William Bolcom

Born 1938

William Bolcom

Composer • Piano


Composer, performer, teacher, and writer, William Bolcom’s decades-long career has taken him around the world. He has studied with some of the biggest names in twentieth century music, has had his music commissioned by the most prestigious companies, and has received many of the highest honours that can be bestowed on an artist.

William Elden Bolcom was born on 26 May 1938 in Seattle, Washington, USA. His composition lessons began at age 11, studying with University of Washington faculty members George Frederick McKay and John Verrall. At the same time, he was studying piano with Madame Berthe Poncy Jacobson. He graduated from the University of Washington-Seattle with his Bachelor of Arts degree. He studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in California while working on his Master of Arts. Bolcom and Milhaud went to Paris where the younger composer also was able to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. While at the Conservatoire, Bolcom won the2éme Prix de Composition. In 1961, Bolcom began his doctorate at Stanford University. During his program he studied composition with Leland Smith. He graduated with his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1964.

As a composer, Bolcom began the 1960s writing with a serial technique, influenced by composers like Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio. As time went on, he began to write with more variety of style, hoping to breakdown the difference between popular and classical music.

In 1964, he won the Marc Blitzstein award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his pieceDynamite Tonite. The influence of Milhaud and the cabarets of Paris is easy to see.

Bolcom has composed three operas, all with librettist Arnold Weinstein and collaboration with other writers. All three were commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 1992’sMcTeague was based on a novel from 1899 by Frank Norris of the same name.A View from the Bridge was an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1955 play. The libretto was by the playwright and Weinstein. It was premiered in Chicago in 1999. His most recent opera, 2004’sA Wedding, is based on Robert Altman’s 1978 motion picture.

The most ambitious work Bolcom has composed was his setting of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.At over two and a half hours long, the work is scored for a large orchestra, multiple choruses, and various soloists including country and rock singers and a boy soprano. In total, over two hundred musician are utilized in performances. It took Bolcom over twenty-five years to complete the setting of the forty-six poems. It was premiered in 1984 at the Stuttgart Opera followed by performances across the United States and in Europe. A recording of the piece won four Grammy Awards.

Not just a composer, Bolcom has been an active academic and performer. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1973 where he remained until retiring in 2008. While there he received the University of Michigan's Henry Russel Lectureship in 1997. He performs with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, many of his own compositions as well as show tunes and popular American songs.

Bolcom has received many accolades throughout his career. In 1988 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with his 12 New Etudes for Piano, written from 1977-1986. The cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul held a two-week festival celebrating the composer. The festival, called Illuminating Bolcom, included master classes, recitals, and concerts, the largest being two performances of Songs of Innocence and Experiencewith projections of Blake’s original illuminations. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush and in 2007 he was named Musical America’s Composer of the year. He has received multiple honorary degrees from institutions including New England Conservatory of Music and Albion College.

All told, Bolcom’s catalogue includes dozens of compositions, from chamber and cabaret to large operas and his massive setting of Blake’s poetry. He has written eight symphonies. The first was premiered in 1957 and the most recent in 2005. His operas have a place in the regular repertoire.

There was a renewed interest in the rags of Scott Joplin in the 1960s. His Three Ghost Ragswere not written as a set of three piano pieces, but were named as a set by pianist Paul Jacob. His first rag was written in memory of his father. It explores and makes use of the quirks of ragtime music. Bolcom has transcribed this rag for violin and piano as well. The next two, titled “Poltergeist” and “Dream Shadows” contrast each other with quick, unexpected music followed by a slower, sweeter third rag. The piece as a whole is a clear tribute to ragtime and Joplin.

Bolcom has written several cabaret pieces, many of which he premiered himself on the piano with his wife as the singer. He collaborated with the poet Arnold Weinstein, with whom he wroteDynamite Tonite. They produced four volumes of cabaret songs over the course of twenty years. His songs include “Song of Black Max” which is similar to “Mack the Knife” and the strange lullaby “Can’t Sleep”. His “George” is a dark, comic tale referencing, among other things, ragtime and Puccini. His cabaret songs are written in the heritage of Weill, Brecht, and Schoenberg and are widely performed and recorded.

William Bolcom has had a career in music for over half a century, as a composer, as well as on stage and in the classroom. His music is widely performed and commissions are still being premiered. He is a staple of American music and is still a voice to be heard in speeches and interviews around the world.

Header image: courtesy of Music Accord Other images: coutesy of Ionarts, The Delphi Trio and the University of Michigan