Who are you?

John Harbison is an American composer whose work is notable for its astonishing range and diversity. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance and is also considered original and accessible for a wide range of audiences. His major works include four string quartets, four symphonies, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata The Flight into Egypt and three operas, including "The Great Gatsby," which was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and first performed in December 1999. Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Santa Fe Chamber Festival, the American Academy in Rome, Tanglewood, the California Institute for the Arts and Chamber Music West. He is also an Institute Professor at MIT and the Acting Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music. Harbison holds an MFA from Princeton University. 

  • Transcript


Question: Where are you from and how did that shape you?


John Harbison: I grew up in a college town with my father teaching, and with many of my friends also connected to that university. So I would say that in one way or another, many attitudes still persist. Princeton is certainly somewhere in my whole family history, back many generations. So even independent of the town itself many, many things lead back there, including some of my literary associations, having written an opera on a Fitzgerald book and so forth. There’s a lot of Princeton strands. Probably the strong points were I sought intellectual liveliness among my friends. Coming from backgrounds very interesting, one of my jazz-playing partners, his father was a great mathematician. And he had tremendously interesting conversation in his house.

Just expecting a level of liveliness. Institute for Advanced Study was few … really just a few blocks away, and on holidays my parents invited European émigré scholars to dinner. There just was a sense of vitality and interest in Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein lived down the street and he at least recognized me as a neighbor. So there was a sense of eminence of interest there. The downward side of it was a feeling in the town and in the university at that time of a certain conformity, certain kinds of interest which were perhaps not as welcome. Large emphasis on sociability and athletics. I was a soccer player, but that was not my main thing. It was not a comfortable place to carry my viola around. I had a very strong sense of wanting to get out of the town in the direction of interests that I felt less comfortable to pursue there. Writing my music, playing concert music, doing things which would not be considered particularly socially effective in that context. So that was the lower side for me and I pointed my way out very firmly at … . Last couple years of high school I knew

I wasn’t going to stay around. Mostly the musicians that I learned from and whose music I was studying and playing, some of whom I knew if they were alive. These came from very many fields of music. Probably Stravinsky who was still alive, and who I did witness as a young kid conducting, and whose music I knew at a very early age. For some of that period Bartok was still around.

Jazz musicians that I knew really well from the recordings who I occasionally heard live, Thelonious Monk was probably most important or Oscar Peterson – I just felt they were almost l ike my friends. I adopted them. Bach, who was probably from the very beginning the first music I knew, and the first music that my father taught me to play, and certainly the music that I continue to be the most interested in over time.


I heard my parents playing, both of them. My father particularly. They played phonograph, and they played piano, and they sang. I wanted to do that, and I wanted to find out more about the pieces that I heard. I could actually, before I could read, take recordings out of the shelf and play them by how much … how long the type was on the side. So this was probably three years old. So I was definitely avid to become musically adept, and I was improvising on the piano before I played any pieces.


I never thought I’d have any interest in doing anything but music, but I didn’t know what kind of music. Because in high school jazz was attracting me a lot, and I was successful in that. There was a kind of a really quite anxious period where I didn’t know which part of music I wanted to be engaged by, but I didn’t really have alternatives. I didn’t have fallbacks. I didn’t have other interests that I thought I was really strong in. I majored in English in college for a while, but it was really to deal with texts because I knew that was gonna be interesting and important to me. So everything was arranged in that way. I remember my father saying to me … I didn’t get really great grades in things other than music …. he said, “You’ve made your choice,” you know . . . The only thing that annoyed him was when I did badly in orchestration because that, to him, was a professional issue.

Recorded On: 6/12/07