Following tradition, the Princeton Music Department mounts a farewell concert in honor of Professor Scott Burnham, who retires at the end of the semester. The customary celebrations mark the end of the retiree’s association with the university and highlight his professional achievements. In Burnham’s case, the farewell celebration is not so much a culmination as it is a bookmark. Burnham’s next professorial gig is an appointment as a distinguished professor with the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in Manhattan. “I’m not moving to New York,” he says during an interview in his office at the university. “I’ll continue living in Pennington.”
Burnham joined the Princeton faculty in 1989. Music lovers outside of academia know him for his frequent appearances as a lecturer, where solid scholarship is the foundation for sprightly presentations with refreshing insights.
“I will keep my foot in the door here, doing pre-concert lectures,” he says. “Already, Marna [Seltzer] has signed me up for a batch of concert lectures next year.” Seltzer is director of Princeton University Concerts.
The concert honoring Burnham takes place Tuesday, May 3, at 4:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. It consists of music by some of Burnham’s favorite composers — Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. The Brentano String Quartet, formerly in residence at Princeton, and one of Burnham’s favorite ensembles, plays Beethoven’s quartet Op. 135.
Mozart compositions include the “Sinfonia Concertante” and “Ave Verum Corpus.” The Brentanos join members of the Princeton University Orchestra for the “Sinfonia Concertante.” The Princeton University Chamber Choir performs the “Ave Verum.”
Schubert pieces include “Three Military Marches,” a four-hand piano composition, performed by Paul von Autenried, Princeton ’16, and Darya Koltunyuk, Princeton ’15. Princeton Glee Club director Gabriel Crouch, accompanied by von Autenried, sings Schubert songs.
Honoree Burnham has had close relations with the Brentanos. Add another “B” for Beethoven, and we’ve got Princeton’s “three B’s” — Burnham, Brentano, and Beethoven. Burnham’s “Beethoven Hero,” published by Princeton University Press in 1995, lauds the profound effect that Beethoven’s music has on listeners; in addition, Burnham has edited books devoted to Beethoven and published articles on the composer. The Quartet, naming itself after Antonie Brentano, supposedly Beethoven’s beloved, issues a reminder of their Beethoven link with every mention of their name.
Appointed in 1999 as the first ensemble-in-residence at Princeton, the Brentanos taught and performed at the university for 15 years. Burnham remembers having happily devised at least three courses that, he says, “could wrap around their repertoire.” The courses would meet once a week with the Brentanos and once a week without them. Burnham’s professional involvement with the Brentano Quartet includes lectures he has given in connection with the ensemble’s performances.
Two large photos of the Brentanos occupy space on the bulletin board in Burnham’s small office. Piles of stuff, arranged by categories, clutter the floor and horizontal surfaces in the room, partially obstructing the windows and signaling that he is about to move. One of them contains copies of the 1996 U.S. 1 article devoted to the publication of a “Beethoven Hero” book.
As a presenter of material both to music students and to concert audiences, Burnham modifies his approach, depending on which cohort he addresses.
“There is a difference between teaching a course and talking to a lay audience,” Burnham says. “The particular challenge of talking to a lay audience is how to convey something important about the music without resorting to technical jargon. You don’t want to be scholarly. It’s more music appreciation. It’s important for musicologists to do this kind of outreach.”
“Talking about music is almost like performing it,” Burnham says. “When I give a pre-concert lecture I talk along with the music or move with it. I used to think that you shouldn’t say a word when you play the music. Now I point out key elements as the music unfolds. I don’t necessarily plan the choreography in advance. But if I’m going to sing something I usually make a note in my script.”
A typical Burnham concert lecture may involve spur-of-the moment shenanigans. At one talk he discussed a Liszt composition where the pattern was repeated at ever-lower pitches. Burnham remembers that after pointing out the first drop in pitch, he happened to sink in his knees. As the decrease in pitch continued, he spoke no more, but continued to sink with each repeated decrease. Eventually, adding to the vividness of his presentation, he was out of sight behind the lectern.
Burnham feels that he is a welcome guest when he delivers a pre-concert talk. “Who doesn’t want to learn more about music?” he asks. “For many concertgoers, music is central to their identity. So I’ve got an automatic in with an audience.”
His pre-concert lectures are more highly organized than Burnham’s class lectures. “I use a tight script for a 30-minute pre-concert lecture. Sometimes I leave the script, but I do it at my own risk.”
“The class lectures are more relaxed, more spontaneous,” Burnham says. “The students are trained musicians, so I don’t have to worry about technical language.” He shows me his notes for a class lecture. To the neatly typed skeleton he has added randomly spaced penciled-in afterthoughts.
Listener responses are important for Burnham’s sense of well being while he lectures, and he attempts to describe his reactions. “I can almost always feel the audience in both classroom and concert,” he says. “When things are going well, I get feedback. I can feel the warmth. When I don’t get feedback — when people don’t laugh at my jokes, for instance — I start to get tongue-tied. The room just feels empty somehow. It doesn’t happen very often.”
Feedback from his class lectures resulted in Burnham’s conducting the Princeton University Chapel Choir more than once. “I was always gesturing during the class lectures and some of the kids said, ‘You should be a conductor.’ They were in the choir and got things started. Thanks to the generosity of Penna Rose [Princeton’s director of chapel music] I conducted a couple of services.”
Burnham was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1956, and grew up there, the second of four children. His mother, now retired from kindergarten teaching, sang and played both piano and bass clarinet when he was growing up. His father was in middle management at a Cleveland company that manufactured materials for the exterior surfaces of appliances. Saxophone was Burnham’s instrument as a child.
Burnham was a late starter on his route to academia. “I didn’t like my high school [Cuyahoga Heights High School] and was a terrible student. I got lousy grades. The school was small and there was a lot of peer pressure. I was the class clown; that’s how I survived. It didn’t seem that I was headed for college.” Ironically, Burnham was inducted into Cuyahoga High School’s Hall of Fame in 1997.
Immediately after high school, Burnham worked in a warehouse that sold hydraulic fittings. He also played Hammond organ in a rock band. He taught himself piano and enrolled in a music appreciation course at a community college. Encountering Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in the course turned him on to Beethoven. Soon after, he enrolled in Ohio’s Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory, where he graduated summa cum laude, as a composition major, with a minor in piano, and additional work in German.
Despite having been a composition major for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Burnham has not composed much. “I haven’t written music since graduate school,” he says. “I enjoyed composition, but I was not single-minded enough to go very far with it. I was interested in too many other things, and I was not a good self-promoter. Maybe, even more important, I realized when I was a Ph.D. candidate that I’m better at writing about music than at writing music.”
Burnham’s doctoral dissertation topic, 19th-century music theorist Adolf Bernhard Marx, helped shape his professional pursuits. “I ran into him while I was taking a graduate seminar where we studied one theorist each week,” Burnham says. “When Marx came along I fell for him. He was more literary than most, had a lively style, and focused on Beethoven while Beethoven was still alive. His claim to fame was defining sonata form.”
Now Burnham describes himself as a “musical omnivore.” Besides the classics he listens to blue grass, classic rock, and Art Tatum. “I fell hard for Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa,” he says.
Farewell to Professor Scott Burnham, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Tuesday, May 3, 4:30 p.m. Free, with tickets obtained by visiting Frist Campus Center Box Office. 609-258-9220.