Verdi isn't the problem, Mozart is. You understand this after you listen to Stephen Douglas Burton talk for a couple of hours about being a composer. He ends up standing in the backyard of his split-level in Vienna, Va., with the coleus plants and the holly tree and the tool shed, and he says: "When Verdi died, 10,000 people followed his coffin to the grave spontaneously breaking into 'Va, pensiero,' from Nabucco."
Burton writes operas, too. One is his The Duchess of Malfi, which makes its debut at Wolf Trap this Friday (August 18). He's been composing long works since he was a 12-year-old Boy Scout in Los Angeles, and it's a very rare air he breathes. Being another Verdi is within the realm of possibility, one suspects that he suspects. But Mozart! Burton says: "Mozart is my competition."
This is like a baseball player saying Babe Ruth is his competition. Or a writer comparing himself with Shakespeare. But Burton has a big ego the way an offensive tackle has a size 18 neck. He needs one.
The Duchess, for instance, opens after five years of Burton's scrounging grants and teaching, holing up for 10-hour days at the piano (Lord help his wife and two sons if they interrupt) and fighting for two years with Christopher Keene, who wrote the words. But look at the fight from the perspective of Burton's ego, as when he wrote in a press release: "The correspondence between Christopher and myself at that time will, I am sure, someday be discovered with great delight by some as yet unborn musicologist."
He hasn't appointed an official biographer yet, but then he's only 35. Though he's ready.
He sits at his dining alcove table, lights another True, and takes a shallow puff, corralling the ashes against one side of the ashtray. "I grew up in Los Angeles, in a family that had no musical interests at all," he says. "My father ran a liquor store, my mother worked in the movies as a secretary and did a little acting. I was the usual gregarious sort of kid, president of my class, a member of all the clubs. When I was eight or nine, I heard some music on the radio. It made an enormous impression on me. I'd hear bits of things in movies - the old Flash Gordon movies had Liszt as background music. When I was 10 or 11 a guy in my Scout troup played me the old Toscanini recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. I sat there transfixed. I decided right there that what I wanted to learn to do was write music."
Burton talks a lot like Dick Cavett, homogenizing all the vowels to a droll drone. "I'd like to be on the Cavett show someday," he says, "to see what we'd sound like together." Burton looks like a young Balzac, a mesomorph with a ginger mustache, quick blue eyes, an aura of fluffy hair, a fine obliviousness about him, sailing electrically serene through an America never too friendly to composers of operas, cantatas, symphonies and song cycles, as Burton is.
"I was bored to death with the Beach Boys," he says. "I never understood Elvis Presley till years after he came along, and I saw the sexual force of the number he did." He confessed all this freely to his classmates, he says. But: "I survived in high school by making friends with Blacky Hernandez. Blacky sort of took a shine to me, I don't know why. He ended up in Alcatraz, I think."
Well, many were the suns that shone on Stephen Douglas Burton. "My first piano teacher gave me the Mendelssohn G Minor piano concerto to learn. I had it memorized in a week and didn't think there was anything remarkable about it. My next teacher assigned me a theme-and-variation exercise, with the theme being 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' He said to do four or five variations. But I'd been studying Beethoven's 'Diabelli' Variations. I think there are 32 or 33 of them. I decided to outdo Beethoven, so I came in with 40."
Burton went to Oberlin, which bored him, but if offered a junior year in Salzburg.
"I decided I'd give it this year in Europe. If it didn't work out for me as a composer, I'd quit and go back and get a job in Los Angeles."
Burton was 19. Sure enough, a teacher liked a one-minute song he wrote, based on Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." Burton expanded it, the Berlin Philharmonic performed it, Burton was acclaimed as a wunderkind, and then nothing else got performed for five years. He supported himself by conducting. It wasn't enough. He had a wife, a child, another one on the way. "I couldn't do it financially any more. I came back to Los Angeles and got a job in the U.S. District Court as a clerk. I worked there for nine very unpleasant months - although they were six months behind in their bankruptcy cases which I closed out for them in a week, so that was a small triumph."
Then the Berlin Radio Philharmonic played a long-languishing Burton symphony, and then the Chicago Symphony picked it up, and you hate to think what's happened to the bankruptcy files in the last 10 years as Burton has become a professor at George Mason University, and the writer of commissioned works for the Chicago, Pittsburgh and National symphonies. And now, grand opera, The Duchess of Malfi.
The problem being that the composer of serious music is regarded, nowadays, as an anachronism, a crank, a mere intellectual. But, says Burton, "for their time, the great 19th century composers were the equivalent of the big Hollywood stars of the '30s or '40s, or the TV stars of the '50s, or whatever stars we have today, or we may not have any stars today . . ."
And popular music wouldn't be so popular if "commercial interests didn't manipulate the public," the problem being that avant-garde dogmatists alienated the public from serious music, Burton insists in a speech which ends: "Have we finished demolishing the avant-garde?" To the untrained ear, Burton's music is of the modern persuasion, that tone of bleak surrender to inconclusiveness. So, given the "commercial interests" and the arcane nature of serious music these days, it seems unlikely that another Verdi will come along. But Burton thinks so. Could he be the one?"
The blitheness is unflinching: "I'll be sorry if it doesn't happen," he says.
So it's nice to know, even if Burton has to think about it for a few moments, that he has competition. "Mozart," he says. "Mozart is my competition."