this is a work-in-progress.
I met Paul Nelson (1929-2008) at one of the Rhode Island Composers’ Forum concerts around 1983, a concert that took place on the small stage at Trinity Rep of Providence. It was a chamber concert, and I remember enjoying not only Geoffrey Gibbs’ underrated string quartet -- played incongruously on the prairie-kitchen set for Sam Shepard’s True West -- but also a movement from Paul’s Sonata for Horn and Piano, with Paul acrobatically negotiating the fiendish piano part, accompanied by whoop-ups from the horn.
I met Paul at the drinks bar during intermission, with me fielding all sorts of questions about horn notations. We wandered off to what seemed like half-a-dozen subjects in as many minutes, and he asked me to hang around after the concert.
Being interested in the byways of classical music, he was surprised by how much I knew about so-called "obscure" American composers, including Chadwick, Mrs. Beach, Randall Thompson, Piston, and Creston, the latter three among his teachers. (Of course, all of these composers have been "rediscovered" since then.) He gave me a lift home, both of us talking non-stop; and that was the start of a friendship that lasted exactly 25 years.
Paul lived in a way that made you feel it was possible to follow your creative dreams, without shortchanging or selling out your vision to commercial disinterests … though in his case the price he paid was high enough to teach the rest of us a thing or two about caution. He had a difficult life, with marriage and financial concerns; but I think he felt, and he taught me to feel, that culture, literature, and the arts can save you. It's a lesson that has helped me through quite a few rough patches of my own.
Paul’s professorship gave him little income, his pension less; at one point he was playing cocktail piano in bars to help pay heating bills (Providence winters can be no less treacherous than Boston). Through it all, he kept a sense of humor that probably saved his sanity, and certainly aided mine when I was down in the dumps.
After I moved to Boston 14 years ago, Paul and I got together for dinner every three months or so, comparing notes and music (pun intended), exchanging stories: my knowledge of classical music is usually bibliographic and anecdotal, and nearly every composer he’d met I knew stories about, that he hadn’t heard before. The last time we met I looked over his arrangements of spirituals for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra, and he looked over some 50 pages of my opera Theo, the first half of an opera about Vincent Van Gogh's brother. (He told me to replace the horn with a trombone, a good move that I had to lay aside to work on a bassoon concertino.) He was delighted, and gave a few people, copies of my classical-music mystery novel The Baton Rouge, because I'd put him in it (as "Paul Mendnelson"). He appears in the novel twice; you can read one of the chapters with him in it here.
Occassionally I'd bring back some Hoboken bread when I was driving back from NJ, and we'd have a long talk about music before going out. Once I brought in the music-scores to the last, ascetic works of Sibelius for violin and piano, and Haydn's bizzarre, Stravinsky-ish Symphony 65 in A. We spent so much time poring over them, we never made it out the door.
I would often find things that amused him and send them along -- tapes of a particularly gypsy-like rendering of Enescu's Roumanian Rhapsody #1, for instance, or composers fighting on the Internet over dialectical points. There was a lot we found to talk about; and yesterday I heard something on the radio and thought, "Paul would dig this," and ... then realized that he's no longer around.
During all that time, aside from a difference of opinion about certain composers (usually buffeted by jokes and stories about them), I think we both gave each other a kind of support that creative people, especially in these United States, desperately need and seldom find. He liked things of mine that surprised me: not only the Oboe Quartet and Curtain-Raiser, but the thorny Le Pallette de Carpeaux and the microtonal Sibelius and the Cuckoo of Jarvenpaa. For a man taught by the leading lights of neo-classicism, I think he successfully resisted the pedantry that was his right by education.
We talked on occassion about his going back to Vienna, and my coming over for a visit, and his showing me around (something neither of us could ever afford).
On the whole, I suspect heaven, if there is one, is like the places on earth where we've felt most at home. And Paul's heaven would be strangely similar to the Vienna of the early 1960's. Perhaps, at this moment, Paul's sitting in some Viennese cafe, reading the dailies -- or looking over a particularly juicy new score, and indulging in sticky-sweet Schlagobers and some very good, very strong coffee.
Thanks, Paul, for everything.
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