Peter Westergaard at the piano

Peter Westergaard, music scholar and ‘composer of formidable skill’ dies at 88

Peter Westergaard at the piano

Peter Westergaard, the William Conant Professor of Music, Emeritus, and composer of chamber music, opera and orchestral works, died June 26 at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center after a brief battle with cancer. He was 88.

Westergaard, a 1956 graduate alumnus, joined the Princeton music faculty in 1968. He previously taught at Columbia University and Amherst College.

Peter Westergaard

Peter Westergaard

“Peter shaped the artistic and intellectual direction of the music department in countless ways, not the least of which was supporting the intersections between performance, composition and scholarship,” said Wendy Heller, the Scheide Professor of Music History who chairs the music department.

Calling him “a composer of formidable skill” who had completed new works even in the last few weeks of his life, Heller lauded Westergaard’s “extraordinary intelligence, sense of humor, gift for language and deep understanding of poetry.” Heller, a scholar of opera, said she always enjoyed running into Westergaard and his wife, Barbara, at performances of baroque operas in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. “Wise, kind, generous, funny, and so, so smart — Peter will be sorely missed,” she said.

Westergaard was born in Champaign, Illinois, in 1931, and grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts. He sang as a boy soprano in a choir in nearby Cambridge. His father, Harald Malcolm Westergaard, a Danish immigrant and structural engineer, taught at Harvard University and took his children to the symphony regularly. Westergaard credited his early musical influence to his father, who had a collection of records that took up a whole wall in their house. “That record collection is at the core of the musician that I became,” Westergaard said in an oral history project for the University of Illinois (where his father earned his Ph.D. and taught before coming to Harvard). “It represented the very best of the symphonic and chamber music performance traditions of the 1920s and 1930s."

Westergaard earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard in 1953, where he played the flute in various university orchestras and began composing. The Harvard Music Club produced the first public performance of one his compositions, his chamber opera “Charivari,” the year he graduated; two years later it was performed by the Netherlands Chamber Choir.

At Princeton, Westergaard studied composition with Milton Babbitt, who was a driving force behind the growth of the music department from 1938-84; and Edward T. Cone, a 1939 alumnus and renowned scholar, pianist and composer. After receiving his MFA, Westergaard went on a Fulbright Scholarship to the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964-65.

For Westergaard, teaching and composing went hand in hand. In a 1997 profile in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, he said: "Happily, I don't experience the conflict between composing and teaching that some people complain of, because the thought processes are very similar. In both, you are puzzling about how to work out musical problems, how to clarify them, how to understand them. Rather than draining creative energy, teaching gives me all sorts of adrenaline. I love being taken off base by a student who asks a totally reasonable question that, somehow, I've never even thought about."

Scott Burnham, the Scheide Professor of Music History, Emeritus, said: "Peter combined cultural depth with a deft touch, and he brought this gift to bear upon all his creative work. He was an endlessly generous presence in the music department, always there for his students and colleagues in the richest possible way."

Westergaard chaired the music department from 1974-78 and from 1983-86. He taught a range of music courses including “Species Counterpoint” and “Tonal Syntax,” required of music majors, and for the latter, used his own text, “An Introduction to Tonal Theory,” published in 1975 by W.W. Norton. He also contributed to the Journal of Music Theory and Perspectives of New Music and edited two sets of songs of Austrian composer and conductor Anton von Webern.

Martin Butler, a professor of music at the University of Sussex and 1985 graduate alumnus, was a preceptor for what he called “that astonishing counterpoint class” and a répétiteur [rehearsal coach] for Westergaard’s opera productions.

“I learned a lot: the practicalities of composing music; how opera works — on stage, not just on the page; how to be disciplined,” Butler said. “He was a fine composer and a first-rate teacher and thinker. I’ll never forget the invaluable things he taught me, nor his cheerful and indefatigable spirit.”

While Westergaard taught undergraduates about tonal music, based on the ordered hierarchy of seven pitches, his own compositions were atonal, using the “12-tone" technique introduced by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. Some of Westergaard’s most widely performed works include "Variations for Six Players" and the chamber opera “Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos,” after the poem by Edward Lear.

Westergaard’s compositions have been performed throughout North America, Europe and Australia. In 1997, he composed “Ringing Changes” on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the University.

“Peter’s works are marked by precision and a laser-like attention to detail,” said Paul Lansky, the William Shubael Conant Professor, Emeritus, and 1973 graduate alumnus who first met Westergaard when he was a student. “They are also notable for their attention to practicalities in a genre not know for reasonableness. His theoretical work is similar in its attention to logic and clarity.”

Westergaard’s creative process included sitting at the piano at home, with his two basset hounds nearby. He would work first on paper, then on computer, then right back to computer printouts. “For me, there's always a high ratio of perspiration to inspiration," he told the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Steven Mackey, the William Shubael Conant Professor of Music, remembers meeting those basset hounds when he arrived at Princeton 35 years ago — Westergaard was the first colleague to extend an invitation to dinner at his home.

Mackey said Westergaard’s “true passion was composing music that told a story with explicit emotion — opera.” Notably, Westergaard was a central player at Princeton during the era of mid-20th-century American modernism whose continued support “facilitated a move by the next generation to place Princeton at the vanguard of a more inclusive and eclectic music,” he said.

Westergaard also served as the conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra through the 1970s, but hired Michael Pratt in 1979 because he felt the orchestra should have a professional conductor. They enjoyed a decades-long collaboration, during which they co-directed the Princeton University Opera Theatre — and staged some 20 productions ranging from classic masterworks to original pieces. In 1983, the duo founded the June Opera Festival, later renamed the Opera Festival of New Jersey.

“Peter was my mentor, my dear friend and my collaborator in the mad world of opera,” said Pratt. “He was a man of the theater; directing, designing sets, conducting, translating libretti with wit and elegance, producing and conjuring.”

“I still tell young composers to look at his vocal music to see how texts are properly set,” Pratt said. “He was a master and it seemed like there was no period of music that he did not know intimately. He pushed hard to bring music performance into the mainstream of the traditional liberal arts idea of music education. The strength and relevance of music performance at Princeton today started with Peter’s stubborn insistence, many years ago, that it should be so.”

In 1990, Westergaard was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to assist in editing the final score of his three-act opera "The Tempest," a project that had spanned two decades. The work premiered in 1994 at the Opera Festival of New Jersey, with Pratt at the baton, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Michael Dellaira, a 1991 graduate alumnus and composer, said Westergaard gave him the best summer job he ever had, while Westergaard was writing “The Tempest.” “[Peter] was experimenting with difficult rhythmic and pitch relations; every week he would give me snippets of his music and I turned them into sound using the University's mainframe computer,” said Dellaira.

David Rakowski, a 1996 graduate alumnus, composer and the Walter W. Naumburg Professor at Brandeis University, said: “[Peter] really got into the nuts and bolts of my music, and he asked intelligent and pointed questions, in a good-humored way, about phrasing and intent. He had set to music the same Dylan Thomas poem I had set — ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ — and he enthralled me by telling me in great detail about how he wrote his — one of those ‘be all that you can be’ moments.”

Westergaard transferred to emeritus status in 2001 after 33 years on the faculty but remained deeply engaged in creating new works, some of which premiered at the University. He often worked with former student composers and performers.

After “The Tempest,” Westergaard was casting about for another project and was considering a work from ancient Greece. But he was concerned about not speaking the language and having to rely on translators. He remembered another story — one he considered an American version of a Greek tragedy — that had haunted him since his first encounter with it as a teenager: Melville’s epic “Moby Dick.” He once described the 800-page book as written “in magnificent biblical English from the 19th century.” He spent three years crafting the libretto and music for “Moby Dick: Scenes from an Imaginary Opera.” In 2004, the work received its premiere in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium, with Pratt holding the baton, conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, a chorus and soloists.

In 2007, Westergaard worked with dozens of faculty members, including experts in Russian music and literature, and students in a monumental collaboration at the University — a world premiere production of a new interpretation of the famed Russian play “Boris Godunov” by Alexander Pushkin. Working with the archival manuscript of the score by Sergei Prokofiev, Westergaard provided music for a scene that Prokofiev did not complete; the new composition paraphrased authentic Russian liturgical chants to create a supernatural musical backdrop for a crucial dreamlike scene.

In 2008, Westergaard composed an opera from another classic of literature that, like “Moby Dick,” he had been thinking about for decades: “Alice in Wonderland.” Reviewer Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times described a semi-staged reading of the first half of the opera in 2006 as “dramatically fantastical and musically modernistic.” The production at Princeton, conducted by Pratt, featured a cast of seven playing 38 roles and performing the orchestration with 19th-century English handbells loaned by collector Scott Parry, a 1954 alumnus, as well as a variety of other percussion instruments for sound effects.

In 2013, Beth Wiemann, a 1994 graduate alumnus, composer and clarinetist, invited Westergaard to do a guest residency at the University of Maine, where she is a professor of music. “He wrote a trio for us, which we performed during his residency, and which he was still thinking about revising sometime,” Wiemann said. “Peter’s visit with my colleagues and students was a wonderful opportunity for me to share my own role model with them.”

Among Westergaard’s works are English translations of several well-known Mozart operas including “The Magic Flute,” “Don Giovanni,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Cosi fan tutte,” as well as Weber's “Der Freischütz,” Beethoven's “Fidelio” and Rossini's “La Cenerentola (Cinderella).” Most of these translations were performed by the Princeton University Opera Theatre. He also composed a children’s opera, “Chicken Little.”

Westergaard is known for his imaginative works and staging. He designed and built a German forest with 30-foot-tall trees for “Der Freischütz” and a dragon with flapping wings that flew down from the balcony over the audiences via a system of pulleys for “The Magic Flute.” He told his students this was a nod to his engineer father, who consulted on projects including the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal and was on the U.S. Navy damage-assessment team sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki one week after the bombings in World War II.

Westergaard served on the executive board and the concert committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music, the executive committee of the American Society of University Composers and the editorial board of Perspectives of New Music.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara; two daughters, Liz Westergaard, and Maggie Westergaard, who worked at the University as design manager in the Office of Communications; son-in-law Tom Kilbourne; and grandchildren Ashe Kilbourne and Peter Kilbourne.

Memorial contributions in Westergaard’s honor may be made to the Princeton University Orchestra (PUO) online or charitable organizations of choice. Beginning in the fall, the first PUO concert of the season will be known as the Peter Westergaard Concert. 

View or share comments on a blog intended to honor Westergaard’s life and legacy.