Henry Cowell

From Wind Repertory Project
Henry Cowell


Henry Dixon Cowell (11 March 1897, Menlo Park, Calif. – 10 December 1965, Shady, N.Y.) was an American composer.

He began the study of violin at age five and began composing at age eight. His music studies were received at the University of California, the New York Institute of Applied Music, and the University of Berlin. During World War I, he was leader of a U.S. Army band in Allentown, PA.

Cowell made several tours of Europe and America as a concert pianist and provoked near-riots with his extremely experimental piano music. He originated the term “tone cluster, ” which is a large group of notes to be played with the entire hand, fist, or forearm.

He founded the New Music Quarterly and for several years was editor of the American Composers on American Music symposia. His most significant works for band are the Little Concerto and Shoonthree.

Henry Cowell is recognized as one of the most brilliant and innovative composers of the early twentieth century, as well as one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology. His interest in writing for the wind band was largely formulated during his time incarcerated in California's San Quentin Prison (convicted of a morals charge for homosexual activity in 1936, for which he served four years) where he wrote for, directed, and played in the prison band. He was assigned to work in the prison jute mill, but filled his time by studying Spanish and learning to play the Japanese shakuhachi.

More important, he became deeply immersed in the prison's culture, spending over 20 hours per week teaching nearly 3,000 inmates music theory, appreciation, and history, and set up a music, book, and instrument lending system for the inmates; supervised other teachers, and composed dozens of new works. After his release from prison, Cowell continued to write extensively for band, with twelve additional works in a conservative and approachable, yet varied style.

In 1936, Virgil Thomson wrote of Cowell:

Henry Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technique than that of any other living composer. His experiments begun three decades ago in rhythm, in harmony, and in instrumental sonorities were considered then by many to be wild. Today they are the Bible of the young and still, to the conservatives, "advanced."... No other composer of our time has produced a body of works so radical and so normal, so penetrating and so comprehensive. Add to this massive production his long and influential career as a pedagogue, and Henry Cowell's achievement becomes impressive indeed. There is no other quite like it. To be both fecund and right is given to few.

Works for Winds