Death of a major American composer, 91

The prolific, notably successful opera composer Dominick Argento died on Wednesday in Minneapolis, where he lived for six decades.

The son of Sicilian immigrants, he refused to toe the line of 12-note music and wrote long, lyrical lines. His operas – among them Postcard from Morocco, Miss Havisham’s Fire and The Aspern Papers – were widely published and performed. Casanova’s Homecoming was the first opera by an American-born composer to be sung in English in New York – this, at the insistence of Beverly Sills. His song cycles were much sought after.

In the 1980s he was possibly the most performed living American composer.

His nephew has written a touching family memoir here.

Argento interview with Bruce Duffie here.

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  • His song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” is one of the finest song cycles of the 20th century, in my humble opinion. It was written in 1974 for Janet Baker, and won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1975.

  • “Casanova’s Homecoming was the first opera by an American-born composer to be sung in English in New York”…

    What about Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”, performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958?

    • Casanova’s Homecoming was performed in 1985. But much before that was Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount, performed at the Met in February 1934. Commissioned by the Met, it was sung by Lawrence Tibbitt among others and Tulio Serafin conducted. It was even broadcast. Just after that – not at the Met, but still an opera – and still performed in New York, was, of course, Porgy and Bess, which came to NYC in October 1935. If recall correctly, this is sung in English. At least in the US it is. (And, it was finally performed at the Met for the first time during the 1984-85 season.) Then, Vanessa in 1958 at the Met. But, one is forgetting the New York City Opera. Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land was performed there in 1954; Carlisle Floyd’s Susana (sung by Norman Triegle and conducted by Erich Leinsdorf) was performed there in 1956. I saw a performance in another run of the opera at NYCO in the early 70s with Rudel conducting.

      • Also, two operas by Deems Taylor — The King’s Henchman and Peter Ibbettson — were performed at the MET before “Merry Mount” — 1927 and 1931.

    • There were a number of operas in English done in New York by major companies prior to the 1985 performance of Casanova’s Homecoming. In 1934 there was Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount at the Met. It was even broadcast. Lawrence Tibbett starred and Tulio Serafin conducted. In 1935 was the NY premiere of Porgy and Bess. (It wasn’t performed at the Met until the 1984-85 season.) At the NY City Opera there was William Grant Still’s Troubled Island in 1949 and David Tamkin’s The Dybbuk in 1951. Then in 1954 there was Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land It was NOT a huge hit, but two years later Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (which I heard there in the very early 70s) was. Then back at the Met was Barber’s Vanessa in 1956. And, no doubt there were others. It’s pretty clear that most of these operas have deservedly disappeared into the mists of time, but Porgy and Bess was – and still is – a huge hit. And, while I no longer know its public reputation, Floyd’s Susannah was for quite some time, very popular – and certainly performed much more than Merry Mount, Troubled Island, The Dybbuk, and even Vanessa, although Barber’s name is much better known at this late date.

      And, I should add one more – one that Stravinsky once commented on. Walter Damrosch’s The Man without a Country. Damrosch, American by adoption, saw his opera performed at the Met on May 12, 1937 at the old Met. Like many of its successors, it was not a hit and did not enter the repertoire, whether or not it was the reason attributed by Stravinsky, I don’t know. Stravinsky noted the unfortunately placed fermata on the penultimate syllable on the title aria. I’m not even sure it’s true, but if it is, one has to admit, a big and unfortunate miscalculation.

    • Or Bernard Rogers’ The Warrior, libretto by Norman Corwin, premiered at the Met in 1947. Rogers being himself born in NYC. Or Charles Wakefield Cadman (b. Pennsylvania) and his Shanewis–in English– premiered at the Met in 1918.

  • 20 years ago, when I was executive director of the Washington Chamber Symphony in DC we commissioned and premiered his “The Bremen Musicians.” A fun composition for the whole family based on the German tale. A gifted and delightful gentleman.

  • I tend to think of him as Minnesota’s Benjamin Britten: music that is beautifully orchestrated, and deliberately weird. His vocal lines defy description. He was a talented teacher.

  • “In the 1980s he was possibly the most performed living American composer.”

    Golly gee whiz…what about Copland and Bernstein?

  • WAY off base with American operas here – just off the top of the head you get that wacky thing by Cadman (Shanewis) at the Met in 1918 (8 performances) , and as for NYC in general Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson in 1928, etc. etc. …

    • And at the NYCO, Robert Kurka (b.Illinois) and his Good Soldier Schweik premiered in 1957. In fact, many American born composer’s operas in English have been heard in NY decades before Casanova.

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