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Who was Betty Freeman and why was she so important to 20th-century music?

Patron and benefactor, mentor and guru, not to mention fine photographer, Betty Freeman played a crucial role in the nurturing and promotion of some of the 20th century’s greatest musical figures. Helen Wallace looks at her life

Who was Betty Freeman and why was she so important to 20th-century music?

Looking back to the latter part of the 20th century, it’s clear now what a wildly divergent tangle of musical styles were competing for stage-space. Mavericks Lou Harrison and Harry Partch, and West Coast Minimalists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley were infiltrating a new music scene hitherto dominated by European iconoclasts like Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio and Boulez; while, as the bonds of the Soviet Union crumbled, a subversive post-modernism bubbled up besides stark spiritual meditations.

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It was hard at the time to separate the wheat from the chaff, but one woman in California had an instinct for composing genius which has proved visionary and, almost unknown to the public, she made possible many of the period’s greatest works. In fact, no patron and muse has been as significant a force in music of the last 50 years as Betty Freeman.

Besides commissioning a vast array of new works, Freeman underwrote performances, recordings and the preparation of scores, and was literally responsible for keeping some composers – including John Cage, and Harry Partch in his later years – fed, clothed and working. For her, they were the most important people of all, for, she said, they are ‘planting the seeds for the future’.

Which famous works did Betty Freeman commission?

The sheer scale and eclecticism of Betty Freeman’s patronage is breathtaking. Over the course of five decades she helped more than 80 individuals, giving nearly 500 grants from a few hundred dollars to five-figure sums, in almost total anonymity, and most with no strings attached. It was Freeman who commissioned Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony, Saariaho’s L’amour de loin, funded Steve Reich’s potent Music for 18 Musicians and supported Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and the seminal recording of Music in Twelve Parts; who commissioned John Adams’s ground-breaking opera Nixon in China and underwrote the controversial Death of Klinghoffer, which is dedicated to her.

Recommended recording: Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1332-5

Recommended recording: Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass Ensemble/Michael Riesman
Elektra Nonesuch 7559-79323-2 DDD

Recommended recording: Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin

Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina, Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Berlin Radio Chorus; German SO, Berlin/Kent Nagano
Harmonia Mundi HMC 801937-38

Recommended recording: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

Bob Becker, Russell Hartenberger (drums); Ensemble Modern, Members of Steve Reich Ensemble/Bradley Lubman
RCA Red Seal 09026 68672 2

Recommended recording: John Adams’s Nixon in China

Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly (sopranos), Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S Herold, Tamara Mumford (mezzo-sopranos), Robert Brunbaker (tenor), James Maddalena, Russell Braun (baritones), Richard Paul Fink (bass-baritone); The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet/John Adams; dir. Peter Sellers (New York, 2011)
Nonesuch 7559796088

Recommended recording: John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer

James Maddalena, Sanford Sylvan, Sheila Nadler ; English Opera Chorus,Opéra de Lyon Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Nonesuch 0349712116

Which composers did Betty Freeman support?

The list of her recipients reads like a Who’s Who in late 20th-century music, beginning at Thomas Adès, Louis Andriessen, George Benjamin, John Cage and Morton Feldman and running through Lou Harrison, Anders Hillborg, Magnus Lindberg, Thea Musgrave and Olga Neuwirth to Terry Riley, Fred Rzewski, James Tenney, and Virgil Thomson, whose opera The Mother of Us All would make an apt title for her.

Recommended recording: Virgil Thomson‘s The Mother of Us All

Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, Steven Osgood
Albany TROY1486/87

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Who was Betty Freeman?

Betty Freeman was born Betty Wishnick in Chicago in 1921 to a successful chemical engineer and a maths teacher. Her father made a fortune and his support of medical and educational charities inspired her, but it took a long time for her to find her own path as a patroness. After reading Music and English at Wellesley College, she married early, had four children and for years devoted herself to the piano, even attending the Juilliard School.

But recognising she would ‘never play as well as Brendel’, she closed the lid and channelled her creativity into contemporary art, filling her airy Beverly Hills home with paintings by Mark Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein and the light sculptures of Doug Wheeler and Dan Flavin.

Betty Freeman’s relationship with the art world

Soon the artists became as interesting to her as their art: in the 1960s the young David Hockney came round to paint her swimming pool and found a friend for life. His famous 1966 portrait of her, Beverly Hills Housewife, amused her greatly. She identified herself as a housewife, while every fibre in her being subverted the stereotype.

Art led her back into music, with a typical twist: when, in 1961, La Monte Young was arrested on possession of marijuana, his friends in the art world appealed for contributions to his bail. Freeman, who had a large sign on her piano stool saying ‘Here smoking is encouraged’, sent $100; he sent her tapes: his haunting, attenuated, dronebased pieces intrigued her, and opened her ears to other young Minimalists like Philip Glass, then driving a taxi, and Steve Reich, from whom she commissioned the indelible Holocaust memorial quartet Different Trains.

Recommended recording: Steve Reich’s Different Trains

The Smith Quartet
Signum SIGCD 064

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Fiercely independent, Freeman didn’t have a coterie of advisors, nor was she a follower of fashion. She listened to her friends (who included the critic Alan Rich, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and directors Gerard Mortier and Robert Wilson) but made up her own mind. Her thirst for true originality was unquenchable: ‘I like complexity, challenge, ambiguity, abstraction’ was her mantra. There’s a telling moment in the one documentary film made about Freeman, A life for the Unknown (BFMI 2004), in which she stands outside a hotel in Lucerne explaining, with a twinkle, that she chose it for its name: The Wildman. Wild men – and women – were her thing. Many, like John Cage, Lou Harrison, Merce Cunningham and Harry Partch were not only radical artists, but gay, left-wing, rugged individualists who stood apart even from the mainstream counter-culture of the Sixties.

Others simply defied categorisation, like Conlon Nancarrow, out in Mexico City, crafting his dizzyingly complex, high-velocity pianorolls. She loved to tell the story of how Ligeti introduced himself to her: ‘I’m the second greatest composer in world’. ‘So I said, “Aha, who’s the first?” He wanted not to answer, but it was Nancarrow. So, of course, I went to Mexico to find him.’

Betty Freeman’s support of live performance

Freeman may have kept a low profile, but she rapidly became a focal point for contemporary music on the West Coast. By the 1970s she had learnt that commissioning new work wasn’t enough: it needed to be heard, so she began to fund ensembles and performances. Co-founding a series of new music concerts at the Pasadena Art Museum, she showcased Olivier Messiaen, Riley and Partch, who pitched up in 1964, almost destitute. Partch, now legendary for his unique musical system based on a 43-toned scale performed on his own outlandish instruments, was notoriously demanding. But where others saw an irascible ageing hobo, Freeman saw a genius.

For the next decade, until Partch’s death, she helped keep a roof over his instruments and his head, and underwrote the production of his opera Delusion of the Fury, a ritualistic drama influenced by Kabuki and ancient Greek theatre. She also produced the key documentary on him, The Dreamer that Remains. They made the oddest couple but, as one of Partch’s percussionists recalls, ‘Betty was a good disciple. She didn’t argue, she respected him’.

Recommended recording: Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury

Victoria Bond (soprano), John Stannard (tenor), Paul Bergen (bass), Ensemble of Unique Instruments, Danlee Mitchell
Innova INNOVA406

The photography of Betty Freeman

While taking stills on The Dreamer that Remains, she became interested in photography and studied printing with Ansell Adams, no less. She began to travel with a camera, capturing the inner life of her composers in moments of rare, revealing intimacy: Boulez and Birtwistle deep in conversation, Cage grappling with a fish in the kitchen, Morton Feldman, hands in flight. Her photographic books Music People form a significant legacy, and she took pride in her exhibitions, at Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and in Lucerne.

Which musical works are dedicated to Betty Freeman?

It was perhaps Freeman’s unconditional surrender to her composers that sets her apart from other patrons: she offered them not just loyalty, but her inexhaustible fascination with their creative process. Helmut Lachenmann, one of Germany’s grittiest, most uncompromising sound explorers, was a favourite. What could sound like a deafening roar of existential angst fell on her ears like celestial voices. In the documentary she holds his hand and, eyes shining tears, describes his music as ‘everything to me’. Later, he reflects that she was one of the few people who gave composers hope. ‘It’s her creative involvement,’ he explains; ‘she says: I am with you.’

While there may be no concert halls named after Betty Freeman, composers spontaneously dedicated works to her and drew musical portraits: Cage’s The Freeman Etudes typically dance on the edge of extremity; Lou Harrison’s Serenade for her and her husband radiates warmth. Harrison Birtwistle’s tiny tango for her is perhaps the most acute: ‘Here,’ he said, ‘the qualities in play, oddly and smilingly, were obstinacy and grace… a gentle insistence active everywhere: that’s Betty Freeman.’

Recommended recording: Cage’s The Freeman Etudes

Marco Fusi (violin)
Stradivarius STR33882

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Recommended recording: Lou Harrison’s Serenade

Gamelan Sekar Kembar, Kronos Quartet & The Manhattan Percussion Ensemble, Robert Hughes & Paul Price
New World NW80643

What were Betty Freeman’s salons really like?

Gentle insistence became the way Freeman made things happen. There are wonderful photographs of the salons she held in her home in the 1980s and early ’90s, a hundred eager listeners packed into her living room, encountering composers and their new work: film directors, performers, directors, artists and writers young and old, male and female.

How different from the images of Darmstadt, or IRCAM in Paris, where men in white coats stand glowering by vast computers. As director Peter Sellars described it: ‘I came from the East Coast where contemporary music was hide-bound, university-based and academic. Here there was oxygen coming off the ocean, a sense of possibility, eclecticism, wonderful art, food, the pleasures of living.’

Betty Freeman’s influence on contemporary music

Far across the world, Freeman’s salons proved a catalyst for change: with her funding and moral support, the ultra-traditional Salzburg Festival began to present contemporary music under Hans Landesman and Gerard Mortier. The Next Generation programme was launched. Landmark productions grew out of associations made there, such as Messiaen’s St Francois d’Assise with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars, and the work of Robert Wilson, who she supported for 20 years. Freeman paid for the premiere of L’amour de loin, the profound, dream-like opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Recommended recording: Messiaen’s St Francois d’Assise

Dawn Upshaw, José van Dam, Chris Merritt, John Aler; Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
DG 4451762

Recommended recording: Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin

Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina, Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Berlin Radio Chorus; German SO, Berlin/Kent Nagano
Harmonia Mundi HMC 801937-38

What styles of music did Betty Freeman enjoy and support?

Always unsentimental and allergic to Romanticism, Freeman’s taste sharpened with age. By the mid-1990s she began to feel some of the American composers she’d backed were getting too predictable and turned once more to Europe, and to what Adams described as ‘the gnarliest, most dissonant and uncompromising composers’ including Lachenmann, Matthias Pintscher and Birtwistle, whose granitic, gnomic music was, to her, always ‘clear and embracing’.

Birtwistle’s publisher, Janis Susskind at Boosey & Hawkes, showed me a letter Freeman had written during her final illness, on receiving scores of The Minotour. Her craggy, unkempt hand-writing seems to vibrate with delight: ‘A million thanks for sending me the one thing in the world I really wanted. You couldn’t have made a girl happier!’

Recommended recording: Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur

John Tomlinson (The Minotaur), Johan Reuter (Theseus), Christine Rice (Ariadne), The Royal Opera Chorus & The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (conductor) & Stephen Langridge (stage director)
Opus Arte OABD7052D

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The legacy of Betty Freeman

When Freeman died in 2009, her house and its entire modern art collection were sold. No physical trace remains of this art-generating legend: her legacy is an extraordinary wealth of music, and her example is that of a true listener, without which music falls into a void.

No one described it better than Freeman herself: ‘Contemporary music demands a lot from us. You must use your mind to ask what the composer is doing… I never get tired of the adventure of listening.’

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Words by: Helen Wallace