At 90, composer Samuel Adler reflects on a life in music (Part 1)

Samuel Adler with his wife, Emily Freeman Brown, in their Perrysburg home.


BG Independent News

When Samuel Adler was born, his mother, Selma, declared he would be a composer.  The hospital was located on the spot where Mozart himself had lived.

Of course, music was the family occupation. His father, Hugo Adler, was a cantor at the central synagogue in Mannheim, Germany, and himself a composer of sacred works.

So the path was blazed early, and Adler has stayed on that road guided by his father and some of the greatest musicians of his time. Along the way Adler has created a legacy of hundreds of compositions, from solo pieces for every instrument in the orchestra plus accordion to operas – “I’ve written too much,” he says with wry self-deprecation – and hundreds of composition students.

Adler lives, retired from teaching but not composing, in Perrysburg with his wife, Emily Freeman Brown, the director of orchestral studies at Bowling Green State University.

His 90th birthday year will be marked by performances near and far, both in Toledo with the Toledo Symphony will premiering his tuba concerto in fall and in his native Germany where one of his pieces will be performed in Potsdam on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi attacks that signaled the ratcheting up of the persecution of Jews.

Adler has released a three-CD set, “One Lives but Once” on Linn Records and published “Building Bridges with Music: Stories from a Composer’s Life,” published  by  Pendragon  and  already in  its second edition.

“I’ve made it,” he declares when asked about the milestone year during an interview at his home.

His actual birthday was celebrated in Dallas March 4. It coincided with a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the choir at Temple Emanu-El which he formed.  Music director of the temple was his first job after his discharge from the Army in 1952.

His life in music started in Mannheim. After playing recorder in school, his parents started him on violin at 7.

This was during the time when the Nazis had taken control, and were imposing increasing restrictions and harassment on Jews.  Musicians and singers were fired from their positions. They banded together to form a cultural organization that staged concerts and operas. Hugo Adler with active in writing cantatas. Young  Sam Adler heard his first operas performed by the Judischer Kulturbund. Then came Kristallnacht in 1938.

In his memoir, Adler recalls the central synagogue being burned.  His father recruited him to help rescue old books of music, the musical legacy of the congregation, from the badly damaged temple. They took all they could carry as Nazis moved around below.

The family was able to flee in 1939 on “the last train,” he said. They ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Because of his father’s reputation in Jewish music circles he was able to secure a job as a cantor in synagogue there.

Looking back, Adler said: “When you’re a survivor from the Nazi period, everything is a gift after that.”

Young Adler had begun to compose, but “my father said he didn’t want to see anything until I studied.”

So his father arranged for him to take lessons from Herbert Fromm, a student of Hindemith, whom Adler himself would later study with.

“I had a wonderful high school experience,” he said. “The high school conductor made me conduct all the rehearsals, and he criticized me up and down, and that was very good for me.”

The director also had him compose a piece for the orchestra every semester. “I thought each was a masterpiece, which it wasn’t.”

As a member of the Worcester Philharmonic, Adler wrote “Epitaph for the Young American Soldier.”

“It got sensational reviews,” the composer recalled.  And a publisher in New York contacted him about publishing his music.

“My father refused to sign the contract,” Adler said, telling him: “‘In five years you’ll be embarrassed by these pieces.’ He was right.”

He attended Boston University, and then did graduate work at Harvard, where he studied with Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, and Hindemith. The day he graduated from Harvard he received his draft notice, and launched his career in an artillery unit of the Second Armored Division.

This brought Adler back to Germany. “I was stationed in a place where they had 24,000 American troops and a population of 3,600. I hated the way Germans thought of us, as nothing but drunkards and rapists.” Not, he added, without some justification.

So he brought together the Catholic and Protestant clergy and proposed forming a chorus. It was the first time Protestants and Catholics had joined together to sing since the Thirty Years’ War  in  the  17th  century.

A classical quartet of servicemen visited the area, and asked about the project. In their conversations over beer, Adler talked about his vision of an orchestra made up of American servicemen who could be cultural ambassadors.

The musicians reported back to special services, and the Seventh Army Orchestra was born, 65 men and one woman, the wife of one of the musicians.

These were musicians from all the major orchestras back home, so they mastered 100 pieces with minimal rehearsal.

The orchestra’s first concert marked Gen. Dwight D.  Eisenhower’s retirement before he returned to the United States. Afterward, Eisenhower said he liked the music, but he didn’t like Adler’s uniform, so he had his tailor make him a white general’s uniform, with corporal’s stripes.

On every concert, Adler programmed, a major work by an American composer. From April through December, 1952, when Adler was discharged, the orchestra played 120 concerts, in cities and small villages.  It continued for another decade after he left.  His enlistment was extended a month, so he and the orchestra could record 17 weeks’ worth of programs for Armed Services Radio. That meant, though, that he was flown back to the United States, instead of having to take a ship.

Ahead was a career in which he would add to that body of American music he had celebrated with the Army orchestra.

(This is the first of two stories on the life and career of Samuel Adler)