Local composer returns to his Bach roots Leonard Moses writes anniversary cantata as parody of Bach's style

March 19, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When he was a student at the Eastman School of Music in the 1950s, Leonard Moses would sit for hours at the piano, improvising in the style of Bach.

In a composition class, where the students were to write a chaconne (a baroque slow dance), Howard Hanson happened by just as Moses' effort was being played.

The great American composer, who was also dean of the Eastman School, asked Moses to step across the street to a White Tower for a cup of coffee. And there he told the young man: "Be a first Moses, not a second Bach."

Moses, who has made his living as a composer for 40 years, is back to Bach.

His birthday cantata to the baroque composer, written in an affectionate parody of Bach's style, will premiere this weekend as part of the Annapolis Chorale's "Bach Birthday Bash." The date coincides with the 313th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's birth.

When J. Ernest Green, director of the choir, told Moses last year that he could use a piece for the birthday concert, "my mind was already working," says the 66-year-old composer, who lives in Annapolis.

Moses had won a scholarship to study French horn and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But he didn't like his horn teacher and found he couldn't study composition until his third year, so he transferred to Eastman, the music school of the University of Rochester N.Y.

After he graduated in 1955, he taught music theory at the Navy School of Music, then in Anacostia, for four years. Since then, he has devoted himself to composing and arranging music, teaching piano and music theory on the side and writing occasional music reviews.

He and his wife, Lady Alice Prather, a descendant of several Colonial Maryland families, have lived in Annapolis since 1971. Their modest townhouse on Water Street is a virtual museum filled with antique furniture and ornaments they have acquired or inherited.

"Somewhere in here is a candlestick said to have belonged to Beethoven," said Moses, who has a distant cousin even more distantly related to Karl van Beethoven, the composer's unscrupulous nephew.

On Lady Alice's side, the family is related to the Duvals, whose most famous contemporary member is actor Robert Duvall.

Moses has written about 100 works, including songs, chamber music and a symphony (performed in the 1970s by the National Symphony under Howard Mitchell) and two oratorios: "From the Sermon on the Mount," written for a Washington church, and "The Flight Into Egypt," written for Washington's prestigious Friday Morning Music Club, where Moses is a past president of the composers' group.

He has composed three ballets: "Old Photographs" (1987), based on a poem, "Goodbye, My Fancy," and choreographed by Meriam Rosen of the University of Maryland, College Park; "Flatland" (1988), based on an unusual book about geometry for Pamela Moore and the then-American Contemporary Ballet (now the National Ballet) in Bowie; and "Passion," choreographed by Edward Stewart for Ballet Theater of Annapolis in 1995.

And he has written a musical theater version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," performed by many community and semiprofessional companies. He and his librettist, Richard Stein of Bowie, are working on "The Diary of Marilyn Monroe," a music drama about her suicide.

The Bach birthday piece, though much lighter, is close to his heart.

All five movements use "Happy Birthday" as the cantus firmus -- to use the musicological term -- and the overture is a full-fledged fugue on the birthday theme, written for strings, two oboes, two trumpets and timpani.

The cantata ends, in good Bach fashion, with a chorale in four-part harmony on the tune.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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