Reconstructing Harry:
some current issues in Partch biography (Part 4)
Bob Gilmore
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(. . . continued)

I could continue this list of misconceptions and "myths" indefinitely. But I feel such things are only interesting up to a certain point. Partch's life story has plenty of genuinely puzzling aspects, those shady areas about which we have relatively little information, and hence all kinds of fascinating questions pose themselves about his intentions and motivations. Many of these questions about his life still fascinate me, much more so than the mistaken or misleading notions that crop up from time to time.

I'd like to talk now about one such mystery that I feel I solved, and then about two others that I feel I haven't. In these latter two cases I invite all of you to enter the discussion.

First, though, one of my little successes. Again, it relates to Partch's early years and to his brief periods of study here in the Los Angeles area at the beginning of the 1920s. Specifically, it has to do with the role his mother played in pushing her son in the direction of a musical career. Those of you who have read my book or Philip's Enclosure 3 will already have made the acquaintance of Jennie Childers Partch, a formidable woman, whom today we would describe as a social rights activist, a campaigner for women's rights, a newspaper journalist, a Christian Scientist, and, by her younger son's accounts, a domineering mother. She encouraged the young Harry's early musical aptitudes, taught him to read music, and after the death of her husband in 1919 seemed determined to oversee Harry's development. Listen to how he talks about her in this extract from an interview with Vivian Perlis in March 1974, only a few months before his death. They are talking about his setting out on his own musical path around 1930 and turning his back on the traditions of concert music.

VP. Most people are afraid to cut loose from the past.
HP. Well, I had nothing. I'd given up the piano totally, which I had played as a young man. Of course I was still young, but I had no family, had no wife and children; I had only myself to be concerned about. My parents died before I was twenty, so there was no home. I had nothing. And in a sense, that was good. Because if I had had a mother who was demanding that I get someplace, which she would have been if she had been alive, because that was her purpose in life, that I had to amount to something.
Early on in my research, when Danlee let me hear this tape, I formed the theory (the quite plausible theory) that it was Harry's mother who pushed him in the direction of formal musical education, perhaps against his wishes (or at least against his inclinations and instincts). He tells us in Genesis of a Music that when he left high school his mind was already filled with "doubts and ideas", and as you heard him telling Studs Terkel a little earlier, he probably sensed even then that he "wasn't built for academic inculcation". However, he had been a good student at high school, had good grades, and the idea of further study at university or conservatory surely appealed to his mother, who herself had then just recently completed a degree at the University of New Mexico. But this matter was settled---I hope conclusively---by some documents I turned up in the archives of the University of Southern California. The chronology in fact runs like this: Harry moved to Los Angeles (as far as we know) in the fall of 1919, and his mother joined him there a few months later. However, his mother died (in fact, was killed in a streetcar accident) in November 1920, which meant that both his parents were then gone. But in the dusty old USC School of Music ledgers that I turned up in the course of my research we find Harry Partch's name inscribed, quite clearly, three times, first in February 1921, then June 1922 and then again for the Summer Session in 1922. That makes it quite clear that his enrolment at USC was his own decision. (Of course, it may have been motivated by some form of urge to honour his mother's wishes: that we can't say. But in any case none of his periods of formal study lasted long.)

On this matter, then, a measure of biographical sleuthing paid off and clarified at least one of the mysteries of Harry Partch's early life. But I want to end my talk this afternoon with two unsolved mysteries which still fascinate me. They are perhaps somewhat specialist in nature, so let's just think of them as curio items for the Partch connoisseur. The first relates to a comment I made in one of the footnotes in Chapter 3 of my book, and it's something I still think about although admittedly without any further progress to speak of. It concerns the auto-da-fé, Partch's burning in an iron stove of the manuscripts of all the music he had composed in his youth, some sixteen years' worth, allegedly in New Orleans in 1930. Here, first, is Partch's famous account of that incident, as recorded forty years later:
The Adapted Viola was begun in Santa Rosa in 1928 and finished in New Orleans in 1930, and after it was finished I destroyed some sixteen years of previous work in a big pot-bellied stove and... I called it an auto-da-fé. And with those flames came a great new freedom.
Partch was always clear that this burning of his early music was of tremendous symbolic importance to him, and he speaks of it as an act of purification, a ritualistic purging by fire. However, in the documents he left us there is a puzzling and in his case totally uncharacteristic vagueness about the date of this auto-da-fé. All his life he claimed to be able to relive the great surge of freedom that swept through him on that occasion, and the precisely remembered detail of the appearance of the big, pot-bellied iron stove in which the manuscripts were burned lend the memory a touch of authenticating vividness. Yet among his later accounts we find datings as much as four years apart. In one document, prepared for the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s and the earliest of his accounts that we still have, he gives the date as 1926, which would place the event several years before his arrival in New Orleans. But maybe there's no contradiction: perhaps he burned some pieces as early as 1926 and the rest---perhaps the vast majority---in New Orleans in 1930.

But let's think this through a little further. In his descriptions of the "auto-da-fé" Partch was adamant that he burned absolutely all of his music to that time. If so, this would imply two things. First, that he kept all his manuscripts---even the earliest juvenilia from his school years in Albuquerque---together in one relatively tidy pile (which is rather at odds with his later habits: those of you in this room who knew Partch will remember, indeed several of you have told me, that he could be careless about the filing of his papers and would lose or misplace things fairly often, even scores or parts). Second, it would imply that all his manuscripts either accompanied him to New Orleans or were forwarded shortly after his arrival (he is unlikely to have brought them onboard the oil tanker he worked on just prior to his arrival in New Orleans, so we must assume that a trunkload of papers and books that had remained intact during his wanderings in the later 1920s was forwarded to him). And while none of this is impossible, I would suggest that we cannot rule out the tantalising possibility that some manuscripts, or copies, or scraps, of his early pre-1930 music escaped the auto-da-fé, simply because they were not part of the bundle of papers he had in New Orleans. We have absolutely none of this music apart from one little published song that you'll hear tonight: but wouldn't we all love to hear some more!

The second of my still-live biographical mysteries for the Partch connoisseur may seem like an apparently simple detail but it's one that hints at larger questions. It concerns one of the letters to Partch from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, whom he met in Ireland in November 1934---a momentous occasion for the young composer. The letter from Yeats in question unfortunately is not dated but by various clues we can say that it was almost certainly written around March 1935, while Partch was still in London pursuing research at the British Museum. Yeats, who had been ill that winter, wrote that he regretted not being able to come to London and to see Partch again, and then continued:
I return your biographical essay which I found exceedingly interesting. You have a narrative gift and a remarkable power of explaining yourself.
While it is marvellous to have such praise from one of the twentieth century's great men of letters for Partch's writing, it is frustrating to acknowledge that we simply do not know what this "biographical essay" that Yeats found "exceedingly interesting" was. First of all, there is an oddity: surely Yeats cannot mean biographical essay (Partch did not, as far as we are aware, produce biographical material on anyone [although, what a tantalising idea!]). Surely Yeats must mean "autobiographical", i.e. Partch writing about his own life---but what, by March 1935, could it have been? Perhaps a product of his sojourn in Italy or Malta, from where he had just returned? Anyhow, no such essay (biographical or autobiographical) has survived.

Or has it? You may recall that there is a passage in Bitter Music, the entry for June 24th 1935 (Partch's thirty-fourth birthday) which in effect is a long flashback to his travels, studies and experiences in Europe, amounting to a lengthy recap of the events of the previous year (from late June 1934 to June 1935, beginning with the moment he receives notification of his Carnegie grant through his months of waiting in New York, his passage to England, his arrival in London, his trip to Ireland, his disappearance to the sunnier climes of Italy and Malta and his brief final weeks in London before returning to the U.S.). I have often wondered about this flashback material. Is it possible that this---or part of it---could have originated as a stand-alone piece? that this is what he sent to Yeats? and that Yeats's high regard for it mandated its later incorporation in Bitter Music? In that case (and I hasten to point out this is pure speculation on my part) we would, after all, have a record of W.B. Yeats's high praise for (part of) Bitter Music.

A final twist to these speculations: suppose I'm right, and Partch indeed produced an autobiographical essay about his experiences in Europe which he sent to Yeats who wrote so glowingly of it. Could Yeats's approval then have encouraged Partch to take a notebook with him when he took to the road in June 1935? In other words, have we W.B. Yeats to thank for the encouragement that provided some of the motivation to write Bitter Music?

In conclusion, then . . .