Lewis Spratlan, who took winding route to music Pulitzer, dies at 82
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Lewis Spratlan, who took winding route to music Pulitzer, dies at 82
His opera sat unproduced for decades. Then a piece of it garnered one of the field’s top prizes. Then it sat some more.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Lewis Spratlan won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in music for a chunk of an opera that he had completed in 1978 and that no one had ever staged.

Then he waited another decade before someone actually put the full opera in front of an audience.

“It was awful, not hearing this piece,” he told The New York Times in 2010, when his long wait was about to come to an end. “It’s like a woman being pregnant forever.”

The opera, “Life Is a Dream,” with a libretto by James Maraniss, was finally staged by the Santa Fe Opera in July 2010, 35 years after Spratlan and Maraniss had begun writing it.

Anthony Tommasini, reviewing the premiere in the Times, called it “an important opera, the rare philosophical work that holds the stage and gives singing actors real characters to grapple with.”

Spratlan, whose long road to the Pulitzer and the premiere also included his self-financing the concert that led to the prize, died Feb. 9 at a hospice center in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. He was 82. His wife, Melinda (Kessler) Spratlan, said the cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Spratlan, who taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts for 36 years, composed works for large ensembles and small ones, as well as solo pieces. He even invented an instrument, which he called the terpsiptomaton and which incorporated metal coils and rods, piano strings and ball bearings.

“When a key is depressed, the ball bearings are released and fall, hitting the rods and the piano strings,” The Boston Globe explained in 1980. Amherst magazine described it as “a cross between a harpsichord and a pinball machine.”

Both the instrument and a piece he composed for it, “Coils,” were given their world premiere in a concert in Amherst in 1980. The instrument seems not to have caught on, but the effort showed Spratlan’s penchant for whimsy in his works.

In the chamber piece “When Crows Gather” (1986), which was inspired in part by the arrival of a throng of crows outside his studio window in Massachusetts, he had the musicians approximate wintry winds and end with, as Tommasini put it in the Times, “what could be called the ‘Crow Squawk Toccata.’” In 2002, Allan Kozinn of the Times described another chamber piece, “Zoom,” this way: “He begins by having the players alternate sharp, loud chordal bursts with all manner of breathy vocalizations, including sighs, heavy breathing, gasping and panting. Eventually the musical content sweeps away the sound effects, only to career between slidey modernist textures and fleeting hints of big-band jazz. A touch of what seems to be the influence of Frank Zappa streams through the last two movements as well, and from there it’s a short step to cartoonish sound effects.”

Michael Theodore, a composer who teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder, studied under Spratlan at Amherst. “Composing music was always an adventure for Lew,” he said by email, “and he was restlessly and relentlessly inventive.

“His compositions have a remarkable range,” he added, “filled with humor in one moment and heartbreaking tenderness in the next. Lew’s musical voice was entirely his own but often contained clever, subtle nods to the music of the past.”

Meriwether Lewis Spratlan Jr. was born Sept. 5, 1940, in Miami. His father was a salesman, and his mother, Wilma (Howell) Spratlan, taught piano.

Spratlan was still a student at Coral Gables High School in Florida when his oboe playing on a piece by Handel at a 1955 recital caught the ear of Doris Reno of The Miami Herald.

“Lewis Spratlan, teenaged oboist, distinguished himself in the Handel work,” she wrote, “which he performed with his teacher, Dominique deLerma, first oboe, and his mother, Wilma Spratlan, piano.”

Spratlan earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition and theory at Yale in 1962 and a master’s in composition there in 1965. Before arriving at Amherst in 1970, he taught at Pennsylvania State University and conducted ensembles there, at Tanglewood and elsewhere.

“Life Is a Dream” is based on a 17th-century play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca about a prince banished at birth by his father. The play was brought to his attention by Herta Glaz, a retired mezzo-soprano who was director of the New Haven Opera Theater in Connecticut. In 1975, that company commissioned him to write the opera, and he recruited Maraniss, a colleague at Amherst who died last year, as librettist. But by the time they finished the opera, the New Haven company had gone out of business, leaving Spratlan and his music publisher to shop it to opera companies in the United States and abroad, without success.

“We blanket-bombed them,” Spratlan told the Albuquerque Journal in 2010. “I didn’t have a single response.”

So, he set it aside for some two decades. But then he scraped together $75,000 to have the second of its three acts performed, in Amherst and then at Harvard — and recorded. It was that recording that he submitted to the Pulitzer board. It is not uncommon for composers to nominate themselves for the music prize, but Spratlan didn’t have high expectations.

“I couldn’t imagine awarding the prize to a fragment of an opera,” he told the Albuquerque newspaper. “So I was startled.”

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1966, Spratlan is survived by two sons, Jacob Young Man Spratlan and Daniel Meriwether Spratlan; a daughter, Lydia Ji Yung DeBona; and two granddaughters.

“Lew Spratlan was an American original, a hands-on musician, and an inspiring teacher,” an Amherst colleague and fellow composer, Eric Sawyer, said by email. “His creativity only increased with age, with some of his finest work coming in the past few years.”

Theodore said that just last year, Spratlan composed a piano and chamber ensemble work, “Invasion,” in response to the invasion of Ukraine. He recalled unusual Spratlan teaching moments from years before.

“We’d be hiking through the woods in Amherst while talking about musical ideas, and Lew would begin improvising with his voice to demonstrate a particular concept,” Theodore said. “Brilliant, intricate, and soulful music would come pouring out. Then he’d finish it off with a silly little flourish because he also had a playful, mischievous sense of humor and loved making people laugh.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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