Theodore Norman was born in Montreal, Canada on March 12, 1912 and began studying the piano
at the age of five. Soon thereafter his family moved to Los Angeles where, at the age of
eleven, he began to study the violin, this becoming his principle instrument. In 1930 he
traveled to Europe, and during a two-year stay, studied violin with Issay Barmus in Berlin,
violin with the virtuoso and Joachim alumnus Willy Hess in Darmstadt, and composition with
bassoonist/composer Adolph Weiss. Weiss had studied intensively with Arnold Schoenberg in
Berlin and was the first American to study his twelve-tone method and the first to bring the
technique to the United States and spread knowledge of it. Norman later made use of the twelve-tone
system in several of his compositions, and became closely associated with Schoenberg
in California, after Schoenberg was forced to flee Europe in 1933. Norman also regularly
performed Schoenberg's chamber works under the composer's baton in California.
During the period 1935 to 1942, Norman played first violin in the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, however after the end of World War II, he dedicated himself more to composing.
In 1951, while working on his ballet, Metamorphosis, based on the Franz Kafka novel,
Norman became interested in the guitar. He wanted the guitar, as well as the
accordion, which was to represent a cockroach, to have parts in the orchestration.
Being unfamiliar with the guitar at that time, he bought one for 50 cents "and
went into the hills (of Los Angeles) to learn how it worked".
When Norman looked into the guitar's literature in the early 1950s he discovered
that there were relatively few transcriptions of the masters available and practically
nothing written by the best 20th century composers for the guitar. Norman decided to correct
this deplorable state of affairs by transcribing the music of the masters and
the modern composers, for one and two guitars, and by also composing his own works. He
eventually transcribed over 200 pieces for solo guitar and over 100 pieces for guitar duo.
He also created arrangements for up to eight guitars, as well as arrangements for guitar
and other instruments and voice. His transcriptions have been published by many of the
leading publishing houses, and one collection, Music for the Young Guitarist became
the best selling book of that genre.
Norman's own compositions number over 70 and include solo guitar, chamber, and orchestral
works. In 1954 he broke new ground by composing the first ever twelve-tone pieces for
guitar, Two Twelve-tone Pieces for Solo Guitar, published the following
year by Music Selecta. Three of his guitar compositions have been recorded by the Elgart and Yates
Duo, Music of the Twentieth Century (TR Records, 1985).
In 1956 Norman and his wife Ruth, a professional artist, toured Europe by auto.
There, Norman met and discussed his twelve-tone pieces with guitarist/composer Emilio Pujol, who
expressed keen interest in them. In Sienna, where the late Andrés Segovia taught his yearly
master guitar classes, Norman began a friendship with the master guitarist, who later regularly visited the
Normans in Los Angeles when he gave concerts there. Norman's only formal guitar studies took
place during this European tour with Segovia student
Aureo Herrero in Madrid. In Paris, Norman played
his transcriptions and original compositions in a concert broadcast by French National Radio.
The following year, back in Los Angeles, Norman took on a difficult assignment - teaching a blind
girl to read guitar music. He carried this out with a footboard outfitted with toggling devices representing
notes on a tablature, and an experimental approach involving phosphorescent paint and infrared light.
His work attracted the attention of author Aldous Huxley who persuaded Norman to lecture on
"The Creative Years" at his "Potential of Man" symposium held at Rancho La Puerta, CA in 1960.
At about the time of his work with the blind, he also taught violin and guitar to a girl with
spastic paralysis. Based on this experience, Norman invented a double arm harness now used in hospitals to
help develop arm coordination in patients with hemiplegia.
In 1957, Norman played the guitar part in Columbia Records debut recordings of
Schoenberg's Serenade, Opus 24 and Pierre Boulez's pathbreaking and most famous work
Le Marteau Sans Maître (The Hammer Without a Master). The latter piece is
notable for its difficult guitar part.
In the fall of 1967 Norman accepted an appointment as head of the guitar department at UCLA, a position
he held for thirty years. By this time he had already introduced a new method of notating flamenco music
and had adopted a method of guitar notation which marked the string numbers with Roman numerals rather
than Arabic. His guitar notation method was not only consistent with the method used for other
stringed instruments, but also eliminated an inconsistentcy in the previous method when an open string
needed to be indicated. Norman's teaching methods were decidedly innovative in that he encouraged
his students to think of their instrument and music in general in new ways. One way of having his
students break free of the standard mold of practice and performance was to assign them composition
projects. In the lessons and informal gatherings, the students would also be treated to
far ranging discussions and his stories and humorous comments, which could range from the subtle and wry
to the biting and radical. The entire experience instilled a sense of individualism and creativity in those
who enrolled in his classes.
Besides the master day class, Norman also taught an evening class
at UCLA open to the general public, and an evening class at Beverly Hills High School. Over his
career he taught well over 10,000 students. Many of them remember him warmly and carry his
ideals with them and to others in their careers as performers, composers, and teachers. Theodore Norman died
on May 29, 1997 at the age of 85 in Los Angeles.
Publications about Theodore Norman
Hodel, Brian The Art of Theodore Norman, Guitar Review, Fall, 1988, pp. 24-27
Marsh, Walter M. Four Works for Solo Guitar by Theodure Norman: A Study of Guitar
Performance Practices of the 20th Century, Masters Thesis, UCLA, 1995