Dominick Argento


Born: October 27, 1927
American composer Dominick Argento is known for music for the voice: opera, choral music, art song. Long associated with the University of Minnesota, he has attracted commissions from singers and ensembles from all over the U.S. and Europe. After serving in World War II, Argento studied composition with Nicolas Nabokov at the Peabody Conservatory and with Baltimore composer Hugo Weisgall. At Peabody, he finished undergraduate studies in 1951 and took a Master of Music degree in 1954, studying with Henry Cowell, among others. Argento also studied in Florence on three Fulbright fellowships, working with Dallapiccola, who influenced his use of 12-tone techniques. He had a lifelong affection for the city and wrote much of his music there. Argento completed a Ph.D. at the Eastman School of Music under Howard Hanson and Alan Hovhaness in 1957. The two strands of Argento's education, stressing American extensions of Romanticism and postwar European formalism, would mix in his mature compositions.

Argento's early works include the one-act operas Sicilian Limes (1954, based on a play by the Italian absurdist writer Pirandello) and The Boor (1957, after Chekhov's The Bear). In the 1950s, Argento served as music director of Baltimore's Hilltop Opera; there he met stage director John Olon-Scrymgeour, who became Argento's librettist for these and many later works. Over his entire career Argento showed a flair for drawing on diverse text sources and constructing a unique musical world for each new work while maintaining a distinct musical personality. Argento was hired as professor of theory and composition at Minnesota in 1958.

After settling in the upper Midwest, Argento gained commissions from the top ensembles and organizations in the region. Argento presented an unusually accessible version of the reigning serialist orthodoxy of the day, introducing tonal centers into the flow of the music, and his works began to gain attention beyond Minnesota. The operas Christopher Sly (1963, based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew), The Masque of Angels (1964, on an original libretto), and The Shoemaker's Holiday (1967, after a play by Shakespeare's contemporary Dekker), all moved from Minnesota to New York stages. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra commissioned the suite Royal Invitation (1964), and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis commissioned Variations for Orchestra [The Mask of Night] (1965). Argento's close association with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Douglas Campbell, directors of the Minnesota Theatre Company, led to commissions for incidental music for several Guthrie productions. Argento and Olon-Scrymgeour also created the Center Opera Company (now Minnesota Opera), that opened with The Masque of Angels.

The eclectic opera Postcard from Morocco received national attention in 1971, and four years later Argento received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979. As he received these honors, Argento launched his first full-length opera, the critically acclaimed The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe. Its intense, freely atonal vocal language aptly portrays the end of the desperate poet's life. In 1979 the New York City Opera premiered Miss Havisham's Fire, with soprano Rita Shane in the title role. The epilogue of this opera became the monodrama Miss Havisham's Wedding (1981). He then wrote his own librettos for the highly theatrical Casanova's Homecoming (1983), an opera buffa based on Casanova's memoirs, and The Aspern Papers (1988, after Henry James), an opera that mixes traits of bel canto with 12-tone techniques. Argento has also examined fame and the immigrant experience in The Dream of Valentino (1984), set in the early days of Hollywood.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the composer working increasingly often in the song cycle form. Among his major song cycles are To Be Sung Upon the Water (1973), I Hate and I Love (1982), and The Andree Expedition (1983). The song cycle A Few Words About Chekhov, was given its premiere in 1996 by Frederica von Stade, Håkan Hagegård, and accompanist Martin Katz at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul. At the turn of the century he wrote his first piece for young voices, Orpheus, which also marked the first time he composed on a computer. In 1997 Argento was honored with the title of Composer Laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra, a lifetime appointment. His association with Minnesota's Dale Warland Singers culminated in the release of Walden Pond, a CD featuring three of Argento's choral works that was nominated for a Grammy award in 2003.
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