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Bolcom, William

William Bolcom

Composer, pianist

Regarded as one of the most versatile of contemporary American composers, William Bolcom has experimented with a wide array of classical forms, including chamber music, piano works, song cycles, opera, and symphonies. An accomplished pianist as well, he is a lively performer, regularly engaging in cabaret performances with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. Bolcom has cited Charles Ives as his greatest influence and, like Ives, he has often focused on American styles, themes and characters while drawing on a wide array of musical forms. He has adapted a novel by Frank Norris, a screenplay by Robert Altman, and the poetry of his peers Richard Tillinghast and Alice Fulton at the University of Michigan. One of his best-known compositions, Songs of Innocence and Experience, centers on the work of the British Romantic poet William Blake.

Bolcom was born in Seattle, Washington, to Robert Bolcom, an industrial lightbulb salesman, and Virginia Bolcom, an elementary school teacher and classical music enthusiast. By the time William Bolcom was four years old, his talent for composition became evident to his parents, who ignored suggestions that they should rush their son into a stage career. Instead, he began his formal music education at the University of Washington at the age of 11, the earliest age at which the school would accept music students. There he studied composition with John Verall and piano with Berthe Poncy Jacobson. "I am so thankful my parents put their foot down," Bolcom told the University of Washington's alumni magazine, Columns. "Most child prodigies never really survive after that. They are all miserable because they have been exploited."

Bolcom earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Washington in 1958 where, in addition to studying music, he took poetry courses with Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Theodore Roethke. He supported himself by performing at fraternity parties, burlesque shows, and church services. Following graduation he studied at Mills College in Oakland, California, with Darius Milhaud, who shared the younger composer's interest in far-ranging styles. In 1961 he joined Milhaud at the Paris Conservatoire de Musiq, where he also studied with Olivier Messiaen. Bolcom returned to the United States to study with Leland Smith at Stanford University. He completed his doctorate in music at Stanford in 1964, and then returned to the Paris Conservatoire, where he was awarded the 2e Prix in Composition in 1965. He earned the first of two prestigious Guggenheim fellowships that year as well.

While in Europe, Bolcom began writing scores for West German theaters, and he continued in a similar vein in the United States, working for Stanford University, Lincoln Center in New York, and the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. During this time he also completed the cabaret-influenced opera Dynamite Tonight, written with librettist Arnold Weinstein, for which he was awarded the Marc Blizstein Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. From 1968 through 1970, Bolcom served as composer-in-residence at the Yale University Drama School and the New York University School of the Arts. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan's School of Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1973. That same year he released a recording of Gershwin's compositions that was named Record of the Year by Stereo Review magazine.

For the Record …

Born on May 26, 1938, in Seattle, WA; son of Robert Bolcom (an industrial lightbulb salesman) and Virginia Bolcom (an elementary school teacher); married Joan Morris (a mezzo-soprano singer), 1975. Education: University of Washington, B.A., 1958; Stanford University, Ph.D., 1964; studied at Mills College and Paris Conservatoire de Musiq.

Began studying music at the University of Washington at the age of 11; earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Washington, 1958; attended Paris Conservatoire de Musiq, 1961; won 2e Prix in Composition at Paris Conservatoire, 1965; earned first Guggenheim fellowship, 1965; served as composer-in-residence at the Yale University Drama School and the New York University School of the Arts, 1968-70; joined faculty at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1973; began recording music with wife Joan Morris, late 1970s; premiered Fantasia Concertante at the Vienna Philharmonic, 1986; began writing operas for Chicago Lyric Opera, 1990s.

Awards: BMI Award, 1953; Paris Conservatoire de Musiq, 2e Prix in Composition, 1965; Guggenheim Fellowships, 1965, 1968; Academy of Arts and Letters, Marc Blizstein Award, for Dynamite Tonight, 1966; Koussevitzky Foundation Award for First Piano Quartet, 1976, and for Lyric Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, 1993; Pulitzer Prize, for 12 New Etudes for Piano, 1988; State of Michigan, Governor's Arts Award.

Addresses: Office—University of Michigan School of Music, 1100 Baits Dr., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2085. Website—William Bolcom Official Website: E-mail—

In 1975 Bolcom married mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and the two began performing and recording popular music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The pair has continued to stage cabaret-style concerts in dinner clubs. Bolcom continued to compose and perform routinely as well. One of his most ambitious works, a setting of poet William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, premiered at the Stuttgart Opera in 1984. Bolcom had conceived of the project at an early age. "I was 17 when I resolved some day to set the Songs of Innocence and Experience, "he told the Financial Times of London. "I realized that the texts were eclectic in style and in turn required diverse musical approaches. It was Blake that allowed me to advance my multifarious types of style. And it's colored everything I have done since." Washington Post writer Pierre Ruhe noted the wide range of elements present in the work. "It borrows from so many camps and styles that it is practically a compendium of music in the 20th century," he wrote. "In 46 songs he evokes Mahler, country and western, harsh atonality, '60s folk-rock, neoclassicism, ethnic pop, Broadway, and reggae."

Bolcom's Fantasia Concertante for viola, cello, and orchestra premiered in 1986 at the Vienna Philharmonic. Two years later Bolcom was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 12 New Etudes for Piano, which was first performed in its entirety in Philadelphia by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin on March 30, 1987.

In the 1990s Bolcom began a fruitful relationship with the Chicago Lyric Opera, for which he has written three major operas: McTeague, A View from the Bridge, and A Wedding. McTeague, which premiered in 1992, was based on the Frank Norris novel of the same name. Bolcom collaborated with filmmaker Robert Altman on the production. In 1999 playwright Arthur Miller served as librettist for his 1955 work A View from the Bridge, and Bolcom also composed the soundtrack for actor/director John Turturro's film Illuminata that same year. Bolcom and Altman reunited in 2004 for A Wedding, an operatic adaptation of Altman's 1984 film of the same name. "It's our hope that 100 years from now, just as people speak of Verdi in Venice and Milan and Rossini in Naples, they will speak of Bolcom in Chicago," the Lyric Opera's general director, William Mason, told the Financial Times.

Bolcom is often referred to as "eclectic," or as a "synthesizer" of disparate sounds, but he has bristled at both descriptions. "I'm interested in showing how different elements relate. My music tries to make the relationships clear. The more I look to the future of music the more I keep coming back to the past. They come together," he told the New York Times. "If you mix popular and classical forms, it brings life to both genres," he explained in Columns. "By making them touch, something fresh, new, and organic grows. I like the traditional and the newest culture coexisting in the same piece. The classical masters had that possibility—Haydn is full of pop tunes—and I want it, too."

Director Leonard Slatkin, who has worked with Bolcom on numerous projects, hailed the artist as an early and important collagist. "Bolcom was one of the first in our time to do it," he told the Washington Post. "Young composers might not acknowledge Bolcom as an influence, but someone had to break that psychological barrier and provide a means for a breakthrough. I think he'll be one of the people who sums up what music in this century is all about."

Selected discography

Bolcom: 12 New Etudes/Wolpe: Battle Piece (composer), New World Records, 1992.

Bolcom: Symphony No. 4 (composer), New World Records, 1992.

Blue Skies: Songs by Irving Berlin (performer), Nonesuch, 1992.

Gershwin: Piano Music/Songs (performer), Nonesuch, 1992.

Violin Concerto/Fantasia Concertante/Fifth Symphony (composer), Polygram, 1992.

Orchids in the Moonlight–Songs of Youmans (performer), Arabesque Recordings, 1996.

Sure on the Shining Night (composer), Hyperion, 1997.

Moonlight Bay: Songs As Is and Songs As Was (performer), Albany Records. 1999.

Piano Rags (composer), Albany Records, 1999.

Illuminata soundtrack (composer), Hybrid Recordings, 1999.

Devil's Dance (composer), Deutsche Grammophon, 2000.

Cabaret Songs (composer), BIS, 2001.

Bolcom: A View from the Bridge (composer), New World Records, 2001.

Bolcom: Caberet Songs Vols.3&4 (performer), Centaur, 2001.

Battle Pieces (performer), Albany, 2003.

Battle Pieces (performer), Equillibrium, 2003.

Blue: Complete Cabaret Songs of Bolcom and Arnold (composer), Summit Records, 2003.

Preludes & Postludes for the Year Beginning 9/1/2001 (composer), Gothic, 2003.

Songs of Innocence and Experience (composer), Naxos, 2004.



Columns, June 2003.

Financial Times (London, England), December 10, 2004.

New York Times, January 18, 1995; December 11, 2004;.

Washington Post, February 22, 1998.


"William Bolcom," All Music Guide, (March 8, 2005)

"William Bolcom," Grove Dictionary of Music, (March 8, 2005).

William Bolcom and Joan Morris Website, (March 17, 2005).


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"Bolcom, William." Contemporary Musicians. . 24 Nov. 2017 <>.

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Bolcom, William

William Bolcom (William Elden Bolcom), 1938–, American composer, b. Seattle, Wash. He attended the Univ. of Washington (B.A., 1958) and studied composition at Mills College and Stanford (D.M.A., 1964). Teaching at various colleges since 1965, he has been on the faculty of the Univ. of Michigan since 1973. Bolcom was involved in the 1960s revival of ragtime and has given many piano recitals of American popular songs, often accompanying his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. As a composer, he has worked in a wide variety of genres—symphonic, e.g., Fantasia concertante (1985); chamber music, e.g., New Etudes for Piano (1977–86, Pulitzer); and oratorio, e.g., Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1982). He has also written several operas, e.g., McTeague (1992); A View from the Bridge (1999), adapted from the Arthur Miller play; and A Wedding (2004), adapted from a Robert Altman film. Bolcom's eclectic approach represents a broad cross-fertilization of idioms, and his work typically combines a number of musical styles.

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"Bolcom, William." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 24 Nov. 2017 <>.

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Bolcom, William (Elden)

Bolcom, William (Elden) (b Seattle, 1938). Amer. composer. Has worked as teacher (at Sch. of Mus. of Univ. of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1973, becoming prof. 1983) and critic. Comps. admit wide range of influences, from serialism to collage. They include the opera McTeague (Chicago, 1992); 5 syms.; 10 str. qts.; Session 2, vn., va. (1966); Black Host, org., perc., tape (1967); 14 Piano Rags (1967–70); Dark Music, timp., vc. (1970); Open House, ten., chamber orch. (1975); pf. conc. (1976); pf. qt. (1976); vn. conc. (1983); Concertante, va., vc., orch. (1985); cl. conc. (1989); Fantasy Sonata, pf. (1989); Spring Concertino, ob., chamber orch. (1989); fl. conc. (1993). One of his highly praised works is the Songs of Innocence and Experience (48 Blake poems), for 9 solo vv., 2 ch., unacc. ch., children's ch., and orch. (1956–82, f.p. Stuttgart, 1984).

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"Bolcom, William (Elden)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . 24 Nov. 2017 <>.

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