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Louis Coerne and “Excalibur”

Louis Adolphe Coerne (February 27, 1870 – September 11, 1922) was an American composer and music educator. He was born on Feb. 27, 1870, in Newark, New Jersey, and was educated at Harvard University, where he studied under John Knowles Paine, and in Europe. Coerne wrote a number of pedagogical pieces for piano, and also composed a number of orchestral works, one of which, the tone poem Excalibur (Op. 180), was recorded by Karl Krueger with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1960s, and reissued on CD in 2006 by Bridge Records. His cantata, Hiawatha (op. 18), was premiered in Munich in 1893 and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1894.

Coerne’s opera, Zenobia (op. 66), premiered in Bremen, Germany, in 1905, and was the first opera by an American composer to be performed in Germany. Earlier that year, Harvard had conferred on Coerne the degree of Ph.D., with the score of Zenobia and his book, The Evolution of Modern Orchestration (later published in 1908), serving as his thesis. Other operas composed by Coerne include A Woman of Marblehead (op. 40), Sakuntala (op. 67), and The Maiden Queen (op. 69).

Coerne is remembered as a composer, conductor, and teacher, as well as the holder of the first American PhD degree in music. He taught at Smith College, Harvard; directed the University of Wisconsin School of Music (1910-15); and was professor of music at Connecticut College for Women (1915-22) until his death at Boston, MA, on September 11, 1922. One writer said the following: “Louis Coerne’s Excalibur is a big sloppy lump of fake (Richard) Strauss, more thickly and primitively scored, without a single memorable idea or identifiable link to its subject matter. Or maybe it’s Bax on a bad day. Hearing it, you easily can understand the composer’s posthumous descent into near-total obscurity (he died in 1922). Still, it’s only 13 minutes long and a genuine curiosity in its way.” Apparently, not everyone necessarily agrees with this assessment.

The only work by Coerne in my collection is:
Excalibur, symphonic poem, op. 180 (1921).


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