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Yale 62

Lewis Spratlan
Lew SpratlanLewis Spratlan, 82, Peter R. Pouncey Professor of Music, Emeritus, died on February 9, 2023, in Lumberton, NJ from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. His son Dan was holding his hand as music sung by his wife Melinda played at his bedside.

Lewis Spratlan was born and raised in Miami, FL. As a young oboist, he gained great insight into instrumental sound by sitting with his teacher in the wind section of the Miami Symphony. He graduated from Yale College in 1962 and received his Master of Music from Yale in 1965. His composition teachers included Gunther Schuller and Mel Powell. The 1960s were full of rules about composition that Lew found restrictive. Rumor has it that a member of the degree jury almost put the kibosh on passing this upstart.

Lew taught music composition and theory, special courses on Beethoven and others, and coached chamber music for 36 years at Amherst College. He was the founding conductor of the Amherst Mount Holyoke Orchestra and acting director of the Amherst College Orchestra. Even as he taught, played oboe in various performances, and was father to three children, he managed to write at least one major composition during January break and summer vacation. When he retired from Amherst in 2006, the floodgates opened, and work after work poured from his imagination. When he and Melinda moved to the Lumberton campus of Medford Leas in February 2019 to be closer to family, his imagination leapt into another gear, and he composed over a dozen new works before his death.

A splendid teacher, Lew always encouraged his students to find their own voice, but he also insisted on their knowing what came before. Form, pacing, recognition, anticipation, rhythmic energy. A lot of listening gave his students a solid musical background on which to base their own music. It wasn’t enough that it sounded nice. It had to have meaning to add to the larger context.

Even though Lew’s mantra in his later years was to write what he, Lew, wanted to hear, he still instinctively followed his own rules. His music was full of passion and energy and humor. He developed his own particular harmonic language. It was certainly not tonal, but it kept you listening as he would tweak it just enough so that what you heard was often unexpected, and beautiful.

A well recognized and widely played composer, Lew received the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2000 for a concert version of Act Two of his opera “Life Is A Dream.” A full production of the opera was realized at the Santa Fe Opera in 2010. Other honors included Guggenheim, Rockefeller, National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell Fellowships, as well as the Charles Ives Opera Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Lew is survived by his wife of 57 years, Melinda: son Jacob Spratlan of Worcester, MA; daughter Lydia DeBona and her husband Matthew, and daughter Alexis of Tampa, FL; and son Daniel, his wife Jacquie, and daughter Amelia of Medford, NJ. A memorial service for Lew will be held in Johnson Chapel on the campus of Amherst College on May 13, 2023. Memorial gifts may be made in support of a recording of his Symphony #1 by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under the direction of Gil Rose, to finish a CD of his music that already has his Chamber Symphony recorded and waiting. Lew finished his first symphony 4 months before he died, and it was an accomplishment very dear to his heart.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project
376 Washington Street
Malden MA 02148

A celebration of Lew’s life in the New York Times: “Lewis Spratlan, 82, Is Dead; Took Winding Route to Music Pulitzer”

Words from Melinda Spratlan

In fitting fashion, there was actually a concert at Smith College last night that featured a new composition of Lew’s. I wrote a bit to the others involved, which I am forwarding to you. You will write eloquently about him for the Yale magazine, but if any of my words seem appropriate, they are yours to use. There’s a certain rightness/serendipity about one final performance as his composing days come to an end. After he finished editing his last composition, a “deconstructed” wind quintet, and sent it off to his publisher not more than a week ago, he said he was done composing (at age 82). There was nothing percolating in his brain that he needed to bring to fruition. I wept for him, both in sadness and admiration. His list of compositions is formidable. His fertile brain and deeply felt musical emotions remained active his entire life.

I believe people forget what a spectacular and inspiring teacher he was for so many years at Amherst College. I think one would be hard pressed to find another teacher of composition at a small undergraduate liberal arts college who produced as many currently working composers as Lew did. So much of his legacy, his passion for and belief in the power of music, will live on. I only wish he could.

Lew and I, a lifelong friendship

At Yale

Lew and I met early in our first semester, I think, when we both were invited to join the Spizzwinks. The amount of vocal talent in Yale classes varied, although there were always fine voices, but our class was unusually rich, not matched in quality until ’65. The Spizzwinks had a very good reputation, although from today’s vantage point, the 7 groups were much more similar in personality and repertoire than today’s groups, not to mention being all male! I can’t remember if there were, in those days, actual auditions, but we were all in the Freshman Glee Club and got known through that membership to singing group world. I’m sure there were meetings with singing group members. But the ‘Winks had lost a wonderful quartet of juniors to the Whiffs, leaving them a little undermanned. Six of us were inducted, four of whom became Whiffs. Lew would have been a shoo-in but decided in the spring of our junior year to focus on composing and withdrew from any candidacy. Our other classmate, a fine baritone, had left Yale. So, the six of us, by no means the only good singers, had few peers, and we were thrilled to go together into a very prestigious group. Because of the then-traditional rehearsal schedule this meant that Lew and I would see each other 5 days a week, from 5 to 6 PM, for three years. Although Lew, strangely enough, upon arrival had not decided to major in music, instead in English, I believe, it was immediately clear to me that he was a great musician, oboist, and singer, and soon to be revealed as an extraordinary arranger. We frequently ate dinner together, and I remember repairing to his Vanderbilt suite (I lived in Vanderbilt, too) to talk about music and listen. I remember he had the recently released the first Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration, “Miles Ahead,” which we both adored. Lew quickly revealed a viciously witty sense of humor, great at inventing nasty parodies of familiar songs, and a very sophisticated knowledge of music whether classical or jazz.

At the end of our first year, one of the many strokes of luck in my life occurred. Lew and I were both nominated to become the new pitchpipe or music director. At that time the ‘Winks rehearsed in a tiny closet off the hallowed Glee Club rehearsal room, with enough space for a baby grand and singers standing around it. Lew and I were left for over an hour cooling our heels outside while hot discussions took place. Although Lew later denied it, my sense then was that he was enormously charming and competent, of course a fantastic musician and singer, and while I believed in my musical ability and had a more classical oriented voice, I felt enormously awkward and shy and terrified of the upperclassmen in the group, all so much more sophisticated and confident than I. I learned much later that the retiring pitchpipe thought I would be more original, which at the time I did not understand and was flattered, and to this day, disagree with, even though I remain very grateful that I was chosen. Although I thought knew more about voices and how to inspire and produce the kind of sound I wanted, the following fall when I took over, I proved woefully inept at running rehearsals. It’s taken me most of my life to realize that losing my temper is always counterproductive! In any event, there I was, and Lew was elected manager. Lew told me later that he was just as insecure as I was. Who knew? Not me. But he totally supported me in my efforts, and after an attempt in the fall of our sophomore year to get me to resign (I replied I would accept being voted out, but that didn’t happen), I gradually learned about positive reinforcement and pacing and praising. By the second semester things got better. Lew said to me not so long ago how well we always supported each other as the only two composition majors in the class, although there was a third theory major whom we knew but did not share a class with, and in senior year it became clear to me that I was not going to be a composer and Lew was. I remain to this day so proud to know him and his wonderful music. Even at the time and looking back it brings a smile to my face, that Lew’s habit was to do a new arrangement and without any advance notice, plop it down on the piano and we would then rehearse it. And they were splendid arrangements – great harmony, very smart voice leading which means singable parts, and great repertoire with an astonishing range, from “Officer Krupke,” a great crowd pleaser, “Moon over Miami” with Lew soloing (they loved it in Miami), “Old Devil Moon,” “If they asked me, I could write a book/My Romance,” and an arrangement of “I know my love,” so difficult that we reduced the number of singers and only recorded it, and an original  with Lew’s words and music – “I’ll love you, baby,” which stayed in the ‘Wink rep for a long time. For me, having Lew in the group made me polish my own arrangement skills, and work harder on musical and performance matters. The ‘Winks spent a lot of time together outside of rehearsals and gigs, listening to music like Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” which was new our sophomore year or the great Eileen Farrell singing Gershwin. But charades occupied huge blocks of time. Lew had a psychic gift, at either reading minds or inferring intuitively from the vaguest of gestures, especially from fellow ‘Winks Warren Hoge, Charlie Michener and Cam Carey. Who could forget Cam’s strange embodiment of “Able Bodied Seamen,” or Bill Weeks’ “Mrs. Mergenthroper’s Lobblies”?

Each spring the Yale Glee Club would invite the Yale Russian Chorus and (carefully curated by Fenno) a list of a capella groups to sing on the spring concert. Some of the most fun I had singing at Yale was in the quartet contest, a annual feature of that concert. From sophomore year on, Lew, Bill Gross, Bill Reed ’63 and I, all Spizzwinks, would enter. A very popular repertoire piece was a version of the Rigoletto Quartet arranged for TTBB. We won one year with it (and recapitulated it at the 2013 Spizzwink 100th anniversary reunion) but the next year Lew and I arranged the Sextette from “Lucia de Lammermoor,” Lew the words (“We won’t sing of Rigoletto, we will sing of Lucy Lammermoor, Rigolettio is all wettio…”) and I the music. A great hit, he boastfully maintained.

From sophomore year on we were in the same theory and composition classes. The theory training was really challenging and valuable: a year of counterpoint after basic harmony, and a year of 20th century analysis, which of course ended in 1962,  preceding our senior composition seminar. In those days the only respectable music in the academy was serial, by Schönberg, Anton von Webern and their successors. One composer opined that the way to get a grant was to have a dynamic marking over every note. This kind of music was great fun to analyze, and I even liked listening to it but had no desire to write in that language. At one point Lew wrote a symphonic movement using the most sophisticated row techniques, and then left his only copy on a train. Woe was he! Our senior year our honors composition seminar was with the great Mel Powell, who’d begun as a pianist with Benny Goodman when he was 19 but had evolved to become a serial twelve tone composer. He’d look at my little sketches encouragingly and then engage with Lew’s far more impressive efforts. Lew and I would also head down to NY to hear people like Charlie Mingus.

We both lived in Timothy Dwight which meant many meals together and contact extending through senior year when we were both singing in the Yale Glee Club. In fact, for TD Lew wrote a musical based on “She Stoops to Conquer,” set in the wild west. All over campus on the sidewalks was chalked: “She Stoops.” Charming and funny, a great success. Towards the end of that year, with a fine pianist also living in TD we put together a clever recital: Lew did Bach with Tom, I did Beethoven with Tom, Tom did Brahms and Lew and I did Vaughn Williams songs to Blake poetry for voice and oboe. The TD dining room had lovely resonant acoustics.

Lew stayed on for an M Mus and I went to Brown, not so far away, for an MA. But the Yale School of Music had the later abandoned idea that an MMus should take 3 years and eliminate the need for a PhD. The DMA was not yet foisted on performers and composers. He took over the Apollo Glee Club, a sort of JV group which I’d directed the year before, and the Freshman Glee Club. One of his great compositional gifts was writing for voices, choral and solo, stemming from his own singing experience and leading choral groups. Years later when I did at WashU a wonderful piece of his called “The Manatees” I mentioned to him that it wasn’t twelve-tone, and he replied he’d not written a serial note in many years! (It began with the basses going ‘Oobah oobah oobah”(hello Spizzwink arrangements!)

In subsequent years, we stayed in touch more distantly. I remember that he brought the Five College Orchestra to NY for a concert, the only time I saw him exercise his great conducting skills. I had not yet returned to choral direction or begun orchestral conducting at that point, and I was mightily impressed! The other ongoing connection was the long history of his great and dramatic opera “Dream,” based on a Calderone play. It had been commissioned by the New Haven Opera which folded before it could be performed. I carried a score around to various opera companies I sang with but never got a nibble. Finally he got a grant to have a concert performance in Boston of the second act, for which he got the Pulitzer, and 10 years later Santa Fe Opera really did it justice. Several Spizzwinks and other Yale friends attended and were so thrilled and delighted to hear and see this great work, so well written for the voice and fascinatingly orchestrated. I’ll never forget the ending – a mysterious unearthly and quiet sound which turned out to be bottles blown into off stage! Brilliant.

I’m very grateful to Lew’s wife, the fine soprano Melinda Kessler Spratlan, for hiring me to teach voice at Mt. Holyoke for two years, a magical transition from performing to teaching. My first girlfriend had been at Mt. Holyoke and my daughter Barbi had just graduated the spring before I started, so I was already familiar with the Valley, and the Mt. Holyoke music dept was very welcoming. And it was another opportunity to renew our face-to-face friendship.

In more recent years we visited the Spratlans in their western Mass. eyrie and were back in Amherst for a concert of his music. We frequently got together for dinner and a Tanglewood concert, and celebrated July 4th with Carl Kaestle in North Egremont when Carl would trot out his highly dramatic reading of Parson Weems. And we visited them in New Jersey a few weeks before he departed. He played his last two pieces for us, one a deconstructed woodwind quartet and the other his first symphony. I agree with the critic who made the extraordinary realization that his music got better and better his whole life, and the symphony is a masterpiece, overlaid with Mahlerian spirit. He went away in the company of his son Daniel, a fine choral conductor and singer, listening to recordings of his wonderful soprano wife.

I love his music, witty, lyric, full of surprising juxtapositions, brilliant and sometimes complicated. In his music he draws upon everything he ever heard, whether jazz, gospel, yes – serial techniques, and four centuries of the classical tradition, to create an original and compelling synthesis. His music is immediately and always recognizable as HIS music. His friendship always nourished and inspired and warmed. I’m very grateful.

— John Harger Stewart