Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

The American Academy in Rome has an august reputation, and deservedly so. The Academy, jokingly referred to by the resident fellows as a ‘Club-Med for scholars,’ is a reflective enclave and moves at a luxuriant snail’s pace.

The atmosphere is discreetly elegant. Housed in a handsome villa overlooking the city of Rome, the compound encompasses numerous studios, a fountain, a gracious library, gardens, and housing for fellows in painting, sculpture, architecture, classics, and archeology. The field of music was added in 1924. Meals are provided in a common dining room; a billiard room and bar are at the disposal of fellows; and a grand salon with a Steinway, the latest newspapers, and huge leather chairs conspire to give this bastion of artistic propriety the air of a private men’s club of another generation. Indeed, the list of composer fellows over the years includes virtually no women. These fellows, along with the many residents and invited guests, have been power brokers on their return to the U.S.: Statesmen of music, if you will.

This may be the establishment, but it is an active one, and these composers have distinguished themselves through their activities on behalf of new music and for their energy. Stephen Jaffe, there in the early 1980s, said he felt out-of-place in such a venerable institution and liked to refer to himself as the ‘out-of-town’ crowd. Says long-time Music-Liaison Richard Trythall, “It used to be an academic scene, but things have liberalized over the past two decades. Maybe the Academy has a false rap…” Now, there is a new downtown orientation, and more and more the composers are of Jaffe’s ilk—a bit outside the academic mainstream and looking for a place to get away from the madding crowd and compose in glorious peace for a year.

Unfortunately, the AAR no longer has a connection to the famous (and sometimes notorious) RAI Rome Orchestra. From the 1950s to the mid-80s, Academy composers had a yearly orchestral concert scheduled for premieres with this talented ensemble. The orchestra folded for budgetary reasons, so fellowships these days revolve more around chamber music than large-scale works.


Randall Thompson, a fellow in 1925, was a resident again in 1951, and a trustee from 1954 to 1969. A Harvard graduate, he studied with Ernst Bloch and is remembered annually at the Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Program in a moving ceremony in which the students and faculty sing his Alleluia for chorus (1940).

Born in 1896, Roger Sessions was a child prodigy, obtaining early on his BA from Harvard, and then doing graduate work at Yale with the brilliant and conservative teacher Horatio Parker (who also taught Ives) and with Ernst Bloch (who also taught Antheil). In Europe, he lived and worked in Paris, Florence, and Berlin from 1925 to 1933, during which time he had pretty much the full gamut of awards: Two Guggenheims, a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and a Carnegie Fellowship. He wrote his First Symphony while in Europe. He also kept in close touch with the States, traveling back and forth frequently to co-organize the now-famous Copland-Sessions concerts in New York City (1928-1931). The impact of European music and composers was critical to this series.

Howard Harold Hanson, born in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1896, was the first Rome Prize winner in composition. He studied with Respighi and subsequently returned to the U.S. to direct the Eastman School of Music for 40 years. He is often referred to as the “American Sibelius” and was the author in 1960 of Harmonic Materials of Modern Music.

Yehudi Wyner, long associated with Yale University, and later Harvard, was a fellow in 1956, much later a resident in 1991. His Concert Duo for violin and piano was composed around the time of his first visit to the academy. Trapunto Junction for 3 brass and percussion was written in 1991.

Tennessee-born Richard Trythall, pianist and composer, studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin from 1963-64, and at the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt. He worked with Maderna, Kagel, and Ligeti. After a being a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1967, and a resident in 1970, he was appointed music liaison in 1974, a post he still holds. One of his best-known works is Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis, for stereo tape (1975). Recently he has recorded a very stately and exceptionally beautiful CD of the Ives Concord Sonata, and a disc of Jelly Roll Morton tunes. I spoke with Trythall in his apartment in downtown Rome. He said: “Why am I here? It’s purely the lifestyle: The attractions of the Academy, then as now, include: the lack of outside pressure and time to concentrate. You don’t have America around you; you are alone with your thoughts, surrounded by Italy. Plus there’s the fellowship within the AAR: sometimes composers are isolated from other disciplines; here we get to know painters, classicists, archeologists, on a daily basis.

“You meet a number of people who are good contacts for the rest of your life. I myself think it would be great if the fellowships were back to two years [instead of the current one]. Isolation is no longer a drawback, due to email. And the AAR has a fairly wide horizon that’s opened up in the past 15 years.”

Like Trythall, James Dashow came to Rome to compose in the late 1960s. Studying under a Fulbright Fellowship, and writing electronic and serialist music with a major interest in spectrum analysis, he was awarded the Bonaventura Somma Prize in composition by the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. In 1972 he was a fellow at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse. He has continued a close association with Italy, with frequent premieres and commissions in Rome, Torino, and elsewhere. His work, …At Other Times, the Distances has received awards at the International Competition of Electroacoustic Music and Sonic Art (Bourges) and at Musica Nova in Prague.

In the late ’60s, John Heineman was involved in improvisation groups in Rome along with Rzewski, Franco Evangelisti, and Ennio Morricone, as part of the Gruppo di improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Some of their sessions were recorded and were reissued in 1992 by Edition RZ (Berlin).

Much of Elliott Carter‘s childhood was spent in Europe with his family, due to his grandfather’s lace import business. After a degree at Harvard, Carter studied privately with Nadia Boulanger and at the École Normale in Paris from 1932-35, and said afterwards that he had been much influenced by singing Monteverdi, and other early choral music. He was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1953, and later Composer in Residence there from 1963 to 1967. Of the many extraordinary works he wrote, my personal favorites are the String Quartets and the 1979 solo piano piece Night Fantasies.

Leslie R. Bassett studied at the École Normale de Musique, in Paris from 1950 to 1951, and was a fellow at the American Academy in 1963. He was a student of Honegger, Boulanger, and later, Davidovsky. The Variations for Orchestra (1963) was premiered by the RAI orchestra, later receiving a U.S. premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Bassett, whose clearly organized music won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966, wrote: “I will always be grateful for those milestone years in Rome, 1961-63, where for the first time I could function as a professional composer; a unique and wonderfully rich period.”

Morris Cotel, a fellow in 1968, is currently studying for his ordination as a Rabbi. Cotel was director of the Peabody Conservatory Composition Department until 2000, and has a cat whose compositions have been featured in the New York Times. Incidentally, he also taught current AAR fellow Michael Hersch.

Barbara Anne Kolb, a fellow in 1971, came back as a resident in 1976 and was appointed a trustee in 1975-77. Earlier, she had studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and Art on a Fulbright from 1966-67. While in Rome in 1971, she wrote Solitaire. Millefoglie, another work from this period, is scored for chamber orchestra and tape, and as its name implies, layers and interweaves the tape and the ensemble. She is one of the very few women associated with the Academy and was the first to win the fellowship in Music. Later she worked at IRCAM (1983-84). Her music is replete with diverse influences and an assimilation of idioms and styles.

John Harbison, a resident in 1981, and a trustee from 1991-93, also had studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in 1961. His Great Gatsby was recently part of the Met‘s attempted revival of American opera.

Pierre Jalbert, a fellow in 2001, describing his work-in-progress for the California Symphony, feels that it “pits the sacred against the secular,” and is partially influenced by the many churches of Rome.

Says Michael Hersch, also a recent fellow: “For me, being abroad has and does now afford me more peace of mind outside of my creative work. But, artistically, I find that I work the same no matter where I am. In that I descend into an inner world that seems to exist in and of itself. That being said, I find that there is a tremendous alleviation of external pressures being in a foreign land because an anonymity is created that is quite unattainable in one’s home country.”

The AAR seems to have a certain flavor of isolation, but perhaps that’s because it’s in Rome, where the music scene is not international. Very few composers come to live or study in Rome outside of the Academy—there are simply not enough opportunities in new music. Admittedly, living at the AAR is not exactly traveling: For the fellows, chaotic Rome is at their doorstep, but in a manageable way; thus the luxurious monasticism of the Academy gives them a haven to think and work.

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