York, Pa., native Dominick Argento believes piece for National Cathedral his best
York native Dominick Argento won a Pulitzer Prize for his musical compositions. He also has written a book of his memoirs.Dominick Argento at top of York A & E hall of fame and John Luther Long: Miss Saigon’s York County connection.
York native Dominick Argento thinks the piece he wrote for the anniversary of the National Cathedral in Washington his greatest work.
And that’s saying something for a composer who has won the Pulitzer Prize.
The world-renowned composer’s most recent work will be performed for the first time at 4 p.m. Sunday.
A York Daily Record story said the choral work, “Evensong: Of Love and Angels,” was inspired by the memory of his wife, Carolyn Bailey Argento, who died two years ago. They met at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore… .
The Cathedral Choral Society and Orchestra perform Argento’s composition.
For more on Argento’s life and times, see the following from the York Daily Record/Sunday News (12/19/04):
American composer Dominick Argento’s latest creation originated not from literature but from everyday life — his own. Instead of selecting a contemporary or classic piece of literature and composing music to enliven it, he’s taken five decades of his music and woven his life story through it.
The result: “Catalogue Raisonné As Memoir: A Composer’s Life,” published recently by the University of Minnesota Press.
Two years ago, Argento set out to compile a booklet, a catalog of the music, primarily operas, that he’s created over 52 years. The York native figured it would be a productive endeavor while he was recuperating from numerous surgeries related to an abdominal aneurysm. “It was never intended to be a book,” he said.
He would sit at the computer and reflect on his compositions, starting with “Songs About Spring,” written in 1950 when Argento was 23 years old, and ending with “Orpheus,” in 2002.
Along with the musical memories came personal remembrances of the people, the places and the prose that influenced and informed his art. He writes of his collaborations with Beverly Sills, Dame Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade and Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”). In between came numerous accolades, most notably a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and a Grammy in 2004.
Over time, the “booklet” swelled to nearly 200 pages.
He showed it to his friend, Bruce Carlson, whose organization, The Schubert Club of St. Paul, Minn., commissioned several works from Argento over the years, including the song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” which won the Pulitzer. Carlson read it and was wowed by the “brilliant writing style.” He encouraged his friend to get it published.
“If it was just another book about music it might not have gotten to second base or third base (with publishers), but when someone can write prose as well as he can write music, it’s a homerun,” Carlson said. “I think this book would interest anyone, even if you didn’t go to concerts once a week. It’s about the creative process, about how he works.”
The book is organized like a musical catalog, arranged in chronological order: each section tells of a musical composition. He writes about his life and art with candor, humor, pride and humility.
“The whole point is if you’re going to talk about what’s important to you, there’s no point in trying to sugarcoat it and sweeten it,” he said. “You might as well not bother writing it.”
Argento was a late-bloomer, musically speaking. He didn’t start taking piano lessons until he was 16 years old. A year or two earlier, he had begun reading about music at the new Martin Memorial Library. (That was after he had exhausted the sections on model airplanes and mysteries.)
There, he was introduced to the biographies of Gershwin and Stravinksy. Soon, he was listening to their recordings, thanks to a kind librarian who allowed him to use the listening room even though he was underage. He discovered technical books on music and furthered his self-education.
He started to compose little pieces before he’d had a piano lesson. In the book, he recounts how he set up a meeting — at age 15 — with Sylvan Levin, who conducted the York Symphony at the time. The encounter didn’t go as he had hoped. Argento figured the conductor would look over his work, marvel at his brilliance, and want to perform it. Instead, Levin took one look at it and told the teen-age composer he might come up with something worthwhile in another 15 years. Those were harsh words to hear at the time, but Argento wrote that Levin’s prediction was pretty much on target.
His father had a café on College Avenue. On Saturdays, there would be music and dancing. On Sundays, when the café was closed, Argento would teach himself to play on the upright piano there. As his 16th birthday approached, his parents — Michael and Nicolina — asked what he would like. He requested the upright piano because it was no longer in use. Instead, he came home to find a new, black, baby grand piano. “No other gift has ever meant as much to me,” he wrote.
His love of literature has served him well in his profession.
“I was a voracious reader from childhood,” he said. His well-read, literate mind stores ideas in a “memory bank” that he taps into for his music. Music critics universally single out the quality of his source material.
He’s composed music based on the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her sister, the poetry of e e cummings, Shakespeare and William Wadsworth, the diary of Virginia Woolf, the private letters of Chopin, Puccini and other composers, the letters of Anton Chekov, the Book of Revelations, excerpts from Thoreau’s “Walden,” Henry James’ novella, “The Aspern Papers,” and the newspaper columns of Judith Martin, aka “Miss Manners.”
His greatest collaboration is ongoing. It’s a partnership with now-retired soprano Carolyn Bailey, his wife of 50 years. Their paths crossed at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he was a student in need of a soprano to perform his original works at the senior recital. She was from York, too, though they’d never met on weekend trips back home on the bus or train. A blind date brought them together.
Over the years, she’s helped to round out his education, especially when it came to writing music for vocalists. He’s regarded as a singer-friendly composer who works to accommodate the voice. He considers her an invaluable — albeit sometimes invisible — adviser. He shares an anecdote that he likes to tell of anonymous footnotes turning up on a work he’s left at the piano. He might find a comment like “that’s a dumb high note with the voice.”
The two of them opted to settle in Minneapolis after Argento received a job offer from the University of Minnesota. It was the start of an association that has spanned nearly 40 years. However, in the beginning, he feared it would be “artistic suicide” to remain in the Midwest, isolated from the more musically vibrant East and West coasts. Instead, the move gave him freedom to explore his own style and not be beholden to the trends and politics of the bigger markets.
It turned out that his timing was fortuitous for him and the Twin Cities. He found a community that was genuinely interested in and supportive of the arts. It allowed him to make personal connections and contributions to the community.
Typically, large corporations or foundations commission composers for operas or symphonic or orchestral compositions. In Minneapolis, Argento received commissions from The Schubert Club, based in St. Paul and the oldest recital presenting and commissioning organization in the Midwest, from churches, from personal acquaintances, as well as movers and shakers from the opera world.
“When Dominick moved out here from York, he was really part of a kind of high artistic moment or era out here in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Carlson said. “It was great he didn’t wind up on one of the coasts.”
With a high-caliber composer in their midst, the townspeople rallied to keep him busy and happy. “We tried to make it easy for him, to make him feel loved and appreciated so he would stay here,” Carlson said. “His glory kind of reflected back on us.”
“Catalogue Raisonné As Memoir: A Composer’s Life” is available through University of Minnesota Press, www.upress.umn.edu or at amazon.com.
For details about Sunday’s Washington National Cathedral performance, call 202-537-5527 or visit www.cathedralchoralsociety.org.