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Arthur Berger, meticulous composer, lively critic

Arthur Berger, one of the great elder statesmen of American music, died yesterday in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. He was 91, and according to his personal representative, Rosalie Calabrese, "his heart gave out."

Over a long, distinguished and fiercely independent career, Mr. Berger was a composer, critic, music analyst, and teacher. He moved to the Boston area in 1953 to teach at Brandeis University and retired in 1980. Then he moved over to the New England Conservatory, where he remained on the faculty until 1999.

He celebrated his 90th birthday last year with the publication of a collection of his lively essays, "Reflections of an American Composer." He remained an active and vocal presence at concerts and a vital force in musical life until a broken hip restricted his mobility last spring.

Geoffrey Burleson recently recorded Mr. Berger's complete piano music, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under conductor Gil Rose recently completed recording his complete orchestral music; the first CDs are due this week.

"Arthur never yielded his musical integrity in any way," Rose said yesterday. "One of the reasons he wrote so few pieces was that his only aim was to make each one as perfect, as pristine, as structurally sound as he could. He never compromised."

Born in New York City, Mr. Berger studied at New York University, at Harvard, and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. After he returned to America, he was active in the Young Composers Group, which was mentored by Aaron Copland; in 1953, he published the first booklength study of Copland. In 1939, he began his teaching career at Mills College in California.

In 1943, he began a decade as one of the music critics of the New York Herald Tribune, joining the paper at the invitation of composer-critic Virgil Thomson. One of the liveliest essays in his collection recalls daily music journalism as it was practiced more than half a century ago. Later, he was one of the founders of the periodical "Perspectives of New Music," and became an influential analyst of contemporary music.

His music attracted young performers in every generation. For three decades he enjoyed the interest and support of the Boston new-music ensemble Dinosaur Annex -- and they enjoyed his.

"Dinosaur Annex premiered the last work Arthur completed, a chamber-music version of his Ronsard songs, just last year, to honor his 90th birthday," composer Scott Wheeler said yesterday. "I met him in the mid-70s, in a seminar at Brandeis. He introduced us to all aspects of culture, music, art and scholarship, and made us feel as if we were doing the sexiest thing in the world. His music of every period was full of sparkling detail, the wonderful moment, perceived as a moment, but also taking its place in a delightful progression."

Dimitri Mitropoulos led the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Mr. Berger's "Ideas of Order" in 1952, and he produced a few other orchestral works, but his primary interest as a composer was in chamber music and in music for the piano, an instrument he played with visceral involvement, directed by a composer's informed ear.

His elegantly neoclassical Quartet for Winds has probably been performed more often than any of his other works, which are written in a more demanding language, but with the same braininess, lucidity, precision, and attention to detail. Often, the most surprising contrasts and influences would be at play in the same piece. He achieved a strong personal synthesis of the work of two opposing schools that dominated thinking about contemporary music in his time, those of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.

Stravinsky admired Mr. Berger's music, and Copland wrote appreciatively of its distinction, craftsmanship, individuality, and idiosyncrasy. After an all-Berger concert, The Globe reported, "In everything, one heard the same unmistakable voice, searching, zestfully witty, certain about the things you can be certain about, and unafraid of mysteries."

Composer Yehudi Wyner, who met Mr. Berger in 1945, said yesterday, "He leaves behind a legacy of very fine compositions that have been undervalued, I think; I know I did [undervalue them], but when I conducted a chamber piece of his at Brandeis a while back, I found the music full of a private drama that was very convincing."

In person, Mr. Berger had the aspect of a court jester, empowered to say whatever was on his mind. It was not always amusing to have him on your case -- one trembled before turning over a postcard addressed in his tiny, neat handwriting -- but he was seldom wrong.

Mr. Berger leaves his wife, Ellen.

A memorial service is planned.

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