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William Jennings Bryan "Ben" Weber (July 23, 1916 in St. Louis – June 16, 1979 in New York City) was an American composer. Born in Kentucky, raised in Chicago, a New Yorker for decades, Ben was part of that fertile group that includes John Cage, Ned Rorem, David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and Lou Harrison all of whom once resided in the West Village. Once Virgil Thomson said to Weber: "I hear you are homosexual." Weber agreed that he was. Thomson: "I hear you're a 12-tone composer." Again, Weber agreed. "Well," said Thomson, "you can't be both. Now which is it?" Perhaps Weber was one of those exceptions that prove the rule.
Ben Brian Weber was born in St. Louis, MO. He studied medicine at the University of Illinois, but transferred to DePaul University to study music.
Weber was "one of the first Americans to embrace the 12-tone techniques of Schoenberg, starting in 1938"; he was largely self-taught. He worked initially as a copyist and only came to recognition in the 1950s. Weber used the twelve-tone technique but, rather than avoid tonality, he worked with it and achieved a virtuoso Romantic style: "Weber could not stifle his bent for expansive lyricism and bold gestures," wrote music critic Anthony Tommasini, adding: "One gets the sense that his adaptation of the 12-tone technique was his way of ensuring that his music would keep its cutting edge and not slip into Romanticism. There is a rather Brahmsian spirit trying to emerge here." He composed chamber music for various combinations of instruments, orchestral music including concertos for violin and piano, piano music, and songs. Weber also wrote an unpublished memoir, How I Took 63 Years to Commit Suicide (as told to Matthew Paris).
Weber staged elaborate dinner parties for small groups of friends. Ben loved to shop for exotic spices in the stores near his West Village apartment, and his menus were the stuff of legend. Years later, the avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos said that Robert (the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s long-time partner) was still talking about Ben’s shrimp curry. Ben remarked that writing a piece of music is sort of like making a dinner party. For the party, you spend one day shopping and one day cooking, and the people eat it all up in an hour. When you write a piece of music, you spend two months writing it, two weeks preparing the score, and the musicians play it through in ten minutes! Besides many composers and performers, poets such as Paul Goodman, Edwin Denby, and Frank O’Hara were frequent guests; when he was still living in Chicago, Ben attended a reading by Henry Miller and afterwards he and Miller went back to Ben’s apartment and talked until dawn. (Perhaps Miller was also a guest at one of the New York dinners.) After dinner, Ben would disappear behind a curtain, emerge in a wig and costume and perform a scene from Salomé or Tosca. Both gay and straight—Ben didn’t just do these drag performances for his gay circle—wax poetic about these performances. Edward Field is a celebrated poet and writer on gay life. As a very young man, he met Ben when they were both in residence at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, and he talked about how wonderful it was to experience these performances. He’s also written about them in his memoirs.
Weber was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowships in 1950. He received a Thorne Music Award in 1965, which was given to composers of “mature years and recognized accomplishments".
The painter Don Bachardy painted several beautiful portraits of Ben. He got to know Ben in the 1960s, when Ben had moved uptown and wasn’t giving parties much anymore. In Don's beautiful house in Santa Monica, overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, hanging in pride of place at one window is a beautiful, framed score of Ben Weber’s. Don said that Ben was the most unique person he’d ever known, and he and Christopher Isherwood certainly knew many singular people. He tried to describe the qualities that made Ben so unique: his combination of profound seriousness, deep melancholy, and then those sudden, unexpected moments of humor that would catch Don completely off guard—he’d be talking very seriously about music or poetry, and suddenly switch to a completely different voice, imitating some opera singer—or, in an instant, his whole expression would change and he’d take on a wildly devilish demeanor. Don regrets that he never asked Ben to do one of his drag performances for him. “He wasn’t doing them anymore, but he probably would have done one for me if I’d asked. Ben in drag would not have been like anyone else.”
Ben Weber arrived at Yaddo in October 1966, and stayed almost to Christmas. Weber had been a friend of the poet Frank O'Hara, whose death in a freak accident at Fire Island during the summer was still affecting him. Peter Sculthorpe, another composer, found Weber depressed, and bought him a dog as a Christmas present, hoping a pet's company would help. Weber named it Pattie. A serialist, Weber was fascinated by Europe; Peter recalled him complaining about the boring, straight, dreary road from Yaddo to New York, and his longing instead for Europe's country lanes and cobblestones. This seemed to Peter symptomatic: This is the trouble with the music that you are writing ... so complex and turning around and around within itself ... just a little European old-fashioned lane ... What I want to do is write music that just goes straight, like the wide and long and straight road, and marvellous, wonderful, long sounds. Meanwhile, Weber recalled that at Yaddo they both drank a great deal, and later told Peter he was planning a revealing opera with the title The Last Martini (Wallace-Crabbe recalled that Peter introduced him to the martini).
Some of Weber compositions are:
My published books:
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