Music writer Michael Steinberg dies

Michael Steinberg, widely recognized as one of the most important writers on classical music of our time passed away this morning at age 80. Steinberg, husband of recently retired Minnesota Orchestra Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.

During his career Steinberg worked as a critic for the Boston Globe, a lecturer at several colleges and universities including Smith College, Hunter College, Brandeis University,

and the New England Conservatory. He was in later years program annotator to the New York Philharmonic while also serving as an advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra.

Born in Breslau in Germany in 1928, he spent part of his childhood in England after his mother managed to get him included in the Kindertransport, the rescue effort which got 10,000 children out of Germany before the outbreak of World War II. He moved to the United States with his mother and brother before the end of the war.

It was in England that he first discovered his love of music. In his book “For the love of Music: Invitations to Listening” co-authored with Larry Rothe, Steinberg revealed it was not in a concert hall, but in an alley behind a movie theater.

“It was Fantasia, the original 1940 version that did me in. I saw it just once, at the Cosmopolitan, a dingy movie house in Cambridge England, and although this was more than sixty-five years ago, I remember it more vividly than most of the movies I have seen in the last sixty-five weeks. I saw it just once because as a schoolboy on threepence a week in pocket money – even in 1940 that bought hardly anything, and surely not more than half a movie ticket – I couldn’t afford to go again. Besides the guardians of Good Taste would not have encouraged, let alone subsidized, a return visit. But I also realized I did not need to see it again because the most important part was available for free. Behind the sweet little fleabag where Fantasia was playing, there was this alley where I could stand every day after school, stand undisturbed, and listen to the soundtrack of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Stravinsky. On a recent visit to Cambridge I was happy to see there is still a movie theater on the same site, but it is now called the Arts Theatre and is a lot cleaner.”

In a statement today Rothe said this of Steinberg:

“In the last years Michael defined what it means to battle an illness. He

continued to hang tough, determined not to let anything keep him from doing

what he had always done, which was to put listeners in touch with the music.

In his writing and in his talks, Michael knocked down walls with

intelligence, wit, and a broad sense of culture. He was a great storyteller.

He expected much from his readers and offered much. You get a taste of all

this in his books: The Symphony, The Concerto, and Choral Masterworks, three

compilations of his program notes. Another book, For the Love of Music,

gathers his reflections on an array of musical subjects.

Concerts to celebrate Michael Steinberg’s life will be presented in San Francisco and Minneapolis at times to be announced.

  • Joseph Tambornino

    A few years ago, at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, Michael presented the pre-concert lecture for Mahler’s Ninth. After a careful and lucid dissection of the symphony’s structure, Mr. Steinberg focused his discussion on the highly personal nature of the material the piece seems to convey. He closed with a deeply sensitive reading of Mary Oliver’s homage to Mahler: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” In the following silence, the just audible sound of quiet weeping was clearly discernible from many in the audience.

  • The Alexanders

    Among San Francisco Symphony lecturers, Michael Steinberg was tops. Although his visits in recent years were infrequent, and for this reason as well, they were always a special and much-appreciated treat. His ability to convey his musical knowledge and insight to the listener in a highly personal manner was unmatched and added greatly to our understanding and enjoyment of that evening’s performance. We will always remember the last time we heard him speak, this spring, along with Jorja Fleezanis. He will be missed!

  • Jennifer Kaysen Rogers

    What a sad day to learn of Michael’s passing! I worked with Michael and Jorja at the San Francisco Symphony. When I moved back to the Twin Cities of course found them again at the Minnesota Orchestra, but this time as a resident and patron.

    in addition to extremely erudite treatments of musicolgy, educating all who read or heard him, I recall Michael as a sensitive, gentle man. What a dear soul! Yes, he will be missed indeed!

  • Ellen Pfeifer

    New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock paid tribute today to the late Michael Steinberg, his former colleague at the Minnesota Orchestra:

    “After the immediate shock on learning of Michael’s death, I did what we all do and asked the meaningless questions about ceremonies and rituals planned to honor his memory. The answer was typical in a ‘Steinbergian way.’ No ceremonies, but instead the invitation to donate to a special fund ‘to spur curiosity and growth through the performing arts and the written word.’ This is so like him! I found this so moving and it reminded me why I love him so. It reflects everything that made his life so unique and provided such a wealth of experience and insights to his friends and readers all over the country.

    “I remember so clearly asking Michael and Jorja one year what they had done for their Christmas break. Well…it turned out they had traveled all the way to the Highlands of Scotland, to a tiny village on the west coast warmed in the winter months by the Gulf Stream. For a week, they stayed in a small pub, ate wonderful pies, delicious cheeses, thick wedges of bread, and warm British beer. And…read poetry to one another. (Both Michael and Jorja read beautifully.) How beautiful and how simple and, my word, I want to do that!

    “I had the great good fortune personally of experiencing his choice of poetry when he arrived at our house for dinner one night laden with bottles of wine, some Greek side dishes specially cooked by Jorja, and loads of books. After dinner—Indian cuisine as I remember—and some excellent red wine, we settled into reading poetry: Cavafy, Millay, Auden, Ovid, Homer, Eliot—many lyrical beautiful lines interspersed by some music which seemed to select itself. There was the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130, Alfred Deller, Eddie South, all of Claudio Villa, and Sarah Vaughan, which complemented the poetry, enhanced the conversation and made for an unforgettable evening. The magic of it still resonates. It was Michael who reminded me of Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, which became the inspiration for my Inauguration address at NEC.

    “Michael was such an important person because he represented the importance, the centrality of the experience of art in our lives and the huge value that he placed upon this as a guiding force in all our lives. Our world can learn from his amazing love for this overriding passion.”