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Elie Siegmeister and his “Western Suite”

Elie Siegmeister (January 15, 1909– March 10, 1991) was an American composer, educator and author. Born in Harlem, New York City, NY, Siegmeister attended Columbia University, where he studied music theory with Seth Bingham, at the age of 15 and, upon finishing his degree, a B.A. cum laude, at the age of 18, went to study, along with Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, with Nadia Boulanger in Paris for four years. He also studied conducting with Albert Stoessel at the Juilliard School and counterpoint with Wallingford Riegger.

After his studies abroad, Siegmeister returned to the United States with a goal to bring music to the American people apart from European models. He helped found the American Composers Alliance, as well as organized concerts and choruses for the working class. Taking inspiration from Charles Ives, Siegmeister incorporated folk materials into his music. Jazz, blues, and Native American musical influences can also be heard in his pieces. He strongly believed that music and society were closely linked (as can be read in his book Music and Society of 1938) and felt that American music should combine the serious and the popular. In 1939, he formed the American Ballad Singers, a vocal group devoted to American folk music whom he conducted for eight years in performances throughout the United States.

Aside from his purely instrumental works, Siegmeister wrote several operas, which were concerned more with a patriotic message than they were with a complicated compositional style. In 1944, he published Work and Sing, a collection of American work songs. He also composed for Broadway (“Sing Out, Sweet Land,” 1944, book by Walter Kerr), and Hollywood (notably, the film score of They Came to Cordura, starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, 1959). His Western Suite, which incorporates familiar cowboy tunes, was premiered by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra during a broadcast concert on November 25, 1945, in NBC Studio 8-H.

Siegmeister wrote a number of important books on music, among them “Treasury of American Song” (Knopf, 1940–43, text coauthored with Olin Downs, music arranged by Siegmeister), second edition revised and enlarged (Consolidated Music Publishers); “The Music Lover’s Handbook” (William Morrow, 1943; Book-of-the-Month Club selection), revised and expanded as “The New Music Lover’s Handbook” (1973); and the two-volume “Harmony and Melody” (Wadsworth, 1985), which was widely adopted by college and conservatory curricula. In 1960, Siegmeister also recorded and released an instructional album of music, Invitation to Music, on Folkways Records, on which he discusses the fundamentals of music.

From 1977 until his death in Manhasset, NY, Siegmeister served on the Board of Directors of ASCAP and chaired its Symphony and Concert Committee. Among his signal achievements, he was composer-in-residence at Hofstra University 1966-76, having organized and conducted the Hofstra Symphony Orchestra; established 1971 and chaired the Council of Creative Artists, Libraries, and Museums; and initiated 1978 the Kennedy Center’s National Black Music competition. He was the winner of numerous awards and commissions, among them those of the Guggenheim, Ford, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundations, the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the USIA. The best known of his own students was Stephen Albert (1941–92), winner of a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for music.

An extremely diverse composer, Elie Siegmeister sought specifically to develop an authentic American American voice in his music, and, in doing so, composed in a wide variety of genres and compositional styles for his many song cycles, his nine operas, his eight symphonies, and his many choral, chamber, and solo works. His 37 orchestral works have been performed by leading orchestras throughout the world under such conductors as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Lorin Maazel, and Sergiu Comissiona. I have one work by Siegmeister in my collection:

Western Suite (5 movements, 1945).


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