Born: September 23, 1928; Passaic, NJ
Died: November 24, 2001; Tampa, FL
Robert Helps was the cinematic equivalent of a distinguished featured player rather than a star in America's post-WWII avant-garde, both as a composer and as a pianist. He matriculated at Columbia University in 1947, then transferred to U.C. Berkeley in 1949 where he completed his degree in 1951. He was also a piano student at the Juilliard School, but more importantly with Abby Whiteside as a private student. During his two years at Berkeley heRead more studied composition and theory with Roger Sessions, and again privately thereafter, the most powerful influence on his music. Helps' first notable work was Two Songs on texts by Melville for soprano (1950), followed by a string quartet in 1951, and a piano Fantasy in 1952. He composed the Adagio slow movement of Symphony No. 1 in 1953, which received a Fromm Foundation Award and a performance by Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air (the former NBCSO before its dissolution in 1955, and forerunner of the American SO). Helps added the bracketing quick movements in 1955, which received a Naumburg Award and subsequent recording by Zoltan Rozsnyai and the Columbia SO (made in Boston).
Many of his instrumental works were written for piano, among them 3 Etudes (1956), Starscape (1958), Recollections (1959), Portrait and Solo (both in 1960), Quartet (1971), three Homages (to Fauré, Rachmaninov, and Ravel; 1972), Nocturne (1973), Music for the Left Hand (1974), and Valse mirage (1977). He also composed Cortège for orchestra (1963), two piano concertos (1969, 1976), Saccade for piano 4-hands (1967), a frequently played Nocturne for string quartet (1966), several violin and piano works, a piano trio (1957), a quintet for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello (1975), and the song cycle Gossamer Moon on poems by James Purdy for soprano and orchestra (1977), to be sung by Bethany Beardslee, who specialized in challenging new music, and whom Helps frequently accompanied in concert. His more recent large work was Symphony No. 2, commissioned by the Institute for American Music, and introduced by The Florida Orchestra in February 2000. As a composer, he received awards, fellowships, or commissions from all the major foundations (Ford, Guggenheim, NEA, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Thorne, in addition to Fromm and the IAM). His music -- which Eric Salzman categorized as "American expressionism [that] traces back to Ruggles and Varèse, the influence of Schoenberg, and the personality of Sessions" -- has been played in turn by the late William Masselos, fellow composer David del Tredici, and Alan Feinberg.
As a concert artist he focused on difficult contemporary works (notably by Milton Babbitt, George Perle, Mel Powell, and Sessions), and made recordings for eight different labels including RCA/BMG, DGG, Columbia/Sony, New World, Argo, and CRI. In addition to recitals with Beardslee, Helps also concertized with Aaron Copland, violinists Isidore Cohen and Rudolf Kolisch, and soprano Phyllis Curtin.
He began teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory, Stanford University, and Berkeley simultaneously (1968 - 1970). He moved next to the New England Conservatory (1970 - 1972), then to the Manhattan School and Princeton (1972 - 1978), and in 1980 became professor of music at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he was teaching applied piano as head of the keyboard department at his death in November 2001. Read less