Dominick Argento (b. October 27, 1927, York, Pennsylvania) is an American composer, best known as a leading composer of lyric opera and choral music. Among his most prominent pieces are the operas Postcard from Morocco, Miss Havisham’s Fire, and The Masque of Angels, and the song cycles Six Elizabethan Songs and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, the latter of which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975. In a predominantly tonal context, his music freely combines tonality, atonality and a lyrical use of twelve-tone writing, though none of Argento's music approaches the experimental avant garde fashions of the post World War II era. He is particularly well-known for sensitive settings of complex, sophisticated texts.
As a student in the 1950s, Argento divided his time between America and Italy, and his music is greatly influenced both by his teachers in the United States and his personal affection for Italy, particularly the city of Florence, where he spends part of every year and where many of his works were written. He has been a professor (and, more recently, a professor emeritus) at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and he frequently remarks that he finds that city to be tremendously supportive of his work and that he thinks his musical development would have been impeded had he stayed in the high-pressure world of East Coast music. He was one of the founders of the Center Opera Company (now the Minnesota Opera), and indeed Newsweek once referred to the Twin Cities as “Argento’s town.”
Argento has written fourteen operas as well as major song cycles, orchestral works, and many choral pieces for small and large forces, many of which were commissioned for and premiered by Minnesota-based artists. He is married to soprano Carolyn Bailey, a frequent performer of his works.
Argento, the son of Sicillian immigrants, grew up in York, Pennsylvania. Ironically, although he would go on to become an acclaimed composer, he found his music classes in elementary school to be “fifty minute sessions of excruciating boredom.” Upon graduating from high school, he was drafted into the Army and spent some time as a cryptographer; he then began studying piano performance at the Peabody Conservatory on the GI Bill of Rights. He quickly decided to switch to composition.
He earned bachelor's (1951) and master's (1953) degrees from Peabody, where his teachers included Nicholas Nabokov, Henry Cowell, and Hugo Weisgall. While there, he was briefly the music director of Weisgall’s Hilltop Musical Company, which Weisgall founded as a sort of answer to Benjamin Britten’s festival at Aldeburgh - a venue for local composers (particularly Weisgall himself) to present new work. This experience gave Argento broad exposure to and experience in the world of new opera. Hilltop’s stage director was writer John Olon-Scrymgeour, with whom Argento would later collaborate on many operas. During this time period he also spent a year in Florence on a Fulbright Fellowship, and has called the experience “life-altering;” while there, he studied briefly with Luigi Dallapiccola. Argento went on to receive his Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Alan Hovhaness, Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. Following completion of this degree, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent another year in Florence, thus inaugurating a tradition of spending long periods of time in that city.
Choral Prominence and Later Life
In the mid-1970s he also began writing small choral works for the choir of a Congregational Church in Minneapolis, which his friend directed. From this modest beginning, he began to receive larger and larger commissions for choral works, eventually penning major pieces for the Dale Warland Singers, The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Buffalo Schola Cantorum, and most recently the Harvard and Yale Glee Clubs.
In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, the recording by Frederica Von Stade and the Minnesota Orchestra of his song cycle Casa Guidi won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Argento's book Catalogue Raisonne as Memoir, an autobiographical discussion of his works, was published in 2004.
Argento is now retired from teaching but he retains the title of Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. He still lives in Minneapolis with his wife, and his musical output has remained steady.
Argento’s operatic output is eclectic and extensive. Two of his early operas, written while he was a student – Sicilian Limes and Colonel Jonathan the Saint - have been withdrawn by the composer, but one work, The Boor, written in 1957 as part of his PhD work, was published by Boosey & Hawkes. He then collaborated with John Olon-Scrymgeour on a number of works, including The Masque of Angels; Christopher Sly (1962), based on an episode from The Taming of the Shrew; and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, (1967) a “ballad opera” based on a play by Thomas Dekker.
After Postcard from Morocco in 1971, which had a libretto by Jon Donahue, the commissions afforded him were much larger. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota Opera together commissioned The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe in 1975-76, with a libretto by Charles Nolte. As a result of that work, which received wildly enthusiastic reviews upon its premiere, the New York City Opera commissioned him and received Miss Havisham’s Fire (1977), with a libretto by Scrymgeour. Although not well received initially, Argento eventually revised it into a one-act form entitled Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night (1981). Miss Havisham’s Fire was itself revised in 1995.
In 1984, the Minnesota Opera commissioned Casanova’s Homecoming, with text by the composer; it went on to a well-received run at New York City Opera, where at the insistence of Beverly Sills it became the first opera performed in New York in English to have English supertitles, to ensure the audience would understand all the jokes. The opera won the 1986 National Institute for Music Theatre Award. He then wrote The Aspern Papers (1987), to his own libretto adapted from the story by Henry James, as a vehicle for Frederica Von Stade. His next opera, and arguably largest work to date, was The Dream of Valentino, which premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1993. Critic Anne Midgette of the New York Times has noted that Argento's operas tend to be very well-received upon their premieres, but they lack an "easy popular hook" and are rarely revived.
Song Cycles and “Monodramas”
Argento’s song cycles are notable in his frequent use of dramatic, unusual text, most often prose that does not have immediately apparent musical possibilities; they blur the distinction between straightforward groupings of songs and dramatic works, which he terms “monodramas”. His most well-known song cycle is From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, with a text he assembled from the book of the title. Written for Janet Baker in 1974, it won the Pulitzer Prize and is performed frequently. Other prominent works in a similar vein include Letters from Composers (1968), which uses as its text letters written by Chopin, Puccini, and others; Casa Guidi (1983), which sets letters written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and A Few Words About Chekhov (1996), which adapts letters by Chekhov.
Argento’s other song cycles include A Water Bird Talk, which combines a Chekov short story with passages from Audubon’s Birds of America; The Andrée Expedition, which uses journal entries by Salomon Andrée during his ill-fated attempt to travel to the North Pole by balloon; and Miss Manners on Music (1998), which sets newspaper clippings by columnist Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”). One of the few major song sets Argento has written that use “traditional” verse as text is his popular Six Elizabethan Songs.
Other solo vocal works by Argento include:
Songs About Spring (1950-55), text by e.e. cummings, for voice and piano
Ode to the West Wind (1956), text by Shelley, for soprano and orchestra
To Be Sung Upon the Water (1972), text by Wordsworth, for voice, piano, and clarinet
The Bremen Town Musicians (1998), text by the composer, a “children’s entertainment” with narrator and orchestra
Major Choral Works
Argento’s first large-scale choral work, if one discounts The Masque of Angels (parts of which, such as the “Gloria” and “Sanctus”, are frequently excerpted), is The Revelation of St. John the Divine (1968), which sets portions of the Book of Revelation and is scored for male chorus, brass, and an array of percussion instruments. Peter Quince at the Clavier, a setting of the poem by Wallace Stevens, was commissioned by Pennsylvania State University in honor of the state’s tercentenary (both Stevens and Argento are Pennsylvania natives.) For the Dale Warland Singers, Argento wrote I Hate and I Love (1982), with text by Catullus, and Walden Pond (1996), based on excerpts from Thoreau. Argento composed a massive Te Deum in 1987 which integrates the Latin text with medieval English folk poetry. A Toccata of Galuppi’s (1989), a 20-minute setting of a Robert Browning poem, is one of many works inspired by Argento’s time in Florence. As of 2007, the Harvard Glee Club is in the midst of premiering portions of Apollo in Cambridge, a multi-movement setting of texts by Harvard-affiliated writers of the 19th century.
Other choral works by Argento include:
A Nation of Cowslips (1968), seven bagatelles on nonsense text by Keats
Tria Carmina Pasachalia (1970), an Easter Cantata for women’s chorus
Jonah and the Whale (1973), a large-scale oratorio on medieval English texts
Spirituals and Swedish Chorales (1994)
Dover Beach (2003), written for the Yale Glee Club
Numerous anthems for choir and organ and a cappella motets
Argento’s purely orchestral output is relatively small; there are, for example, no symphonies, and just one String Quartet written when he was a student. He has produced numerous orchestral suites based on his operas, including Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe (1985), adapted from The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe, and the popular Valentino Dances (1994), from The Dream of Valentino. He has written two ballets that were then fashioned into orchestral suites, The Resurrection of Don Juan (1956) and Royal Invitation (Homage to the Queen of Tonga) (1964). His 1982 Fire Variations was nominated for the Kennedy Center Fridheim Prize in Music.
Other orchestral works include:
Divertimento (1954) for strings
Variations for Orchestra (The Mask of Night) (1965)
Bravo Mozart (1969), an “imaginary biography”
A Ring of Time (1972) for orchestra and bells
In Praise of Music (1977), a set of “songs” for orchestra
Capriccio ‘Rossini in Paris’ (1985), essentially a clarinet concerto
Other small works for chamber groups of instruments