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Elliott Schwartz

Date of Death: December 7, 2016

Date of Birth: January 19, 1936


(January 19, 1936–December 7, 2016)

The noted American Composer Elliott Schwartz died on December 7, 2016 in Brunswick, Maine after a protracted illness. Schwartz had long been the Robert K. Beckwith Professor of Music at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, joining that faculty in 1964 and teaching post-retirement courses well into the early 2000s. From this base he forged a career that saw performances of his music throughout the United States and in many venues abroad, particularly in England, where he held visiting residencies at both Oxford and Cambridge. He remained active until quite recently, planning an 80th Birthday concert of his works in the Thalia Theater at Symphony Space in New York City and a premiere performance of his final composition, 3rd Quartet 'for Deedee' in Cambridge, England. He was able to enjoy both performances via Skype.

The distinctive musical style that Schwartz gradually formed reflected a major aesthetic conflict of the postwar era: a revolt against the academic prestige accorded exclusively to proponents of absolute artistic control, represented by such post-Webernite total serialists as Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt. In reaction to this, a younger wing of composers including Schwartz embraced aleatory (chance) procedures, rejecting the concept of the "perfect masterpiece" produced by an art protected from the vagaries and corruptions of real life, and seeking a music that reflected the unpredictability of normal experience. Important influences were John Cage and more particularly Henry Brant, whose belief that "a single-style music...could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit" encapsulates Schwartz's own approach in which eclecticism itself veritably became the "message" of a number of his scores. A skilled pianist, he frequently appeared in performances of his own ensemble works involving keyboards; here, his methods of dealing with improvisatory and "process" techniques often guided fellow musicians in their realizations of similar passages. A playful approach to art is a recurring feature of his music, perhaps most outrageously in a score entitled Elevator Music, written for the installation of a thirteen-storey elevator at Bowdoin College in which the listeners on various floors heard what emerged when the elevator doors opened—and in A Dream Of Bells & Beats (1978) for piano, and eleven audience performers with radios, metronomes, and slips of notated music. His more substantial works often involve multiply-sourced collage: a never-realized project of his last years was to develop an homage to Harriet Beecher Stowe from the hymns she heard at the Sunday service during which she had the great flash of insight that prompted the writing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Schwartz's works for orchestra, which include "Islands" (1970), "Voyager," (2002) and "Diamond Jubilee" (2010), have been performed by such ensembles as the Portland Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Far more numerous are his scores for smaller groups, particularly well exemplified by a series of five Chamber Concertos. Schwartz's music has been recorded on such CD labels as New World, CRI, Innova, Vienna Modern Masters, O.O. Discs, Capstone, North-South Consonance (Albany), Metier and GM. His compositional honors and awards included a Dutch Gaudeamus Prize, two Rockefeller Foundation residencies at Bellagio, Italy, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, an NEA Consortium commission, and a McKim Fund commission from the Library of Congress.

While composition was always at the center of his activity, Schwartz also gained prominence as a writer on music. He was co-editor of the anthology "Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music," co-author of "Music Since 1945," and the author of "Electronic Music: A Listener's Guide," "The Symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams" and "Music: Ways of Listening." His essays and reviews appeared in Perspectives of New Music, The Musical Quarterly, Musical America, Music and Musicians (England), Nordic Sounds (Denmark) and other publications. Particularly adept at networking with colleagues, Schwartz held such positions as President of the College Music Society, National Chair of the American Society of University Composers (now renamed the Society of Composers, Inc.), Vice-President of the American Music Center, President of the Maine Composers Forum, music panelist for the Maine Arts Council, and was a board member of the American Composers Alliance.

Elliott Schwartz was born in Brooklyn in 1936 and grew up in Brighton Beach. He studied composition with Otto Luening and Jack Beeson at Columbia University (AB 1957, MA '58, Ed.D '62). He also worked privately with Paul Creston and Henry Brant. During more than four decades at Bowdoin College, he was chair of the Music department for twelve years; from 1988 to 1992 he also held a half-time Professorship of Composition at The Ohio State University School of Music. His visiting appointments included Trinity College of Music, London (1967), the University of California/Santa Barbara (College of Creative Studies, 1970, '73, '74), the University of California/San Diego (Center for Music Experiment, 1978-79), and Distinguished University Visiting Professorship at The Ohio State University (1985-86). He spent the fall 1993 and spring 1999 terms at Cambridge University (UK) as holder of a visiting Fellowship at Robinson College.

Elliott Schwartz's fifty-three-year-long marriage to Dorothy ("Deedee") Feldman Schwartz, an accomplished graphic artist and longtime director of the Maine Humanities Council, was cut short by her death in 2014. One of his favorite scores was a collaboration with her, "Darwin's Dream," devised as a musical counterpoint to her biologically inspired abstractions and semi-abstractions inspired by the processes governing microscopic life. Schwartz is survived by his son Jonathan Schwartz, his daughter Nina Schwartz Kahn, and their spouses Elizabeth Brumble Schwartz and Jonas Kahn. He was the loving grandfather to several grandchildren.

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