LESLIE BASSETT TRIBUTE
by William Balcom
Delivered 11/9/16 at The American Academy of Arts and Letters
I made a small temporary shrine last winter for Leslie and Anita Bassett in our dining room, sitting on the liquor cabinet even though to my knowledge Leslie never drank. Leslie died on February 26th; I’d been sent photos of the Bassetts from their joint-celebration programs at a church in Oakwood, Georgia, with the words “In Loving Memory” below each portrait, and I taped them onto a metal plaque. I toasted them at my little shrine as I poured a drink.
In 1967, driving across country from New York to La Jolla, I stopped to see the composer-organist William Albright in Ann Arbor and met several members of the University of Michigan School of Music composition department, including Leslie; I believe Bill was soon to join the faculty. They all had studied with department chair Ross Lee Finney, a famous composition teacher whose best-known student is George Crumb.
Coming from the Parisian, West-, and East-coast composition scenes, I was charmed by the group’s openness and mutual collegiality. In 1967 I had quit teaching, had gone free-lance, and wasn’t planning to join a music department again, but felt that if asked I might actually want to join this happy group; I was also taken with Ann Arbor and the School. After several short residences at the School of Music I was invited in 1972 to apply for an open position, and would have 35 rewarding years teaching from 1973 until my retirement in 2008. When I joined it, Finney had retired and Leslie had become the very diplomatic head of the department; I think we would all agree he was the best chairman we ever had.
Leslie was an early recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his Variations for Orchestra. (Music composition prizes had been added to the Pulitzer list only recently.) After the Variations’ premier in Rome with the RAI orchestra, the work was performed by several major orchestras here and abroad; Leslie attended all or most of these performances at his own expense.
Composition students at Michigan are encouraged to study with as many professors as they wish; I was soon aware of how our teaching styles meshed, sort of at the corners – we connected with, rather than conformed to, each other. We regularly sent our students after a year or so to one of our colleagues, often honoring students’ requests. I sent mine to Leslie if I felt they lacked general technique. I’d learned my own technique so early in life it was not easy for me to deal with fledgling composers, but Leslie had gone from arranging during World War II toward composition, studying with Finney, Arthur Honegger, Nadia Boulanger, Roberto Gerhard, and Mario Davidovsky – a formidable list – as a grownup. I figured he’d be bound to remember how he learned better than I, and thus could really help young people with their deficiencies in ways I couldn’t.
Born in Hanford, California, in 1923, Leslie attended Fresno State College, the University of Michigan, and then the Ecole Normale in Paris. Ross Lee Finney has written: “Leslie Bassett is one of the most distinguished American composers of his generation. His works have been performed by virtually every major orchestra in the country. They are lyric and imaginative and communicate a personal intensity and optimism that come, perhaps, from his western background.” He was awarded many honors in his lifetime as well as the Pulitzer.
In 1973 the total-chromatic style, serial or not, was the norm throughout much of the world, but at our School it was not imposed on our students either by us or their peers. Ross and Leslie often used serial procedures like many of us at the time; Leslie still offered a course in serial technique when I arrived, which I note was quietly dropped in the early 1980s. Leslie would use serial technique in many of his works but was among the not-too-numerous group of composers where music not process is at the forefront, and his work is clear, very musical, and not difficult to follow. (In a 1987 interview, Leslie complained of the rarity of new scores in symphonic concerts – still true – and a Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestra piece might get only a few more chances to be played.)
Leslie’s music, sometimes grand in scope but never egocentric, and elegantly and magisterially made, has a spiritual core pervading every piece I’ve been aware of – not religious a la Messiaen, but ennobling nonetheless. Preparing this speech I looked at several Bassett scores, many in his own clear hand – it is easy to forget that computer engraving was new a little over a quarter-century ago, and it is refreshing to look at manuscript as beautiful as his.
The prize-winning 1963 Variations display blazing technique and emotional power; listening to the score after decades feels like watching a complete classic film in its clear dramatic line and satisfying shape – and all this in 26 minutes instead of 90. Another orchestral work, the 1975 Echoes from an Invisible World, employs free-time sections and non-metric passages. (The epigraph on the score, by G. Mazzini, gives the source of the title: “Music, the echo from an invisible world.”) Aside from these and other orchestral pieces, there is a large Basset catalogue for band, chamber groups, voice, chorus, and piano, as well as electronic music.
Leslie’s wife Anita had had compositional training but set her own work aside. She was an accomplished actor, studying at the famed Pasadena Playhouse in her youth; my wife Joan and I saw her in a performance of The Gin Game, and she was superb. Anita also played piano for services at a local Episcopal church. The Bassetts were very close; Leslie often enjoyed sharing private jokes with Anita.
Leslie and Anita had three children; one, Ralph, died as a boy in a car accident but Noel and Wendy are very much alive, and the Bassetts moved near Atlanta in their last years to be near their daughter. I visited them in a subdivision called Flowery Branch, Georgia about ten years ago for dinner, joined by an ex-student of ours now teaching at Emory. Once entered, their new house looked and felt as if we were all back in Ann Arbor, the Bassetts giving a party for colleagues and students where no liquor was served – only, as Leslie wrote in a warm welcoming letter back in 1973, “coffee and an occasional cookie.”
My wife and I loved Leslie and Anita Bassett deeply and bless their memory.