Tributes Founder of The Helicon Foundation, Albert Fuller (July 21, 1926 – September 22, 2007)

Remarks given at the Albert Fuller Memorial
by Helicon's Artistic Director, James Roe 

Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to see a full house tonight. My name is James Roe, I am the Artistic Director the of The Helicon Foundation, an organization Albert Fuller founded in 1985 to explore the use of period instruments in chamber music from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Emailing last week with Albert’s long time friend, Frank Heller, he mentioned how much Albert would have loved this program; indeed he would have. All the performers tonight are ones he loved dearly and with whom he had long fruitful association and so we thank them for being a part of this tribute. While I’m thanking people, let me express gratitude to President Polisi and Juilliard for hosting this event. On the Helicon side, I have to thank Matthew Herren for his indispensable assistance in planning this event. I also thank Helicon Board Member Karen McLaughlin and her friends at Live from Lincoln Center for producing and editing the recording of Albert speaking and for making the DVD included in your program. On a personal note, everyone who loved Albert owes a deep gratitude to Patrick Rucker, who in the last year of Albert’s life, and especially during his final illness, provided him with care, comfort and dignity as he lived out his final days in his own home.

I met Albert Fuller in 1990 as a student in his Juilliard Graduate Seminar called “Performance Problems in 18th-Century Music.” Seventeen years and two months ago, fresh and green from northern Michigan farm country, I was sitting just upstairs in Karen Wagner’s office planning my course work. “Why don’t you take Albert Fuller’s class?” she said, “I think you’d enjoy it.” Well, Karen, I’d say that was a terrific suggestion . . .

Albert referred to his graduate seminar as his STYLE CLASS. Any of us who spent any time with Albert, knew that his very life was a class in style — and his style was in a class all by itself.

His course didn’t follow the usual or expected linear format—usual, expected, and linear were never his abiding interests—rather it wended its way, equal parts Socratic and rhapsodic, through issues important to him: the power of artistic self expression to unite humanity, the development of an individual voice, and the recognition of historical music’s vernacular power. This last point was a great motivator in his exploration of period instruments and performance practice, the stripping away of grimy layers of interpretive build-up on centuries-old music could reveal audacious power in the original. But he also approached this question from the completely opposite direction, through popular music. For Albert, the question of cultural relevance was uncomplicated by category. He was touched by Madonna and Monteverdi, The Beatles and Bach, Aretha was divine, “Elvis was the translator,” and all music basically came down to singing and dancing!

From time to time, Albert would ask me to proofread his new Seminar materials. One day he handed me a nearly blank piece of paper, “Jim, take a look at my new final exam.” There was only one printed line which read: “Question: What have you learned from this class during the year? (Use both sides only of this one piece of paper.)”

This fall, I found a file full of answers to his final exam from 1998. Reading them, I was struck at the intimate and touching picture they painted of Albert as a teacher. He inspired these young musicians. They really got him. I would like to read you some excerpts from their answers. I happen to know that at least two people in the audience today were members of this class, and I’m going to read from both of their exams, but I won’t reveal any names. Don’t worry; you both got “A”s. So, here they are:

  • I feel that today, musicians rely too heavily on technique. It seems that fast, clean playing with lots of vibrato is what we strive for. But from this class, I have confirmed in myself that music comes first and technique is only a tool. Now I try to think about how singers would sing phrase and I imitate that on the cello.
  • In this class, we learned the importance of what earlier artists had to say and how to pass on their message by making music alive in the way it was alive for those who heard it for the very first time.
  • We should keep in mind that the audience we face is not of the past, but of the present. You have to look not only to the past to find music’s fundamental meaning, but also you have to look inside yourself for your own interpretation, which must inevitably reflect the psyche of your age.
  • This year, you didn’t once say, “You must agree with this interpretation,” you said, “This moved me, does it move you?” I don’t want to make your class sound like a therapy session, but now that it’s over, I feel that was its effect on me. In the past, I would pick up a new piece and say, “Where’s the hardest lick?” Now I think, “WHY did the composer write this? And WHAT does it mean?” You got me to confront getting on stage and saying something outrageous, something dark, something much more wild than the audience expected. This class has made me want to stop being a student and starting being an artist.
  • I think this class should be required for all Juilliard students. Everyone knows about music history and theory, but so few musicians know about themselves.
  • Your coaching me in the Beethoven C Minor Violin Sonata was particularly memorable. As you worked with us, I realized that I had never been taught to truly respect or create a logical interpretation of the set of instructions written down by the composer. I have also learned that there is a great deal of good French music.
  • I grew up in communist China and was taught early on to think like everyone else and to play the violin like everyone else. But you told me to become the artist of my own life and listen to my own heart. When I walked out of Juilliard after your class, I felt the sun shining on my face for the first time in my life. Thank you, Mr. Fuller.

All of this, of course, begs the question: what did you and I learn from Albert’s class and from his style? As we grapple with this question over the course of the next months and years, channel the Positive Bar: don’t give much heed to self-doubt, do not censor yourself, remember, fantasy precedes fact and your most precious possession is your own creativity.

The work and the joy of remembering Albert begins now. We’re all charged with it, and I can think of no better group of people to undertake it. I hope the champagne at the reception in a few minutes will charge up a bunch Albert stories. I have one would like to leave you with you that best describes what I learned from his class.

During my first years with Helicon in the early 1990s, Carnegie Hall presented us in a series called, Vintage Originals. Before one of these concerts, Albert gave a preamble that he ended by reciting the opening seven lines of the poem, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens. The New York Times critic (I will refrain from naming him) complained in the paper the next day that Mr. Fuller had spoken of personal matters rather than technical. Therein is Albert’s lesson: technique is itself meaningless without something personal to say.

Here are the lines of Wallace Stevens that Albert so loved:

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music.