Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 22, 1996

Counterpoint in pen and ink
Conduct Most Becoming

Bill Spencer
Peabody Office of Public Information

     Frederik Prausnitz is a man noted for the highest standards
of conduct. Musical and otherwise. 

     But Peabody's conductor laureate and renowned director of
the Peabody Conservatory's internationally acclaimed conducting
program has a decidedly light-hearted side, one that has been
well documented in countless drawings and sketches and doodles
sent over the years to colleagues and students or just posted
around campus.

     When Prausnitz turned 75 years of age in August, the school
wanted to celebrate both his life and his 20 years at Peabody in
a way befitting one of its most highly visible faculty members.
The task was embraced by archivist Elizabeth Schaaf, who put
together a decidedly unserious exhibit called "Counterpoint in
Pen and Ink: Celebrating the Frederik Prausnitz 75th Birthday
Year." The exhibit, mounted from Jan. 26 through March 1 in the
Arthur Friedheim Library's Galleria Piccola, features the
conductor's off-beat view of music and of life at Peabody as
portrayed in his doodlings. And there likely is some artifact
that has touched everyone there at one time or another.

     If you neglect to reschedule a meeting space, and he arrives
with class in tow to find the room already in use, you may get an
elaborately reimagined version of Leonardo's The Last Supper with
Fred as Jesus, you as Judas, and a messenger blithely reporting
that the room reservation was to be for 4 o'clock.

     During a Peabody crisis many years ago, Prausnitz expressed
his view with a drawing of Mount Vernon's Washington Monument,
seen from the air, with the incinerating Peabody Conservatory in
the background. But on top of the monument, George was replaced
by a likeness of Nero, complete with toga, laurel wreath and
violin. This emperor, however, was also complete with receding
hair, heavy glasses, prominent nose and thick mustache, which
looked less and less like Nero and more and more like Prausnitz.

     His wife of 34 years, Margaret, can expect a doodle with a
nickname on it when she returns from a day or two away and can
also expect that the furniture will be moved all around. ("Fred,
dear, where is the television now?") She has learned to expect
the unexpected in small ways, even to discovering a pig drawn in
newly laid cement on the sidewalk outside the house.

     "I originally wanted to be a painter," he says. "But this
was even less respectable in my family than music! Everyone in my
family was a doctor--father, uncles, an aunt, grandfathers,
everyone. I'm the black sheep." 

     Prausnitz took art classes in school, but by the end of his
high school years knew he wanted to be a conductor. The baton and
the pen come equally naturally to him. Both allow the holder to
create a finished artistic product, and express a personal view
at the same time. And both of these ideas hold prominent
positions in Prausnitz's thinking: first-class art, with a clear
point of view, ideals he works hard to impart to students. The
individual's personality must come through from the conductor's
podium for him to be pleased. It's the same with a musical score.
He wants characterization. 

     It's part and parcel of someone with as much character as he

     Prausnitz is a legendary Mahler conductor who won the Mahler
Medal in 1974 from the Bruckner Society. He looks to Mozart as
the composer who may have had the fewest bad days. "Even
Beethoven wrote some awful music," he says.

     His very personal point of view has graced Peabody for two
decades, at first as conductor of the Peabody Orchestra and then
as director of the conducting program, where he remains devoted
to teaching students from all over the world. "I enjoy my

     The conducting program, in which students can earn a
master's degree or a doctorate, has flourished under his watchful
eye, and he always takes care to find the essence of each of his

     Few teachers in any field can claim as much success in that
endeavor as Prausnitz. He has taught hundreds of students of all
backgrounds and levels of skill, from beginning undergraduate
non-majors to battle-hardened postgraduates. 

     One of his favorite quips is, "I take them where I find them
and try to give them what they need." That may be simply the
knowledge of how to beat four-four time, in the case of the
beginner class, to very specific advice on how to approach a
single phrase of music.

     But isolated technical skills do not interest Prausnitz.
Technique, though very important to him, is only a means to the
end of a fully realized and emotionally illuminated performance.
If a student explains that he is trying to conduct a passage to
show how the notes are to be articulated, Prausnitz will likely
respond, "Nobody is going to buy a ticket to come hear
articulation." He wants the music. All of it. If technique can
show the flutes, say, how one note should sound, he will be
pleased, but only within the context of a conductor's individual
point of view on a complete piece of music.

     Prausnitz has "a probing and original mind" as the new
Grove's Dictionary of Music puts it, one that will not be cooped
up in an ivory tower. He well knows what his students face in the
real world, and how that has changed over time. 

     "The conducting profession has changed fantastically," he
says. "I remember years ago saying that the trouble with
conductors is that they are not as important to the general
public as pop idols, or great football players, and that they had
to become like pop idols. Now they are like pop idols, way out of
proportion to what they actually do."

     That said, he remains loyal to his students and they remain
devoted to him, many staying in contact wherever he, or they, may
be. They call or write to tell him of a contest won or of a job
secured or--perhaps most important--to ask for advice.

     There's the story of the call from Ken Kiesler, music
director of the Springfield (Ill.) Symphony, that went something
like this, Prausnitz recalled in an interview some years ago for
the Peabody News:   

Kiesler: I'm doing the Mahler Sixth tonight and am still not
Prausnitz: Two hammer strokes!
Kiesler: That's all I wanted to know. Thank you very much.
     With that, the phone call ended.

     The question had to do with the eternally debated question
about how many hammer strokes should be given in the symphony's
finale to represent blows to the hero's helmet--two or three. 

     These days, Prausnitz takes many of his calls at his getaway
home in Lewes, Del., where he is busily working on his biography
of his friend Roger Sessions. Once in a while, though, he will
remount the podium for a special occasion--perhaps to celebrate
Mozart, or Mahler, or Sessions.

     But whatever brings Fred Prausnitz before an orchestra, it
is certain the event will resonate with the full force of his

     Bill Spencer studied with Frederik Prausnitz on his way to
earning his doctorate in conducting from Peabody in 1994.

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