Lowell Liebermann: Strains of Serious Melancholy

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"Lowell Liebermann," wrote one critic, "has achieved a reputation of writing some of the most melancholy, even gloomy, music on the planet." Why was this, the writer wanted to know—had something terrible happened to him that wasn't hinted at in his biography?

This might be a useful misreading of Liebermann's music. He certainly has a gift for conjuring up deep, glistening musical darknesses. But "darkness" doesn't always equal "melancholy." Liebermann has a vast palette of dark hues, of which "melancholy" is just one shade. Sure, file his Third String Quartet ("Dedicated to the victims of war") (2007) under Melancholy—there's no mistaking the intense sorrow his effusive tonal language is communicating.

But the Piano Concerti, for instance (composed in 1983, 1992, and 2003), are another kind of dark—the devilish minor-key grandeur of imposing musical forces, the glittering minor-key seductiveness of virtuosic writing. Liebermann isn't gloomy, necessarily. He's just serious.

Or take the Piccolo Concerto (1996). It would be near-impossible to write a melancholy solo for the piccolo, but Liebermann lends the tiny instrument heft and dignity. His Flute Concerto (1995), championed (like the concerto for piccolo) by none other than the legendary James Galway, plays games with quotation, stealing like a magpie from Rossini's Thieving Magpie, but without stooping for the joke. And his Album for the Young (1993) could have been a collection of flippant bagatelles, but instead its leaves rival Satie in understated elegance.

He's certainly chosen dark subjects for his stage works. A disturbing staging of his opera on Miss Lonelyhearts (2006) at the University of Southern California provoked a stern letter to the alumni magazine, to at least one reader's immense delight. But when he was asked why an openly gay composer would write an opera (1995) based on The Portrait of Dorian Gray—(very) gay novelist Wilde's story of a beautiful young man whose hidden corruption destroys everyone who loves him—without a nod to the silence-fueled AIDS epidemic, Liebermann responded that he wasn't interested in dramatizing what he saw as the political, and therefore ephemeral, issues of AIDS and homosexuality.

His sense of seriousness, in other words, trumped the melancholies that might have been hinted at by his biography. The darknesses of his music, such as they are, are existential darknesses—not the melancholy of the artist, but the essential, eternal gloom an artist feels it is his duty to explore.