John Green was in town to conduct his monumental work, Mine Eyes Have Seen—Symphonic Parallels and Contradictions for Orchestra, in a West Coast premiere with the San Diego Symphony.
You may recognize John Green as Johnny, the man whose orchestra played on the “Jack Benny Jello Program” in the thirties and forties, or as the composer of “Coquette,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” and “Body and Soul.” He holds five Oscars and has been nominated for the award 14 times.
As a reporter for an East San Diego County newspaper, I was sent to interview Green. He was wearing a carnation when I met him. I asked why he had changed his name after achieving fame as Johnny Green? Green, now 73, replied, “When you’re walking out on stage to conduct a symphony orchestra in a program of Beethoven and Brahms, and you’re also approaching the outer boundaries of middle age, the name of a juvenile hoofer seems a little inappropriate. Eighteen years ago, several of us [at the Los Angeles Philharmonic where he was associate conductor] felt it was high time I grew up.”
When asked what serious music he has written, Green’s eyes twinkled as he replied, “Serious music? that’s the misnomer of all time! There’s no one more serious than a rock star.” He is proud of a suite for unaccompanied piano commissioned by Abbott Laboratories and composed in 1948. He called it Materia Medica with what I learned was customary wry humor. “I figured they were paying me a handsome fee to write it; I should write something to do with them.” The three movements are titled “Narcotic,” “Hypnotic,” and “Stimulant.”
Green spoke of his 1942 Music for Elizabeth—Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra as “interesting but immature.” He thinks his best extended writing, other than Mine Eyes Have Seen, is the score for the film, Raintree County.
I soon realized that Mine Eyes Have Seen, surely the masterwork of a mature composer, is much more. Its composition changed John Green’s life. He received the commission from the Denver Symphony early in 1974. Commenting on the program notes, he said:
“The work must be large scale, employing the full forces of the orchestra. [‘It was for the dedication of a grandiose new performing arts center, so it wasn’t ever intended to be “a nice little piece,” if you know what I mean.’] There must be a definitive jazz orientation or connotations [Green justified his selection as composer: ‘After all, God gave it to me to write some of the staples of the jazz world.’] It must be orchestral and not vocal [Green quipped, referring to himself, ‘Said he with no modesty whatever, “You’ll hear some very decent counterpoint.” ’] It must not be shorter than 20 minutes nor longer than 45, and it must have some connection with American history.”
He continued, “I didn’t want to write one of those avant-garde pieces at which the musicians laugh while they’re playing it, one that’s predicated on the fact that the language of music as we know it has been used up, where you walk out of the hall feeling there is no hope. I wanted to write a piece that would cause people to think the time the conductor spent learning it and musicians playing it was justified, and would send people out of the hall feeling that there’s someplace to go!
“Well, I walked around for four months, drier than a bone.” One night Green’s despair was so deep that he resolved to call Brian Priestman, conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, in the morning to tell him, “Get yourself another boy.”
Then, something happened. “I woke between 4:30 and 4:45 in the morning with the entire schematic of what you’ve got there,” he said, indicating the program notes with a tilt of his head. “I knew the title would be Mine Eyes Have Seen, that it would have nothing whatever to do with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that it would be a one-movement symphony. I knew what form I’d use [a three-part invention among the trumpet, tenor sax, and the guitar].” There were some sounds Green wanted that only a synthesizer could make, but that didn’t bother him at the time. The important thing was the concept—“parallels and contradictions as between both Testaments of the Bible and the 200-year spectrum of American history.”
“Do you call that inspiration?” Green asked. “I guess it depends on your definition of inspiration, but I feel God intended me to write this piece, and that’s why I wrote it.”
When Green called Priestman, Priestman exclaimed, “John, that’s absolutely splendid! Can’t wait to hear it!”
“Neither could I,” related Green. “I hadn’t note one on paper!” His elation wore off quickly. Two things hit him. First, he didn’t know enough about the Bible for the project, and second, “All I knew about the synthesizer was how to spell it.”
He broke into a cold sweat. “And then,” he told me, “the dear Lord spoke to me again, and he said, ‘Hey, stupid! What have you been all your life?’ And the answer came, loud and clear: a student.”
John Green studied the Bible with two teachers for five-and-a-half months, night and day, seven days a week. At the same time, he took two three-hour synthesizer lessons weekly.
During the course of Bible study, John Green, who through all his thinking life “had been baffled as to why my people [the Jews] rejected Jesus as the Messiah, when he was so very much the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies,” accepted Jesus. Green was baptized on August 12, 1977 by George MacLean, one of his Bible teachers.
Work on Mine Eyes Have Seen, begun with schematic sketches in February 1974, was completed in mid-November 1977. The world premiere performance was in Boettcher Hall by the Denver Symphony Orchestra, Brian Priestman conducting, on March 5, 1978.
During an appearance on the “700 Club,” Pat Robertson asked him if he was born again. Green replied, “I don’t know that that’s so. What I do know is I’m a Jew for 5,000 years who firmly and totally, with all his heart and soul and mind, believes that Jesus was and is the Messiah, predicted and prophesied by our own prophets, who came once, and will be coming again, and in whose resurrection lies the whole essence of faith.”
John Green has been wearing a carnation since 1926 when he was a Harvard undergraduate. “There was something about a carnation that seemed utterly simple, totally Godlike, and very beautiful. I had a compulsion to have that image of what God must be close to me. I wear it as a reminder of what I’d like to be like—unphony, unadorned, and beautiful.”
Mrs. Baldridge is a free-lance writer, poet, and music critic, who lives in Spring Valley, California.
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