Jeffrey Snider still remembers the first meeting between musician and longtime University of North Texas voice professor Harold Heiberg and Graeme Jenkins, the former music director of the Dallas Opera.
Snider, a baritone and the chairman of voice studies at UNT, recalls telling Jenkins that Heiberg was a longstanding subscriber of the Dallas Opera — attending at least 30 seasons.
“Graeme Jenkins asked him what he remembered, and Harold said he recalled the famous performance where [tenor] Jon Vickers stopped singing, walked to the edge of the stage and told someone to ‘shut up with your damn coughing,’” Snider said.
The moment actually exists, preserved audio-only on YouTube. Heiberg was a consistent presence at UNT operas, voice recitals and concerts, too.
Heiberg died Monday at age 91.
Friends and peers remember Heiberg as a gentleman. A man who dressed well even as the College of Music halls gave way to flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts. A teacher who rode his bicycle to the university instead of driving. A man who didn’t spend hours and energy promoting himself or his career. Harold Heiberg is remembered for promoting beautiful music and emerging voices.
Heiberg started studying piano at age 8 in Minnesota. By age 12, he was studying the organ and playing full church services. He graduated from St. Olaf College with honors and a bachelor’s degree in music. He served as a German translator in the Army during World War II, but managed to continue his piano studies with Karl Ulrich Schnabel in Italy after he finished his service. Life took him to Brooklyn, where he was the minister of music at a Lutheran church. That’s where he met and married his wife, Eva.
Most of all, peers and friends remember an artist who truly understood the minutiae of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and who opened up entire new depths of the music at the keyboard.
Lanelle Blanton, a singer and former voice instructor at Texas Woman’s University, met Heiberg shortly after both arrived in Denton. Blanton started her teaching career in 1969, and Heiberg took the newly created position of vocal coach at UNT in 1971. Blanton said she wanted to work on her repertoire. In 1997, Heiberg accompanied Blanton in a Schubert recital honoring the composer’s 300th birthday.
“I began to hear about what a wonderful coach he was. I wanted reassurance about diction, language style, and he always gave me such wonderful advice on things,” she said.
Blanton studied music at Indiana University before arriving in Denton to teach emerging singers. Heiberg came highly recommended, and Blanton said working with them showed the praise was earned. Heiberg wasn’t just any collaborative pianist. He was special.
“It’s really sort of a difficult thing to put into words,” Blanton said. “I think we’re all equipped with various gifts, and one of his enormous gifts was really understanding the music. And really more than nuts and bolts. It was as if he knew when you need to breathe, and if you needed a second to take that breath, he’d hold off just at the right moment, wait for you.
“But even more than that, if you wanted to make an emotional statement at a particular point in the music, he really picked up on that at the keyboard,” Blanton said. “He’d make that happy moment happier. What he’d do would change the performance. I think one time, we came off the stage during a break. We sort of looked at each other and wondered, ‘Where did that come from?’ We were both enjoying a glorious moment onstage.”
Blanton said Heiberg had a sure hand and a light touch. He knew when to suggest a singer look at a composition that had escaped notice. He could dig into the selections he played and explain the meaning of a word — especially in French or German — and bring a new emotional or intellectual heft to a singer’s knowledge of a piece.
Snider studied with Heiberg after he came to UNT as a student in 1985. He remembers a careful teacher who was more exacting “than probably anyone I’ve ever known. Incredibly exacting.”
“He was also very patient. Long-suffering, even,” Snider said. “He’d correct you in a certain part of the music you were singing, and if you made that same mistake again, he’d correct you again. I never saw him lose his temper.”
Heiberg coached students who went on to occupy coveted posts at the world’s major opera companies. After decades of teaching, Heiberg was still moved by lieder — both the romantic poetry that makes up the text and the music that makes Schumanm and Schubert unforgettable.
Snider said he was often surprised at Heiberg’s sensitive ear. He’d suggest that a character met a lover at a dance earlier in an opera — because the dance music was part of a duet. In another opera, Heiberg supposed another character was pregnant, because a lullaby is tucked into the music as she sings to her departing lover.
Snider studied Brahms’ later song cycles and worked with Heiberg on Vier Ernste Gesange, Op. 121, No. 4: “Wenn ich mit Menschen — und mit Engelszungen redete.” Heiberg urged him to hold a crucial note longer than Snider had thought to try.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it. I took an awful lot of breath to make it through that,” Snider said. “But because of Harold’s support, I was able to get that breath in I needed so I could make it through the part he wanted.”
Jennifer Lane, a mezzo-soprano and member of the UNT voice faculty, recalled on Facebook that Heiberg wasn’t too proud to learn something new.
“I will never forget Harold Heiberg’s willingness to use the fortepiano during a coaching in his late 80s just because that was the instrument being used in the concert,” Lane wrote. “He was discovering the knee pedals in the Mozart-era piano for the first time! He was a joy to perform Bach, Haydn, Mahler, Ives and Bizet with when I met him at UNT in 1998 and always a joy to hear. Wonderful man and musician.”
Heiberg’s peers said the musician could have had a career as a pianist, but his calling was to pair piano with the voice.
“We’d tell students that the risk of auditioning with Harold playing piano for you was that you might get lost in what he was doing at the keyboard and forget to come in,” Snider said.
Heiberg was a respected translator, too. He had more than 250 English texts of song, operatic and choral works printed. He was proficient in German, French and Italian, said Snider, who was surprised when a native Russian speaker praised Heiberg’s Russian.
“Harold told me he couldn’t speak any Russian,” Snider said.
Snider said he performed in Heiberg’s final recital. When the audience rose to applaud Heiberg, he stood, held up the music and pointed to it, Snider recalled.
“He was right,” Snider said. “There was nothing self-aggrandizing in anything he did. He always served the music.”
LUCINDA BREEDING may be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.