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Joshua Rifkin

Joshua Rifkin was born on 22 April 1944 in New York (USA). He studied composition at Juilliard School under Vincent Persichetti and completed his studies under Gustave Reese at New York University and under Arthur Mendel, Lewis Lockwood, Milton Babbitt and Ernst Oster at Princeton University. Joshua Rifkin also was a member of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s special course in composition at Darmstadt in 1961.

Rifkin first came to public notice with his recording The Baroque Beatles Book (1965), which presented Beatles songs in the style of the eighteenth century, and with arrangements for albums by the folk-pop singer Judy Collins (1966, 1967, 1970). He gained particular renown with his three LP recordings of ragtime compositions by Scott Joplin (1970, 1972, 1975). The recordings became million-sellers, were nominated for two Grammy Awards and led to a revival of Scott Joplin and the ragtime genre as a whole.

But Joshua Rifkin’s main field of activity is as a performer and scholar of Renaissance and Baroque music. He is widely known for his performances, recordings and research on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially the vocal works. He has toured and recorded extensively with The Bach Ensemble, which he founded in 1978, and has conducted both modern orchestras and early-music ensembles throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, Israel and Japan, including the English Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Concertino Palatino and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

His Bach research has included notable findings on vocal scoring, on the chronology of the St. Matthew Passion, and many other topics; he has also published a critical edition of Bach’s Mass in B minor. His recording of the Mass with The Bach Ensemble won Great Britain’s Gramophone Award as best choral recording of 1983. Other research has focused on topics like the works by Josquin des Prez, the motet around 1500 or the music of Heinrich Schütz. Joshua Rifkin has taught at the Brandeis University, Harvard, Yale, Boston University and several universities in Europe, including Basel, Vienna, and Munich.

Joshua Rifkin’s early compositions attracted considerable notice. Like many of his generation, however, he became disillusioned with the serialism and avant-garde music to which he had subscribed; and his output diminished further as his work as performer and scholar took the upper hand in his life.

Winter Piece


In my possession are two scores of original compositions by Joshua Rifkin, his “Winter Piece” for piano and his “Winter Piece for Violin”.



Winter Piece for Violin


My archive contains the original typewritten score for the composition “Winter Piece for Violin”. The score was typed on Eaton’s Corresable Bond paper and is only one page long. “Winter Piece” is dedicated to “Sherry, again”—Sherry Gordon, the composer’s then girlfriend, and the dedicatee of both Winter Pieces.


The work was composed on a commission by the violinist Paul Zukofsky and completed 26 December 1961. The composition contains of a selection of 12 sections which are described only by duration, number of events, length of each individual event, mode of production, densities and registers. The number of performers is unlimited and can also include other string instruments. The 12 sections are arranged in the form of a circle. Performers can start at any section they like, but then must perform a complete circle forwards or backwards.


The premiere of the work took place in a student concert at the Juilliard School of Music with Paul Zukofsky (violin) on 6 February 1962. The other performers were Nancy Hill Garvey (violin), John Garvey and Joshua Rifkin (both piano).

PDF-Dokument [14.9 KB]


Winter Piece for Piano


I also own a copy of the typewritten score of the “Winter Piece” for piano by Joshua Rifkin. This composition predates the violin version and was completed 12 November 1961. It is dedicated to “Sherry”.


This composition contains of 16 sections which are described only by duration, number of events, mode of production employed, densities and registers. The work can be performed by any number of pianos and pianists and may be played simultaneously with any other music the performer desires. The 16 sections are arranged in the form of a circle. Performers can start at any section they like, but then must perform a complete circle forwards or backwards.


The premiere of the work took place in a student concert at Juilliard school with Joshua Rifkin (piano) in the autumn of 1961. It received a further performance at Juilliard on the same program as Winter Piece for Violin.

PDF-Dokument [15.8 KB]

Before the second concert an announcement was published in the Juilliard Newsletter. This included the scores for both Winter Pieces as well as a long introduction by violinist Paul Zukofsky. For information purposes I would like to quote his comment here:


"There has been much discussion of Mr. Rifkin's compositions - mostly centered on the two Winter Pieces. Except for a reply to a particularly bad review, Mr. Rifkin has refrained from making any public statements regarding his music. However, since both Winter Pieces are printed in this NEWSLETTER and a public performance of these works is being given February 6, I shall pick up the proverbial cudgels on behalf of Mr. Rifkin and his music.


The two Winter Pieces are being played simultaneously at this performance but they were not written simultaneously and are not necessarily complementary. The Winter Piece for Piano was written on Nov. 12, 1961, with two pianos and tape recorder at a Juilliard Composers' Forum the following Tuesday. I was present at that Forum. I had recently been asked by Radio WBAI-FM to give a broadcast on January 3, 1962, of modern unaccompanied violin music and had discussed the possibility of performing the works of some Juilliard student composers with the Music and Program Directors on WBAI. They agreed that it would be interesting to hear what the young were doing, provided their compositions did not take up too much of the program.


Since Messrs. Arthur Murphy and Joshua Rifkin write short avant garde pieces, I asked each of them for a three to four minute work. Mr. Murphy wrote the Phantasie for unaccompanied violin also to be played Feb. 6. Mr. Rifkin decided to write a short serial work of 1-1/2 minutes as a complement to his Division #1 for Flute, but this still left a maximum of 2-1/2 minutes. The Winter Piece so intrigued me that I asked Mr. Rifkin to compose a similar work for violin no longer than two minutes. He obliged by writing the Winter Piece for Violin as a separate work but also with the intention of having it played with the earlier Winter Piece.


Mr. Rifkin mentioned to me that the Winter Pieces could be thought of as representing a snow covered forest at dusk where nothing is distinct but all is dark with vague spots appearing out of nowhere. The audience is to receive this same effect through the pervading silences with sounds occuring at unknown times in space. If one develops this program to its logical conclusion, one can establish an excellent defence for the use of indeterminacy in these pieces. The forest never looks the same at different times, neither do Mr. Rifkin's pieces sound the same at different times. There are certain limits to a forest and its appearance and there are certain limits to Mr. Rifkin's pieces and how they sound, but the visual or aural result is always different. Mr. Rifkin, however, is primarily interested in the variety of results obtainable through indeterminacy and not in its programmatic aspects.


Indeterminacy is a system. As a system it is neither bad nor good, though there is bad and good indeterminate music. The only criterion of indeterminate music is the interest it inspires in its performers and audience. Mr. Rifkin has been accused of being a sensationalist, of using indeterminacy to be sensational, and of not having any valuable music ideas. I have also been asked why I care to play this type of music (and the music of this "sensationalist"). I have two answers. I believe sensationalism, provided it is for its own sake, is a genuine expression and should be observed as such, as in the case of a P. T. Barnum. Also I do not believe Mr. Rifkin is writing merely for notoriety. He is writing music in an indeterminate system because he wants to experiment with its possibilities. He uses the system as a basis, not as the only basis, but one of many. I feel he is sincere in his use of this system. The basis of indeterminacy is freedom to the performer within certain limits set by the composer. This basis is analoguos to the Godowsky school of arrangements and to Baroque instrumental playing. Today we are correctly shocked by Godowsky's arrangements, since they desecrate the text. Indeterminacy allows the performer his own improvisation without the butchering of older masters. This improvisation forces the individuality of the performer to come forward. It is these challenges to the performer that interest me in indeterminate music in general and Mr. Rifkin's in particular.


The best explanation of indeterminate music is its performance. I wish to thank the Juilliard Student Council for again making possible a public performance on February 6 of representative indeterminate music.


- Paul Zukofsky"

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