... An interview with Marjorie Burgess -- composer, teacher, SilverStringer...
You have to imagine this: Marjorie Burgess is seated on the edge of her chair in the computer room, all 105 pounds. Naturally a shy person, she is today a bundle of energy, raging to say something. She is almost half way through her ninth decade on this earth -- now 83 -- and here she is lining up to learn how to use a computer.
As a composer, she is one of the most celebrated women in the history of this city, and there is hardly a ragtime artist in the country that doesn't know her Screen Door Rag. It just seems so incongruous that this petite, aging dynamo could have produced so much joy through music through the years. Versatile to a T, her prolific repertoire includes classical, jazz, folk, funk, ragtime, choral, pop -- you name it, she's probably written it. Successfully.
Marjorie at the MIT sound studio with grad student Inge Endter, who is the technical advisor to the SilverStringers.
Q: You've done a book?
MB: What we call a book is a collection of pieces, a volume of work. I've done four, maybe five books that were published over the years.
There was one book I did as the result of hearing a lecture by Harvard Professor Ivan Tcherepnin, who discussed how it is possible to make a whole symphony from a few bars of music. I went home and tried it, and dedicated the piece -- I called it Nocturne -- to Dr. Tcherepnin. It was published by the Willis Music Company in 1987.
The funny thing was that I never received any royalties from that piece until just last week, when I got a check for $188.18 for sales in the past year. I can't explain it, perhaps someone played it at a concert, and it went over well. Or maybe some professor used it as a teaching tool. I'll probably never know. You lose track of your work.
Q: Marjorie, how do your publishers figure royalties?
MB: I'm not exactly sure, but I know that when I sign a contract with a publisher, they own the rights to it, and I get ten percent of its sales. Anyway, that check last week for was 965 copies sold. There was another $47 for some other pieces .... I can't keep up with it.
I pretty much stay with one publisher, but over the years publishing houses are sold and sold again. Schirmer, for instance, is now a property of Columbia pictures, and Boston Music Company is owned by Hammerstein Music Theater Company. Sometimes a composer's work will be put into a collection with other writers' music, so it's hard to keep up with who is selling what. The Willis Music Company has much of my music.
Q: How many books or pieces have you written over your career?
MB: Oh, probably over a hundred, including four or five books. I lose track. Once, while reading a book of poetry composed by ghetto children, one poem touched me deeply. It said "I feel as lonely as a dog without a master" and from that I composed Variations on a Theme, which is published by The Boston Music Company (1988). It contains twelve examples of music styles from classic to jazz. It is intriguing, beautiful, but sad. Like the book. And it has been highly recommended.
The Beethoven Society in Melrose has performed my music over the years, and has given me much encouragement. But this was some ten years ago. [Marjorie was 73 then].
One thing is obvious, the vast majority of artists -- composers -- will never be able to live on the income from their work. Even though I started rather late, my royalties today only amount to a few hundred a year. Sometimes more -- like the surprise check I got last week. A piece of music probably sells for two dollars, a book maybe for three to five.
But it is significant that when you sign with a publisher, the music becomes their property.
One of my favorite pieces I did while I was studying at Berklee, in 1978. It was a lovely book called "Animal Gourmets" and deals with various animals' favorite foods. Of course it is composed for children of all ages. The verses were written by Carolyn Baldwin, who was already an award-winning poet, and the cover design and interior sketches were done by Donna Burgess -- who happens to be my daughter. It was published by the Willis Music company, I think, in 1978.
Q: Do you perform for the public?
MB: When it is necessary. I prefer to have someone like Arthur (Dr. Arthur Houle of the University of Idaho faculty) who can perform my music with great confidence and beauty. He was at Berklee with me. He liked my music and encouraged me. In fact, he was the producer of my compact disk, which we published just last year.
Q: You studied at Berklee?
MB: Yes, for a year and a half. There were only two girls in my class at Berklee, me and a superb professional pianist who wished to add to her talents. I was the budding composer who wished to become a better pianist. And I was definitely the oldest!
I grew up in Roxbury. My favorite toy must have been the piano. My father was Jewish and my mother was Protestant, and it seemed that I was always explaining why someone with the name of Marjorie Solomon wasn't at the temple. Actually I grew up as a hardshell Baptist, and Earl and I belonged to the First Baptist Church in Melrose.
During World War II, I married the most beautiful soldier I had ever seen. We were together briefly and I was left with a most beautiful son.
In earlier times, there was a lot of negative reaction, even when we moved to Melrose. My sister Doris, who was very beautiful, was turned down for a job even though she was head of her class, when the company learned she was part Jewish. She was a Baptist but had to convert to Catholicism when she got married. I remember seeing a sign at a beach, no Jews allowed, and wondered if that applied to me. Earl was protestant, but switched to Catholicism, then switched back. It's a mixed-up world.
But life was different in Roxbury during the depression. I had piano lessons here and there, but never any prolonged formal training. In fact, I didn't go to college until my two children were grown up. Most of what I learned about writing music was self-taught. I attended college in my mid-forties.
I've always been interested in music, and was able to read music before taking lessons. I remember playing What a friend I have in Jesus in the key of C by using the do, re, me method. Hymn books use the key of F for the convenience of the singing by its parishioners.
But I really took to it in high school, and would take lessons whenever I could get some money together.
And I wrote anything that caught my imagination. Classical, jazz, folk, vocal for choirs, and for soloists. I wrote a Christmas anthem called A Child is Born. Mary Rogers, then organist and choir director at St. Mary's Church, was the first to perform the Anthem -- a choral piece for four voices, and the Polymnia Society performed it at Memorial Hall at Christmas in 1986.
I fell in love with the sounds and possibilities of the modes that were being taught at Berklee. Their use -- in folk, classic, jazz, choral -- all challenged me to write a set of modal pieces that I named Music a la Mode. Berklee printed the first edition. It was then published by G. Schirmer, and received very good reviews -- something like "the best of the year" one wrote, and another reviewer said the "The sounds are interesting, the writing and editing superb!"
Eventually I learned quite a bit about modal music -- you know, Dorian, Phygian, Locrian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and what was the other one...?
We moved to Melrose around 1950 -- we bought the old Sturges home, the home of the noted artist, Dwight C. Sturges, on West Emerson Street. Earl is gone now, and I'm not afraid to admit that I am awfully lonely.
Earl worked at General Electric, worked his way up the ladder. Our son Frank lives in Reading and is the president of his own company; our daughter Donna (Warren) earned a scholarship for her art at Melrose High, and now her work is seen all over the country. She lives in Middleton.
I kept the piano that my parents had, and used it until the poor thing wore out. Then I purchased a gorgeous upright from a wealthy lady in Newton, who was related to Thomas Edison. She wasn't going to sell it to me until she heard me play, and then she offered it to me at a very attractive price. I think I paid something like fifty dollars for it -- of course, that was when I was still living in Roxbury.
Since then I've managed to crowd the house with a grand, an upright, a full Gulbranson organ and a Hammond spinet. In fact, I used to teach organ almost exclusively during the high times of the Ethel Smith era. And I taught at Steinerts, in Boston and Reading, until the craze for organ music disappeared.
Q: Which was more profitable, teaching or composing?
MB: Oh, teaching, by far. I couldn't live on what I make by writing music. I've done workshops all over the country, showing people how to compose. I taught teachers -- Willis Music frequently sent me to Maryland, Boston, Maine, New Hampshire, and even to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I also served as a judge in competitive concerts, and I belong to the National League of American Pen Women, which is quite an honor. (Editor's note: Marjorie was recently asked to serve as president of the Boston Chapter of that national organization for the coming year).
You know, I taught piano at the Boston Adult Education Center, and never had an absentee. I think that set some kind of record. And I also taught in the Reading program called Creative Arts for Kids, as well as evening classes in Stoneham. And of course I've taught many Melrose children.
Q: But you don't perform in public?
MB: No, but there was a time two years ago that I thought I should have a concert of my music performed by those artists who know my music -- so I asked Arthur Houle (now Professor Houle) if he would play. And Leslie Holmes, the singer and radio MC, agreed to perform, and Mark Lutton -- probably the best ragtime player in the country -- agreed to come.
It was held in the Brannen Brothers Concert Hall in Woburn, and went over very well. I was so pleased. (Editor's note: Earl died just one week before the performance).
Q: Ragtime? You write ragtime?
MB: A professor at Brandeis told us that "anyone can write a rag", so I went home and wrote "Screen Door Rag", sent it to a publisher, and it was a hit. Actually, Earl was making a screen door for Donna's ceramic studio, and that was all the inspiration I needed.
I'll write anything. I love ragtime. For several years I was invited to take part in a ragtime festival held in Connecticut, and while I'd lecture, Mark Lutton would play my rags. People came from all over the country. I was known as a teacher of rag. And of course Mark and I became close friends.
But I write for myself, what I hear in my mind, and I work on it. Not fast. But I work on it. Like, "Climbing the Stairs" rag was inspired when my grandson tried going upstairs. Everybody seems to be able to visualize what I write about.
And I also write special pieces when someone asks -- like you, when you wanted something to introduce the SilverStringers' website. I was so glad to contribute. (The name of the piece Marjorie wrote, when I suggested something funky, was "The Kangaroo Troup". It is a marvelous piece, and can be heard as an intro to the Stringers' site).
Q: Didn't you do something with Len Dalton a while back?
MB: Yes, I was asked to write a song for the 25th anniversary of the local chapter of AARP. So I had a friend, a poet, who was more familiar with the group, write the words -- they were perfect and I wrote the music, to fit the words. The first copy wasn't so good, but we worked on it, and it turned out great. They copied it for the entire audience, and Len served as MC, taught them the tune and lead the audience in singing it. He's got a beautiful voice, and the program was a hit.
One of the most unusual solos I've done was for a beautiful young girl who was born with only one arm. It was a competition sponsored by the National League of American Pen Women and was written for a one-handed, left-handed pianist. I got second prize -- out of a thousand entries. (When I asked her if she would play it for me, she told me it was much too difficult for her). The piece was published by the Boston Music Company in the 1960s and is still available. It is called Tapestry.
When I was living in Roxbury, I frequently wrote lyrics -- like my Irish song. I was all alone in our living room and I started to write the music, but then couldn't find anybody to write the lyrics. It was called "To Win a Colleen" and I did the words too.
Q: I know you have a CD of your music....
MB: I just happened to mention to Arthur -- I am a senior citizen -- that I should have something to leave behind. So he asked Leslie (Holmes) and Mark (Lutton) and they said fine, they'd play. I also asked Brian Ocock, who is the vocal teacher at the Creative Arts for Kids program, and he also participated.
But it was Arthur who put the whole thing together. Each musican played or sang the piece they choose, and Arthur had the final say, and he added voices from the professors at the university. He did the editing, the arranging and produced the recording. And Donna did the line notes as well as the cover.
Q: And I know you like to write. I can see it in your copy for the SilverStringers.
MB: Yes. I bought a word processor back in 1990, and I do enjoy writing, especially for this project (MIT's SilverStringers).
Q: As a closing question, Marjorie, what do you think about the trend of modern music?
MB: "Oh, Don, you know, I question whether it is music or not. But we are being given a message of some sort -- that they want their own music.