Joseph Schwantner

From Wind Repertory Project
Joseph Schwantner


Joseph Schwantner (b. 22 March 1943, Chicago, Illinois) is an American composer and educator.

His first musical instrument was the guitar, which he began studying with Robert Stein at the age of eight. Schwantner credits Stein as the most important influence of his young musical life. Of his initial experiences on the guitar, Schwantner writes:

I didn’t realize until many years later just how important the guitar was in my get to the bottom line, when I think about my music, its absolutely clear to me the profound influence of the guitar in my music. When you look at my pieces, first of all is the preoccupation with color. The guitar is a wonderfully resonant and colorful instrument. Secondly, the guitar is a very highly articulate instrument. You don’t bow it, you pluck it and so the notes are very incisive. My musical ideas, the world I seem to inhabit, is highly articulate. Lots of percussion where everything is sharply etched, and then finally, those sharply articulated ideas often hang in the air, which is exactly what happens when you play an E major chord on the guitar. There are these sharp articulations, and then this kind of sustained resonance that you can easily do in percussion - a favorite trick of mine! I think it is right in my bone marrow. I don’t think there is any question about that. I think my music would look different if I were a clarinet player. So it doesn’t mean I sit around thinking about the guitar when I am writing a piece. Not at all! There is something fundamental about how I think about music, that I think comes from my experiences as a young kid trying to play everything I could on the instrument.

His first serious attempt at composition, the jazz-influenced Offbeat, won the 1959 National Band Camp Award. Offbeat was a byproduct of Schwantner’s interest in experimental (sometimes known as “free”) jazz. It was a twelve-tone work for jazz ensemble, written in 5/4. His first orchestral piece, Sinfonia Brevis, was written while a student at the American Conservatory in Chicago.

After graduating from the American Conservatory, Schwantner enrolled at Northwestern University to pursue graduate study with Alan Stout and Anthony Donato. While a student at Northwestern Schwantner earned three BMI Student Composition Awards. The first award came in 1965 for a concertino for alto saxophone and three chamber ensembles. The second award came in 1966 for Diaphonia Intervallum, scored for alto saxophone, flute, piano, and a full string section. The final BMI Award came in 1968 for the work Chronicon, written for bassoon and piano and premiered at the Tanglewood Festival. Although each one these works was highly atonal and written with strict serial methods, his future compositions would begin to evolve away from firm twelve-tone frameworks toward a more flexible technique. In 1966 Schwantner received the Master of Music degree, and in 1968 he received the Doctor of Musical Arts, both from Northwestern University.

Following his graduation from Northwestern, Dr. Schwantner accepted the position of Assistant Professor of Composition at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. The following year (1969) he accepted a similar position at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, before settling at the Eastman School of Music on the campus of the University of Rochester in New York the following year. In 1977 he was a Resident Fellow at one of the oldest arts colonies in the United States, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (founded in 1907). Because the average stay at the Colony is only four to five weeks, it allowed Schwantner to attend without having to miss time at the Eastman School. It was at the Colony that Schwantner composed Wild Angels of the Open Hills, a song cycle for soprano, flute, and harp, with texts by science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin.

In addition to numerous awards, Schwantner has received CAP (Composer Assistance Program) Grants in 1975 and 1977, a Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1978, the Fairchild Award in 1985, the Alfred I. Dupont award for outstanding composers in 1995, and numerous honorary doctorates. His orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity received the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Music. He was featured in the television documentary Soundings, produced by WGBH in Boston for national broadcast, and in 2007 the American Symphony Orchestra League and “Meet the Composer” announced that Schwantner was selected as the second Ford “Made in America” composer. The foundation gives orchestras with small budgets representing all 50 United States an opportunity to commission American composers of international reputation.

Other notable commissions include the National Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Canton Symphony. Also, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, the University of Connecticut Wind Ensemble, the Mid-American Band Directors Association, the Eastman Philharmonia (through a grant by AT&T), the American Heritage Foundation, the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, Meet the Composer, Naumburg Foundation, Solisti New York, and Boston Musica Viva.

Joseph Schwantner was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002, and his music is published by the Schott Helicon Music Corporation of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Works for Winds