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Harold Shapero

The composer Harold Shapero was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, on April 29, 1920, and with his family later moved to nearby Newton. He learned to play the piano as a child, and for some years was a pianist in dance orchestras. With a friend, he founded the Hal Kenny Orchestra, a swing-era jazz band.

More interested in classical music, though, in his teens he studied with quite some famous teachers, including Nicholas Slonimsky (editor of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians) in 1936, and Ernst Krenek in 1937. At 18 he was ready to go to Harvard, where he studied composition with Walter Piston in 1938, and Paul Hindemith in 1940.

Tanglewood, a now cherished musical institution, was founded in the 1940s, and Shapero was one of its first students. When Igor Stravinsky was Norton Professor at Harvard in 1940, Shapero showed Stravinsky his Nine-Minute Overture. Shapero hoped to get the Overture played at Tanglewood in the summer of that year, but Paul Hindemith ordered that no student compositions would be played that season. Fortunately, Aaron Copland hastily put together an Orchestra just to play student compositions deemed worthy, including Shapero's Overture. (Unfortunately, the staffing of that Orchestra was rather uneven, and not really able to do justice to the scores.).

Shapero was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1941 for his Nine-Minute Overture, but unfortunately, the war prevented him from taking his well-earned residency in Italy.

After graduating from Harvard's Class of 1941, Shapero undertook further studies with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger came to the United States from Europe, seeking respite from the ravages of World War II. While studying with Boulanger, Shapero was also in contact with Stravinsky, who was helpful in his critiques of Shapero's music.

In 1945, Shapero married the painter Esther Geller. Throughout the rest of the decade they were often residents at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, an artists' retreat established by the widow of Edward MacDowell. There Shapero composed his Symphony for Classical Orchestra.

In 1947, Stravinsky and Shapero met again, and Shapero showed Stravinsky the score of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. After looking at the score of the Symphony, Stravinsky advised Shapero to become a conductor. Leonard Bernstein conducted the world premiere performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Aaron Copland thought highly of Shapero's technical skill and spontaneity of musical inspiration. One thing bothered him, though: In a 1948 New York Times article, he wrote that "Stylistically, Shapero seems to feel a compulsion to fashion his music after some great model. Thus, his ... Serenade ... is founded upon neoclassical Stravinskian principles, his three Amateur Piano Sonatas on Haydnesque principles, and his recent long Symphony [for Classical Orchestra] is modeled after Beethoven. ... he seems to be suffering from a hero-worship complex — or perhaps it is a freakish attack of false modesty..."

Brandeis University was founded in 1948, and in 1951 they hired Shapero to start its Music Department, and he was later chairman of the department and founder of its electronic music studio with the day's most advanced synthesizers. He taught at Brandeis for 37 years.

In 1953 his daughter Hannah M.G. Shapero was born, and she was to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a painter.

When awarded the Fulbright Fellowship in 1961, Shapero took the opportunity to travel to Europe with his family for a year. In 1970 he returned to Europe to be composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome.

Andre Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spearheaded a revival of Shapero's Symphony for Classical Orchestra, under the auspices of the AT & T American Encore program. Andre Previn has recognized the value of the Symphony and has done much to promote it in the United States (with performances in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York and of course, Los Angeles) and the European Community (with performances in London, Amsterdam and Madrid).

In 1988, Shapero retired from Brandeis University to devote himself to composition. As of 2003, Shapero is still actively composing for both acoustic and electronic instruments.

Browsing through the score of Shapero's Symphony for Classical Orchestra, one doesn't see too many modern notational quirks. The scoring is pretty much for a "classical Orchestra": regular woodwinds in pairs, plus a piccolo and a contrabassoon, pairs of horns and trumpets, three trombones, three timpani tuned to expected triad positions, and the standard complement of strings. This Symphony is in B flat major. The use of accidentals is much lighter than say, in a work of Anton Bruckner.

While Shapero uses some modern notation in his scores, he uses it in a clear way, employing procedures that have already been established by other modern composers or creating his own notation from traditional notation in a sensible way. For example, David Cope's handbook on modern music notation credits Shapero with the creation of the divisi bowing notation (simply the old bowing symbols combined), a notation which Cope recommends other composers should use.

Shapero addressed the issue of "hero-worship" and musical inspiration in a series of essays in the 1940s entitled The Musical Mind.

One of the first recordings of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra, was by Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on the CRI label. Andre Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic recorded it along with the Nine Minute Overture on a New World CD. New World has also released Boriskin's performances of three Piano Sonatas. The Previn recording of the Symphony can be purchased online from Many more recordings have been made, but unfortunately a lot of them are out of print.

Shapero won the Prix de Rome in 1941 for the Nine-Minute Overture. The jurors were Howard Barlow, Howard Hanson, Leo Sowerby, Walter Piston and Albert Stoessel. The prize consisted of US$1000 and a residency in Italy, which Shapero was unable to take because of the war. The 2nd Annual George Gershwin Memorial Concert, sponsored by B'nai B'rith Victory Lodge of Newton Center, Massachusetts, featured Shapero's Serenade in D, as part of a prize which also included publication with royalties and US$1000, and Leonard Bernstein was chairman fo the judges' committee. In 1946 Shapero won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize of US$1200 for the Symphony for String Orchestra. Shapero has also won two Guggenheim Fellowships (in 1947 and in 1948), two Fullbright Fellowship (in 1948 and in 1960), and a Naumburg Fellowship.