January 15, 1909 - March 10, 1991
born in New York, NY, composed during the Modern period
A social radical and, on occasion, a musical radical, Elie Siegmeister produced a body of work displaying a bewildering stylistic variety. As early as 1943 and again at the end of his life, he declared: "My aim is to write as good music as I can that will at the same time speak the language of all our people." Predictably, this credo resulted in such extremely populist works as the orchestral American Holiday, Ozark Set, and Western Suite (one of the few American compositions to be conducted by Toscanini), all from the 1940s, and a jazzy clarinet concerto from 1956. But his effort to write "good music" also resulted in some highly dissonant, modernistic works, particularly his eight symphonies and six violin sonatas, the bulk of them composed between 1965 and 1989.
Siegmeister studied theory and composition at Columbia University, which he entered at 15 and graduated from three years later in 1927; he also privately studied counterpoint with Wallingford Riegger. As did seemingly most American composers born in the first half of the twentieth century, Siegmeister made a pilgrimage to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger (1927 - 1932); he also studied conducting at Juilliard from 1935 to 1938.
He was ever a joiner, participating in the Composers Collective of New York (in which he wrote songs under the name L.E. Swift), helping found the American Composers Alliance in 1937 and the American Ballad Singers in 1939, the latter of which he conducted in folk songs until the mid-'40s. Siegmeister's social conscience led him to write songs on inequality and injustice and to lead choruses at the Pierre Degeyter Club, named for the composer of the Internationale. He also organized a Carnegie Hall concert called Composers and Musicians for Peace in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. In a more establishment mode, he was vice president of the American Music Center from 1960 - 1965; helped found the Council of Creative Artists, Libraries, and Museums in 1970 and the Black Music Colloquium in 1980; and spent a long time on the ASCAP board of directors beginning in 1977.
Siegmeister composed prolifically in every genre from solo piano to opera (drawing stories from Shakespeare, Sean O'Casey, and Bernard Malamud) and Broadway musicals. His major turn toward modernism coincided with his immersion in professorial life; he had briefly taught at Brooklyn College, the New School for Social Research, and the University of Minnesota in the 1930s and '40s, and finally gained a long-term position (1949 - 1976) at Hofstra University. Yet he never entirely forsook populist elements; much of his music after 1970 broke into ragtime climaxes (notably the piano concerto), and American style suffuses his cantatas I Have a Dream (1967, for Martin Luther King Jr.) and Cantata for FDR (1981). Furthermore, Siegmeister's embrace of dissonance and complexity was no cynical maneuver to obtain promotion and tenure; those elements were apparent as early as 1933 in his vocal piece "The Strange Funeral in Braddock." ~ James Reel, Rovi