Monday, November 30, 2009

Richard Cumming

My cousin, Richard Cumming (known to friends and family as Deedee) died on Wednesday, at the age of 81. He was a composer, pianist, teacher, and for 25 years, the composer-in-residence at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.

Deedee would be known to Hartford audiences for two works the orchestra performed. Passacaglia was presented on the (now defunct) Rush Hour series several years ago. I commissioned the work when I was still a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and needed another short work to fill out a noon concert program that included Brahms's Serenade no. 2 for small orchestra.

Not wanting to be accused of blatant nepotism (of which Deedee loved to say, "it's okay, dear, as long as you keep it in the family. . ."), I was going to leave it at that, but after a number of players and audience members remarked to me how much they liked Deedee's Passacaglia, I kept my ears to the ground for another work from his pen; when he told me that his Aspects of Hippolytus was looking for a first performance, I jumped at the chance, and the HSO presented the work on its Masterworks series.

Richard Cumming's music was always unabashedly tonal, well before it was de rigeur to write that way. In the 1950s and 1960s, most classical composers wrote music that could be terribly forbidding, and many didn't care whether you liked their music or not. Only with the advent of Minimalism from Messrs. Riley, Glass, Reich and Adams did classical music begin to become more accessible -- but Deedee was there long before them. The great American pianist, John Browning (1933-2003), recorded Deedee's 24 piano preludes, then later his Silhouettes. Browning and Cumming were close friends as well as great colleagues; John premiered Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto in 1962. (I had hoped to bring him to Hartford to perform the work.) Deedee told me, "Sam was taking his time on the concerto, even though a number of us kept reminding him that John needed time to learn it before the premiere. Well. . . damned if Sam didn't get the finale [which is excrutiatingly difficult -- ec] done just a week or two before the concert date, but John being John, he did the whole work, and the finale, from memory."

Deedee was scary smart, with a wonderful command of the English language. Books surrounded his apartment in Providence, and when I asked him if he'd read them all, he quickly responded, "yes, most of them 2 or 3 times." If a fine writer were to take up the project of writing a Richard Cumming biography, it would be a great read, if only for the stories. He had a laugh that could easily fill a room. Even when he was cranky or irritated, he seemed to be smiling; any room he entered was quickly filled with his mirth.

He was a fabulous pianist, touring the world in recital with the soprano, Phyllis Curtain (1921 - ). The late bass-baritone, Donald Gramm (1927-83, who was known for his brilliant protrayal of Boris Godonov at the Met), was another singer who worked regularly with Deedee.

He studied with Roger Sessions, and Ernest Bloch was a musical grandfather to him. When Arnold Schoenberg gave composition classes in Los Angeles, Deedee signed up. (It drove the other students crazy with envy that Schoenberg referred to all of them by their sirname -- except for Deedee.)

Time spent with Deedee was invariably a learning experience. One time he recounted a story of his time on tour with Igor Stravinsky. I think Deedee began the stint as his musical assistant, but ended up doubling as his valet, making sure he had plenty of vodka in his room. Like so many Russian men, Igor liked the hard stuff, and Deedee was a good drinking buddy. (I think his daily vodka and milk on the rocks -just before bedtime- was introduced to him by Stravinsky.)

I first met Deedee (technically speaking, my first-cousin-once-removed) 35 years ago, when I was a horn player with little design on becoming a conductor. He was as tall as me, but bigger, somehow, contributing to his larger than life persona. He asked me if I'd like to play something with him; I suggested the Hindemith Horn Sonata, and he played the difficult piano part brilliantly, at sight. I was awestruck. . . this guy is a relative of mine? Where did he come from, and why didn't anyone in my family tell me anything about him before that day?

The fact that he was homosexual (and openly so) might have had something to do with that, long before it was remotely socially acceptable, even in the most liberal cultural circles.

What I will always take with me, though, is the music he introduced to me. Strauss's Elektra. Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Ned Rorem's song cycle, Flight from Heaven. When I got to 'Upon Julia's Clothes,' Deedee began screaming, "Is that not the best song of the 20th century? Damn! I wish I'd written that. . ."

4 comments:

The Blog said...

I'm so glad I found your entry. I'm a college senior in wisconsin. I am performing one of Richard's vocal pieces in my senior recital. I was looking around for information on him and found your blog by chance.

There isn't much information about him, but his pieces suggest a man I would've been proud to know and work with. Thanks for posting this so very much, it was lovely.

lakilpat said...

Sorry this is taking me multiple trys to get this right... I promise i am not spam lol

In is piece silhouette was there a cakewalk (polyrymthic) section? I've been trying to find a copy of it but the only cd i found doesn't have that particular section. its a 2/4 ragtime sounding song with a two alternate heavy beats on every other bar.

p.s. you should post on wikipedia because that is the first place i searched

Walter Simmons said...

Just a note to say that I'm a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century traditionalist composers. I've known the name of Richard Cumming for about 50 years, ever since I bought his recording of Bloch's Poems of the Sea and Five Sketches in Sepia. I subsequently learned that he was also a composer, and I have a whole LP of his songs, and the piano preludes that John Browning recorded. I always liked his music, although I never met anyone who knew his name. In my random listening, I just took out the record of his songs, which I've been enjoying. I decided to look him up on the Internet, and found your announcement of his death, along with your nice recollection. I just wanted to let you know there's one more person who appreciated his work.

Clarp Wriffith said...

Please add mine to the voices of gratitude for this reminiscence. I've enjoyed playing your cousin's Preludes for years, and this morning curiosity got me online to see if he was still with us.

Thanks very much.