As musical prodigies go -- a league that includes such figures as Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn -- Otto Luening was only moderately spectacular. But his creative life lasted far longer than any of those doomed geniuses, and at 80 he can (in this book, he does) look back on an uncommonly varied list of accomplishments as composer, conductor, flutist, educator, opener of new paths, organizer of worthy musical institutions, and associate and peer of great artists.
Born in Milwaukee in 1900, the son of two musicians, Luening began to compose little waltzes when he was about 6, and looking back today he finds that "they were good." Not until he was 17, though, did he complete anything he cares to include on the "Selected List of Compositions" at the end of the book. His father, Eugene Luening, was a distinguished conductor, pianist and music educator, but he paid little attention to young Otto's training. "I heard his booming voice from the next room," Luening recalls, "telling Mama, 'No, no. I do not want any of my children to be a musician. It should be discouraged. An artist's life is much too difficult in the United States.'"
"I played the role of Mozart," Luening comments wryly, "better than Papa played the role of Mozart's father." In later years, he would sometimes surprise his father with a new composition -- even play it to him as the work of another composer -- and the father might be trapped into a momentary enthusiasm. "That's the greatest slow movement since Beethoven," he said one day, but at breakfast the next morning the tune had changed to "I may have been overenthusiastic."
Wiped out in the depression of 1907, his parents had to sell the family homestead and move -- first to Madison, where Luening pere was director of the University of Wisconsin's School of Music (at the "staggering" salary of $3,500 per year). Five years later, the family moved to Germany, where the father taught music to others while young Otto taught music to himself, copying the scores of great composers for an hour and a half each day. His career as a teen-age flutist, composer and conductor in Germany was interrupted by the entry of America into World War I. Still in his teens, Luening moved to Zurich, where he studied composition with the great Ferruccio Busoni, got an orchestra job, became recognized as "the second-best flutist in Zurich" and in his spare time acted in the English Players, James Joyce's theatrical company. At 20, he turned down offers to succeed Mengelberg as conductor of the Zurich Opera and to teach at the Conservatory, and returned to the United States.
His career at home was as varied as it had been in Europe, including ventures in opera, composing, teaching and ultimately -- in collaboration with Vladimir Ussachevsky -- some of the most significant work in the development of electronic music. He even ventured briefly and more or less by accident into composing soundtrack music in Hollywood (for "Of Human Bondage," starring Bette Davis), attracted by terms that he could hardly refuse: "one dollar per measure of orchestration . . . and thirty dollars per measure of composed music."
He soon decided against a Hollywood career when he heard of some of the other standard conditions. "You must be able to compose or orchestrate for eighteen hours without stopping," a colleague told him. "Of course you can eat a little or have a drink. You must be able to compose in every style except your own."
"Do you ever get vacations?" he asked.
"No, but if you have a nervous breakdown, the company will pay the sanitarium bills."
But this was in the '30s, when he had become fairly well established. His earlier years can be summed up with his epigrammatic remark on a concert he organized in Chicago in 1922: "It was a stupendous success, but few people attended." An opera company collapsed under him, and he had to earn his living by musical odd jobs until, at 25, he was made director of the opera department at the prestigious Eastman School. His career was thus launched.
Ultimately, that career included not only teaching, performing, composing and the production of many operas but the arduous and tricky business of promoting American music in America. He was one of the guiding spirits in the foundation of the American Music Center (AMC), the American Composers Alliance (ACA) and Composers Recordings Inc. (CRI), three institutions which may be unfamiliar to the general public but have vitalized serious music in this country.
Luening has a skill with words comparable to his mastery of musical forms, and he uses it with great verve in this autobiography. The chapter titled "The Business of Music," which details his connections with AMC, ACA and CRI, is rather stiffly written, almost as though it were put together by a committee. But elsewhere he writes vividly and with what looks like total recall. Whether he is describing a parade seen in his childhood, the Dadaists he met in Zurich, his situation as an American in wartime Germany or the great men with whom he has been associated, he tells his story with a gusto that should attract readers only marginally interested in music.
Luening knew Joyce, for example, while he was writing some of the later sections of "Ulysses." Joyce seemed rather dapper," he recalls, "and used a cane with grace. His tapered hands were quite beautiful, particularly when he used them to emphasize points. . . . Sometimes he looked a bit like a Mephisto who had reached a certain level of success and maturity in other than his usual occupation." Once, he says, Joyce created for him "a word painting of Dublin" so precise and detailed that "Even today I sometimes wonder if I haven't lived there."
Luening's own writing is not quite that vivid, but his life is one of unusual interest and his style does it full justice.