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Edward Levy

All of the people there [at the Contemporary Music School] were just marvelous. I remember one time going to Cherney Berg for counterpoint lessons. I was giving him three dollars. I was making 25 dollars a week at some job, and Cherney said to me, "If you have a date on Saturday night and you need the money to go out, forget about paying for the lesson." And that was the attitude that all of them had. Ralph Shapey would say, "If you can't pay, don't think that you have to stay away from a lesson. Come for a lesson anyway even if you can't pay." The generosity of spirit was incredible. After studying with Ralph Shapey for about two years, he said, "I think you're ready now for the master." He then said very magnanimously, "I don't think I can teach you anything now. You should go to Stefan." And I began to study with Stefan. Stefan I paid, but I think I paid him five dollars a lesson. It was usually an hour and maybe a little bit more than that. When I studied with Ralph, the lessons were so exhausting and so challenging, so attacking, such an assault, that I always had to take a day off. I would go to the movies that evening to kind of relax, and I would take a day off before I could get back to work. When I started to take lessons with Stefan, I couldn't wait to get back to work. That evening I would run to the piano to start work all over again. I never took a day off. He was the most inspiring person. I don't think that I can remember specifics, because again it would be detail. I would bring in something, he would hear it inside, the way I heard it. He would hear what I was trying to do, and then he would write out another solution of it, invented right at the time. I would look at that solution, and then I would look at what I did, and I would not take his solution. I would work out something else of my own, but along the lines he indicated. And we would proceed like that. So that he went over every note I wrote. He heard it in his head. He played it through occasionally. He was meticulous in terms of every single note being in the right place--rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, everything. And if something was wrong, he would create an alternate version. He would never fix mine. He would never say, "Here, you don't need a B." He would create an alternate version in order to give me a sense of comparison. On the basis of the comparison with the alternate version I would then be able to create another alternate, which was different from mine, but at the same time not his. That was mine, but better than my original. So he always led you to the next stage.

When he went to Black Mountain it coincided with the time that I went to City College. He would come back to New York in the summer, so it was only during the summer that I continued to compose. When I composed in the summer, I went for lessons with Stefan, and they were sometimes two to three hours long. At the same time I could only afford five dollars. Occasionally he would say that's not enough, but there was nothing I could do, and he never refused me lessons just because I couldn't pay more. That generosity was always there. [...]

They moved the Contemporary Music School one more time to Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. There the analysis class got larger. The notable addition was Claus Adam. Every single week would start the same way. Stefan would come and say, "Who has something to say?" Since I had initiated the conversation the previous week, I wanted to be quiet. No one else volunteered. He would finally look at me and say, "Levy, you have something." And I did. I would say one or two sentences about whatever piece we were looking at. He would then take whatever insight I had and for the next two hours improvise a lecture. I am almost sure that he did not come prepared. I can't swear to it, but the way in which he needed something to kick off from indicates to me that you had to give him a starting point. Once I gave him (it was always me) a starting insight, then he would simply develop that idea, which he could do with brilliance. The other people, I felt, except obviously for Claus, were there only to bask in the sunshine of his charisma. The first time I heard the word "charisma" was when Hilda used it to describe Stefan, and that's exactly right. He inspired people who were around him. What they got from him, I can't say, because my feeling is they got nothing. The difference was when Claus was there. He being a superb musician and an old student of Stefan's, they would then have discussions on a much, much higher level than any other of the students could come close to. So he would ask Claus a question, and Claus would respond, and that got to be a really interesting discussion. It's impossible for me to remember what it was that they discussed. But I can give you the list of pieces that we looked at. The Beethoven Pathétiqutique Sonata, the first movement, the Second Quartet of Bartók, the first movement certainly, the Fifth Quartet of Bartók, I believe all of the movements. And we were supposed to look at the Schoenberg Fourth Quartet, but we never got to it, as I remember. This is all over a two-year period I was in that class, '49-'51.

Mostly what he concentrated on was bar to bar continuities, that is, the building up of momentum and then the sudden turn away from that momentum, what represented a balance. There's one spot in one of the Bartók quartets where a short but significant event balances a long development. So it isn't a question of length, it is the question of length plus the strength of the position that represented a balance. The reason I remember it is that I made the comment and he turned to me and said, "You will be a good teacher some day." And then he went off from that. But that was the kind of thing he led us to discover, the question of continuity and balance, and how long an idea could be developed before changing. To get the motivic development as fully used as possible and then to balance it out with an asymmetrical event. Intervallic relationships were the constant concern.

Edward Levy (1930-2002) began music studies in 1943, and his first influences were Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespire, and Lennie Tristano. He studided composition with Ralph Shapey from 1948-50 and with Wolpe from 1949-51. After a B.A. at City College of New York, he received the M.F.A. from Princeton University (1960), where he worked with Sessions, Kim, and Babbitt. he taught at C.W. Post College until 1967, when he joined the faculty of Yeshiva College. Interview: AC, New York City, 19 October 1984.


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