Ernst Bacon was one of that pioneering generation of composers, along with Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and others, who found a voice for American music, Born in Chicago on May 26, 1898, his Austrian mother gave him a love of song and an early start on the piano. Although his varied career included appearances as pianist and conductor, along with teaching and directing positions, his deepest preoccupation was always composing. His musical awards included a Pulitzer Fellowship in 1932 for his Symphony in D minor and three Guggenheim Fellowships.
From his first job as opera coach at the Eastman School in the early 20s, he went on to receive a Masters Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music under Ernest Bloch. During the '30s he was director of the WPA Federal Music Project and Orchestra in San Francisco and founded the Carmel Bach Festival. From 1938-45 he headed the School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina and established the New Spartanburg Music Festival. At Syracuse University he was Director of the School of Music from 1945-47 and composer-in-residence and professor of piano until his retirement in 1963.
In 1964 he returned to the West, settling in the small town of Orinda, east of the Berkeley hills. Here, as everywhere else, he drew his greatest inspiration from nature, jotting down notes as he explored local trails. His fertile imagination and constant creative efforts left little time for self-promotion, and although nearly blind in old age, he continued to compose until the very end of his 91 years.
A painter and writer as well as musician, Ernst Bacon had the wide-angled vision of a Renaissance man. His friends and family treasure the many ink sketches, water-colors, and oils that he left behind, and his wise, humorous, and pungent perspectives can be read in his two published books, Words on Music and Notes on the Piano.
At the age of 19, while majoring in math at Northwestern University, Bacon published a complex treatise exploring all possible harmonies. However when he began to compose music in his '20s, he rejected a cerebral approach, taking the position that music is an art, not a science, and that its source should be intuitive and imaginative, rather than abstract and analytical.
As a composer, Bacon belonged to no "school" and followed no fads. He was only interested in being himself, pursuing his own path and being himself. Self-taught in composition except for two years study with Karl Weigl in Vienna he experienced the depression of post-war Europe at fist hand and concluded that the European avant-garde movement, reflecting the pessimism of that era and locale, was not appropriate to America. Returning to Chicago, he set out to write music that expressed the vitality and affirmation of our own country. Sometimes compared with Béla Bartók, he incorporated into his music the history and folklore, as well as the indigenous music, poetry, folk songs, jazz rhythms, and the very landscape of America.
As with Schubert, a large body of more than 250 art songs is the heart of an oeuvre that also includes numerous chamber, orchestral, and choral works, as well as descriptive pieces for piano. According to Marshall Bialosky, Ernst Bacon was "one of the first composers to discover Emily Dickinson… and set a great number of her poems into some of the finest art song music, if not actually the very finest, of any American composer in our history."
In his instrumental as well as vocal music, Bacon insisted on the primacy of melody. The spirit and sometimes the actual melodies of his songs, as well as of folk songs, often appear in the themes of his instrumental pieces. Defending melody and tonality against the detractors of his time, he combined tradition with his own highly original ideas and created many appealing works, some of which are charming, picturesque, and playful, while others are profoundly touching and sad. Many of these works are still in manuscript and unknown to the world. The Ernst Bacon Society, a collection of colleagues, former students, friends, and relatives of the late composer, is dedicated to bringing them to light through performances, recordings, and publications, so that they may take their worthy place in the 20th century's cultural heritage.
Copyright © 1998-2000, Sam Farrell.