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[Click photos for enlargements.]

December 23, 1926, Portland, OR--October 16, 2014, Hamden, CT

Allen Forte, born on December 23 1926 in Portland, Oregon, passed peacefully in his Hamden, Connecticut home on Thursday October 16 2014 at 8:00 am. During World War II he served in the American Navy from 1944 to 1946 on the U.S.S. General Butner in the Pacific. Thanks to the G.I. bill he attended Columbia University where he received his masters and doctorate and taught at Teachers College. He also taught at M.I.T., Harvard University, and Yale University, where during forty four and half years he advised seventy two Ph.D. students as Battell Professor of the Theory of Music and as a leading speculative music theorist. He taught short courses in Canada, Europe, and Asia. He was a Founder and First President of the Society of Music Theory, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Guggenheim Society. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. He has earned critical acclaim with ten scholarly books and one hundred articles. "The Structure of Atonal Music" (1973) ranks as one of the most important contributions to music theory in the twentieth century. His use of the computer as well as traditional means of analysis has led to fuller knowledge of musical structure and thereby enhanced both the understanding and the enjoyment of music.

He is survived by his wife concert pianist Madeleine Forte, her sons, and her grandchildren.

There was a service at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Connecticut on October 25, attended by former students, colleagues, and friends.

Homages by former students, printed in the Society for Music Theory Newsletter, 38:1 (February 2015)

It was not that many months ago that I was recording reminiscences of Allen Forte for a different and celebratory occasion. I had reached the fifth and final installment of a Festschrift I had been editing for him, serialized in the online journal Gamut, and for its concluding entry I had invited his former doctoral advisees to contribute testimonials. Forty-two responded, and although the content of their tributes varied, at my suggestion many offered details and anecdotes about their time studying with him. The idea was that the recollections would be ordered chronologically (by Ph.D. dates) and thereby suggest a narrative: the evolution of Allen the person and the professional—and, by association, North American music theory—across the decades.

The Festschrift contained twenty-two scholarly articles and additional special features (including a previously unpublished essay by Allen himself), but I think it’s fair to say that the collected reminiscences have elicited the most comments in the ensuing months, delivered to me either in person or via e-mail. Sometimes these have been from a contributor who was remarking on the other entries, sometimes from a student or colleague of Allen who was not an advisee, and sometimes from one who didn’t know him personally (perhaps even a present-day graduate student) and was gratified to see a giant in our field made more accessible through the commentary. For me—as contributor, compiler, and reader—what is fascinating is the degree to which a “quintessential Allen” emerges despite all the variance in the particulars. (And yes, I write this in full awareness of the resonance with Schenker’s motto, “always the same but not in the same way”). After so many anecdotes refer to his “dry sense of humor,” the “twinkle in his eye,” and his “impish grin,” you begin to get the idea, even if you never met him.

Those interested in details of Allen’s life and career will find much of interest and value in the collection; but I will add some different words here, stemming from my belief that, while we all knew a fundamentally similar Allen, we nonetheless each worked with and grew in friendship with a slightly different incarnation. That is, in a strict sense, “my” Allen was neither John Rothgeb’s nor Daniel Harrison’s (to select two names from the beginning and middle of his advisee’s list), despite the inarguable congruities. And it is this “later-life” Allen that I wish to discuss.

When I started at Yale, he was about to turn seventy; and despite approaching the age at which Schoenberg was forced into retirement in California, a half-century earlier, Allen would continue teaching for seven more years. Moreover, his late sixties and seventies remained very active in terms of his scholarship. If I have to characterize this time, both personally and professionally, I would say that Allen was undergoing a period of recapitulations. The most public of these was his return to the music of the Great American Songbook—although few would have recognized it as a “return,” given that Allen had rarely hinted at these interests in the preceding years. But this is the same Allen who, as the little ten-year old son of Max and Marion Forte, appeared on a local radio station to play Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” And the same Allen who, near the start of his professional career, in spring 1958, lectured in Germany and Austria on “The Development of Diminutions in American Jazz.” So although his 1993 article on Porter’s song structures perhaps seemed out of the blue to many, it was really a return to an early love—one that he continued to call upon in 1995 and 2001 books on the repertory, and in sundry articles.

There were also personal recapitulations during this time. Those who knew Allen from his early decades at Yale knew also his wife Sharland (the professional name by which the Vienna-born photographer and artist, Herta Waitzfelder, was known). Sadly, she spent her last years in declining health, with Allen tending to her. But happily, during my time at Yale, Allen received a new lease on life after meeting and eventually marrying Franco-American pianist Madeleine Hsu. The two became inseparable, not only personally but professionally: they gave many lecture-recitals in the US and abroad. Another later-life return was to Allen’s sense of patriotism and thoughts of service to country. By this I certainly don’t mean to suggest that he had somehow lost these sensibilities earlier on; it’s just that he became more overt in expressing his feelings during his later years. He spoke a bit more about his Naval service in the Pacific Theatre, at the end of World War II (whereas those who studied with Allen in earlier decades have told me that he didn’t refer much to this phase of his life); and on formal occasions he took to wearing his service ribbons on his blazer. And of course, in the end, he elected to be buried at the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut, with a military service that I and other attendees found especially moving.

Although it’s only a supposition, I imagine the one thing Allen was ambivalent about recapitulating—using the word now in the sense of revisiting something in discussion, and not in the sense of reinscribing something into one’s career—was his life’s work in general. When eminent scholars reach a “certain age,” publications often appear, summarizing facets of their work and influence. Allen witnessed some of these in his last decade. I was asked to write an article on his early editorship of the Journal of Music Theory, for a fiftieth-anniversary issue. Arnold Whittall offered a summary of Allen’s work in the British journal Music Analysis (that is, a summary of work published in that journal; by extension, it also examined his influence across the Atlantic). Articles and dissertations also appeared, tracing the origins and influences of contemporary American music theory (see, e.g., the work of Aaron Girard). And Allen himself was asked to recount “early days” at conferences, especially regarding the dissemination of Schenkerian theory in the US (he delivered reminiscences at a “Schenker-Traditionen” conference in Vienna in 2003, and Joseph Straus discussed the topic with Allen and Milton Babbitt at a session of the Fourth International Schenker Symposium in 2006). I’m sure all that “summarizing” can be an unwelcome reminder that one’s time is drawing to a close. And yet, Allen remained active in scholarship until fairly recently. Never one to rest on laurels, he was less interested in recalling past work than he was in creating something new. In the acknowledgments of my dissertation, I declared that to study with Allen was the Reason I had journeyed to Yale, and added: “to join the ranks of his advisees is a great honor.” It still is and always will be.

—David Carson Berry


Left to right: Thomas Christiensen, Elizabeth Marvin, Joseph Straus, and Allen Forte.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have known Allen Forte, both professionally and personally.

When I came to the United States to study with Professor Forte in 1981, there were only two other foreign students in my class. I was grateful and impressed that Professor Forte went out of his way to treat us with understanding and sensitivity. He always asked us to sit close to him during class, for example, so he could point out specific examples of everything he discussed, which definitely helped us follow along in class. He also lent us a copy of his manuscript for Introduction to Schenkerian Analysis, which he had only just completed. But despite his generosity and kindness, I have to admit that Professor Forte often intimidated me—although I do not think he ever meant to. Perhaps it was his intense eyes behind even his kindest smile.

After receiving my doctorate, I took a teaching position at the Hartt School, University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut. As a result, I never lived more than forty-five minutes away from Professor Forte. Over the years, he and his wife, Madeleine, frequently invited me to their house in Hamden, where we shared many lovely lunches and dinners. I remember that at one point, he asked me to call him Allen. This was not easy for me. In Japan, it is unthinkable to call your professors by their first names. After a lot of difficulty on my part, Professor Forte eventually became Allen. He and I often took afternoon walks together. It was during these walks that he told me countless witty stories about his life, his work, and the people he had known. In June of 2004, Allen and Madeleine traveled to Japan. During their two-week visit, I spent every day with him—taking him to various universities where he presented popular lectures, guiding him through a sightseeing tour of Kyoto, and visiting one of Madeleine’s old friends in a rural part of Japan. As his student, I could never have imagined seeing Professor Forte enjoying himself as a typical tourist. Yet Allen was actually thrilled when a typhoon almost blew us off the street, and equally delighted to say hello to a group of Japanese children traveling on a small country train.

One memorable day, I took him to a museum of Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) in Tokyo. As we strolled through the museum, Allen suddenly stopped at a particular print and examined it closely. He then explained to me that we should analyze that print to see how its sophisticated structure contributed to its artistic importance. In that instant, I looked into his eyes. They were Professor Forte’s intense eyes, the same eyes that, years before, intimidated me with their gift for acute observation. Because of that gift, as well as his powers of description, that print suddenly made more sense to me than ever before. In fact, it seemed nearly to come alive. I was deeply moved by the way that his analytical mind found structure and meaning in even this art form.

I will always be thankful that I knew not only Professor Forte, but also Allen. My memories of this remarkable man are meaningful and precious to me on many levels. But above all, I will always remember the brilliance of his mind and the intensity of his eyes—eyes that, even today, continue to help me see and understand my own work with more precision and clarity.

I truly miss him.

—Akane Mori


To begin one’s study of music theory in Yale’s Department of Music in the early 1970s was to feel, in some respects, like a pioneer. Theory as a discipline separate from musicology or composition still had very little visibility on most campuses around the country, and even at Yale there weren’t yet very many theory students in evidence. Allen himself had moved over from the School of Music to establish the Theory Ph.D. program only a few years earlier, and its alumni could still be counted on the fingers of one hand.

We matriculated in autumn 1972: an “entering class” of six that also included Chris Hasty and Dave Beach (who already had his Master’s and finished the doctorate in just two years). Although we took the courses offered by others in the Department—music historians, and junior faculty in theory and composition—to fill out our schedules, it was clear from the start that Allen’s courses were the main event for us. During our first year of study, Allen’s landmark work, The Structure of Atonal Music , was published by Yale Press; that autumn, just before the book actually appeared, we were among the members of the first seminar to be taught from it in its finished form. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we all felt, at least vaguely, “present at the creation” of something big, something that would put the study of theory on a whole new footing (and that would raise its stock considerably): we probably had an inkling, even at that point in our education, of how provisional, even marginal a status theory had then—even at Yale—compared to historical musicology. In any case, a seminar later that year in “Problems in Music Theory,” also led by Allen, with readings taken largely from the early numbers of the Journal of Music Theory and Perspectives of New Music , served, perhaps in part intentionally, to illustrate the inchoate state of the field to that point).

Then, in our second year, the study of Schenkerian analysis with Allen basically impelled us to take everything we thought we knew about the theory of tonal music, dump it out, and start over again. Resistance was futile, although unlearning what were mostly bad habits took some time. Working through the successive stages of puzzlement (at the encounter with a new mode of thinking), anxiety (at the loss of old certainties), and exhilaration (at finally “getting it”) was an experience never to be forgotten. Above all, one could never forget Allen’s immense patience with all of us in our struggles, or the crystal clarity of his graphs, which he meticulously copied out for us, week after week, on the blackboard.

What we couldn’t have anticipated, back there in 1972, was how quickly the feel of things would change, and how much company we would soon have. The number of theory students in residence grew steadily over the next several years; by the late 1970s, Allen was advising at least a dozen dissertations simultaneously. The Department clearly needed a second senior faculty member in theory, whom it duly acquired in the person of David Lewin.

But for those of us whose course-taking years unfolded at a time when Allen was essentially the only game in town, there was a special excitement inherent in the very smallness of the scene. Whatever it may have lacked in diversity of viewpoints was more than made up for by the consistency and coherence with which our instruction was delivered, and by the force of example provided by Allen’s already numerous publications at that time. A better learning environment for the neophyte is difficult to imagine. We feel privileged to have been nurtured by it.

—Jonathan Bernard and David Neumeyer

* * * * *

Editor’s note : A number of additional tributes to Professor Forte can be found in David Carson Berry, editor,.(2013). “To Allen Forte from His Former Advisees: Tributes and Reminiscences,” Gamut: Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic 6/2, 267-338.

October 2009: Allen Forte was the honored guest theorist at the “First National Symposium of Musical Analytics” at the Shanghai Conservatory, October 26-29, 2009. He lectured on Schoenberg and on pitch-class-set theory and offered workshops on advanced XXth century theories.

Daqun Jia, Madeleine Forte, Allen forte, Lei Jiang

Spring 2008: Visiting Music Professor, Harvard University

September 20-23, 2007: Lectures, teaching, lecture-recital with Madeleine Forte at the University of Western Ontario, Canada

April 3-8, 2007: Lectures, teaching at the University of North Texas

November 15-30, 2005: Performances, lectures, and masterclasses in Seoul, South Korea, at Hanyang University and Seoul Conservatories (with Madeleine Forte)

Summer 2005: Professor, Yale Summer Program, Salzburg Seminar at the Schloss Leoplodskron; Piano Ensemble Concerts with Madeleine Forte.

Piano Ensemble Concert with Madeleine Forte at the Chateau de Goulaine, Nantes, France.

February 6-11, 2005: Residency at the University of North Texas, Denton

“It has been a real pleasure to host the two of you this week during a University of North Texas residency. Allen presented in three classes, Madeleine performed an all-Chopin recital and gave a following masterclass, and together you gave two lecture-recitals, one on Messiaen, the other on Liszt's Petrarch settings for piano. In all respects we were thrilled with the quality and interest of your presentations. Allen, your quiet eloquence was captivating, and Madeleine, your artistry was rich and communicative, and the authority both of you brought to the presentation was matchless. Your stay at UNT will be long remembered as a highlight of our academic year.”

Lester Brothers, Chair
Division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology

Winter 2004: Recorded "Songs of Yesterday for Today" CD with Martha Bennett Oneppo, vocalist, for Roméo Records. Click the photo below for reviews of this recording.

November 2004: Orpheus Seminar, Ghent, Belgium

Fall 2004: “The Structure of Atonal Music” is included in the Yale Music Library exhibit, "Theorica musicae", Selected Treasures from the Music Theory Collections.

October 23, 2004: Johns Hopkins University: lecture-recital with Madeleine Forte on Liszt and Petrarch at the conference “Petrarch and the Arts”

June 2004: Lectures at Toho Gakuen School of Music, Tokyo University and Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music

May, 2004: Senior Marshall at Yale Commencement (Photo shows me placing honorary doctoral hood on baseball legend Willie Mays).

April 20, 2004: Lecture on Olivier Messiaen at Columbia University, New York

March 1, 2004: Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

February 24-29, 2004: Visiting Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle

October 2003: Lecture on ‘classic’ set theory at Ircam, Paris, as part of symposium entitled ‘Around Set Theory’

April 2003: International Conference, Estonian Academy of Music, Tallinn, Estonia; lecture-concert with Madeleine Forte

March 2003: Akademia Muzyczna, Wroclaw, Poland; Messiaen lecture-recital and masterclass

October 19-26, 2002: Visiting Trotter Professorship, University of Oregon, Eugene

August, 2002: Lecture-recital with Madeleine Forte at the Oslo, Norway, Conservatory of Music.

Summer, 2002: Second time for the Schönberg course in Mödling, this time with fourteen very fine students, all Americans. [Click photo for enlargement.] Immediately after the last class, on July Fourth, Yale Summer Programs sponsored a big reception to which Austrian and other friends came, including faculty of the Universität für Musik, the Bürgermeister of Mödling, and Schoenberg’s first grandson, Arnold Greissle Schoenberg! I conducted the class in a performance of the Austrian National Anthem and the Star Spangled Banner, prior to which Christian Meyer, Director of the Arnold Schoenberg Center, spoke warmly of the cooperative effort with Yale.

During the stay in Mödling, Madeleine and I flew to England to attend Messiaen 2002, the special conference at University of Sheffield, where Madeleine played a concert and I read a paper, entitled “Messiaen’s Chords.” It was a wonderful experience.

In separate activities in Vienna, Madeleine and I did a lecture-recital at the Universität für Musik entitled “Harmonic Fields in the Piano Music of Claude Debussy,” and I lectured there on the topic “Alban Berg’s First Atonal Composition.”

On June 28 Andrew Ford of The Music Show, Australian Broadcasting Company, interviewed me at the Oesterreicher Rundfunk studio in Vienna via a high-tech communications link that enabled immediate, no-delay, give and take between Sydney and Vienna. I spoke seated at a Bösendorfer concert grand, which enabled me to play parts of classic American popular songs, the topic of the interview, based upon my book, Listening to Classic American Popular Songs (Yale University Press 2001).

Here are a few more pictures from Mödling (click to enlarge):

June 20-23, 2002: Messiaen 2002 International Conference, Sheffield, U.K., Keynote Speaker

March 20, 2002: Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas

March 18, 2002: University of Texas, lecture

Feb 7, 2002: University of Connecticut, lectures

June 2001: Lecture-concert, music by Messiaen, at the Vienna conservatory (Universität für Musik).

Summer, 2001: In cooperation with the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, I gave a five-week Yale Summer Programs course in the Arnold Schönberg House in Mödling (just outside Vienna), entitled, “The Music of Schönberg’s Middle Period, 1908-1923: From Romanticism to dodecaphony.” Excellent students from the United States, Canada, and Holland participated. This proved to be an extraordinary experience for many reasons, not least of which was the location of the classroom adjacent to the composer’s former study. Photographs taken in the Schönberg House and in front of the Arnold Schönberg Center building on Schwarzenberg Platz feature members of the class and important individuals connected with the class in various ways.

(Click on the images below to see a larger version with caption.)