Published by
WQXR Features

Peter Lieberson, Composer of Poetic and Pensive Works, Dies at 64

Email a Friend

Peter Lieberson, a late-blooming composer who rose to prominence with a series of major song cycles, concertos and orchestral works, died Friday while visiting Israel. He was 64.

According to a spokesperson at his publisher, G. Shirmer, Lieberson died of complications from leukemia as a result of the lymphoma treatments. Surviving Lieberson is his third wife, Rinchen Lhamo, and three daughters from previous marriages.

In recent years, Lieberson had made headlines for his Neruda Songs, a 2005 song cycle co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony and written for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s second wife and one of the most soulful and expressive singers in recent history, who died of breast cancer in July 2006.

The cycle featured texts by the poet Pablo Neruda and became a foreshadowing for the difficult journey Lieberson would himself take, with words like “My love, if I die and you don’t…” The Neruda Songs won the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition and were later recorded on Nonesuch.

Not long after Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s death, Lieberson himself was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a variant of non-Hodgkins. He had a successful stem cell transplant earlier this year, was living in Santa Fe, NM, and the cancer appeared to be in full remission, according to colleagues.

Lieberson was the son of the legendary record producer Goddard Lieberson and his wife, the dancer Vera Zorina. As a child he developed an interest in musical theater, attending the Broadway shows that his father was recording for Columbia Records, which he headed. But when he began composing in the early 1970s, his style was closely aligned with the complex, cerebral idiom of his teachers, notably Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and Donald Martino.

After completing his musical studies at Columbia University, Lieberson left New York in 1976 for Boulder, Colorado to continue his studies with Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master. He eventually moved back east with his then-wife Ellen Kearney, continuing his interest in meditation while working towards his Ph.D. at Brandeis University. From 1984 to 1988 he taught music at Harvard University.

Lieberson made conscious use of some Buddhist concepts in the creation of his Piano Concerto, which he wrote for Peter Serkin in 1983. Considered his first major work, it displayed what former music critic Tim Page called “a direct, unequivocal soulfulness and an appealing lyricism,” and many musicians came to appreciate the mix of intellectual rigor and direct lyricism that characterized his later style. Lieberson wrote later works inspired by Buddhism including King Gesar (1991) and the opera Ashoka’s Dream (1997, for Santa Fe Opera), both based on the lives of enlightened rulers.

In 1994, Lieberson began to devote himself full time to composing. After meeting Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at Santa Fe Opera in 1997 and marrying two years later, he wrote several pieces for her, including the Rilke Songs (2002).

In recent years, many orchestras have embraced Lieberson's song cycles, which include Songs of Love and Sorrow (written for Gerald Finley and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2010) and The World in Flower (commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered in 2009). But Lieberson also left a varied chamber music catalog, spanning early works like the Flute Variations (1971) and the Concert for Four Groups of Instruments (1973) as well as later scores written for Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax (Remembering Schumann). Lieberson also composed his cello concerto Six Realms for Yo-Yo Ma.

In a 2001 appreciation of Lieberson’s career, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini noted the mix of influences that colored Lieberson’s music: a “wistful lyricism, pensive spirituality and rhythmic spunkiness of a kind that you might expect from an American baby boomer.”

Please leave your thoughts or memories of Peter Lieberson below.