Smith: William Mayer Remembrance

Dec 1, 2017

William Mayer, pre-eminent American composer and some-time Vermonter, has died. Born in 1925, Mayer was a Phi Beta Kappa Yale graduate, and he studied composition at Juilliard and the Mannes School of Music.

Early success came with music for youngsters, especially recordings of the song “Bongo and his Baboon Drum” sung by Burl Ives. Eventually, Mayer would write celebrated music for every genre.

Reflecting on his love of the piano, Mayer once said he had wished as a boy to be narrow enough to sleep on the keyboard.

His now famous Piano Concerto has been performed by major pianists, including his son Stephen. Mayer often included the piano in instrumental works and even one opera - maintaining that the brilliant piano tones helped “cool off the strings.”

As Mayer began his career, the credo for classical composers was Schoenberg’s rigid 12 tone system of atonal music. He once told The New York Times that “To be a tonal composer in the 1960’s and 70’s was a deeply disquieting experience. One was shunned as the last teenage virgin,” he said.

The only time he wrote according to Schoenberg’s strict rules he surprised himself with a splendid piano sonata.

He was most highly acclaimed for his vocal music, however. The gift of an autographed score of his song “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” with words by Keats, is worth more than gold to me.

For years, Bill and his wife, Meredith, divided their time between NYC and Weathersfield, Vermont. He was my guest on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera several times, once offering an enlightening and gripping description of his award winning opera, “A Death in the Family.” Bill, a gifted wordsmith, had composed both lyrics and music to one of the 20th century’s finest operas.

Twice, we were joined by mutual friend Robert De Cormier, who, at 95, died just a few weeks before Bill. How fortunate we were to have had both of these musical giants among us.

Bill Mayer’s legacy includes a brilliant article, “Live Composers/Dead Audiences” - which ought to be required reading for everyone - and enough remarkable, memorable music to outlast our time and far, far beyond.