Klaus George Roy, Composer, 1924–2010


If Klaus George Roy had never composed a note of music, his would still be a prominent name in Cleveland music and cultural circles. But, on top of his other accomplishments in a long and public career as the Cleveland Orchestra’s program annotator, he produced a distinctive body of original music that has been widely performed and critically praised, not to mention loved by audiences and other musicians.

His catalog comprises more than 140 compositions, including two chamber operas and some 60 songs, that have been presented in Boston, New York, San Francisco and many other U.S. cities, and in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Jerusalem, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. Choral and organ works by Roy, as well as much chamber and piano music, are in the catalogs of 11 publishers and have been recorded on the CRI, Crystal, Advent, Dimension and TrueMedia labels.

In addition to the two chamber operas—the first of which premiered on WGBH-TV in Boston in 1957 with Sarah Caldwell conducting and directing, the second at the Cleveland Zoo—Roy composed incidental music for three of Shakespeare’s plays presented by the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in 1973, 1975 and 1979.

A concert devoted entirely to his music given in January 2004 to mark Roy’s 80th birthday might have been subtitled Incidental Music from a Fully Lived Life. Indeed, the setting—Gartner Auditorium of the Cleveland Museum of Art—could not have been more appropriate. For the pieces chosen for that occasion, spanning a half-century, were a portrait of the man. His settings of poems by John Hall Wheelock and Adrienne Rich (Summer was another country, where the birds / Woke us at dawn among the dripping leaves) were the work of a deeply passionate and romantic husband; while Seven Brief Sermons on Love, which set thoughtful musings by a group of 20th-century figures that included Boris Pasternak, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Albert Schweitzer (The highest proof of the Spirit is love . . . which men can already on earth possess as it really is), recalled Roy’s philosophical/spiritual bent.

And if his love of words and books was in evidence, so was his impish side—in Gugelhupf, his setting of a recipe for a rich Austrian dessert cake: . . . eine Dreiviertelstunde backen. / Mit Staubzucker bestreuen (Bake for three-quarters of an hour, / Sprinkle with powdered sugar). Roy’s delight in celebrating special occasions—he composed pieces for the birthdays and anniversaries of friends and each year sent out an original musical Christmas card—was represented by the exuberant Inaugural Fantasia and Millenial Fanfare for organ, and another written for the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Arts Prize.

He particularly enjoyed composing music for specific musicians: Seven Brief Sermons was, the dedication informs us, Written expressly for the voice and art of Penelope Jensen; the three-movement Retrospective for violin and piano, for the duo of Stephen and Carolyn Gadiel Warner, who performed it on this occasion. While the show-stopper, Roy’s 1966 Serenade for Cello Solo, testified to the glee he took in the rich range of music’s—and life’s—moods (sections of the third movement are marked Scurrile—Sonore—Tranquillo—Giocoso—Commodo–Serioso).

Born in Vienna in 1924 to a literary father and artist mother of Jewish background, Roy left Austria as part of the Kindertransport rescue effort in 1939, a year after the Anschluss, eventually reuniting with his family in Boston, where he was to study music at Boston University (BU) with musicologist Karl Geiringer. After an absence, during which he served with the U.S. Armed Forces in post-war Tokyo, he graduated from BU and began graduate studies at Harvard University under the distinguished American composer Walter Piston.

Roy discovered that he had a gift not only for writing music, but for writing about music. From 1950 to 1957, while teaching elementary composition and music criticism at BU, he was a regular contributing music critic for The Christian Science Monitor, in whose pages George Szell became acquainted with Roy’s work. At Szell’s request, Roy and his young family moved to Cleveland, where he was to spend the next 30 years as annotator and editor of the Cleveland Orchestra’s weekly program book. (A collection of his invariably thoughtful and often entertaining pieces, Not Responsible for Lost Articles, was published in 1993 by the Musical Arts Association as part of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebration.)

He would also give more than 700 pre-concert lectures, serve as intermission host-interviewer for the orchestra’s nationally syndicated broadcasts (he presented its new music director Lorin Maazel with a tape containing several minutes of ums and  ahs that he had edited from the chat, prompting the maestro’s eternal gratitude for this valuable—and courageous—feedback). Roy found time, somehow, to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Music, and appeared widely as a lecturer and concert narrator—while continuing to compose and oversee performances of his own works.

It was in the course of a lecture series organized by the Women’s City Club of Cleveland in 1960 to consider the health of the arts in Cleveland, that he suggested what would become an annual tradition, the Cleveland Arts Prize (see “Arts Prize History” in this site’s About Us section). Somewhat self-consciously, in 1965 Roy aquiesced to the insistence of his peers that he become the fifth composer to be awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize for Music. Subsequently, as the longtime chair of the Arts Prize music jury, he was to find one of his greatest delights: bringing recognition and tangible encouragement to a long list of deserving composers.

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org