Stephen Paulus

1949 2014

Stephen Paulus

Composer

Biography

Stephen Paulus was an internationally recognized 20th century American composer. His output includes more than 600 works for the stage, orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo keyboard and concert bands. He has also written for community and youth ensembles. Several of his compositions have received Grammy nominations, and ASCAP President Paul Williams described Paulus as ‘a truly wonderful composer who leaves an outstanding body of works that will continue to move and inspire music-lovers.’

Paulus’ style has been described as neo-romantic by Joseph McLellan, the classical music critic for The Washington Post. While being innovative, his works also rely on lyricism and are quite accessible to the public. In Paulus’ own words during an interview with the Minnesota Public Radio, ‘I am pleased to have been a composer who can satisfy all kinds, somewhat in the fashion of a Benjamin Britten.’

Paulus was born in Summit, New Jersey in 1949. He studied at the University of Minnesota with Paul Fetler and Dominick Argento. From there he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1971, Master of Arts in 1974 and his PhD in 1978. While still studying, he co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, which he managed from 1973 to 1984.

Just after completing his PhD, Paulus was commissioned by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. This began his journey of writing 12 operas which were performed throughout the United States by groups such as the Boston Lyric Opera, Washington Opera, Minnesota Opera, Sacramento Opera and The Berkshire Opera Company. His works have also been commissioned by virtuoso singers such as Thomas Hampson, Evelyn Lear and Håkan Hagegård among others.

Paulus’ operas tend to tell the dramatic stories of ordinary citizens in small communities. Some of his most famous operas includeThe Village Singer (1979) which takes place in England at the turn of the 20th century, The Postman Always Rings Twice(1982) set in California in 1934 and based on the crime novel by James M. Cain,The Woodlanders (1985) which revolves around an English hamlet in the late 1800s andThe Woman at Otowi Crossing (1995) which explores the life of an American woman and her place between the ancient Pueblo Indian culture and modern science. Of these operas,The Postman Rings Twice was his most successful.

Paulus was appointed composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra starting in 1983 and with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1988. He also spent time as the composer-in-residence in Tucson and Annapolis. In total, Paulus composed 55 orchestral works, many of which were premiered by conductors such as Osmo Vänskä, Christoph van Dohnanyi, Kurt Masur, Sir Neville Marriner and Leonard Slatkin. Some of Paulus’ orchestral commissions include the Violin Concerto for the Cleveland Orchestra and William Preucil, a jazz concerto for the Minnesota Orchestra (co-written with his son) and organ concertos for both the Phoenix Symphony and the Portland (Maine) Symphony.

Paulus’ choral output is vast, comprising more than 400 works. The most famous of these are his Holocaust oratorioTo be Certain of the Dawn (2005) and the anthem ‘Pilgrims’ Hymn’ which was sung at the funerals of former American presidents Reagan and Ford. The hymn is one of his most performed works and comes from the final chorus of his operaThe Three Hermits (1997). The opera is in one act and is based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy. The hymn was being performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir the morning Paulus died.

Paulus collaborated on both works with his friend, the librettist Michael Dennis Browne. His choral works are performed frequently, most notably by The New York Choral Society, L.A. Master Chorale, Robert Shaw Festival Singers, VocalEssence and the Dale Warland Singers. Works for vocalist and orchestra have been commissioned by Deborah Voigt, Samuel Ramey and Elizabeth Futral.

His instrumental works have been performed by virtuosos such as jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen, Leo Kottke, Robert McDuffie, William Preucil, Lynn Harrell and Cynthia Phelps.

Paulus always had many commissions (30 to 40) in his queue. His ability to produce so many commissioned works allowed him to avoid working as a teacher or professor at a university, a luxury that very few modern composers have been able to achieve.

Paulus has received numerous awards including Guggenheim Fellowships and a Kennedy Center Friedheim prize (1988).

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s recording Paulus: Three Places of Enlightenment, Veil of Tears & Grand Concerto has recently been nominated for Best Classical Compendium. The first of these works,Three Places of Enlightenment(1995) is a concerto for string quartet and orchestra which lasts 25 minutes and was commissioned by The Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Quartet. It was premiered under the direction of Christoph von Dohnanyi in 1995. Veil of Tearsis extracted from the larger work To be Certain of Dawn. The Grand Concerto (2004) is an impressive large-scale work for organ and orchestra. It was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

The Minnesota Orchestra has provided the first recording of the Holocaust OratorioTo be Certain of Dawn. The oratorio honours both the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of the Vatican document which condemned blaming Jews for the death of Christ (Nostra Aetate, “In our times”).

Paulus’ output of organ music is prolific and on par with the organ works of Samuel Barber, Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives. His work is featured on the spectacular albumVariations on America: Organ Works which provides a sampling of the greatest organ works from American composers.

In addition to being a prolific composer, Paulus found time to advocate for his colleagues through his organization, the American Composers Forum, which has grown to be the largest composer service organization in the United States. He also contributed his time to ASCAP as the Symphony and Concert Representative on the Board of Directors from 1990 until his death in 2014. With ASCAP he co-chaired the Symphony and Concert Committee in addition to serving on various other committees such as Survey and Distribution, Law and Licensing and Marketing and International.

Images courtesy of Star Tribune, Classicalite and public domain

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