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RIP Peter Lieberson (1946-2011)

We’re saddened to learn from David Starobin of the passing of composer Peter Lieberson in Israel, due to complications from Lymphoma. He had been battling the disease since 2006 and for a time it had been in remission. But in late 2010, Lieberson travelled to Israel to seek treatment for a recurrence of the cancer.

Alex Ross has posted a touching remembrance on The Rest is Noise.


Lieberson’s music was an extraordinary mixture of disparate strands of influences. It encompassed  an intuitive post-tonal vocabulary, rooted in dodecaphonic training but also capable of lush verticals and, particularly in his vocal music, supple lyricism and sweeping melodies. In later years, his interest in meditation and Zen Buddhism contributed another layer of resonances and an intriguingly metaphysical counterweight to some of the modernist tendencies of his oeuvre.

Among the many honors he attained was the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, which he won in 2008 for Neruda Songs. Although he was a finalist for the award on multiple occasions, the Pulitzer Prize eluded him. Back in 2004, I suggested that this injustice made him the “Pulitzer’s Susan Lucci.”

Of course, during this sad time, one can’t help but think of the passing of Lieberson’s late wife, the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, also of cancer. Lieberson wrote a number of memorable pieces for her, including the aforementioned Neruda Songs. If there’s a signature example to use when we advocate for our government to continue to fund medical research, I’d offer this one up: two brilliant creators in the prime of life laid low so cruelly. Both had so much yet to offer. It’s a tragedy that we’re bereft of their artistry and humanity far too soon.


Comment from Christian Hertzog
Time: April 23, 2011, 5:36 pm

So sad. I had no idea he was ill. He was a truly talented composer with a unique voice. The Neruda Songs are one of the most beautiful set of love songs of our time. I’ll think I’ll relisten to them.

Comment from Stephen Burns
Time: April 23, 2011, 5:57 pm

When you think of the longevity of composers these days, it is indeed devastating that this great composer’s creative force was cut short. His practice of Tibetan Buddhism gave him tremendous insight into mystical forces in life, but also to realization that everything is impermanent. His generous, kind, and brilliant mind will be dearly missed.

Comment from Jeff Reilly
Time: April 24, 2011, 4:49 pm

Because of his involvement with the Buddhist community In Halifax NS, we all had the distinct honour to be able to work with Peter Lieberson in a number of musical projects including a series of concerts he conducted with Symphony Nova Scotia. In some I was a soloist and in one other memorable occasion, he conducted one of my compositions. His time here in Halifax was significant for many of us, as he did give so much of his worldliness to the music scene in this city.

He was an inspiration, a mentor and a friend and I already miss him deeply.

Comment from Kathy Butterfield
Time: April 24, 2011, 11:37 pm

What a shame that this wonderful composer will write no more for us earthlings. His contributions will live on.

Comment from Benjamin Boretz
Time: April 25, 2011, 1:51 pm

Peter, one of my first composition students in the mid-1960s (he was then an undergraduate student at NYU), was a remarkably sweet and thoughtful person whose location within the musical world was a given and whose creative life filled that location with substance and beauty. Much sadness to know that he’s gone – painful to lose one’s “children” (Daniel Catan died just last week, a really close student-friend; this seems to be a time of grief for music).