Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) was an extraordinarily productive and prolific composer in all the principal genres of music. Born in New York City, he studied piano with Emil Friedberger and music theory with Seth Bingham at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. degree cum laude in 1927 at the tender age of eighteen. He also studied conducting with Albert Stoessel at the Juilliard School and had private lessons in composition and counterpoint with the eminent American composer, Wallingford Riegger. After graduation, Siegmeister spent four years in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, as so many young American composers did in that era. Even before his return to the United States, he had begun to incorporate elements of jazz and the American vernacular into his compositional approach. This distinctive fusion of serious contemporary techniques and more popular elements is in evidence in most of his music from the 1930s on, and is particularly notable throughout his nine symphonies, various concertos and many other orchestral works, coupled with a brilliant knack for colorful and idiomatic orchestration.
Siegmeister’s orchestral works have been performed throughout the world by leading orchestras, community ensembles, colleges and universities. Among the conductors who have championed his music are Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Loren Maazel and Sergiu Comissiona.
Equally notable are his ten operas and musicals, which display a flair for the needs of the dramatic medium, and a wide range of interests from specifically Jewish subject matter (The Angel Levine, The Lady of the Lake), and a treatment of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (Night of the Moonspell) set in the deep South, to a sweeping and powerful adaptation (with librettist Edward Mabley) of Sean O’Casey’s play set during the Irish rebellion in 1916, The Plough and the Stars, which created a considerable stir when it was done in Bordeaux, France in 1970. As with his songs and choral repertoire, Siegmeister’s operas display his deep humanism and profound concern with social justice.
The composer’s wide range of musical creativeness also resulted in scores for the Broadway stage, the ballet, Hollywood film, and a substantial body of works for piano, chorus, solo voice, band and various chamber ensembles, including three richly wrought string quartets.
In addition to his composing career, Elie Siegmeister made tremendous contributions to American musical life as a writer, conductor, teacher and indefatigable promoter of American music and the American composer. In 1937 he was a founder of the American Composer’s Alliance. In 1939, he organized and for eight years conducted the American Ballad Singers who helped to pioneer the revival of interest in world folk music. Between 1960 and 1965 he was vice-president of the American Music Center, and from 1966 to 1976 he was composer-in-residence at Hofstra University. In 1971 he established and became chairman of the Council of Creative Artists, Libraries and Museums, whose mission was to restore tax equity to artists in all fields. In 1978, Siegmeister initiated the Kennedy Center’s National Black Music Competition, and in 1977 he was elected to the Board of Directors of ASCAP, and served as chairman of the Symphony and Opera Committee of that organization for many years. In 1990 he was elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In accepting this honor he reiterated the profession of his faith that he had first annunciated in 1943, and which can stand as a summary of his artistic philosophy: “My aim is to write as good music as I can that will at the same time speak the language of all our people.”