When I was selecting the first topic of what I hope will become a weekly blog, I decided that I couldn’t write about much else before I exorcised the subject that has haunted me since July 14, 2018 when the trumpet community lost a colossus and a fierce warrior: Thomas Stevens. The topic of what lies ahead is how to keep his legacy alive, and to that determination, what his legacy is (to me). It has been two months since Tom’s passing and few have begun to truly understand how great of a loss we have suffered: we did not just lose another great American trumpet player, but someone much more special. He has not joined the Pantheon of the trumpet saints and legends, but rather the more exclusive club of luminaries who paved new roads, not unlike his cherished Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Georges Mager, Max Schlossberg or William Vacchiano.
Who Thomas Stevens was to me seems hardly relevant, but he holds a place in my heart that few ever will, and his loss has been crushing and numbing. Few truly knew him; his life was always shrouded by a veil of mystery, even to those that knew him best, I was not amongst those lucky few, but he meant more to me than he could’ve known, and the correspondence we sustained in the last years taught me more than I will perhaps ever be able to express fully. More pertinent than what I remember personally is what he should mean to all of us, and what we must do to protect his legacy.
There is much that Tom leaves behind for us: his videos about Schlossberg and Vacchiano, his numerous albums, his many writings on musical subjects, and his own music. But the trouble with the most important thing Tom left us is that it is not a method book, or an imperative to “tongue and blow”, or a signature mouthpiece; it transcends method, pedagogical theory, or “school”. He dealt only in integrity and truth, and thus leaves a gift that has for too long been ignored in America, the gift of being promoted from secondary instruments, to respectable musicians (in the classical realm). Him and his pupils (and colleagues) have left us a catalogue of music larger than we know what to do with, richer in content than we could possibly ask, and which is expanding at a rate that is daunting even to those who are ferociously passionate about “new music”. Thanks to Tom and his disciples (and their disciples) trumpeters centuries in the future won’t have to wonder why we don’t have a concerto by Turnage or Gruber, important music by Stockhausen, major works by Henze or a Berio Sequenza (the way we so yearn for music by Beethoven, or even Bartok). And yet in conservatories, particularly in America, lesser composers, hardly worth our consideration, are favored over this rich repertoire, repeating tired teaching practices blinded by “tradition”, and ultimately ignoring the legacy of a man with the vision of a hawk and the tenacity of a lion.
The gift of this repertoire goes beyond the ability to program respectable recitals, and solo engagements, and even transcends the repertoire itself. It has given us the capacity to live inside a universe much more elevated in content than what we have been living in: to have conversations and debates with our colleagues, of a nature and passion we were rarely accustomed to. The result of inhabiting these worlds is the promotion of elevated thinking, musicianship, and being forced to explore deeper contexts and forms, which consequently leads to a great sense of agency. Suddenly cornet solos (– 5 variations on a theme we never liked to begin with–) the glorification of classical concertos by minor composers, and the “traditional repertoire” seem too bland to savor, and our tastes evolve beyond such simple things into more complex palates of sound. Tom paved the way for trumpet players to be able to experience the joys and passions once exclusive to pianists, violinists, vocalists and cellists.
To the skeptics and contradictors, who might say: “that’s all nice, but not all of us want to be soloists, I want an orchestral career. What good is learning the Zimmermann Concerto to me?” Let me point out how violinists, cellists and pianists don’t all seek solo careers (or don’t achieve them despite dreaming of being the next Heifetz) and yet their teachers expect them to be able to explore and perform their vast solo and chamber repertoires. We should applaud the plight of those who always strive for excellence, instead of promoting paths of least resistance. Playing good music, and exploring the minds of great composers prepares us to approach music with gravitas with a higher understanding. In other words, the Henze Requiem, for example, has more in common with Mahler Symphonies or Stravinsky’s works (and nurtures our ability to get more out of them), than does Bugler’s Holiday. Accepting our new, elevated status should be a no-brainer to trumpet players, seeing as we have very little solo and chamber music by vital composers after the Haydn and before the Zimmermann Concertos.
With the joys of this new path comes a serious commitment to a developing an ever-growing technique: which must be maintained and honed wisely, diligently, and with unwavering honesty. In this endeavor too, Tom left us the tools to forge ahead. He wrote an extensive catalogue of method books through Editions BIM teaching generations of trumpet players how to properly read music (Changing Meter, Contemporary Interval, and Contemporary Trumpet Studies), carefully assisted James Stamp in his writing of his Books, and took care to explain the legacies of Mager, Vacchiano and Sclossberg to a generation too far separated to remember. If we were ever to forget his exact words, we would only need to remember his brutally honest nature and commitment to integrity to set us back on the path we need to follow. Life as a “serious” instrumentalist is surely more difficult, but endlessly more rewarding, it unites us not just to our colleagues in music, but also in elevated forms of theatre, dance, painting, sculpture and writing.
Jean-Pierre Mathez, Tom’s long-time friend and colleague referred to him a “non-academic wild scholar”, a wonderful way to describe a man who always hunted for truth and progress in music, without the need for recognition or validation from institutions. I always thought of him as a prophetic non-prophet, who saw clearly the present and future states of our music community, with no need to try to save anyone unwilling, from what could come. He was keenly aware of the trumpet community’s shortcomings and its brightest hopes. No anecdote shows his visionary nature more than one he was fond of telling regarding the International Trumpet Guild and an early attempt to get Luciano Berio to write a Sequenza for the trumpet. It turns out that shortly after Berio had completed his Sequenza V, he had shown some unprecedented willingness to finally write one for the trumpet. Excited by such a prospect and opportunity, Tom went to the I.T.G. asking for money to make the project come to fruition. Their response was that they would not pay for a solo only Stevens and Gerard Schwartz could play…evidently they could not appreciate what the future held the way Tom could. It is worth pointing out that we cannot even remember what composer they considered worthy of spending their money on, but it speaks volumes to their shortsighted nature. That day Tom told them he would find a way to get the money without them, and presaged that within their lifetime high school students would be playing Berio’s work without any difficulties. Much time passed before someone of the prominence and power of Ernest Fleischmann managed to convince a much reluctant Berio to write the piece that would become Sequenza X. About 20 years after the piece received its premiere a high school student walked into a master class at The Lake Placid Institute where Tom was teaching for the summer, and gave a performance of the piece “without any difficulties”. Tom had been right, and his own prophecy coming to fruition moved him (as much as Stevens could be moved). Today Sequenza X, has become a standard piece amongst serious trumpet students, and one of the main vertebrae of any respectable trumpet soloist’s catalogue.
During the 2016 edition of Chosen Vale, which would be his and my last, we both sat outside listening to a 23-year-old trumpeter perform the Desanclos Concerto: Incantation, Threne, et Danse. Tom, turned to me and said, “you know those guys (Vacchiano, Mager, Schlossberg) would’ve given an arm to be able to see this.” Perhaps American schooling failed them and their desires for a brighter future, as we continue to repeat tired performances of bad compositions: excusing our laziness as teachers and performers on the fact that “this is what I did when I was in school”. Lets hope we don’t fail Tom as well, the man that gave us Berio’s Sequenza X, and by consequence all the works that have exploded since. If we have made minor deities of those who tell us to “use more air”, it seems to me we can do Tom one better, and take his legacy much more seriously.
For more information about Thomas Stevens, and his work please visit: https://www.thomasstevensmusic.com/