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

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


Peggy Glanville-Hicks, critic, composer, and musicologist, was born in Australia in 1912. Later a U.S. citizen, she is not often remembered today but carried a great deal of weight during the ’40s and ’50s as the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. In her youth, she studied piano and composition in London with Vaughn Williams and later with Wellesz in Vienna. These cities and teachers had a tremendous impact on her.

Subsequently, she moved to New York, and her boss Virgil Thomson painted a portrait of her in his autobiography: “Peggy Glanville-Hicks, thin, passionate, tireless, and insistent… She wrote for the Herald Tribune and for magazines, she copied music; she managed concerts; she ran everybody’s errands; she went on lecture tours by bus in the Dakotas; she composed documentary films for UNICEF; she made musicological trips to India, for the Rockefeller Foundation; she saw other people’s music through the perils of recording …she could be a lively dinner guest. She wrote a great deal of music, got it published and recorded, grew as a composer from modest beginnings, into an opera writer of marked originality.” She was instrumental in getting George Antheil‘s trumpet and piano sonata premiered in New York in the ’50s, and she helped out the careers of many other young and promising artists.

Stephen Montague, born in New York and from a musical family, studied in Florida and Ohio, and then in the early ’70s went to Warsaw on a Fulbright Fellowship. Moving to England in 1975, he established himself working with the Strider Dance Company. Based in London, he continues to perform and tour as both pianist and composer, receiving support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the Hinrichsen Foundation.


Wayne Siegel, a composer from Los Angeles, has become an integral part of Danish musical life since moving there in 1974 to study at the The Royal Academy of Music. He is now the director of the Danish computer music studios (DIEM) in Århus. He organized the 1989 Århus Computer Music Festival, the 1992 NEMO Festival and the 1994 International Computer Music Conference. As a composer, perhaps his most unusual work is a two-hour science fiction multimedia opera. Recent projects have revolved around music which uses a combination of sensors attached to a dancer’s body and MAX software. Known as the DIEM Digital Dance system, this echoes the full-body Theremin. Dancers Helen Saunders and Pernille Fynne were instrumental in developing this nifty program.

Russia and the Soviet Union

A musical voyage to Russia implied for most of the century (and even today) an official invitation, and an intense commitment, political or artistic.

In 1929, Henry Cowell, more of a traveler than an expatriate, visited the USSR by official invitation. Despite a somewhat rocky tour (the Proletariat was ready for his cheerfully aggressive music, but the Party was not), the state publisher printed two of his works, Lilt of the Reel (1925) and Tiger (1928). All told, Cowell made five tours—as a pianist and composer—of Europe between 1923 and 1933. He was at the time, and much like his contemporary Antheil, a “sucéss de scandale.”

Roy Harris visited Russia in the mid-’50s for concerts and to meet composers. He had been chief of music programming for the overseas branch of the Office of War Information from 1945 to 1948. One can assume these contacts were helpful to him, since a decade later he traveled to Soviet Russia as part of a group of American composers under sponsorship from the U.S. State Department.

Arnold Dreyblatt, already integrated into the scene in East Berlin in the early ’80s (no mean feat), traveled with his performing ensemble to Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union (where he discovered distant relatives) in the mid-’80s.

Now that the Soviet Union is gone, the Moscow conservatory aggressively recruits Americans (and anyone else with foreign currency and first-rate technique). Michael Hersch, recently a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, describes “the incredible talent pool” at the Moscow Conservatory, which after all, takes the cream of the crop from a gigantic population: “With only three important conservatories in Russia, the competition to get in is intense.” Hersch’s experience in Moscow was clearly a powerful one: his compositions offer great emotional Prokofiev-esque sweeps, in huge post-modern blocks of sound. Practically a virtuoso pianist, he has an odd schooling and feels he came too late to the piano as a performer. Nonetheless, he plays his works with verve and with that trademark Russian gusto and intensity.

From Is There Really No Place Like Home? A HyperHistory of American Composers Abroad
By Guy Livingston
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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