Henry Brant


Born: September 15, 1913; Montreal, Quebec, Canada   Died: April 26, 2008; Santa Barbara, CA  
One of the great iconoclasts within modern American music, Canadian-born composer Henry Brant is a radical figure whose work is impossible to classify. Born in Montreal, Brant began composing at the age of eight and studied at McGill University beginning in his 16th year. In 1929, Brant transferred to the Institute of Musical Art, later renamed the Julliard School wherefrom he graduated in 1934. Already by that time Brant had written Angels and Read more Devils, a concerto for 10 flutes, that gained its 21-year-old composer publication in Henry Cowell's periodical New Music Quarterly. Through the depression and war years, Brant kept himself afloat through conducting and arranging on radio, working on independent films (he was an orchestrator for Pare Lorentz's unit at the WPA) and for swing dance bands, including that of Benny Goodman. With war's end, Brant took concurrent positions teaching at Columbia University and at Juilliard, but in 1957 settled at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught until retirement in 1980. In purely academic terms, Brant's achievements are impressive, as he was the winner of two Guggenheim Fellows, the Prix d'Italia, NEA, Fromm, Koussevitzky, ASCAP, and Ford Foundation grants and election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979.

Like his contemporary Elliott Carter, the influence of Charles Ives was decisive for Brant, but Brant utilized completely different aspects of Ives' extensive life work as his point of departure. Stimulated by spatially conceived Ives works, for example The Unanswered Question, Brant began to redistribute his already unusually voiced instrumental groups around the various spaces in which his were performed, starting with Antiphony I (1953). This was quite some time before Karlheinz Stockhausen latched onto this idea with his Gruppen for 3 orchestras in 1958, a work that earned the latter a lot of lip service in regard to what was considered revolutionary at that time in Europe, with no acknowledgement that Brant had already been there. Undeterred, Brant continued along these lines up until his retirement from Bennington, producing works of gigantic proportions dwarfing even Gruppen, for example his Orbits (1979), scored for soprano, organ, and 80 trombones. Not all of his ideas worked flawlessly and at the time in academic circles this led to some tittering amid his colleagues that Brant was some kind of a crank, although this partly owed to professional jealousy; not all were happy that Brant could carry out such experiments in high-profile public venues as Lincoln Center.

After 1980, another aspect of Ives' influence opened up new vistas in Brant's work -- the use of collage and quotation. Not limiting himself to the hymns and parlor tunes that Ives loved, Brant culls from his whole experience as a composer -- swing dance music, rock and pop tunes, movie scoring, the long-bearded classical tradition, and even stylistic simulations of his own mentors, such as George Antheil. Brant had never abandoned traditional tonality, nor for that matter, fully adopted serialism, and by the 1990s Brant had managed to find a new audience for himself. The spatial separation was still there, as were the wild instrumental blends and his whimsical, Spike Jones-like turns of humor, but in Brant's later music, consistency of expression is more of a factor. This has helped Brant challenge the wrong-headed perceptions among his academic peers, and his 2001 composition Ice Field won Brant one further distinction he hadn't had before and hadn't expected -- the Pulitzer Prize for music. Brant also garnered much praise for his orchestration of Ives' Concord Sonata (1995), on which he had worked for nearly 30 years. By the age of 95, Brant had produced an enormous catalog of 300 or so works spanning nine decades. It may take another century to sort out, and fully grasp, this prolific and innovative twentieth century composer's output. Read less

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