Letters to the Editor

Published in: September-October 2023 issue.

Gratitude for Michael Denneny’s Vision

To the Editor:

            Michael Denneny’s G&LR obituary [July-August 2023 issue] was the first I’d seen, prompting me to find others, including a livestream of his author appearance at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., just weeks before he died.

            In 1986, my literary agent Frances Goldin started submitting my project for a biography of composer Marc Blitzstein, and no publisher seemed interested. Until, at her request, I also included three finished chapters to show my quality as a writer. Immediately she heard back from Michael Denneny of St. Martin’s Press. Later, from Michael, I learned that he hadn’t known about Blitz-stein, but he called his friend, the up-and-coming conductor Bruce Ferden, who knew of Blitzstein and told him, yes, such a biography would make an important contribution. Michael also okayed a heftier advance than originally floated, without which I would not have been able to give it my full time.

            From the Upper West Side, I would bicycle down to the Flatiron Building to meet with Michael, hand over finished chapters, and discuss my progress. I never knew he lived just blocks from me. He was modest, professional, and discreet. Aside from our literary connection, we did not pursue a personal friendship. Early on, I asked him: “How long a book do you want?” He answered: “There’s never going to be another book about Marc Blitzstein, so yours will always be the standard reference. Include what you believe readers will want to know.” The biography topped out at just over 600 pages.

            He shared some advice about trimming a manuscript: Cut three lines from every page! He did not mean this literally, but he did mean there’s fat on every page that you can always eliminate. I continue to look for excess verbiage everywhere, both as a writer and as an editor myself. Michael assigned my manuscript to an in-house copy editor, who said she’d never encountered a draft that needed virtually no editing. Pleased as I was to hear that, it meant that Michael and I spent little time together working out kinks in the book. Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein was published in 1989. (Michael was wrong about this being the only Blitzstein biography. In 2012, Oxford published Howard Pollack’s also 600+ page Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World.)

            After my book was published, we gradually lost contact. In 1990, I moved to Los Angeles, and my life started flowing in other directions. I cherish my brief association with Michael and am grateful that he trusted me with this project which, among other things, added to the world’s understanding of a significant gay American life.

Eric A. Gordon, Los Angeles

In Defense of Samuel Barber

To the Editor:

            I found the review of Howard Pollack’s Samuel Barber: His Life and Legacy appallingly dismissive of a major American composer. His list of works is not as long as one might wish, but the quality of what we have is superior. Mr. Berrong focused on Barber’s vocal and orchestral work and made no mention of his piano works or many of his briefer orchestral scores. His Piano Sonata (1949) is among the half-dozen greatest sonatas written by a modern American and is likely to outlast anything John Adams or Philip Glass produced for the piano.

            Of course, Antony and Cleopatra was a disappointment, perhaps because he made the mistake of trying to incorporate avant-garde procedures and techniques incompatible with his sensibility and gift for melody. It’s true Barber was ignored by the American avant-garde, but it’s also true that the avant-garde of that period has been ignored by American audiences of serious music. Whose string quartet will bear comparison to Barber’s? His works will continue to find an audience because pianists, violinists, singers, and conductors want to perform them.

Walter Mosley, San Francisco

To the Editor:

            For decades I’ve admired the editorial brilliance of The G&LR, particularly its insightful and clever choice of writers for particular assignments. So it was disappointing to read Richard M. Berrong’s review of the new biography of Samuel Barber by Howard Pollack. Berrong’s superficial, simplistic impressions unfairly demean the achievements of a sensitive and gifted composer.

            Berrong’s deprecation of Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra is based on amateurish, inaccurate generalities about “dissonance and unusual harmonies” and “an endless string of fragments suggesting no clear direction.” His comment that “it would take composers like John Adams and Philip Glass to show how avant-garde opera could be both musically innovative and emotionally appealing” suggests that Mr. Berrong has never heard an opera by Britten or Janáček or Shostakovich.

            Worst of all, he entirely misapprehends the qualities that characterize a great composer, chastising Barber because he “never really created a distinctive line of his own.” In fact, the greatest composers didn’t create new styles; they infused existing styles with their own genius. Bach didn’t create the Baroque; he culminated that style. Mozart was the capstone of the Classical period, not its progenitor. On the other hand, the influence of Arnold Schoenberg—a brilliantly original musician who did create a new musical language—was short-lived. Readers are advised to listen to some of Barber’s music and judge for themselves.

Bob Goldfarb, New York City

Richard Berrong Replies:

            The second of these two letters does as good a job as I could of dealing with one of the objections to my review in the first: Mosley too finds Antony and Cleopatra a lesser work, and for reasons similar to mine. (Antony, not Anthony; we all make spelling mistakes.) It is the only one of Barber’s works of which I spoke negatively, pace Goldfarb, and I don’t think I “demeaned” it. As far as “chastising” Barber for not creating a distinctive style, those were not my words but Pollack’s, as I indicated with quotation marks. We all miss things, no matter how carefully we reread our work.

            Mosley makes an important point regarding Barber’s chamber music that I should have addressed. I checked the 2021-22 repertory of a dozen major American orchestras to see how often Barber’s symphonic works are being performed today. No orchestra did more than one, some none at all. I did not have any way of determining how often his small-scale works show up in chamber music performances, however. There I suspect Mosley is right: Barber’s songs, especially, are probably still regularly done.

Richard Berrong, Cuyahoga Falls, OH

Can a Loaded Word Be Disarmed?

To the Editor:

            As an eighty-year-old lesbian, I was shocked to see in the May-June ‘23 issue the headline “Blackbeard’s Bitch.” It was the title of a review of the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. The word “bitch” is commonly used to denigrate women. Its use in The G&LR was an unwelcome reminder of the disgust some gay men feel toward women. It wasn’t even an appropriate use of the word, as the HBO series shows Stede Bonnet, the putative bitch to Blackbeard, loved and nurtured him. For this he is called a bitch?

            Quite the disappointment that a publication for the homosexual community, of which I am a member, uses the same gross vocabulary to describe women, femaleness, loving natures used by rednecks.

 Betsy Tabac, Tallahassee, FL

Editor’s Reply:

            The headline was written by me, and surely I did not wish to offend. But it seems to me the word “bitch” has moved beyond its exclusive association with women to refer, often humorously, to anyone who is defeated or humiliated in a social context. Thus Trump was sometimes mocked as “Putin’s bitch.” A cartoon in The New Yorker several years ago shows an overstuffed American breakfast (pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, etc.) next to a measly French croissant and demi-tasse, with the caption: “Welcome to America, bitch.” I think this usage describes to a tee the relationship between Blackbeard and Stede in Our Flag Means Death.

Vaughan Williams Not ‘One of Us’

To the Editor:

            Now wait just a minute. I’ve lived and worked in classical music for decades, and I have never heard even the slightest suggestion that Ralph Vaughan Williams was gay as stated in your introduction to the “Pride Issue” in May-June 2023. The composer is being confused with Griffith Vaughan Williams (1940–2010), who was an outspoken British champion of gay and lesbian rights and, so far as I know, no relation to Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Robert Wennersten, Saint Joseph, MO

Editor’s Reply:

            Thanks for setting me straight (as it were) on this point. I was going by memory from a series of three pieces that the late Ned Rorem contributed back in 2000. I’ve now had a chance to check the record, and it turns out there were a couple of versions of the “top ten composers” list. In the “gay five” list that I recalled, please replace Vaughan Williams with Leonard Bernstein. In another piece, he offered a longer list that seems even more gay-heavy than the aforementioned: “Of all the arts in which gay men have played a prominent role in this century, music is the one that they seem to have dominated. How many are left once we eliminate the following names? Bernstein, Britten, John Cage, Copland, Peter Maxwell Davies, Heinz Werner Henze, Daniel Pinkham, Poulenc, Rorem, Thompson, Tippett; and, more recently, David Del Tredici, Tyson Street, and John Corigliano.”


A number of readers pointed out a rather egregious error in Richard Berrong’s review of Samuel Barber (July-Aug. 2023): the misspelling of American composer Aaron   Copland’s surname. As familiar as the editor and five proofreaders are with Copland, we all somehow missed that errant “e.”


In the same review, it’s stated that Samuel Barber and his partner lived in Capricorn, an estate located “outside Philadelphia.” Capricorn was actually located in Kisco, New York.


In the May-June 2023 issue, the caption for a portrait of Henry James gives the wrong date for the painting. The correct year is 1913 (not 1922; James died in 1916).


In the May-June 2023 issue, a photo accompanying an Art Memo on poet George Cecil Ives is not of Ives but instead of an Australian rugby player named George Treweek.

A review on the art of J. C. Leyendecker in the May-June 2023 issue states that Charles Beach, who became Leyendecker’s lifelong partner, was hired by the artist in 1900. In fact, Beach was hired by the artist’s brother Frank in 1903.