July 10, 2019

Composer Peter Westergaard Dies After Long Career at University

By Anne Levin

Photo by John Simpson

The June 26 passing of composer and educator Peter Westergaard has inspired numerous tributes in the Princeton University music community, of which he was a prominent member for five decades. In a story on the University’s website, numerous faculty, former students, and colleagues praised Westergaard, citing his warmth and sense of humor as well as his musical skills.

Westergaard, who was 88, died at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center after a brief battle with cancer.

“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. Heller also praised Westergaard’s “extraordinary intelligence, sense of humor, gift for language, and deep understanding of poetry.”

The website quotes Scott Burnham, the Scheide Professor of Music History, Emeritus: “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.”

Michael Pratt, the conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra, was hired by Westergaard, who was leading the orchestra, in 1979, because he felt the ensemble needed a professional conductor. The two men collaborated frequently over the years, and, in 1983, founded the June Opera Festival, now called 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. 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.”

Westergaard began composing as a student at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1953. He went on to study composition at Princeton with Milton Babbitt and Edward Cone. After earning a master’s degree, he had a Fulbright Scholarship to the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964-65.

Westergaard chaired Princeton’s music department from 1974-78 and 1983-86. He used his own text, An Introduction to Tonal Theory, published in 1975 by W.W. Norton, for the course “Tonal Syntax.” 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.

While Westergaard taught undergraduates about tonal music, his own compositions were atonal. They 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. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 allowed Westergaard to edit the final score of his three-act opera, The Tempest, for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The project spanned two decades and premiered at the Opera Festival of New Jersey in 1994, conducted by Pratt.

According to Maggie Westergaard, one of the composer’s two daughters, Westergaard  was writing music almost until the end of his life. Among his most recent compositions was a piece for Pratt’s birthday.

Growing up, Westergaard said on Monday, her father’s work on The Tempest was a major focus. “That’s the main thing I remember. For me, it was huge when it was finally completed and performed,” she said. While the opera earned her father a Pulitzer nomination, “He didn’t talk about things like awards,” she said. “He just loved what he did. He loved composing. That was the main thing.”

Maggie, who recently retired from the University’s Office of Communications, and her sister Liz Westergaard, had to study the violin growing up. “We were not thrilled,” she said. “I complained about it. But it gave me a good ear. Music was always there. I remember going to concerts and operas at a very early age. I used to love to talk to him about music. I would bring him popular music and get him to listen, and he would tell me what he thought. He had an open mind. That’s a very fond memory.”

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 in 1997.

After 33 years on the Princeton faculty, Westergaard switched to emeritus status in 2001 but remained involved in creating new works, some of which premiered at the University. He worked for three years on Moby Dick: Scenes from an Imaginary Opera, which premiered at Richardson Auditorium in 2004. Pratt was the conductor, leading the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, a chorus, and soloists.

Westergaard collaborated with numerous faculty and students on a new interpretation of the Russian play Boris Godunov in 2007, and Alice in Wonderland in 2008. He did English translations of several operas by Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini, and composed the children’s opera, Chicken Little. He also worked on design and staging, including a dragon with flapping wings that flew down from the balcony via a system of pulleys for a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

He 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.

In addition to his daughters, Westergaard is survived by his wife, Barbara; son-in-law Tom Kilbourne; and grandchildren Ashe and Peter Kilbourne. Beginning in the fall, the first Princeton University Orchestra concert of the season will be known as the Peter Westergaard Concert.