Photo by Louis Ouzer
Warren Benson (1924-2005), a distinguished composer, conductor, lecturer and writer, is best known for his innovative and profoundly expressive music for wind ensemble and his finely wrought song cycles. From the early Transylvanian Fanfare (1953), to such striking works as The Leaves Are Falling (1964), The Solitary Dancer (1966), The Passing Bell (1974) and Symphony II-Lost Songs (1983), Benson created a series of lauded compositions for band and wind ensemble that have become masterworks in the repertoire for that medium, with his wind band compositions being acclaimed as “among the most important of this century” (United States Marine Band, Bicentennial Collection).
His profound response to contemporary poetry (he was himself a published poet) led him to produce a distinguished body of choral and solo vocal music, much of it for voice and mixed instrumental ensembles. Benson set to music the poetry of over twenty-five poets including Tennessee Williams, Kenneth Patchen, May Swenson, Earle Birney, Octavio Paz, and perhaps most memorably, Louise Bogan (Five Lyrics of Louis Bogan , for mezzo soprano and flute), along with Shadow Wind (1968; revised 1992/93) in its revised version for mezzo-soprano and wind ensemble. The intense settings of poems by Tennessee Williams, combining as it does, Benson’s skills as a writer of songs and a composer for winds and percussion, has led many to acclaim it as another Benson masterpiece.
From his early days as a percussionist and timpanist for the Detroit Symphony, Warren Benson recognized the rich variety of sounds percussion instruments can produce and integrated these into his compositions for wind ensemble and a wide variety of music for chamber ensembles. His catalog includes over 150 compositions touching on almost all the significant genres of music, with the exception of opera. Among the many musical organizations that commissioned music from Benson are the Kronos Quartet, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the International Horn Society, the United States Marine Band, Switzerland’s Ulster Festival and the National Endowment for the Arts. His music has been performed in more than 50 countries all over the world and some 30 works have been recorded.
The hallmarks of Warren Benson’s musical style were well described by Elliott Schwartz and Daniel Godfrey in their book Music Since 1945: Issues, Materials and Literature: “(It is) inclusive music, incorporating tonality, free atonality, serialism, ethnic elements and other strains. At times one of these may predominate at others they may intermingle; throughout, however, the material is very much Benson’s creation rather than derivative of others.” Benson, by his own admission, worked in a language with a broad vocabulary of musical techniques and idioms, dissonant or consonant, as the needs of the composition dictates, unbound by adherence to a particular school or fashion. His music has range, scope and above all a clear-cut feeling for the capabilities of instruments and voices. It is often based on manipulation of small motives, but the composer is also capable, especially in his vocal and choral works, of sustained melodic invention. Above all, most notably in his celebrated wind ensemble works, there is the brilliance of his instrumental writing. He is not shy about painting his music with bold colors but also is a master, as Allan Wagner has written, of “delicate hues and timbral shadings.”
A graduate of the University of Michigan, Warren Benson received four Fulbright grants, and was the author and director of the first pilot project of the Ford Foundation’s Contemporary Music Project, whose aim was to create new music for schools. He was also honored with a John Simon Guggenheim Composer Fellowship, National Endowment of the Arts composer commissions and the Diploma de Honor from the Republic of Argentina. He held three residencies at the MacDowell Colony, was elected to the National Band Association Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts in 1988, and the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2003. Benson was also a founding member of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE).
Warren Benson was a Professor of Percussion and Composition for fourteen years at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. In 1967 he became Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he taught until his retirement in 1993. In 1980, he was named Kilbourn Distinguished Professor by Eastman and in 1984 was honored as a University Mentor. In 1994, upon his retirement from Eastman, he was named Professor Emeritus of Composition. He also served as Algur H. Meadows Distinguished Visiting Professor of Composition at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas in 1986-88.
During his long teaching career, Warren Benson contributed a number of scholarly papers to various journals, books and symposia. Among these are the report on the “Compositional Process and Writing Skills” developed for the “Seminar on Comprehensive Musicianship” at Northwestern University in April 1965 (published by the Ford Foundation in 1966) and “Facing the Music,” a discussion of the selection and authentic interpretation of music for performance at music festivals, published by Strive magazine in 1978. He co-authored a study of “Structure and Numerology in Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas” with Robert Gauldin, that was published in Perspectives of New Music in the summer of 1978. He also presented a number of addresses at music conferences during his career, including a provocative keynote address to the Third International Conference of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles on July 23, 1987 at Boston University, on “Aesthetic Criteria for Selecting an International Repertoire.”
Warren Benson, largely self-taught in composition, found great inspiration in jazz music and poetry, and was greatly influenced by natural beauty, languages, literature of all kinds, and his extensive travels. His archive is located at the Eastman School of Music and an authoritative, useful bio-bibliography of Benson by Alan D. Wagner, in which the composer collaborated, is published by Edwin Mellen Press.
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