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Murray Harold Blumenfeld: Operatic Composer, Professor And German Interpreter


Some of the work of 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire garnered him a charge of insulting public decency. Six of his poems, published in "Les Fleurs du Mal" ("Flowers of Evil") in 1857, centered on erotic themes that included lesbian love and vampires. The poems were banned for more than 50 years.

At age 84, composer Harold Blumenfeld elected to record a major new work based on "Les Fleurs du mal." He titled it "Vers Sataniques" or "Satanic Verses."

“Harold had a very strong affinity for the French aesthetic and he could set music in any number of languages,” said Mr. Blumenfeld’s former colleague, Washington University Professor Emeritus Robert Wykes. “He was a breath of fresh air in the academic atmosphere.”

Making the poetry of a controversial artist the centerpiece of a contemporary recording typified Mr. Blumenfeld. The eccentric composer, who was said to be given to opera, language and the human voice, died Nov. 1 at Sunrise at Des Peres from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91.

Before moving to Bethesda Barclay House in Clayton several years ago, Mr. Blumenfeld had been a long-time resident of the Central West End."

Vers Sataniques" was recorded by the National Radio Orchestra of Poland during the first week of November in 2007. It was one of Mr. Blumenfeld’s more than 30 musical compositions, including several operas.

Nazi Hunter

Mr. Blumenfeld attended the Eastman School of Music for two years before serving as an interpreter in the Army Signal Corp during World War II. He was present on April 4, 1945, at Ohrdruf when it became the first concentration camp to be liberated by U.S. forces.

The 4th Armored Division discovered piles of bodies, some partially incinerated on pyres, when it entered Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of the larger Buchenwald. When then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the recently liberated camp, he declared, “The things I saw beggar description.”

Mr. Blumenfeld’s fluency in German earned him a counter intelligence role in post-war Europe helping to identify members of the Nazi Party. He may have used some rather mundane means to do so.

“He would go into a town and have a beer at the bar or go to the courthouse and read records,” said his nephew-in-law Allen Sherman.

His language skills stood him in good stead in his life’s work.

“He was an accomplished composer and a very accomplished linguist (who) had some very entertaining mixing of language,” Wykes said. “He could speak German with an American Southern accent.”

The Composer

After returning from the war, Mr. Blumenfeld studied at the University of Zurich and earned his bachelor's of music and master's of music degrees from Yale University.

He trained as a conductor with Robert Shaw and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for four summers, beginning in 1949. He joined Washington University music faculty in 1950, where he remained until his “early” retirement in 1989.

The long love affair with opera began during his tenure at the university. He was director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (an earlier company not connected with the current organization, according to the Library of Congress), led the university’s Opera Studio and was a national critic during the '60s, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Los Angeles Times, Opera News and Opera.

He was a pianist – it was a professional tool for him, Wykes said – but his heart belonged to composing.

He built a repertoire of compositions that included two comic operas, "Fourscore: an Opera of Opposites," and a one-act bagatelle, "Breakfast Waltzes." Both were done with his frequent collaborator, librettist Charles Kondek.

Beginning in the '80s, he became the first composer to concentrate on the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the volatile French poet who wrote most of his poems in a five-year period. His Rimbaud-focused efforts culminated with the aptly named two-act opera, "Seasons in Hell," from a Rimbaud work of free verse "A Season in Hell." The opera, which traces Rimbaud's short, tragic life, premièred in 1996 at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

During a residency at the Bogliasco Foundation’s Centro Studi Ligure in Italy in 1998, Mr. Blumenfeld began "Borgia Infami," a work he called “a singer’s opera” about the notorious Spanish Borgia clan.

“There are scenes of violence and mayhem; scenes of impassioned filial love; street urchins and irreverent comic relief; and moments of transparent, wistful simplicity,” Mr. Blumenfeld said of "Borgia Infami," which debuted at the New York City Opera in 2003.

No Place Like Home

Murray Harold Blumenfeld was born Oct. 15, 1923, in Seattle, Wash., the oldest of Herman and Margaret “Peg” Blumenfeld’s three children. He grew up traversing the country with his family as his father sought retail work during the Depression. The family ended up in St. Louis as Mr. Blumenfeld, who decided that “Murray” was no name for an aspiring composer, was graduating from high school.
His body of work, which drew on masters from across the world and across time, was much lauded. Mr. Blumenfeld received awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters in 1977 and the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979.

In 1990, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic called Mr. Blumenfeld’s 1975 "Rilke Songs" for voice and guitar “quiet … strongly emotive fare.” The New York Times called the same work “richly textured.”

He was a former president of River Styx, a man of liberal leanings and by all accounts “a real character.” He was imbued with “a wicked, profane sense of humor,” said long-time friend and former student, Lawrence Katzenstein.

Mr. Blumenfeld never married nor had children, the better to travel the world and he did so with inexhaustible fervor.

But there’s no place like home. In 1964, Mr. Blumenfeld, along with his colleague Wykes and four other composers, was commissioned to write music for the 200th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis at the dedication of the brand new Gateway Arch.

Mr. Blumenfeld was preceded in death by his parents and a sister, Carolyn Lopata. His survivors include his sister, Jeanne Aaronson of Flint, Mich.

Contributions would be appreciated to the Gaylord Music Library, Campus Box 1061, #1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63130. The library holds Mr. Blumenfeld’s collection of letters and musical manuscripts.

A celebration of Mr. Blumenfeld’s life and work is being planned for 2015.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.