ITEA Composer Friend: Alfred Bartles
by Kenyon Wilson
Alfred Howell Bartles—composer, arranger, cellist, and jazz pianist—died on December 28, 2006 at his home in Nashville. He was 76.
Alfred, born November 10,1930, came from a family that has been in Nashville since the early 1800s. His maternal grandparents were both very musical, as was his father, Paul Bartles, and his mother, Martha Howell Bartles. When Alfred was five, his father died from the aftereffects of poison gas in World War I. He and his mother thereafter lived with his mother’s younger sister, Isabel Howell, who took on, in many respects, being a father to Alfred. The Howell family had a summerhouse in Beersheba Springs, and boyhood days spent there, surrounded by the deep woods of the Cumberland plateau, gave him a connection with nature and with his many relatives which he always treasured.
From an early age, he showed remarkable musical talent, first on the piano. To supplement the family’s very modest income, Alfred was playing low-wage dance-band jobs before he was old enough to join the musicians’ union. One night, the other bandsmen practically carried the boy home on their shoulders; the piano had been so flat that they could not tune to it; so, all night he had transposed everything up a half step. Once old enough to join the union, he became known in the Nashville music scene as the “kid with hands full of chords.” In the Hillsboro High School Band, he first taught himself to play cornet in a weekend or so and then later switched to euphonium. He spent the summer of 1949 in New York City studying with Lennie Tristano, an outstanding jazz pianist.
After graduation from Hillsboro, he entered Vanderbilt with the intention of pursuing a pre-medical curriculum. After a year, however, it became clear to him that his life had to be devoted to music despite the uncertain economic prospects of such a career. The next year, he transferred to Peabody and studied composition with Roy Harris. Then the Army Reserve Band, in which he played trombone and served as arranger-pianist, was called to active duty during the Korean War. The other bandsmen were happy to play anything he wrote, so the Army experience was quite valuable for this growth as a composer. Several members of the band were from the University of Mississippi music program, and he decided to transfer there when the band was released.
In an introductory string class, he picked up for the first time a cello. It spoke to him as had no other instrument; and, at the late age of 22, he set out to master it. Perhaps because he had to learn with adult consciousness what children learning the cello pick up unconsciously, he not only mastered the instrument but became a master teacher of it. Ironically, his cello was that of his grandfather, which had been in his home since childhood. During that year, the New Music Quartet spent a week at the University of Mississippi, and Alfred became acquainted with the cellist, Claus Adam.
At Ole Miss, he met a girl, Martha Jean Smith, a piano student from Newton, Mississippi. She was in the class a year ahead of him and was headed off to graduate school the next year at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where she had an assistantship. Alfred went into overdrive, took a heavy load of courses, passed exemption exams, marshaled credits for his Army experience, and took courses during the summer. Martha graduated in June of 1953; Alfred finished all the requirements by the end of the summer; and they went together to Athens, Ohio that fall. They were married January 31, 1954. Miraculously, the assistantship in composition which had been given to someone else became vacant and was given to Alfred. After a full year of intense work, they both received M.A. degrees at the end of the summer of 1954. Alfred studied composition with Karl Ahrendt.
In the fall of 1954, they moved to New York City. Alfred studied music theory with Felix Salzer, who was teaching at the Mannes School of Music. He was not an enrolled student, but Salzer let him attend classes and was so impressed with him that, when he had to miss classes, he asked Alfred to teach them for him. Salzer’s work on “structural hearing” transformed the teaching of music theory in this country. Claus Adam had joined the Julliard Quartet, and he accepted Alfred as a non-paying private cello student. Some years later, when he studied with Luigi Silva, he realized that Silva understood better than anyone else how cello should be taught. Elaborating and codifying Silva’s pedagogical technique in a series of scale books became a major life work for Alfred.
When they first arrived in New York, Alfred worked as chief packer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the biggest job was packing the Met’s Christmas cards. Martha got a job in the treasurer’s office. One of Alfred’s staff had a son at the nearby Rudolf Steiner School. One day she urged Alfred and Martha to go to a talk by Francis Edmunds, a Steiner educator from England who was in New York to help the school start a high school. They did not go, so she urged them to visit Edmunds in his apartment in the Threefold House on west 56th street. Eventually, they went and were enormously impressed both by the presence of Edmunds and by what he said as he explained the basic ideas of anthroposophy as developed by Rudolf Steiner. They soon joined what became known as the Youth Group that met regularly to study various books on Steiner. The first one was The Philosophy of Freedom. Alfred loved it immediately; Martha became interested as they moved on to other books. Meanwhile, Martha had gotten a job playing for dance classes. Someone in the group learned that the Rudolph Steiner School was looking for a pianist to accompany eurhythmy classes and recommended Martha. Thus began a long and fruitful connection with Waldorf or Steiner education. They often went to the Threefold Farm, an anthroposophy institution near Spring Valley, N.Y., and there they met Herbert and Ursula Koepf, as well as Ehrenfeld Pfeiffer, Charlotte Parker, and many other people active in the anthroposophy movement. Herbert Koepf was a professor of Agriculture in Stuttgart and Ursula, a singing teacher.
After the mandatory three months of residence in New York, Alfred was able to join the musicians’ union and began playing as a jazz pianist in clubs in and around New York City and on the road with big bands. At the same time, he was practicing diligently on the cello and gradually moved over to free-lance cello work. He performed in the orchestras for a total of thirteen Broadway shows, in Radio City Music Hall, in the Little Orchestra Society, in Mantovani’s orchestra, in the Springfield Symphony, and, for a year, with the St. Louis Symphony. Through the connection with Claus Adam, they were able to spend one summer at Aspen and one at Blue Hill. During these years, two daughters, Isabel and Julia, were born.
In 1969, Alfred received a grant from a small private foundation to study the teaching of music in Waldorf Schools in Germany and to have time to compose. The family went to Europe by ship. The Koepfs had arranged housing for them and gotten the girls into the already-filled Waldorf School. The following year, the grant was renewed, but Alfred began teaching at Scholler College in Boennigheim and, two days a week, at the Schiller campus in Heidelberg. He taught music history and theory and conducted the chorus—a new experience for him.
After two more years in Germany, Alfred accepted a position in music theory and cello at Tennessee Technological University, and the family moved to Cookeville. They stayed there four years (1973–77). Alfred played cello with the Nashville symphony. R. Winston, the tuba and euphonium teacher at TTU, interested Alfred in the possibilities of the tuba as a solo instrument, and he composed several pieces that have become favorites in the tuba repertory.
In 1973, Alfred and Martha were each offered full-time positions at the Eurythmeum in Stuttgart. The Eurythmeum was home to both a school of eurythmy—an art of movement to music or speech originated by Rudfolph Steiner—and a professional performing group. Martha played and Alfred taught music theory to the students. After about four years, Alfred concentrated entirely on teaching cello in the Stuttgart music school. Martha, exhausted by the long hours at the Eurythmeum, migrated to the Waldorf School, then to the Stuttgart music school, then to an adjunct position at the Stuttgart Hochschule für Musik. In 1980, she accepted a full-time position at the Pedagogische Hochshule in Ludwigsburg. They continued in these positions until mandatory retirement in 1996 for Alfred and 1997 for Martha.
In 1997, they moved back to Nashville, where both their daughters already lived. Alfred took on teaching positions first at Murray State University in Kentucky and more recently at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. He continued teaching privately and composing pieces for his students. He was an active free-lance cellist and jazz pianist. Martha became and adjunct piano teacher at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt.
Compositions and Arrangements
As a composer and arranger, Alfred belonged to the first generation of crossover musicians who felt themselves equally at home in both classical and jazz disciplines. By the early 1960s, his works began to be published, for example, by the Brass Press, Sam Fox Music Publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, MJQ Music Publishers, and Kendor Music Publishers. The Music for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble he wrote on commission from the Nashville Symphony in 1966 is now in the catalogue of MJQ music publishers.
In 1968 he founded the composition program at Sewanee Summer Music Festival and returned to teach there many times over the next three decades. During the first four years in Germany (1969–73) he wrote a Piano Sonata, Excalibur for Symphonic Band, and overture for orchestra, and a woodwind quintet.
After the family’s return to Germany, he composed music for eurythmy tours in Europe and the U.S.A. His Ballad for Fluegel Horn and Jazz Ensemble was recorded in the Sueddeutscher Rundfunk by Erwin Lehn and the Jazz Ensemble. Yair Kless, the Israeli violinist, commissioned Lyric Poem for violin and piano and premiered the work with Shoshana Rudiakov as pianist in the Leiderhalle, Stuttgart. His Duo for Violin and Violoncello was premiered at the Sewanee Music Festival; two cello books were published by University Edition. In 1985, his arrangement for chamber orchestra of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonate Op. 1 was premiered by the Berg Foundation as part of the 50th and 100th year Berg Festival in Vienna, and later recorded in the Sueddeutscher Rundfunk. In 1988, he adapted the orchestration of Bartok’s First Rhapsody for Violin to make it playable with orchestra with Bartok’s transcription of this work for Violoncello.
In 1994, he completed two new cello books entitled Etudes and Recital Pieces for the Advanced Beginning ‘Cellist, Vol. I & II. In recent years he adapted Bartok’s Rumanian Dances for brass quintet and wrote a duo for cello and bassoon entitled Three for Two which was premiered in 1996 at the Manchester, Vermont Music Festival. In 1998–99, the Tennessee Chapter of the National Association of Music Teachers named him “Composer of the Year” and commissioned him to write Epidaurus for Brass Ensemble and Percussion which was performed at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in 1999.
In 2000, he completed The New When Tubas Waltz for tuba-euphonium ensemble which was premiered in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada and is published by Tuba-Euphonium Press. Yardbird Suite by Charlie Parker was arranged for large jazz ensemble and premiered in Nashville, and Tubossa for Solo Tuba and Symphonic Band was completed.
Alfred is survived by his wife, Martha Smith Bartles, by two daughters, Isabel Bartles and Julia Bartles Emahiser; by Julia’s husband, Stephen Emahiser; and by two grandchildren, Nathan and Irene Emahiser.