‘You have what you need to make art’

Elliott Schwartz, a composer who taught at Bowdoin College for decades, died last week. “To classical music listeners outside the state, [Schwartz] was unquestionably Maine’s best-known composer, but it’s not until you look closely at Maine’s own musical life that you understand how influential he was,” classical music reviewer Allan Kozinn told The Press Herald.

One of those people he influenced was Portlander Peter McLaughlin, a former student, who wrote this touching Facebook post about Schwartz on Friday. I asked if we could republish it here, and he graciously agreed. 

Peter McLaughlin (left) and Elliott Schwartz. (Courtesy of Peter McLaughlin)

Peter McLaughlin (left) and Elliott Schwartz. (Courtesy of Peter McLaughlin)

My professor, mentor, hero, short-lived housemate, and above all, dear friend, Elliott Schwartz has passed on to the world of infinite symphonies.

I was lucky enough to take Elliott’s final course before retirement in the fall of my first year at Bowdoin College. It was that course, but most of all, Elliott, that sent me barreling toward a tumultuous and fulfilling life in music. I’ve told Elliott many times that I have him alone to blame for the state of my bank account. In the ten years since, Elliott and I have gotten lunch about once a month, save our respective times on-the-road or abroad. I’ve also played many pieces of Elliott’s around Maine and in New York (several premieres, one even a solo piece written for me), collaborated with him on the electronic “tape” portion of his Portland Symphony premiere “Diamond Jubilee,” co-organized concerts, served stints as assistant, chauffeur, house-keeper and much more.

But ultimately, I think it’s these regular lunches that I hold most dear. These lunches are where I got free-wheeling lectures on music, food, literature, film, politics, art “high” and “low,” cultures far and wide, where I learned about life, about work, about relationships, about how to live with an open heart and an open mind, where I learned about what it means to be a citizen of the world, a husband, a father, a teacher, a human being, a positive agent in every walk of life. I think Elliott has ultimately shaped my understanding of life and love, just as much as he has my understanding of music.

But I ought to share one Schwartz musical pearl of wisdom. Elliott once told me that if you asked him to write a piece of music, nothing would come out. However, if you told him, you wanted him to write a piece of music for four clarinets, as a tribute to your late uncle Fred, who was a Francophile and cat-lover, and it has to be done by next Friday, all of a sudden a piece is taking form in his brain. This has been a guiding principle of all my music-making ever since. Art does not exist in a vacuum. You create with the tools you have, in the framework you are given, with all the limitations and possibilities. With that, you try to make something interesting and perhaps, beautiful. And beyond that, you don’t need all the tools and all the time. You have what you need to make art. Great art’s been made with less. You just need to create, and create again.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Elliott announced that his days were numbered. Paraphrasing the words of his wife Deedee, he remarked, “No sad songs.” And he was right to say it. A life as long and remarkably full as Elliott’s ought to be celebrated. But a giant leaves a giant hole, and there will be no filling Elliott’s shoes. The man had big feet and they covered a lot of ground, influencing and bettering more than a half century and thousands of students, musicians, composers, Mainers, and human beings. I will miss him dearly.

Dan MacLeod

About Dan MacLeod

Dan MacLeod is the editor of BDN Portland. He's an Orland native who first moved to Portland in 2002. He's been a journalist since 2008, and previously worked for the New York Post and the Brooklyn Paper.