The 12-Tone World of Claudio Spies

The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.

Cropped photograph of Claudio Spies at Tanglewood when he was 21 years old. Irving Fine Collection, Music Division.

When Claudio Spies came to America at the age of seventeen, he wanted to learn the art of conducting since composing, he later recalled, didn’t seem like “anything special.” From his earliest childhood recollections, music perpetually filled his mind. “It was just something that happened,” he stated during an interview, “and sometimes I wrote it down and sometimes I didn’t. But I thought that was the way everyone was made.” Thus, when the Chilean-born teenager of German-Jewish parents came under the tutelage of renowned conductor and scholar Nadia Boulanger, his innate musical prowess enabled him to thrive. She, in turn, introduced him to Igor Stravinsky. And after that auspicious encounter during a 1943 class trip to the New York performance of Apollo, the Russian composer became a father figure and musical mentor to Spies. As a matter of fact, their bond would endure for the rest of Stravinsky’s life.

Annotated photocopies of Stravinsky’s final work Requiem Canticles are housed within the Claudio Spies Papers. Stravinsky had tasked his young friend with the responsibility of proofreading the 1966 piece along with three others, including Abraham and Isaac, Introitus, and Variations. All represented the maestro’s expansion into the twelve-tone realm of serialism and Spies’ edits were deemed critical before their publication. Requiem Canticles was granted its world premiere at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre on October 8, 1966. At the time, Spies was a visiting scholar at the university of which he would later become permanent staff. It was also the year that the South American native obtained his citizenship in the United States.

As with Requiem, Spies’ copies of Stravinsky’s Les Noces are annotated as well. Photocopies of the manuscript, which was begun in 1914 and finished in 1923, are organized within five folders in the Library’s collection. Spies never forgot listening to a radio broadcast of the orchestral piece as a high school student and had no way of knowing that he would have the opportunity to conduct it decades later. In the summer of 1968, while teaching at Harvard University, he wielded the baton for a performances of the original and final versions of the dance cantata with Stravinsky’s blessing.

Many of Spies’ theoretical analyses of his mentor’s works appeared in the Princeton publication Perspectives of New Music. Among his critiques is an essay about Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, the notes of which are available to researchers in the Claudio Spies Papers. Also accessible are his correspondence and interview with the late Princeton alumnus Stephen Peles. Music scholar, author, editor and former professor at the University of Alabama School of Music for over 20 years, Peles conducted an extensive dialogue with Spies from 1991 to 1992. The result was a revealing biographical discourse entitled “A Conversation with Claudio Spies,” which can be found in boxes one and three in the collection.

“It’s a very great satisfaction to have, in a career that has spanned some 40 years,” Spies relayed to Peles during their exchange, “students who have made a very big difference in my life.” Throughout his tenure at Harvard, Vassar, Swarthmore, Princeton and Juilliard, the conductor regularly expressed his love of pedagogy. Unsurprisingly, frequent topics of coursework included the music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg. Although he had never met the latter, he divulged that the Austrian-born composer had a greater impact on his music than the former. Hence Spies’ intense interest in serialism, a technique accredited to Schönberg which entails the proportionate utilization of all twelve notes of the western chromatic scale. It was his study of this dodecaphonic method that enabled him to guarantee the serial precision of Stravinsky’s notation. It was also seminal in the composition of Spies’ Five Psalms, his first twelve-tone piece, of which the manuscript score and parts are currently available for public use.

In July of 1992, Claudio Spies began the process of donating his materials to the Library of Congress. Over the next 21 years, he gave the institution his compositions, papers, and sound recordings, in addition to scores by Igor Stravinsky, with whom he collaborated until the Russian composer’s death in 1971. The list of Spies’ compositions within the collection constitutes the most complete catalog for the composer. Although some titles have previously appeared within indices of Spies’ compositions, others have never been published. Researchers can also access supplemental Claudio Spies documents within the Aurelio de la Vega Collection, Irving Fine Collection, and the Louise Talma Papers.

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