (NE) Symphony, Stavanger (Norway) Symphony Orchestras, North Carolina School of the Arts, orchestras in Perugia and Bergamo, and frequent guest conductor in Europe and USA. Recipient Prix de Rome in composition; Ford Foundation Composers Fellowship; Yaddo Foundation grant. His 1986 orchestra work, ''Illusions,'' received a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Briccetti is survived by his brother, Dr. Albert Briccetti of Redlands, California, sister Joan Briccetti of St. Louis, Missouri; a son, David Briccetti of Lafayette, California and a daughter, Katherine Briccetti-Clark of Berkeley, California. A memorial service will be held in Pius X Hall of Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY, on August 28, 1999 at 1:30 P.M.

I learned there was to be a "remembrance" in New York, and of course I went, although I was at this point unemployed and wondering if I would have to return to the US before the money ran out. It was held at Manhattanville College in Purchase. New York, near his family home in Mount Kisco. Several speakers, family and old friends were interspersed with performances of his music, more than I had ever heard during his lifetime, I was surprised to realize. On the program were:

Four Franciscan Fantasies for FFF (1969), which I had heard on tape right after the premiere;

Roman Sketches for String Trio (1962) - Lento movement;

Nocturne for Violin and Piano (1991)

Three Songs, Opus 2 (1958)

Sonata for Flute and Piano, Opus 14 (1959)

This last work held special significance for me. Early in my studies, he had given me a copy of the score of the Flute Sonata. I had never really worked through it, thinking it very neo-classical and old-fashioned, although it has a beautifully haunting melodic figure in the first movement. When I heard he had died, I began writing an orchestra piece, entitled Ten Minutes for Mister B. The first half was a reworked version of SOS, and the second half was built on that motive from the Flute Sonata. Thus we had borrowed from each other, and it was combined into one composition. While I was working on it, I felt his presence as a teacher strongly, telling me what would work and what wouldn't.

I brought a completed score with me to the memorial event in New York, and had it in hand at the reception at his parents' house afterward, but I was ashamed to show it to anyone, for fear it would appear I was trying to exploit his death for my own gain. Sometime later, I revised it again, and it became the third movement of my Second Symphony.

Twelve years after his death, he's not much remembered by the musical public, as a Google search quickly reveals. I couldn't locate online any mention of performances of his music since his death. A brilliant technical musician with amazing insight into the inner spirit of a piece of music, he may have been handicapped by too much classical training and too many years conducting old music. He often had difficulty breaking out of traditional molds, and his music is sometimes considered beautiful but conservative, an amusing opinion considering his love for the avant-garde. Perhaps when enough years have gone by and such distinctions become unimportant, there will be a revival of his music and he will get the reognition he deserves. For now, there are scores of performers and ex-students who remember this inspired and inspiring man with admiration and love.

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