During my years as a composition student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (now Stony Brook University) I studied both privately and in classes with composer John Lessard. I knew that he was called “Jack” by his friends, but he was always “Mr. Lessard” to me. This spoke to a level of formality that was present in our interactions, but for at least a period of time I worked very intensely with him and felt that our relationship went beyond the formal student/teacher type of friendship that you might have with a classroom professor.
I first met Mr. Lessard in September of 1978 during
entrance exams given to all the composition students at the start of the
semester. I proved to be deficient in
counterpoint (among other items!) and opted to take Mr. Lessard’s class “Tonal
Counterpoint.” This focused primarily on
the Bach Inventions, and we composed two and three-part pieces in the
style. He also taught “Modal
Counterpoint,” however this was not available until the Spring 1979
semester. There were only two students - my companion was fellow
composition student Steve Mackey, who has subsequently gone on to great heights in his
career. Mr. Lessard was quick to point out that
it seemed a bit futile to him to link the study of counterpoint to tonal
harmony, however he was so grounded in the work of Bach that we accepted the
limitations and went from there. Since
there were only two of us we got a lot of attention and were able to compose many two-part inventions and
then went on to compose three-part pieces and canons in the style of the
Goldberg Variations. During this
semester I became taken with Mr. Lessard’s obvious expertise, and also his mastery of the traditional compositional disciplines: ear-training, harmony,
keyboard skills, counterpoint, fugue and orchestration. He had been a student of Nadia Boulanger during
WWII and spoke of her often and in reverent tones. In terms of musicianship, he could sight-read in seven clefs and told me that as a young composer he regularly began his day by reading through a Haydn string quartet at the piano.
The first semester was very enjoyable for me, and the work was extremely hard. Mr. Lessard was the first teacher who exposed me to writing a lot of examples of the same assignment and then picking the best one or two out of the pack. He also would not let us break rules or repeat anything from one exercise to another. I embraced the discipline and went on to take his class in Modal Counterpoint. This was based on the music of Palestrina and Mr. Lessard
felt it represented the pure study of musical lines and how they fit together,
without the constraints of common-practice period harmony that became codified
during Bach’s lifetime. We took the normal species counterpoint studies through four parts, and were working on 'mixtures' in three parts when the semester ended. I then approached him and asked if he would take me as a private student
for the summer. He agreed, and we got to
work on all of the topics that I just mentioned. Many lessons lasted four hours, and he would
not take any payment.
We did experience difficulties in our working relationship though, and I owe this to differences in our personalities and tastes. For sure he was a tough taskmaster with strong opinions, and I was young and finding my way. At the beginning of my time with him I had been concentrating fully on my classical studies, but also felt the pull of jazz very strongly and he essentially had no respect for the music. In large part this led to me seeking another teacher after a couple of years. We did have a reconciliation though, and this came with the performance of an orchestra piece that I had composed while studying with him. It was played by the Stony Brook Graduate Orchestra in the Spring of 1984; I was asked for program notes and chose to pay tribute and thank him for his help and guidance during the time I wrote the piece. We had a very warm conversation in the lobby at intermission, I was also happy that my piece was on a program with the Ibert Flute Concerto and the Stravinsky Symphony in C. He idolized Stravinsky and had a very strong feeling for all French music.
We went our separate ways after that time but to this day I remember things that he taught me, or said, and I can never hear the Goldberg Variations without thinking about him.
I recently found an in-depth interview with Chicago journalist Bruce Duffie
done after Mr.Lessard retired from teaching, it is excellent and
vividly portrays the mind of a true composer and artist. Here is the link to copy/paste into a browser window, enjoy!