The life of this 20th century composer may very well have been the most harrowing, but in any case was certainly one of the most dramatic, of that of any major symphonic composer in history. Leplin's fate turned upon a terrible tragedy, but it was a tragedy that he never let slow him down.
Emanuel Leplin was born in San Francisco, in 1917, to Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a tailor, his mother was a dressmaker. His father became clinically depressed, and spent much of his adult life at the State Asylum in Napa. His mother was unable to afford violin lessons for him, but such was his musical talent that several prominent San Francisco philanthropists saw that he receive the best instruction available. These included Ruth Lilienthal, of the Haas Family (after whom is named UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business), San Francisco Symphony patroness Agnes Albert, and Daniel Koshland Sr., a vice president at Levi-Strauss. Later these same benefactors became instrumental in helping to keep Leplin's family solvent.
Such was young Leplin's fascination with great music that, unable to afford a ticket, he snuck into the War Memorial Opera House during the week of its first season's premieres. By week's end, he'd summoned the nerve to get the best view anyone had of the performance. He climbed out to the huge chandelier that still hangs suspended from the Opera House ceiling, and watched the opera from it.
While a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley, he was encouraged by Albert Elkus, Chair of the Department of Music, to enroll in the Prix de Paris, a University composition contest the winner of which earned two years of musical study in France. Leplin entered, and became the only undergraduate to win in the history of the award.
He studied composition first in New England with Roger Sessions, then in France with Darius Milhaud and George Enesco. He deliberately avoided studying with Nadia Boulanger, because he believed that the music of her students sounded both too similar and too tame. He studied violin with Yvonne Astruc, whose musical salon was attended by the Parisian elite, including the President of France. Leplin learned conducting from Pierre Monteux, who called him his "star student," someone "born with the gift of conducting."
Then the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Monteux invited Leplin to join it as a violist. In the 1940s, Leplin conducted the Symphony in his first two orchestral works, and formed a chamber music group composed of Symphony members. He painted oils as well. At the age of 36 his possibilities seemed limitless.
At this time, there was an epidemic of polio in the Bay Area. In 1954, Leplin was stricken. For eight months, he was confined to an iron lung. When he emerged, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down. However, he retaining movement in the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand. With these, he could hold a pencil well enough to compose. He found that with a brush held between his teeth, he could still paint, although on some occasions, being unable to reach the top of the canvas, he'd have to paint it upside down.
When the San Francisco Symphony premiered Two Pieces for Orchestra (Landscapes and Skyscrapers). San Francisco Chronicle's music critic wrote, "It is a rare thing for one man to be represented at the Opera House with two excellent paintings in the lobby and two first-class tone poems on the stage...Serenity, clarity, richness of color and strength were the keynotes in Landscapes. Skyscrapers added great excitement of rhythm...a sense of the epochal and the monumental."
Four paintings executed with a brush in his teeth, each representing one of the movements of his Symphony No. I, were also displayed when the Symphony premiered it in 1961. In 1966, Josef Krips came to Leplin's home, sat next to him, and sang the entire 45-minute Second Symphony, stopping only to pause between movements. When he was finished, Krips exclaimed, "It's more complicated than Stravinsky!" Shortly afterward, Krips and the Symphony gave its premiere.
Hearing a tape made of this symphony, Leonard Bernstein wrote Leplin, calling it "incredible music," and predicting, inaccurately, that he would program a performance of it in the near future.
Leplin also wrote, with his three mobile fingers, a Third Symphony, a Violin Concerto, and several other large works -- unable to hear them other than in his head.
An accident in 1972 led to Leplin's death. Under Seiji Ozawa, the Symphony performed a short work of his the following week, dedicated to Albert Elkus, and there was a moment of silence. The moment has continued up until the present day, for there has been no orchestral performance of a Leplin work since then.
Due to his inability to conduct and travel, the career of this brilliant musician came to a short and tragic end. However, Leplin's physical circumstances had no effect at all on his ability to write music based on the models of Beethoven and Brahms, while using hypercharged orchestration and an inspired outpouring of ideas. His premature and arbitrary dismissal from the concert hall is an oversight the magnitude of which will only be comprehended when his music is discovered and performed.
PRELUDE AND DANCE FOR ORCHESTRA (1941) MS 10 min. 3-2-2-2, 4-2-3-0, timp, perc, str. RUSTIC DANCE (1941) MS 6 min. For two pianos, horn, strings IPHIGENIA (1941) MS 45 min. Orchestral Suite for concert from music for Euripides' play fl, cl, ob, bs, perc, hn, str GALAXY (1942) MS 20 min. For two celli solo and orchestra: 3-3-3-2, 4-3-3-1, timp, perc, str THREE DANCES FOR SMALL ORCHESTRA (1942) MS 12 min. 2-2-2-2-, 2-0-2-0, timp, str (vlas in two parts or vlns & vlas) TWO PIECES FOR CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA (1942) MS 8 min. (On poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning) COMEDY (1946) MS 11 min. 3-3-3-3, 4-3-3-1, timp, perc, str BIRDLAND (1948) MS 12 min. (Children's suite for orchestra) 3-3-3-3, 4-3-3-1, timp, perc, str COSMOS (1947) MS 15 min. For violin and orchestra: 3-3-3-3, 4-3-3-1, timp, perc, str TWO PIECES FOR ORCHESTRA (1959) MS 23 min. (Landscapes and Skyscrapers) 3-3-3-3, 4-4-3-1, timp, perc, str OVERTURE TO "GETTYSBURG ADDRESS" (1959) MS 11 min. 3-3-3-3, 4-3-3-0, timp, perc, hp, str PROLOGUE FOR ORCHESTRA (1960) MS 11 min. 3-3-2-3, 4-3-3-1, timp, perc, str SYMPHONY NO. 1 (1961) MS 43 min. 3-3-3-3, 4-4-3-1, timp, perc, 2 hp, pf, str ELEGY for Albert Elkus (1962) MS 5 min. 2-2-2-2, 2-2-0-0, timp,. hp, str SYMPHONY NO. 2 (1966) MS 43 min. 3-3-3-3, 4-4-3-1, timp, perc, 2 hp, str CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND ORCHESTRA (1967) MS 35 min. solo violin, 3-3-3-3, 4-4-3-1, timp, perc, hp, str SYMPHONY NO. 3 (1969) MS 32 min. 3-3-4-3, 4-4-3-1, timp, perc, 2 hp, pf, str DIVERTIMENTO FOR CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (1970) MS 7 min. (Firecracker and Requiem for a Dog) 1-2-2-2 (Requiem) 1-1-1-1 (Firecracker), 1-1-1, timp, perc. str. CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA MS Unfinished
SEXTETTE FOR WINDS AND PIANO (1939) MS 20 min. SIX IDEAS FOR PIANO (1939) MS 10 min. SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO (1939) MS 20 min. STRING QUARTET NO. 2 (1939) MS 20 min. SUITE FOR STRING QUARTET (1939) RHAPSODY FOR QUINTET (1940) MS 15 min. For piano and string quartet ROMANTIC FANTASY (1940) MS 20 min. For fl, ob, cl, bsn, pf NEW ENGLAND MINIATURES (1941) MS 10 min. For violin, clarinet and piano PARTITA FOR TWO VIOLINS (1941) MS 25 min. (On poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning) SERENADE FOR STRING QUARTET (1941) MS 11 min. "MAN" (1941) For tenor and piano; Text by Thomas Cooke ROMANTIC POEM FOR CELLO AND PIANO (1945) MS 7 min. MEDITATION (1946) MS 11 min. For horn and string quartet SONATA FOR CELLO AND PIANO(1949) MS 7 min. For horn and string quartet "WHOSE WOODS" for tenor and piano (1955) MS 4 min. (Originally dictated from an iron lung) SKETCHES FOR SHELDON (1958) MS 6 min. For piano pieces for children STRING QUARTET NO. 3 (1958) MS 35 min. THREE PIECES FOR THREE TRUMPETS (1958) MS 35 min. THREE PIECES FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO (1958) MS 16 min. QUINTET FOR WOODWINDS (1960) MIXED SEXTET (1960) MS 16 min. For fl, cl, bsn, vl, va and cello MUSIC FOR FESTIVE SERVICES (1963) MS 30 min For cantor, rabbi, chorus, organ and oboe and English horn TWO FRENCH SONGS for soprano and piano (1964) MS 6 min. SONATINA FOR CLARINET AND PIANO (1964) MS STRING QUARTET NO. 4 (1965) MS PIANO SONATA (1967) MS SIX PIECES FOR STRING TRIO (1967) MS 8 min. TRIO FOR FLUTE, CELLO AND PIANO (1969) MS STRING QUARTET NO. 5 (1970) MS
PRELUDE AND DANCE, 1941 Emanuel Leplin conducting COMEDY, 1947 Emanuel Leplin conducting COMEDY, 1954 Pierre Monteux conducting LANDSCAPES AND SKYSCRAPERS (TWO PIECES FOR ORCHESTRA), 1959 Enrique Jorda conducting (1960) SYMPHONY NO. I, 1961 San Francisco Symphony commission Enrique Jorda conducting SYMPHONY NO. II, 1966 Josef Krips conducting ELEGY FOR ALBERT ELKUS, 1962 Seiji Ozawa conducting (1972)
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