Skip Navigation

Conversation

Mourning Through Music

Pianist and composer Michael Hersch is on the Composition faculty at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. His music has premiered in concert halls around the globe.

The Washington Post once called classical composer and pianist Michael Hersch, 44, "a natural musical genius," and the designation is apt. Possessing both perfect pitch and recall, Hersch started winning major awards for composition by the age of 25. In 1997, he was one of the youngest recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition. He has also won the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, and both the Charles Ives Award and Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to name a few. And he has played or premiered his work in concert halls around the globe.

But it is the risks that Hersch takes in his music—and in the topics he chooses—that make him one of the most celebrated composers of our  day. In June 2014, Hersch’s monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, had a world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of  Music in New York. Acclaimed by critics and featured in The New York Times, the opera channels a very personal story. After losing a dear friend to cancer in 2009, and surviving cancer himself, Hersch wrote a piece that captures the complex beauty, fragility, and grief  of living with, and dying from, the illness. We met Hersch  in his studio at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he is a faculty member.
 
Critics laud (and sometimes decry) the honesty and complexity of your writing. You have a strong personal voice. How did you develop it?
 
During my 20s, I often challenged myself by writing as much as possible in more conventional mediums. I felt this was important for my development. While composing is always something of a struggle, by the time I was in my early 30s I made the decision to only write the things that I felt completely drawn to, regardless of practicality. It became clear to me that if I tried to do something other than that, the music wouldn’t be very good, or rather, it wouldn’t be right. I still don’t know if it’s any good, but it is what I intended it to be. After my experience with cancer I found it easier to say, “I’m just going to do what I need to do because of life’s uncertainty.” A “life is short” mindset certainly risks seeming trite until one actually experiences that manner of threat. My work from that point changed.
 
In 2009, your friend, the historian Mary O'Reilly, died at 45 from ovarian cancer. After her death you once said that you felt rudderless. What compelled you, years later, to write about it?
 
Her loss, and the feelings associated with it, has stuck with me. Up to that point I had never had an experience where the acuteness of the feelings associated with the incident remained intact for so long. I was caught off guard by the intensity of  my reactions. Writing music is the only thing that feels nat-ural to me, and it was probably only a matter of time before I dealt with the subject in that manner. When writing the music, I had not consciously thought too much about my own brush with the disease as I was alive and well, and that, in juxtaposition to what happened to Mary and what she suffered, seemed wholly inconsequential. Over the course of writing the monodrama however, which took several years, my own  experiences did come back to me and probably had a small role in some of the expressive choices I made. Most people who have cancer of one form or another share lives where fear relating to the disease is never completely absent. Perhaps we are all somewhat equal in this because even when “cured” there’s always that fear that it will return. But in too many cases, while some are provided more time than they would have had in the past due to huge medical advances, the “cure”  remains elusive, and the ultimate outcome is one of suffering, death, and grief.
 
There is a single soprano in Threshold and you based the libretto for the opera on a book of poems by the late Romanian writer Marin Sorescu. Why?
 
Most of the poems were written over the final weeks of Sorescu’s life while he was in the hospital. The collection is essentially a deathbed diary. Though Sorescu goes through universes in these poems, they struck me broadly as something like an 80-page scream. There is a remarkable juxtaposition of terror, defiance, panic, and resignation in Sorescu's writing. I am deeply grateful to the translation by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu.
 
Threshold is unflinching in its look at mortality. There's no "happy ending" in the classic Hollywood sense. What compelled you to write it this way?
 
Sometimes there simply is no silver lining. For me, the art that provides refuge is that which somehow confronts reality or reflects reality through differing expressive mediums. That reality can be beautiful and redemptive, but it can also be painful, and nothing more.  
Illustration of Michael Hersch
Illustration by Luca Laurenti

Sometimes there simply is no silver lining. For me, the art that provides refuge is that which somehow confronts reality or reflects reality through differing expressive mediums. That reality can be beautiful and redemptive, but it can also be painful, and nothing more. 

Other Departments

  • Expert Advice
    How do I help my picky kids pick good food?
  • Survey
    New findings in health, including the benefits of mentoring, treating the terrible twos, and what to do about those sell by dates.
  • Ten Things
    10 Ways to Mitigate Migraines
  • Just Curious
    Why has Lyme disease become so prevalent?
  • Book Report
    What you should be reading.
  • Viewpoint
    Benjamin Ginsberg on the potential value of violence.
  • MedTech
    Apps, gadgets, and other innovations that are advancing health and health science.
  • Experience
    Cancer survivor Elizabeth Edsall Kromm’s journey to motherhood.
  • Breakthroughs
    News from the cutting edge of research: How babies learn, vaccinating mosquitoes, and predicting autoimmune disorders.