The life of Dominick Argento, composer from Minnesota
Although he originally hoped to take a job on the East or West Coast, American musician-composer Dominick Argento began his career in 1958 at the University of Minnesota, where he taught composition and theory. He spent the next sixty years as a resident composer in Minnesota, creating works for almost every band in Minnesota and achieving international acclaim.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 1927, to Sicilian immigrants, Dominick Argento showed an early interest in music. He regularly visited his local public library and read biographies and writings of famous musicians, such as George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He learned music theory and analysis himself and began taking piano lessons at age sixteen, a relatively late age for a young aspiring musician. However, he was progressing rapidly and hoped to become a professional pianist when he entered college a few years later. Enlisted in the military in 1945, Argento served in North Africa as a cryptographer. In 1947, he entered the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore on the GI Bill.
At Peabody Argento’s, harmony teacher Nicolas Nabokov suggested that he concentrate on composition rather than playing the piano. Worried that Nabokov would be a close friend of Stravinksy’s, Argento agreed and continued his studies with Nabokov. A few years later, Nabokov encouraged Argento to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study in Florence, Italy. He received it in 1951.
As Argento completed his undergraduate studies at Peabody, he needed a soprano singer to perform in his senior recital of original works. A friend told him about a talented young soprano, Carolyn Bailey, from York, Argento’s hometown. She sang her cycle of songs Songs about spring, and he accompanied her on the piano. Three years later, in 1954, they married and for many years she sang the first of all he composed for soprano and advised him on vocal matters.
After earning his Bachelor of Music in 1951, Argento returned to Peabody for his Masters of Music, which he completed in 1954. For his doctoral work, he studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. , and graduated there. in 1957. Throughout his years at Peabody and Eastman and while abroad, he studied with a large roster of contemporary mid-twentieth-century composers, including Henry Cowell, Richard Rodgers, Alan Hovhaness, Howard Hanson and Luigi Dallapiccola.
After a year at university in Florence, this time thanks to a Guggenheim scholarship, Argento and Carolyn returned to the United States without a job. In September 1958 Argento received a call from the University of Minnesota; someone in Eastman had recommended him for an open position teaching music theory. He loaded his car that day and arrived in Minneapolis mid-afternoon on the first day of class.
Argento has moved to a metropolitan area with a vibrant art scene. He shared in his memoir that “I used to joke that we didn’t really unpack the first two years in Minnesota, hoping and praying that a position would come to fruition on the east coast or west, certain that staying in Minneapolis would be artistic suicide for a promising young composer. Gradually, this fear evaporated. Over time, it became clear that the community was very supportive of the arts. Argento recognized the high artistic quality of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (later called the Minnesota Orchestra) led by Antal Doráti, the Saint-Paul chamber orchestra, and the Minneapolis Civic Orchestra. the Walker Art Center hosted many modern music events and would soon help sponsor a small opera company (later the Minnesota Opera House).
In 1963 Sir Tyrone Guthrie established a theater (the Guthrie Theater), and Argento composed music for the first productions. Other supporters of Argento’s works included the Schubert Club, the Dale Warland Singers, the Fargo – Moorhead Symphony, the Plymouth Music Series by Philip Brunelle (later VocalEssence) and many more. He recognized from his fourth year in college that Minneapolis would be his home for the rest of his life. If other schools offered him positions, he decided he would turn them down – a resolution he kept.
Most of Argento’s compositions, mainly song cycles and operas, feature the human voice. When composing vocal works, he noted that words should come first in his process, believing that “the tone, texture, color and speed of music depend on the text”. His operas have been acclaimed nationally and internationally and have included Postcard from Morocco (1971), Edgar Allan Poe’s Journey (1976), The return of Casanova (1984), and Valentino’s dream (1993). Among many awards, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his song cycle From Virginia Woolf’s diary and, in 2004, a Grammy Award for his song cycle Casa Guidi.
For more information on this topic, see the original entry on MNopedia.