Story posted October 31, 2006
In his 50 years as a composer, writer, performer and professor, Elliott Schwartz has rubbed shoulders with some of the 20th century's most luminous musical figures. Along the way, Bowdoin's Robert K. Beckwith Professor of Music Emeritus has amassed many volumes of notes, sketches, files, sheet music, correspondence, recordings, and an array of what he terms "my stuff."
That "stuff" will now become a permanent part of the national archive. The Library of Congress has acquired Schwartz's papers for its collection and marked the occasion with a performance of his works Friday, Nov. 3, 2006, at its Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
"It's hard for me to judge what future musicologists will find of interest historically," said Schwartz, who began his teaching career at Bowdoin in 1964. "I don't think I'm being singled out because the Library thinks I'm a great composer. I think it's partly because I've been a witness to so much that has happened in American music."
In addition to composing, Schwartz has written extensively on music, given lecture-recitals of American music abroad, been an active player in curricular reform through his presidency of the College Music Society, and served as president or vice-president of some of the most important new-music organizations in America.
"The latter part of the 20th century was a very exciting time in music," noted Schwartz. "I was the student of a major figure in American electronic music, Otto Luening. I also had my music published by Gunther Schuller, another distinguished composer. During my years at Bowdoin, Bob Beckwith and I brought many visiting composers to campus and I've also met many major composers at international festivals - including the Bowdoin International Music Festival."
Schwartz's papers, which he began cataloging several years ago, include 15 boxes of his scores, sketches for scores, programs, reviews, letters, posters, recordings and even childhood compositions. "I think there are some compositions written when I was 10 years old," laughed Schwartz. "They have very fancy, flowery names."
In addition to written materials, Schwartz was interviewed by the chief of music at the Library of Congress for audio and video content that will accompany the paper archives. "Jon Newsom sat down with me and we recorded my life and times," said Schwartz. "I showed him pages of scores of my music and explained what I did and how that relates to what other composers were doing at the latter half of the 20th century."
In his archives, Schwartz also included recordings by many of his colleagues, whom he said he thought "needed to have their work recognized by scholars." There are even scores and recordings by some Bowdoin students who have gone on to compose music.
None of this would have come to pass, said Schwartz, were it not for a random conversation he had several years ago with Carmen Greenlee, a librarian at the College.
"I innocently remarked to Carmen that I was in the habit of throwing away things — sketches, letters, etc. I'm something of a neat freak. I think I told her I threw away a letter from Aaron Copland, and she said, 'Don't you ever do that again!' She said I could just put it all into shopping bags and when there was enough, I could simply telephone the Bowdoin Library and they would collect it."
In fact, Bowdoin's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives now houses materials that document Schwartz's entire career at the College and in the community, including the complete collection of music issued by the Bowdoin College Music Press, which Schwartz co-founded with the distinguished late Professor of Music Robert Beckwith in the 1960s.
Schwartz selected three of his favorite chamber compositions to be performed at the Coolidge Auditorium performance: "Bellagio," "Tapestry," and "Memorial," the latter of which was a 1988 McKim Commission by the Library of Congress. Members of the Cassatt String Quartet, regulars at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, performed at the concert — joined by violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved and pianist Aaron Shorr, who flew in from London for the occasion.
Photographs of Elliott Schwartz courtesy of Erik Jorgensen.