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Harold Shapero 1920-2013


Harold Shapero of Natick, Mass., a classical music composer, pianist and longtime professor of music at Brandeis University, died in his sleep on May 17th at age 93, following complications from pneumonia. Born in Lynn, Mass., on April 29, 1920, Shapero maintained a bold presence on the music scene in Greater Boston for more than 70 years.

“Harold was one of the more wonderfully enigmatic, paradoxical composers of his generation. In person, he was amusing, warm, and a true eccentric of the best sort, often catching people off-guard by saying something totally unexpected. However, the music is elegant, clear, and as compelling as anything from the middle of the 20th century,”  said Eric Chasalow, Irving G. Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University. “Personally, he was very generous and supportive to me and I already miss him.”

Shapero’s friend Aaron Copland identified him with the American “Stravinsky school” of neo-classical composers that included lifelong friends and fellow Brandeis faculty members Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein and Irving Fine. Bernstein, who conducted the premiere of Shapero’s “Symphony for Classical Orchestra” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947, called the work “a marvel” in a letter to Serge Koussevitsky.

Shapero joined the Brandeis faculty in 1951 and spent 37 years teaching in the Department of Music. He helped develop the university’s renowned electronic music studio and taught music theory and composition. He mentored dozens of students and served as the department’s chair during the 1960s. Shapero maintained a close relationship with the university in recent years as a professor emeritus, frequently attending concerts and sharing his charm with students, faculty and staff.

“His brilliant musical achievement and his 37 years of service at Brandeis helped define the character and value of the Department of Music in its earlier decades,” said Yu-Hui Chang, Chair of Department of Music.

Shapero mentored a number of students who went on to distinguished careers including Pulitzer Prize winning composer Richard Wernick (BA, ’55), composer and editor Benjamin Boretz, pianist, harpsichordist, conductor and composer Joel Spiegelman (MFA, ’61) and composer Sheila Silver (PhD, ‘76).

His compositions were recognized with numerous accolades, including the Prix de Rome, a Naumburg Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship and a Koussevitzky Foundation Commission.

A graduate of Harvard University, his teachers included Walter Piston, Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger. Shapero was a mainstay at the MacDowell Colony during the 1940s, when he completed his “Serenade in D.” He was an early student at Tanglewood, where Copland presented a performance of Shapero’s Nine-Minute Overture.

A true Renaissance man, his widespread talents and interests ranged from the study of birds to electronics.

He is survived by his wife, Esther (Geller), an esteemed visual artist, and his daughter, Pyra (Hannah) Shapero, of Falls Church, Va.

A memorial service is planned for May 22 in Natick and will include remembrances by Shapero’s closest friends and the playing of a recent recording of his “Arioso Variations,” performed by pianist Sally Pinkas. A public concert and memorial service are being planned for September, 2013 to be held at Brandeis University’s Slosberg Music Center. The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Brandeis University Department of Music, Attention Mark Kagan, 415 South Street, MS 051, Waltham, MA 02453-2728.

An extended and illustrated tribute from the Shapero family is here.

By Dr. Joanna Fine & Nicholas A. Brown


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The composer, I know, was extremely pleased with Michael Boriskin’s recordings of the three Piano Sonatas — — pieces that are “little” only in the way that Scarlatti and the Beethoven of the Bagatelles are. They are sheer exhilaration. If he had written nothing else …

    Comment by Richard Buell — May 21, 2013 at 1:24 am

  2. Richard – that Boriskin CD is excellent, expertly and affectionately played. I heard it on WHRB one evening as I pulled into the driveway, and had to sit there listening to the whole thing, trying to place it: Poulenc? Copland? But in the best way it’s his own voice. RIP

    Comment by Charley Blandy — May 21, 2013 at 9:09 am

  3. I will miss Harold’s warmth, wit, and wisdom. “Sonny,” he was called by so many who knew him well. Together with Irving Fine, Harold Shapero proclaimed the cause of American neoclassicism more effectively than any other composers of his generation. For many years he served loyally as a judge for the annual competition of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, Inc., which I serve as president, and his comments at our annual meetings were treasured for their keen perceptiveness. His Symphony for Classical Orchestra is a major work, a worthy testimonial for a lifetime of skill and exploration.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — May 25, 2013 at 7:07 pm

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