Ernst Bacon, a Composer Known For Echoing America, Dies at 91
By GLENN FOWLER
Published: March 18, 1990 in The New York Times
Ernst Bacon, a prolific composer, pianist, conductor and teacher whose career spanned more than six decades, died of heart failure on Friday at his home in Orinda, Calif. He was 91 years old.
Mr. Bacon, whose work was regarded by critics as having a distinctly American sound, composed two symphonies, two piano concertos and two operas. But the bulk of his compositions consisted of orchestral suites and chamber music. He also wrote more than 70 settings of Emily Dickinson poems as well as many more of poems by A. E. Housman and Walt Whitman.
Mr. Bacon wrote several books, among them ''Words on Music'' (Greenwood) and ''Notes on the Piano'' (University of Washington Press), both published more than 25 years ago and still in print.
Born in Chicago, he studied at the Lewis Institute of Northwestern University and received a master's degree from the University of California. He studied with Ernest Bloch, Karl Weigl and Eugene Goosens, among others.
He toured as a concert pianist in this country and Europe before joining the faculty of the Eastman School of Music and becoming assistant conductor of the Rochester Opera Company.
In 1928 he went to the West Coast and founded a Bach festival in Carmel, Calif. He was also a supervising conductor in the Federal Music Project in San Francisco.
From 1928 to 1945 Mr. Bacon was dean of the School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and director of the New Spartanburg Festival. He was director of the Syracuse University School of Music from 1945 to 1947 and stayed on as composer-in-residence for several years.
Three years ago, when he was 88 years old and nearly blind, Mr. Bacon composed a sonata for viola. He continued to compose and to write about music until shortly before his death. He was also an avid hiker.
He is survived by his fourth wife, the former Ellen Wendt, whom he married in 1972; two daughters, Marga Farrell of Cambridge, England, and Madeline Salocks of Walnut Creek, Calif.; three sons, Joseph, of Fairfax, Calif., Arthur, of Danville, Calif., and David, of Orinda; a sister, Madi, of Berkeley, Calif.; 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
George Eastman's backing, Vladimir Rosing envisioned professionally
training a group of young American singers and turning them into a
national repertory company, performing opera across the United States
in easy-to-understand English translations. He did that with the help
of enthusiastic artists and benefactors.
The group of artists that came to work with Rosing in Rochester included Eugene Goossens, Albert Coates, Rouben Mamoulian, Nicolas Slonimsky, Otto Luening, Ernst Bacon, Emanuel Balaban, Paul Horgan, Anna Duncan, and Martha Graham. An initial group of 20 singers was chosen from across the United States and given full scholarships.
In November 1924, after a year of gestation and training, the Rochester American Opera Company was announced. It made a tour of Western Canada in January 1926. Performances in Rochester and Chautauqua followed. Mary Garden was so impressed with the group that she came to sing Carmen with the company in February 1927 at the Eastman School's intimate Kilbourn Hall.
The opera company strictly adhered to a non-star policy, developing instead a unity of ensemble whereby a singer might have a leading role one night and a supporting role the next.
At the invitation of the Theatre Guild, the Rochester American Opera Company made its New York debut in April 1927, giving a full week of performances at the Guild Theatre with Eugene Goossens conducting
A committee of wealthy and influential backers was formed to help take the company to the next level. Summer 1927 was spent rehearsing in Magnolia, Massachusetts, for the fall season and performing at Leslie Buswell's private theater at his nearby mansion, Stillington Hall. In December 1927, the newly christened American Opera Company performed for President and Mrs. Coolidge and 150 members of Congress at Washington D.C.'s Poli's Theater.
During January and February 1928, the American Opera Company brought seven weeks of opera to Broadway at New York's Gallo Theater. Robert Edmond Jones contributed set designs.
National tours followed for the next two years, but the stock market crash of 1929 caused bookings for the 1930 season to dematerialize. The group earned an official endorsement from President Herbert Hoover, who called for it to become "a permanent national institution", but as the country sank into the Great Depression the company was forced to disband.
Nikolai Sokoloff (28 May 1886 – 25 September 1965) was a Russian-American conductor and violinist. He was born in Kiev, and studied music at Yale. From 1916 to 1917 he was musical director of the San Francisco People's Philharmonic Orchestra, where he insisted on including women in his orchestra and paying them the same as men. Sokoloff was the founding conductor and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1918 where he remained until 1932. Between 1935 and 1938 he directed the Federal Music Project, a New Deal program that employed musicians to perform and educate the public about music. From 1938 to 1941 he directed the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. When he was a conductor he gave a violin to then nine-year-old violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin.
couple of months after this interview was posted, I received the
following e-mail . . . . .
Dear Bruce Duffie,
A few days ago I was looking for a piano/vocal score of my husband's (Ernst Bacon's) children's opera, "A Drumlin Legend" and came across your 1986 interview with him. What a delight! Reading his words, it was easy to imagine hearing him speak them. There were quite a few details about his life that I had either forgotten or never knew, plus a few things I know I never heard before, such as the wonderful story of Virgil Thomson and Elizabeth Arden sharing the stage to receive an honorary doctorate.
There's an important, personal part of his life from those early years that he left out. When he was studying composing in Vienna in his 20's, he had a few lessons with Eusebius Mandychewski, who was a close friend of Brahms, and fell in love with his daughter, Vicki. They became engaged and intended to live in America, repeating the history of Ernst's midWestern father and Viennese mother. However, just before they were to leave together, Vicki's mother suddenly died, and she decided to stay and look after her elderly father - so Ernst returned home alone, and instead of becoming his wife, Vicki became his lifelong Muse She remained the Ideal, and his four wives (of whom I was the last) found it hard to measure up to her. In his last years Ernst sometimes said that Vicki had been the "most important woman" of his life. I wish I could have met her; and sometime I hope someone will translate the letters she wrote to him in those early years.
I met Ernst on a Sierra Club trip in Kings Canyon in the summer of 1968. He was a widower of 70, and I was an elementary school vocal music teacher of 26, living in Cambridge, MA. We corresponded for a year and visited back and forth a couple of times, and in 1969 I resigned from my teaching job in Concord and moved to Berkeley, hoping to marry this remarkable man. My old friends thought I was crazy, but I told them that "I'd rather have 10 minutes of sunset than 10 hours of ordinary daylight." Since he lived to be 91, we actually had two decades together and even had a son, David, born when Ernst was 74. David now lives in Denver and has 3 children, who are Ernst's grandchildren, the oldest of whom, at age 7, is 110 years younger than Ernst! Knowing I would probably outlive Ernie, I vaguely thought I would move back East and teach piano part-time, while promoting his music the rest of the time. It turned out as I had imagined, and since 1992 I've been living in Syracuse, where Ernst left such a legend of himself at the University.
One of the pillars of the musical community here is Neva Pilgrim, and I enjoyed reading your interview of her, as well. She once told me that reading one of
Ernst's books, in which he pleaded for more recognition of living composers, influenced her in establishing the Society for New Music. In conjunction with
another local music organization, Civic Morning Musicals, she organized a 90th birthday celebration for Ernst in 1989, and it was at that event that I first
visited Syracuse and later realized it would be a good place for me to relocate as Ernst's widow. Occasionally the SNM programs a Bacon piece, even though he is no longer "living." Recently Neva narrated a tragic piece for clarinet, cello, and piano with a Whitman text, "Come up from the Fields, Father." Of course she has sung and taught some of Ernst's many art songs, and for the past few years she has been an important committee member for the CMM vocal competition, which now offers an "Ernst Bacon Prize" for the best performance of an American art song.
Speaking of Whitman and art songs, I wonder if you have a copy of the CD, "Fond Affection," featuring 25 Bacon art songs - 15 for soprano and 10 for baritone. William Sharp sings the latter, including many by Whitman. In her book, "A Singer's Guide to American Art Song," Victoria Villamil wrote: "...in his settings of Walt Whitman, Bacon perfectly matches the amplitude, mystery, vision, and challenging exuberance of the grand poet, who in his free-wheeling celebration of America, the common man, life, and the unknown, was surely Bacon's soul mate."
I hope more of Ernst's 19 Whitman songs will be sung during the upcoming Whitman bicentennial in 2019. My main focus right now is his short oratorio, "By Blue Ontario," with Whitman texts sung by SATB Chorus and mezzo and baritone solos. The Ernst Bacon Society (www.ernstbacon.org) paid to have the full score engraved, and I'm looking for a grant to have the vocal/piano score also engraved. I need to get busy finding conductors and orchestras that would be interested in programming this work. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.
If you don't have a copy of "Fond Affection" and also of "Forgotten Americans," on which Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish recorded the eloquent cello/piano work, "A Life" (written in memory of one of Ernst's sons, who died in an accident at age 26) - I'd be happy to send you copies of them. Maybe in your radio broadcasts you can help to remind the world of this "Forgotten American" from time to time!
Thank you again for your wonderful interviews. There are quite a few of them that I want to read!
Naturally, I wrote back immediately to thank her for the message. I also asked if she would permit me to include her letter with the interview, and she was most gracious to allow me do so. She also gave me a few small corrections and suggestions to the text (which have been made), and fixed the caption of the photo with Carl Sandburg. . . . . .
Thanks so much for your kind reply. I'm happy to give permission to add whatever you want from my letter to the EB interview.
I love reading biographies, especially of musicians, and your interviews are a terrific resource for more than a century of them. I'll start with some people that
were closest to Ernst - Otto Luening, who was like a brother to him, often calling him on the phone at 2 a.m. EST for a merry chat; Don Martino, whose first
composition teacher was Ernst and who kept Ernst's picture on his mantle to the end of his life; and Carlisle Floyd, whose first composition teacher also was Ernst.
I remember when Jake Heggie came to our house at age 16 to study composition with Ernie. I would come home in the late afternoon, bedraggled after a stressful day of teaching, and there would be this fresh-faced young Jake, such a very nice person. Before he discovered his homosexuality, he was married to Johana Harris, the widow of Roy Harris. She was his piano teacher, and the age gap between them was even wider than the 44 years between Ernst and me. They later separated, but remained friends until the end of her life. The two of them played a four-hand piece of Bach at the memorial service of John Edmunds. It was the most profound and eloquent playing I've ever heard. I've always loved the story of his trying to make a living as a cab driver and having the incredible luck to chauffeur Fredericka von Stade, who then sang his songs and became a kind of fairy godmother.
I'm so glad to have discovered this treasure-trove of musical biographies and will tell others about them.
Many thanks -
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on December 13, 1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1988, and again in 1993 and 1998. This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.