Harold Shapero, a composer whose series of elegantly inventive midcentury scores helped define the American neoclassical style, died May 17 of complications of pneumonia. He was 93 and lived in Natick.
Mr. Shapero, who was also a pianist, taught at Brandeis University for more than three decades, and together with the composers Irving Fine and Arthur Berger helped establish the school’s music department.
Fame came remarkably early to Mr. Shapero, through a series of immaculately crafted and confident scores of the 1940s. Among these was his “Symphony for Classical Orchestra,” which the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered in 1948 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, his former classmate at Harvard. Writing after the premiere to his own mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein hailed the work as “a marvel,” adding: “I have fallen in love with it.’’
That very year, Aaron Copland, writing in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, pronounced Mr. Shapero “at the same time the most gifted and most baffling composer of his generation.” His talents, Copland wrote, included “absolutely perfected technical equipment” and a “wonderfully spontaneous musical gift.” The bafflement came from what Copland saw as Mr. Shapero’s need to seek explicit models for his music in the great masters of the past, be they Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or others.
Among living composers, however, Mr. Shapero, like many of his colleagues, was most influenced by Igor Stravinsky, whose crisp and unsentimental middle-period music he saw as updating neoclassicism while opening it to the future. When Stravinsky himself later abandoned that style and embraced serial music, several composers of Mr. Shapero’s generation eventually followed suit. Mr. Shapero was not among them. His output in the later years slowed significantly. In interviews, he could be self-critical and candid about his frustrations.
“I’ve written some good things,” he told the Globe in 1980. “There just aren’t enough of them. I have a mountain of unfinished music. . . . It is all full of technical problems I haven’t solved, and that takes time. But if I can get these done, I can leave something worthwhile behind.”
Meanwhile, loyal champions of his music worked to ensure that the older pieces remained before the public.
“I think Harold’s music will survive,” said Daniel Stepner, first violinist of the Brandeis-based Lydian String Quartet, which has recorded Mr. Shapero’s work. “It’s been considered old-fashioned, but I don’t think of it that way at all. For me it’s very fresh, I love playing it. It’s wonderful, it’s challenging, it’s thorny and witty and lyrical.”
“Neoclassicism for him wasn’t about the surface materials and the tonal reference, but the way things got structured underneath,” said Brandeis composer Eric Chasalow. “There’s a lot of cranked out neoclassical music that really doesn’t have any force, any weight. Harold’s music was really beautiful, even lush, but there’s a real weight to it, a seriousness.”
Born in Lynn, Mr. Shapero was first active as a pianist and jazz musician who only sought out composition lessons to help with his own band arrangements. In earlier decades, American composers had traveled to Europe for their musical finishing. Coming of age in the 1940s, Mr. Shapiro, by simply staying put, benefited from the extraordinary wave of European musicians fleeing the war.
He was able to study with Ernst Krenek at the Malkin Conservatory in the Back Bay; Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music; and Paul Hindemith at the Berkshire Music Center. At Harvard, his principal teacher was Walter Piston, but he also had contact with Stravinsky himself, when the latter arrived to deliver the Norton Lectures in 1939-40.
Mr. Shapero’s works from the 1940s, which included most notably a String Quartet, a series of Three Sonatas for piano, the Serenade in D, and his Symphony, earned him wide notice, and he was awarded numerous fellowships including the Rome Prize.
In “The Musical Mind,” a 1946 article for the journal Modern Music, he explained his music’s personalized yet nonetheless unashamed nods to earlier classical composers.
“If a composer finds himself sympathetic to the classical quality of expression, he can derive immense benefit from a detailed examination of the melodic procedures of the three great Viennese masters,” he wrote.
The same article concludes with a passage that signaled Mr. Shapero’s early dissatisfaction with atonal music, whose rigor and formal constraints he saw as a distortion of the natural creative process, or in his words: “It is as if a man were taught to walk with bent knees because of the inordinate lowness of the ceiling.”
After stylistic winds began to shift in the 1950s and 1960s, American neoclassicism as a whole fell out of favor, and with it Mr. Shapero’s contributions. Battles over musical style could be fierce, and some champions of the ascendant 12-tone music argued that the march of musical progress was on their side. The composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, for instance, famously went as far as declaring that any musician who did not feel in sympathy with these modern trends was “useless.”
Beginning in 1951, Mr. Shapero immersed himself in his work at Brandeis, where he taught for 37 years and helped to establish the school’s electronic music studio.
His pace of composition dramatically slowed, but he continued to write, creating in the 1960s a series of electronic music improvisations with his daughter Hannah, who is known as Pyra, and later a set of Three Hebrew Songs for tenor and piano and string orchestra, among other works.
In the late 1980s, Andre Previn returned to Mr. Shapero’s “Symphony for Classical Orchestra” and began conducting it in live performances with orchestras around the country, including the BSO in 1991. At that time, Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote that “the wonderful slow movement, one of the great achievements of American music, stretches luxuriant lyric lines across a gorgeously intricate accompaniment that takes on a life of its own.”
Although the BSO has not performed the work again since those performances, other local champions, in various periodic tribute programs, made sure Mr. Shapero’s music never disappeared completely from view. Reviewing one such concert for the Globe in 1980, a 60th birthday tribute, critic David St. George described the composer’s response to the outpouring of appreciation: “As is so characteristic of this feisty, outrageous, and infinitely gentle man, his embarrassment at the prolonged ovation seemed genuine, as did his gratitude to the work and devotion of the performers. But not so great, for sure, as our gratitude toward him for a lifetime spent in enriching our national musical heritage.”
In addition to his daughter, a resident of Falls Church, Va., Mr. Shapero leaves his wife, Esther Geller of Natick; and his sister, Edith Alpers, also of Natick.
The funeral will be private. A tribute program is being planned at Brandeis University in the fall.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.