In recent days I’ve been assembling and photocopying music I will do with the Onion River Chorus and Montpelier Chamber Orchestra on April 5 and 6.  This is the less-than-sexy part of conducting community groups.

The music is the Posthorn Serenade, K. 320 by Mozart, and the “funeral song” Nänie and Geistliches Lied (sacred song) by Brahms.

I go about this activity with a mostly quiet satisfaction, feeling vaguely virtuous and monkish.  By the time I get in front of the singers and instrumentalists, the preparation needs to be complete and my demeanor more matador than monk.

But while I continue in prep mode, I am accompanied by the ghost of one of “my guys,” my theory/composition teacher Spencer Huffman.  With a fuller introduction to follow at a later date, here’s why he is with me right now.

Spencer Huffman (1921-2005) taught me theory and basic composition in 1971-72 and again in 1980-81.  These were private lessons in his basement teaching studio in Baltimore (which was underneath a bike shop next to a gas station), or in a private home in west Baltimore (he prevailed upon a number of students’ families over the years to let him use their homes), or at his home in Bethesda.  Though once on the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory, one of Spencer’s many maxims was that “nothing good ever comes out of large buildings.”  Spencer severed his ties with Peabody in 1955 after six presumably turbulent years, and taught henceforth only in small buildings.

Spencer Huffman was a huge influence on me musically, though he was bitter and unencouraging, a real prince of darkness.  Or more like a stevedore of darkness.  Of medium height and blocky build, his crew-cut did not flatter his pock-marked face.  But what passion he had for music!

The clearest and most amusing representation of Spencer’s opinions about the relative value of composers throughout history was originally drawn for me on the back of a napkin by my mentor Theo Morrison, who also studied with Spencer.  It gives you a sense of why everything Spencer Hufmann said about music was so memorable: as Ralph Vaughan Williams said of his teacher Charles Villiers Stanford, “he was the best kind of teacher, the narrow-minded kind.”

I’ve drawn it many times since receiving it from Theo at The Blue Jay Tavern in Baltimore in 1971.  Here it is.  I leave you to contemplate its significance, or insignificance.  Regardless of what you think – and believe me, Spencer would not have cared what you think – it tells you why preparing a program of Mozart and Brahms is something I’m doing with the feeling that The Man is looking over my shoulder.

(To best appreciate the true subtlety of the drawing below, click on it to download and enlarge.)

Hufman's history of music