An Interview with Richard Wernick

I spoke recently with composer Richard Wernick, who I am honored to call both a mentor and a friend, about the edits I have been making to his Wikipedia page.  He had many interesting stories to tell about his own teachers and mentors, but unfortunately I could not include them in the Wikipedia article. (Wikipedia is based on secondary sources rather than new research, which can make writing about living people quite difficult) Instead, then, here are some of his impressions:

Richard Wernick and his teachers

Irving Fine

At the time that Wernick was introduced to Irving Fine, Fine was teaching at Harvard.  Wernick’s original college application was to Harvard, but at the time, Fine was considering a move to Brandeis, which was establishing its Creative Arts School.  In the midst of Wernick’s application process, Fine accepted the position at Brandeis, at which point Wernick tore up his Harvard application and applied to Brandeis.  Fine became Wernick’s chief mentor and the two remained close friends long after Wernick had completed his studies, until Fine’s death.

Leonard Bernstein

During Wernick’s undergraduate studies at Brandeis, the Creative Arts School was such a recent addition that both undergraduate and graduate music students often attended the same guest lectures and occasionally took courses together.  Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger were the principal composition teachers, and Leonard Bernstein was also a visiting professor.  As a result, Wernick studied music and theater extensively with Bernstein and became his teaching assistant despite being an undergraduate.  Wernick also studied conducting with Bernstein at Tanglewood.


At this time, Bernstein was in the midst of writing West Side Story and Candide simultaneously.  Bernstein would sometimes bring his collaborators to his Thursday night seminars, allowing Wernick and his classmates a view of the writing process.  The guests at the seminar included Lillian Hellman, Jerome Robbins, Richard Wilbur, and a very young Stephen Sondheim, who was barely older than the students.  Bernstein would instruct the students to write their own scenes to some of the shows.  In an odd twist, West Side Story, at that point, was East Side Story, depicting rival Jewish and Hispanic gangs.  As the population of New York changed and Bernstein edited his work, East Side Story moved across town and became the show with which we are now familiar.

Aaron Copland

The Brandeis composition department’s small size also allowed Wernick to work with Aaron Copland.  Though Copland was never formally a teacher at Brandeis, he was very close to the faculty and was frequently on campus.  Copland worked closely with the students as well, and Wernick later studied composition with Copland at Tanglewood.

Simon Linn-Gerstein & Richard Wernick, January 2012

2 Responses to “An Interview with Richard Wernick”
  1. Eleanor Linn says:

    What a wonderful photo of Dick Wernick! What’s he throwing up into the air – a manuscript? his junk mail? a gesture from a new piece of his? Maybe he told you what’s going on!

    • He did not tell me what the pages are supposed to be, but I think we are meant to assume that it is his manuscript, taking flight.
      Here are some things that I definitely do know about this photo:
      As the photo credit says, it was taken by Adam Leef – he is actually the son of Israeli composer Yeenam Leef, one of Dick’s notable students.
      Also, a cropped version of this photo is used as the cover art for his latest CD, with several different performers including guitarist David Starobin, the Juilliard Quartet, and the Colorado Quartet.
      For others reading, you can buy this CD on iTunes or Amazon (, but to support the niche record label run by Starobin, buy it directly from Bridge Records (

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