The life of Dominick Argento, Minnesota’s composer

20December 2021

Dominick Argento, April 3, 2016.

Though he originally hoped to accept a position on the East or West Coast, American musician-composer Dominick Argento began his career in 1958 at the University of Minnesota, where he taught composition and theory. He spent the next sixty years as Minnesota’s resident composer, crafting works for nearly every Minnesota performing group and gaining international acclaim.

Born in York, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 1927, to Sicilian immigrants, Dominick Argento demonstrated an early interest in music. He regularly visited his local public library and read biographies and writings of famous musicians, such as George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He taught himself music theory and analysis and began taking piano lessons at sixteen—a relatively late age for a budding young musician. He progressed rapidly, though, and hoped to become a professional pianist when he entered college several years later. Drafted into the Army in 1945, Argento served in North Africa as a cryptographer. In 1947 he entered Peabody Conservatory, in Baltimore, on the GI bill.

At Peabody Argento’s harmony teacher, Nicolas Nabokov, suggested that he focus on composition rather than piano performance. Awed that Nabokov was a close friend of Stravinksy, Argento agreed and continued his studies with Nabokov. A few years later, Nabokov encouraged Argento to apply for a Fulbright grant to study in Florence, Italy. He received it in 1951.

As Argento was completing his undergraduate studies at Peabody, he needed a soprano singer to perform in his senior recital of original works. A friend told him about a talented young soprano, Carolyn Bailey, from Argento’s own hometown of York. She sang his song cycle Songs about Spring, and he accompanied her on piano. Three years later, in 1954, they married, and for many years she would sing the premiere of everything he composed for soprano and advise him on vocal matters.

After earning his bachelor of music degree in 1951, Argento returned to Peabody for his master of music degree, completing it in 1954. For his PhD work, he studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and completed his degree there in 1957. Throughout his years at Peabody and Eastman and during time abroad, he studied with a prominent list of mid-twentieth-century contemporary composers, including Henry Cowell, Richard Rodgers, Alan Hovhaness, Howard Hanson, and Luigi Dallapiccola.

After an academic year in Florence, this time on a Guggenheim Fellowship, Argento and Carolyn returned to the US jobless. In September of 1958, Argento received a call from the University of Minnesota; someone at Eastman had recommended him for an open music theory teaching position. He loaded his car that day and arrived in Minneapolis in the mid-afternoon on the first day of classes.

Argento moved to a metropolitan area with a vibrant arts scene. He shared in his memoir that “I used to joke that we didn’t really unpack our bags those first couple of years in Minnesota, hoping and praying that a position would materialize on the East or West Coast, certain that remaining in Minneapolis would be artistic suicide for a promising young composer. Gradually that fear evaporated. In time it became clear that the community was very supportive of the arts.” Argento recognized the high artistic quality of the Minneapolis Symphony (later called the Minnesota Orchestra) conducted by Antal Doráti, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center hosted many modern music events and would soon help sponsor a small opera company (later the Minnesota Opera).

In 1963, Sir Tyrone Guthrie established a theater (the Guthrie Theater), and Argento composed music for early productions. Additional supporters of Argento’s works included the Schubert Club, the Dale Warland Singers, the Fargo–Moorhead Symphony, Philip Brunelle’s Plymouth Music Series (later VocalEssence), and many individuals. He recognized by his fourth year at the university that Minneapolis would be his home for the rest of his life. If other schools offered him positions, he resolved, he would turn them down — a resolution he kept.

Most of Argento’s compositions—primarily song cycles and operas— feature the human voice. When he composed vocal works, he noted that the words must come first in his process, believing that “The very tone, texture, color and speed of the music are dependent on the text.” His operas received national and international acclaim and included Postcard from Morocco (1971), The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), Casanova’s Homecoming (1984), and The Dream of Valentino (1993). Among numerous awards, he earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and, in 2004, a Grammy Award for his song cycle Casa Guidi.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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