The accessible operas of this American composer include the international success Susannah, a repertory mainstay ever since its compostion. Floyd employed a distinctive harmonic language based on fourths and fifths to create melodies and harmonies inspired by American folk tunes, and he was an effective dramatist in the vein opened up by Puccini and mined by Hindemith.
Carlisle Sessions Floyd was born in South Carolina to a MethodistRead more pastor whose wife was a pianist. Lessons with his mother started at age ten, and at 16 Floyd went to Converse College in Spartanburg to study piano with Ernst Bacon. When Bacon was named to the faculty at Syracuse University in 1945, Floyd relocated in order to continue his course of study. Floyd earned his bachelor's in music at Syracuse in 1946, and took up a position teaching piano at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he remained until 1976, eventually adding composition and opera workshops to his curriculum.
From the beginning of his career, Carlisle Floyd was interested primarily in opera, and furnished all of his own libretti. His first effort in the genre was Slow Dusk (1949) given at Syracuse. Floyd's next opera, Fugitives (1951), was withdrawn after a single performance at Florida State. Susannah (1955) was based on the apocryphal biblical story of Susannah and the elders, but transferred to rural Tennessee, and was an immediate smash when heard at the New York City Opera in 1956. The 29-year-old Floyd won, in quick succession, the New York Music Critics' Circle Award, a Guggenheim Foundation grant, and the envy of many of his colleagues. Susannah has gone on to become Floyd's best-known and most frequently produced work; it requires only modest economic means to produce.
Floyd's next undertaking, Wuthering Heights (1958-1959), proved troublesome, after it was first performed in Santa Fe in July 1958. Floyd found it necessary to rewrite the entire third act. His next project, The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962) remains Floyd' s largest-scale opera, requiring seven principals and an orchestra roughly the dimension of that required by Puccini. In the midst of Jonathan Wade, Floyd managed to work up The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair for the tercentenary celebration of North Carolina in 1963. Markheim followed in New Orleans in 1966, and in Seattle in 1970 Floyd finally scored his second unchallenged hit, Of Mice and Men, based on John Steinbeck's novel. Like Susannah, this work has enjoyed numerous revivals both with regional professional opera companies and in university productions.
In 1972 aspiring opera producer David Gockley attended a Cincinnati Opera performance of Of Mice and Men, and it opened his eyes to the potential of contemporary American works. Soon after, Gockley assumed control of the Houston Grand Opera, and in 1976 convinced Floyd to leave his long-time post at Florida State to assume the position as HGO's co-director. Floyd's first work for Houston was Bilby's Doll (1976) based on the witch hunts in Colonial Massachusetts. Floyd's next Houston Production was Willie Stark (1981), a fictionalized account of Louisiana governor Huey Long based on Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men. In the 1980s Floyd turned his attention to a major overhaul of The Passion of Jonathan Wade, essentially composing an entirely new opera out of the old. The tremendous success accorded to the new Jonathan Wade upon its launch in Houston in 1991 helped to re-establish critical interest in Floyd as a composer. What may be Floyd's valedictory opera, Cold Sassy Tree (2000) was a joint commission from five opera companies including Houston, and was both critically and financially a success.
His non-operatic works are mostly vocal cycles, including The Mystery (1960, written for Phyllis Curtin), Citizen of Paradise (1983, for Suzanne Mentzer) and the cantata A Time to Dance (1994). Floyd has also written a Piano Sonata and several short orchestral pieces. Read less