William Thomas McKinley


Born: December 9, 1938; New Kensington PA   Died: February 3, 2015; Reading MA  
Like Gunther Schuller, his senior colleague at the New England Conservatory and formerly one of his professors at Yale, "Tom" McKinley played, taught and composed classical as well as popular music. His popular specialty was jazz, which he studied alongside the masters as a child. By age twelve, he was already a member of the American Federation of Musicians. For two years, he was house pianist at a Pittsburgh restaurant. Then, as he Read more told an interviewer, "I heard Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra when I was about seventeen [Fritz Reiner's performance] and said to myself, I can do that." A year later, he enrolled at Carnegie-Mellon University, where he studied piano with Frederick Dorian and composition with Nikolai Lopatnikoff, all the while supporting his wife and firstborn son by playing in Pittsburgh-area clubs.

Between sets, he studied the scores of Beethoven symphonies, and during the next six years composed and taught in addition to performing. In 1966, McKinley entered the graduate program at Yale University; his principal teachers were Mel Powell and Schuller, and he found himself caught up in serial and electronic music. Subsequently, as an instructor at the University of Chicago, McKinley added baseball pitching to his repertoire. In 1973, he joined the New England Conservatory in Boston at Schuller's invitation to teach composition as well as jazz, but continued to pitch until 1977. In 1986 he co-founded the Boston Composers Orchestra with Schuller.

When McKinley gave up baseball, he also "stopped writing music I didn't like. I don't know what made me turn back to myself, to the American pop tunes I grew up with, the jazz -- late swing, bebop, cool, modern -- and the whole Classical-Romantic background of Tchaikovsky and Brahms that I really love. I think I'm the only American who has this totally blended background. I let it all come together, eliminating pretensions, all complexity, everything superficial . . . filtering out everything I thought was dishonest. This is to me the prototype of a pure American music." It was the Third Symphony in 1983, one of several commissions extended by Gerard Schwarz over a quarter of a century, that proclaimed McKinley's return to tonality -- "back to the time-honored principles."

In the decades after, he composed well over 200 works in all forms including symphonies, concertos, and chamber music. He was commissioned by ensembles in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Pasadena, Richmond (Virginia), the Rheinische Philharmonie, Boston "Pops," Bolshoi Theater, and New York Chamber Symphony Orchestras. He achieved his prodigious output by composing every night during the school season, holidays included, "from about 9 at night to 3 in the morning. Holidays? My life is a holiday! Composing is being alive. Taking the day off deadens me." In addition to works for orchestra, which have been played in more than thirty countries, McKinley wrote for the Bella Lewitzky Dance Troupe; the Cleveland, Alexander, and the Los Angeles Piano Quartets; Tashi, the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, Boston Musica Viva, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble; and pianists Peter Serkin and Richard Goode, violist Walter Trampler, cellist Colin Carr, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, saxophonist Stan Getz, and vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Over the years, both his music has been widely recorded, albeit in Europe more than in the U.S. A majority continue to be listed in the MMC, Vienna Modern Masters, and British ASV catalogs. Read less

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