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An Interview with

Tobias Picker

Photo: Xavier Guardans
Tobias Picker was born in New York City in 1954, and by the age of 8 had begun to play the piano and compose. After studies with Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music, with Elliott Carter at Juilliard, and with Milton Babbitt at Princeton, Picker launched a dazzling career. By the time he turned 24, his music had already earned public and critical acclaim, and The New Yorker hailed him as "a genuine creator with a fertile unforced vein of invention."  Before the age of 30, he had received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

Today he is considered one of the most important and most original American composers whose wide spectrum of works include 3 (soon to be 4) operas, 3 symphonies, 3 piano concertos as well as concertos for violin, viola, and oboe, song-cycles, a concerto for actor and orchestra and an extensive catalog of chamber music.  Youíll find a complete biography at

S21:  Do you remember the first moment that you realized that you had what George Rochberg calls "a fire on the brain," that is, the ability to turn sounds in your head into a structured composition?  Can you describe how that felt?  For those of us who don't possess this gift, this process is very mysterious and mystical.

Picker:  I'm not sure what he meant by a "a fire on the brain". It sounds like something from a movie about a composer rather than real life. I've heard  that to run for President a person has to have "a fire in the belly". I had a very high fever when I was 6. The composing started shortly after that illness. But, I doubt the fire  on my brain had anything to do with it. 

(Although, I believe it was Honneger who said "composing is an illness" ) I'd rather try to demystify this whole idea than add to an already cluttered myth . People are born with all kinds of gifts. The best gifts are the ones that keep on giving. Composing for me is such a gift. I'm still trying to turn the sounds in my head into structured compositions. I like to think that with every piece I write, I get better at controlling large forms and solving other musical problems. Papa Haydn on his death-bed said, "I finally just figured out how to really write for the oboe and  now, I must leave this life." 

S21:  What were your early musical influences?

Picker:  My parents were great devotées of Kurt Weil. I loved listening to Lotte Lenya's recordings of  Weill songs in German and in English. I learned how to put the record in the Hifi very early and I knew by heart the words to Mack the Knife in German by the time I was four.  They had a recording of the Mark Blitstein Theater De Lys version of  Threepenny Opera which I listened to all the time. My Grandfather, a German Jew, was a Wagnerite. For him, there was simply no other composer who compared. Mozart, he said, wrote "deedle deedle dee musik. Wagner was the greatest who ever lived."  I remember as a boy of four being very proud that I'd learned to dress myself. But, I could never grasp why my socks should match. They never did.  When we'd go to visit my German Grandparents my grandfather would come out to greet us, suddenly point to my feet and announce;  "Ah zo. Two different socks.   Wagner always wore two different socks.  ze sure sign of a genius!" Then he'd take me into his study and play his Kirsten Flagstadt records for me. 

My mother, more catholic in her taste, introduced me to recordings of Brahms Symphonies. And then Beethoven and Mozart. There were hundreds of classical 78s in the house.  Recordings of Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff and Strauss conducting Strauss' Death and Transfiguration. Shostakovich 5th Symphony. Gershwin. On and on. Then two early 33 recording of Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto played by Julius Katchen and an "Emperor Concerto" played by Wilhelm Kempf. These two special favorites, I played over and over endlessly. I loved all of this music. And it was an ever deepening love. All I wanted in life by the time I was six was to have a piano. For some reason, I didn't get one til I was eight. (those were two very long years) But the arrival of the piano changed my life forever. I started piano lessons immediately and by the time I was 
10,  I was sent off to the Juilliard Preparatory Division every Saturday for my piano and theory lessons.  I had a classical piano training. A diet of  Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. Maybe some Schuman and eventually Brahms, my favorite. There was always some "modern" music thrown in. Kabalevsky was a favorite of one of my piano teachers. Syzmanowski was a favorite of another.

With the discovery of each new composer a new world opened up for me. All of them influenced me.   It wasn't really until I discovered the music of Charles Wuorinen with whom I began studying  at eighteen that I finally was exposed to Carter (with whom I later studied) and Boulez and Stravinsky and Wolpe and so on and so forth. Crumb was an early favorite.

 I did know about Menotti much earlier however. Every Christmas in the early sixties,  Amahl and the Night Visitors was shown on television presented by Hallmark. I loved this strange music and singing. When my parents were away on vacation, my brother and sister and I would  put together a show to perform for them on their return. We rehearsed it every day. There were scenes and tableaus. Songs and little dramas. We performed "Steam Heat" from Pajama Game wearing little black shiney hats  and dancing in step with canes. The housekeeper - whose name believe it or not was Mary Christian -put on a grass skirt and performed a hula from South Pacific. And I had a solo as Caspar  performing a very hyberbolic "This Is My Box" from "Amahl and 
the Night Visitors." I still remember pulling the  "Long black shiny..Licorice!" out of the last  box, tasting it and chirping in my 7 year old voice, "Have some!" and passing it around to `our captive audience. 

S21:  Describe your formal training.  How important has it been in your development as a composer?

Picker:  My formal training  as a composer involved going to study with composers 
whose music spoke to me. I studied their music.  I studied them. I studied the music that interested them. Of course if they gave me a problem to solve or a criticism, I would learn something. But the most beneficial aspect of my formal training was having encouragement and positive reinforcement from these composers that I so admired at the time. The training got me started. 

Developing as a composer has nothing to do with training. I learned by example. For me, developing as a person goes hand in hand with developing as a composer. I have trouble taking seriously music by composers with arrested cases of character development. My own character flaw is that I do not suffer fools gladly. 

S21:  You've written pieces in virtually all genres, including three symphonies, three piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe, numerous songs, string quartets and chamber music, but you are best-known for the opera Emmeline.  Do you consider yourself mainly an opera composer?  How difficult is it to get your other work performed?

Picker: I think I am best known from an orchestra piece I wrote in 1986 called "Old and Lost Rivers" and for a piece I wrote in 1983 for narrator and orchestra called, "The Encantadas". Whenever someone tells me they heard a piece of mine on the radio, it turns out to be "Old and Lost Rivers". And none of my orchestral pieces with the possible exception of the piano concerto, "Keys to the City" is performed as much as these pieces. "The Encantadas" has been performed all over the world in seven different languages. "Old and Lost Rivers" has also been done all over the world and by virtually every major American orchestra. "Emmeline" was performed once in Santa Fe and once at the New York City Opera. The former in 1996 and the latter in 1998. It has not been produced anywhere since nor am I aware of any plans for it to be done. Don't ask me why. I don't know the answer. 

Lately I've noticed that people refer to me as an "opera composer". It doesn't make sense. I'm writing my fourth opera now and yes, itís for the Met. But, I simply don't see why that should typecast me at all.  I wrote a cello 
concerto recently. The BBC Proms commissioned it and it was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall. The prom audience stomped loudly on the floor in unison for me to come back for bow after bow. I have commissions to write another piano concerto and another violin concerto and other non-operatic things. Anyone who really knows my work knows that I've made lasting statements in other genres as well. I am a composer. 

S21:  In terms of both critical and public acceptance, Emmeline is perhaps the most successful new American opera of the past decade.  Your follow-ups--Fantastic Mr. Fox and Therese Raquin--has had more lukewarm reviews.  How important is critical acceptance to you? 

Picker:  It certainly troubles me that there are so many deaf music critics out there. 
They simply don't know what they're hearing most of the time. Look at the reviews Brahms got. The critics said he didn't have a single melody in him and that he couldn't orchestrate to save his life.  Critical acceptance is not terribly important to me. I miss a lot of my own reviews when I write an opera because every time one is premiered there simply ARE so many. It isn't pleasant to read thinly veiled contempt or hostility so I do my best to avoid those reviews. If a critic "gets it", I will admit that it reinforces my own 
innate optimism. But, my development as a composer and as a musician has nothing whatsoever to do with music critics. Of this you can be certain. Old Arab saying: "The dogs may bark. But, the caravan continues" - has always been my mantra.

When Therese Raquin was produced by l'Opera de Montreal, the music critic of 
one of the major newspapers approached me at a press conferenc to ask " are you a Jew". He then proceeded to denounce the former artistic director of the company who also carried the stain like myself, of being one. Anti-Semitism is a real problem in Montreal. But i was shocked that a mainstream newspaper could employ such an "out" anti-semite. So, I did not read his review which I was told was as expected, negative. 

S21:   What are you working on now?  How is it going?

Picker:  I'm writing an opera based on Theodore Dreiser's novel, "An American 
Tragedy". Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it doesn't. What else is new?  But, I'm loving doing it. And I'm proud of what I'm writing.

S21:  Name your 5 Desert Island disks.

1) Brahms Piano Concerto #2
2) Brahms Requiem
3) Stravinsky Violin Concerto
4) Carter Cello Sonata
5) Brahms Liebeslieder Walzen

For a complete discography and list of works, visit Tobias Picker's Web site.


Thérèse Raquin
Composer: Tobias Picker
Performer: Sarah Fulgoni, Diana Soviero, et al.
Chandos - #9659 


Composer: Tobias Picker
Conductor: George Manahan
Performer: Kevin Langan, Victor Ledbetter, et al.
Albany Records - #284 



Keys to the City; And Suddenly It's Evening; Cello Concerto
Composer: Tobias Picker
Conductor: Thomas Sanderling
Performer: Jeremy Denk, Paul Watkins
Chandos - #10039