Lieberson composed the score, which sets five sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as a sort of parting gift for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She gave the premiere performances of the work — with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 2005 and then with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall in November 2005 and on an East Coast tour in the spring of 2006 — even as she was battling the cancer that took her life on July 3 of that year.
Illness forced Hunt Lieberson to cancel many performances in her final year, but she nearly always kept her dates to sing the Neruda Songs.
At the end of 2006, Nonesuch Records released a CD recording of the cycle made from the November 2005 Boston Symphony performances under conductor James Levine. The disc spent more than six months on the Billboard classical chart earlier this year.
Born in 1946 to Columbia Records executive Goddard Lieberson and ballerina Vera Zorina, Peter Lieberson received a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Brandeis; among his teachers were Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino and Charles Wuorinen. He first attracted widespread attention as a composer with his 1983 Piano Concerto, written for Peter Serkin and the Boston Symphony. Lieberson taught at Harvard University from 1984-88 and has otherwise devoted himself to composition. At the same time, he has had a parallel career as a devotee and teacher of Tibetan Buddhist practice: from 1988 to 1994 he served as international director for the meditation program Shambhala Training.
Lieberson met Lorraine Hunt in 1997 when she was cast in the world premiere production of his Ashoka's Dream at Santa Fe Opera; they married in 1999. In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal published today, the composer recalled how he had wanted to set Neruda's love sonnets for his wife ever since he first encountered them — and how his wife used to read the poems to him in Spanish.
140 works were submitted for consideration for the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for music composition, according to the Courier-Journal; a jury including composer Sebastian Currier (winner of the 2007 Grawemeyer for music), conductor Christopher Austin and Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed selected finalists, and a panel of non-professional listeners chose Lieberson's work as the winner, according to the paper.
"There was a lot of unanimity of agreement at every level" regarding Neruda Songs, according to composer and University of Louisville professor Marc T. Satterwhite. "This was one of those years where it was pretty clearly, in terms of the judges' estimation, 'the piece,'" he said to the Courier-Journal.
Lieberson is now working on a second Neruda cycle, this time for baritone. Yet he is himself now battling lymphoma. "How much time I have — who knows?" he told the paper. "That's the way human life is ... One who was left behind often becomes ill as well."