Norman Dello Joio
Obituary from The Guardian by Bret Johnson
Norman Dello Joio, who has died aged 95, was an American composer who embraced the traditions of the early 20th-century Italian musical renaissance and developed them into an approachable contemporary language. The graceful fluency of his music ideally suited him to the world of ballet and opera, to which he made many notable contributions, but he was equally adept as a composer for orchestra, concert band, the church and solo instruments. In 1957 he won a Pulitzer prize for his Meditations on Ecclesiastes for strings.
Dello Joio was born in New York City, into a family of church organists. By the age of 12 he was assisting his father at church, and continued his organ studies as a teenager with his godfather, the celebrated Italian organist Pietro Yon. He also played piano in a jazz band and, in 1940, although already 27, he began formal composition studies at the Juilliard School in New York. At about this time he became familiar with the music of Paul Hindemith, in exile in the US from Nazi Germany, and Dello Joio's Magnificat for Orchestra (1942) evokes the Gregorian chant heard in Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler.
Dello Joio became a composition pupil of Hindemith at Yale University, while supporting himself with various organist posts. An organ-like sonority became apparent in his works which, conjoined with Hindemithian counterpoint, made his music sound fresh and appealing. He was also influenced by jazz, and the jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw commissioned a Clarinet Concerto from him.
In 1945 he joined the composition faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and was able to devote far more time to composing. His reputation grew rapidly in the late 1940s thanks to a number of important commissions, culminating in a symphony, The Triumph of Saint Joan (1951), derived from an opera that he subsequently withdrew. The symphony also provided the score for the ballet Seraphic Dialogues, the first of three written for Martha Graham. An instant success, the symphony was recorded on an early LP by the Louisville Orchestra. The story of Joan of Arc inspired another opera, The Trial at Rouen (1955).
Dello Joio was particularly adept at writing in variation form, as the titles of many works show. One of his finest was the Meditations on Ecclesiastes, each variation taking a line from the Biblical book's third chapter: "To everything there is a season ... ", and it was also adapted as a ballet. Blood Moon (1961) told of the life and adventures of Adah Menken, a well-known Civil War actress.
Other variation-style works included a fine Fantasy and Variations for piano and orchestra (1962), first performed by Lorin Hollander with the Cincinnati Orchestra, and Colonial Variants, one of a number of pieces he wrote to celebrate the American bicentennial of 1976.
Dello Joio wrote three masses, the last of which, Mass in Honor of the Eucharist (1976), with brass as well as organ, is particularly impressive. He also wrote a good deal for film and television, and his music for the CBS documentary Air Power (1956) was played and recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.
Dello Joio occupied a number of teaching posts and, in 1958, he became professor of composition at Mannes College in New York. In 1972 he became Dean of Fine Arts at Boston University.
A generous-spirited man, he was also closely involved with a Ford Foundation project to place young composers in schools to write music for pupils to perform. The pianist Debra Torok recently undertook a recording project of his complete piano music.
He married twice, firstly in 1942 Grace Baumgold, whom he divorced in 1973, and in 1974 Barbara Bolton, both of whom survive him, together with his three children and two stepchildren.
• Norman Dello Joio, composer, born January 24, 1913; died July 24, 2008
This interview was recorded on the telephone on November 17, 1985.
Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1987, 1988, 1993 and
1998. A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2011.
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