“‘Would you be able to advise me to become a composer full time? To earn my living that way?’” Van Heuvelen said he asked. “And [Bernstein] had a kind of a cute little smile on his face, and he said, ‘Well, it’s kind of like this: If you would be willing to sell your violin, your belongings so you could put food on the table, then I’d advise you [to become a composer full time], but I think it would be well if you could continue your music teaching and use that as a source of income and then do your composing on the side.’
“But that’s kind of hard to do,” Van Heuvelen said. “You get so involved in your work that you don’t have the time.”
Ultimately, Van Heuvelen took the conductor’s advice and, as he said, life became busy.
He served more than 30 years in the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of colonel. He had a celebrated 40-year career as a music educator. He was married for 60 years, raised a family, lost his wife. Then at 87, he fell in love again and married his second wife, Alma, a concert pianist and his college accompanist.
Even after all the wonderful twists and turns of life, Van Heuvelen said, he wishes he hadn’t taken Bernstein’s advice.
“You know, I think I could have made it as a composer,” he said. “But it would’ve taken a lot of courage. With hindsight, I wish I would have gone right to work [promoting the symphony] and had it played. I should have just somehow taken a leave of absence from my teaching job or something, taken the time to do it. But that’s hindsight. You can’t go back and do it.”
“I remember seeing the symphony in the house where I was growing up, and then I never thought another word about it until my mother passed away,” Bob Van Heuvelen, Harold’s son, said. “We were putting things together and I found the symphony again and I asked my Dad about it and he told me the whole story.”
Something about his father’s never-performed score captured the younger Van Heuvelen’s imagination. In 2011, he had the score computerized, so some recording of his father’s symphony could exist. Then, earlier this year, Bob Van Heuvelen, former chief of staff to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), was at an event and mentioned his father’s lost symphony to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Levin, a classical music enthusiast, asked for a copy of the computerized score.
If Levin hadn’t been taken with the music, or the story, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But the Senator, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wrote to the Army requesting that the orchestra consider performing the Van Heuvelen symphony.
Soon, several other Senators, including Levin’s fellow Michigander Debbie Stabenow and Montana Democrats Jon Tester and Max Baucus, began working toward getting the symphony to the stage.